It seems like yesterday I was 16, sitting at the kitchen table “doing homework” (really scrolling through Facebook) when I received a message via Facebook messenger. It was around 10:30 pm when I read the words “GO TO BED.” I can remember thinking something seemed a bit off about this message or perhaps about who was sending it considering the time. I brushed that feeling off desiring not to blow things out of proportion. The sender (whom I will not name throughout the course of this blog or any future blog-but will refer to as “Del”) was an acquaintance in his 50’s who i knew through altar serving and my family’s friendship with our parish priest.
In this blog I will discuss the factors in my life that led up to this message and my further contact with Del. There are so many experiences and conditions that play into why a victim of sexual abuse responds the way they do and why an abuser chooses a victim. My hopes are that my life experience can shed light onto how and why abuse occurs, particularly in a parish setting. My hopes are that it illustrates the degree of freedom, or lack there of, that exists.
Growing up I pretty much spent what felt like every free hour I had volunteering in some capacity in my parish. I enjoyed every minute of it. It was a place where I felt I had a purpose, and people admired me for it. But more than this, I began cultivating a relationship with Christ from an early age through exposure to the Blessed Sacrament and participation in liturgical ministries. I had a rocky home life, and this was the place I felt most loved and safe. There were people in my parish, including our pastor, who became my family. I valued them so highly, perhaps too much. And Christ too little at times.
I first met Del at the age of 12. He was a friend to a high ranking man in my home diocese. From the moment I met him I could tell something was different, perhaps concerning, about this man. And for the sake of desiring to see the best in people, I made efforts to view him in a positive light. Del was charismatic. He was overly friendly and made it a point to show everyone what he could do for them. He seemed to know everything and everyone. In fact, on the day I met him, he offered to write a college recommendation letter for me (because at 12 that was the first thing on my mind) after claiming to have attended a prestigious university himself. That day I learned more about his personal accomplishments than anything else.
As an ultra naive 12 year old, I had my first encounter with heart break. An older boy of 16, whom I idolized in every way possible, took advantage of this naivety. I had my first encounter with disordered sexuality through this situation and I lost the person I considered my best friend. It completely changed the way I viewed myself, as worthless, and heavily impacted the next chapter of my life. The worthlessness I felt led me to doubt my judgments and find wrong in everything I did. I began taking anti-depressants at 13 and struggled with self-harm. While I was definitely predisposed to depression and anxiety, this and the dynamics of my family life were the key factors that brought them out.
My depression was very visible to those in my life. At this time our pastor took a lot of time to counsel me. He invested energy into showing me I was not alone. This cultivated between us a great friendship that I was very thankful for and needed. My involvement at Church increased to the point where someone once asked me if they kept a food and water bowl for me in the Sacristy. I was always there assisting with anything liturgical and Father relied on me for a lot. When I had eventually confirmed the duplicity in Del’s intention, I was afraid to lose this friendship.
In September of my freshmen year of high school, the rocky home life that I have referred to finally imploded with the untimely, and far from amicable, divorce of my parents. The divorce divided our friends and family against each other. From my eyes, it seemed almost everyone in my life was speculating about who to blame and placing themselves into the situation inappropriately. Because of this, I trusted very few people and a majority of the relationships I had cultivated with many family friends (from church) were essentially destroyed. Having just started a new school, I didn’t have many friends and had almost zero drive to make any. The only people I trusted were our pastor and a woman, who became like a grandma to me, who stood by my side through it all. I craved stability and friendship.
It was around this time, I noticed Del’s relationship with our pastor growing immensely. One night, after a week day Mass, he pulled me aside to give his condolences to me on my parent’s divorce. I stood there speechless as he stared at me for a good 20 seconds. This was the first time I felt uncomfortable in his presence. The way he looked at me was no less than creepy. That was the first time I brushed off the feeling that something wasn’t right.
After the first Facebook message, Del began messaging me daily. For awhile I continued to brush off that something seemed odd about his sudden and increased interest in me. The messages ranged from “Hi” to “what are you doing?” seemingly harmless and kind gestures right? Then, after awhile of gaining my trust and Del making himself a normal part of my life through his constant messages, the nicknames began.
The life events I have discussed in this blog, increased my risk of sexual abuse. My abuser used the institution of the Church to take advantage of my vulnerability in the place I felt the safest. If my story resonates with you or behavior you have seen in a youth you know, it would not hurt to reach out. You never know who else is.