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I am a victim and survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I was 10 years old when my father began abusing me, and approximately 17 when the abuse stopped. The attempts to manipulate and punish me for my defiance in finally getting up the courage to say I didn’t “want to do it anymore” went on for years after that. I think for those who have never been abused, it is often hard to understand why an older child or teen doesn’t tell anyone and doesn’t simply refuse to accept abuse. You have to understand that in most cases the abuse didn’t start when we were 17 year-olds: it started when we were young children, and quite probably there were years of “grooming” before that. In one sense, we were “stuck” in that early childhood stage and never got to grow up; and in another, we were grown beyond our years. Soiled by an intimate encounter with evil from those we should have been able to trust most.
And then there is the misplaced guilt and shame. During the years of my abuse, I could not think in concrete terms about what was happening to me beyond the vaguest prayers of “please, make it stop.” Even though I was a writer, the words to describe sexual abuse were far too threatening for me to ever put to paper, both because I could not deal with them and because they were too dangerous. I believed that I was responsible for my own abuse, that I could never admit to someone that I was being abused because in the same breath I would have to admit that I was not doing anything to make it stop. That I was too scared to even say “No.” I did not have it in me to understand that telling was an attempt to end the abuse. My father involved me in the cover-up of my own abuse from an early age, with phone calls directing me to clean up his soiled under garments as one example. By a strange twist of reality, I believed that I was both the other woman and that I was holding my family together by my silence; that’s a very sordid and heavy burden for a young person to have to carry.
I was 20 years old and in college away from home when the truth of my abuse finally came out. I had been seriously suicidal for many years without any real understanding of my distorted thinking. I was seeing a counselor, talking about my abuse, writing papers on incest, even entering the long-dreamed of world of romantic relationships. I was finally “safe,” and yet it was there, in college, when the numbness of years began to wear off, that I attempted suicide. And it was in the aftermath of my suicide attempt that I was finally able to unburden myself of the secret that I had been keeping.
Flash forward 30 plus years to the summer of 2018. The Church’s “Summer of Shame.” Today I consider myself a healthy, stable person. It took me many years of struggle and healing to reach this point. I am a wife, mother, committed Catholic. And I have been obsessed with the clergy abuse crisis. It is like a very personal train wreck which I cannot bring myself to look away from. I read everything. I actually lived in PA during the years of my abuse. I read the PA Grand Jury Report in its entirety because I had to know if any of the priests I knew had committed sexual abuse against children. (Thankfully, not.)
Over the last months, I have felt the most searing sense of betrayal. I have had persistent thoughts and memories of my own abuse. I want every sexually abusive priest and every prelate who covered up clergy sexual abuse gone. Not today, not tomorrow; I want them gone YESTERDAY. Each new revelation in the clergy abuse scandal is like pulling off a bandage from a raw wound, again and again and again. I count myself lucky that I have not experienced flashbacks, nightmares, or suicidal thoughts this time around, but I am no stranger to these signs of trauma. They were the substance of the years I spent in healing from my own abuse, and I expect they are the substance experienced by many survivors of sexual abuse, and in particular clergy sexual abuse, today who are still in the trenches dealing with their abuse.
I cannot begin to recount the nightmares and horror I lived through during and long after my own abuse had finished, but I can share with you here a raw slice of the suffering I have revisited in the wake of the Church’s “Summer of Shame” and the months that have followed.
“Sunday was the most dangerous day”
For a child who is being sexually abused, it’s all about survival. Your sense of reality is skewed. You don’t think in terms of pleasure or happiness. You think in terms of danger, and danger is always relative. You think in terms of coping strategies that make the situation a little less dangerous. For instance, if you are wearing some clothes, if you are out of bed, if there are others in the home when the abuse episode begins, the situation may not get as bad. You might be able to control the level of danger. You never have the control to stop it, just a thin veneer of relative control. So you do your best not to be caught in bed or dressing or alone with him. Clothes will still come off, abuse will still happen, but it may not be quite as bad if you can control these factors.
The situation will still escalate, but the starting place for the escalation will be lower, so maybe the escalation won’t go as far.
You learn numbness, because it’s all about survival, and you could never survive and keep this huge secret if you had feelings. So you shut down. You compartmentalize. You never allow yourself to cry. How could you stay in control if you cried? How could you keep the secret you’ve been burdened with? So you close yourself off.
You learn coping strategies that may offer thin protection in the time of abuse, but which are actually dysfunctional in the time post-abuse.
For instance, when you’re struggling to get through one more day - and that’s what it’s like surviving childhood sexual abuse - thoughts of suicide might get you through. You might dream of suicide as a solution. You might fantasize about suicide “if it ever gets too bad.” You probably hold onto thoughts of suicide as a form of ultimate control in a world where you have no control. Images repeating in your head of all the ways you could kill yourself. If that’s the case, by the time you’ve made it out, you’ve probably built a rich fantasy world featuring suicide as escape, revenge, a way to shut off the pain, and the only viable way to make a statement about what’s been going on. And then you go out into the real world, post-abuse, and one day you just snap, and you attempt suicide for real. Because you’re finally feeling after years of numbness, and feeling is painful, intense, too hard to bear.
It’s not an accident that people rarely attempt suicide in terrible situations. They attempt suicide after it seems the situation is getting better, and then it takes a turn for the worse. They attempt suicide after they’ve begun to dream of something more, because they can’t bear the pain of lost hope.
Post-abuse, that sense of danger still exists in your mind. You don’t expect happiness or safety, and it’s all still relative. You wake from nightmares. The horror still lives within you. It never goes away. But this time you wake from nightmares into the reality that you’re not actually being abused as you sleep. So it’s all relative. The danger doesn’t seem as bad, because you can wake up from the nightmare.
Many sexual abuse survivors turn to drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, even prostitution in their efforts to deaden the pain. These were not my personal “drugs of choice.” I went with suicide and numbness. And luckily for me, I had some good and caring friends, counselors, and priests; I came back from my suicide attempt; I reclaimed my Catholic faith. I do not say it was easy, but in time, healing happened. Not everyone heals or survives. So many are lost to drugs, alcohol, prostitution, suicide. So many are broken and have left the Catholic Church following the clergy abuse scandals. Can you blame them? Finding out that the predator is with you in your Catholic sanctuary when you finally thought you were safe, that it was all over, is the stuff of nightmares.
For me, Sunday was the most dangerous day because my busy family split up and went to different Masses, and I was expected to go to the later one with my father. Catechism classes for my age group consisted of an interactive, once a month, two-hour rap session, following the later Mass. And on those other Sundays... it was well-known in my family that I liked to sleep in. How could I tell anyone I didn’t want to go to the later Mass? Then I’d have to tell them why. And that was something I could never talk about.
Sundays broke my rules for relative safety from danger. I was in the house alone with my father. The abuse might even happen before I’d gotten out of bed, or when I was dressing. And it would be bad.
Afterward, we stood in Mass together and exchanged the sign of peace. How laughable is that? I was dying inside because of his abuse, and we shared the sign of peace.
I have my own unresolved issues about confession. My father told me once, in the course of a conversation about our “relationship,” that he went to confession. I always wondered, did the priest tell him to say “3 Hail Marys” and his sins would be forgiven? Did the same priest hear the same confession from him again and again and do nothing to protect me? I know the seal of the confessional is sacred, but couldn’t he have refused to grant absolution? Maybe he did refuse. Maybe my father went once to a visiting priest and said something vague like he had broken his marriage vows. He was a canny, manipulative man, after all. But I’m still haunted by the thought that a priest somewhere knew what he was doing to me and did nothing. I haven’t been to confession in years.
How do you think it makes me feel to know priests were abusing children in the confessional? That those children were living the same awful lie I was living at home, but it was being done by their spiritual fathers. By our spiritual shepherds. Msgr. Charles Pope describes clergy sexual abuse as “spiritual incest.” (NCR Blog Feb 2, 2019) That’s not far off.
I read everything. Including the PA Grand Jury Report and the LA Times Investigative Report from 2013. How do you think I feel knowing that our bishops, our spiritual shepherds, knew about abuse and did nothing to stop it? That they protected abusers over the children, blamed and defamed victims of clergy sexual abuse. Moved predators from one parish to another so they could keep on abusing children. Moved them out of state or out of country to protect those abusers and their own reputations. Colluded to protect the predators from the law and to leave the innocent children at their mercy. That’s what Mahony did. And he lied. He claimed he reported clergy abuse whenever he was informed of it. Not even once did he do so. He lied.
How do you think that makes me feel? I’ll tell you: Sick to my stomach.
And now they want to honor him by having him speak at a conference attended by 40,000 Catholics? A conference most likely attended by victims still suffering from the clergy sexual abuse Mahony enabled? In a city still teeming with the fruits of his betrayal?
How do you think I feel when I read about Bishop Zanchetta of Argentina invading the privacy of seminarians as they slept at night with his flashlight and his sexual filth? I’ll tell you: Violated. Violated on their behalf. How do you think I feel when I read that Pope Francis returned his good friend Zanchetta to ministry after the first complaint and then created a prestigious position for him at the Vatican after later complaints? I’ll tell you: Betrayed.
How do you think I feel about the Church’s silence on the sin of actively homosexual clergy when it is clear that the vast majority of clergy sexual abuse is homosexual in nature?
How do you think I feel?
Submitted by Odilia.