Being a parent has been one of the greatest and most challenging experiences of my life. My son has helped me to love in ways that I never knew I was capable of. As any new parent knows, parenthood encompasses every aspect of your life, and it’s easy to forget how to be alone or simply be without the constant attention that infants and young children require. It can be easy to allow the busyness of parenthood to stop yourself from experiencing the negative emotions or thoughts that sometimes come along with silence. And for someone whose been a victim of abuse, these silences can be terrifying.
This past Sunday I attended Mass alone for the first time in a very long time. With the #coronavirus outbreak my husband and I decided to keep our sick son at home and attend Mass separately so one of us could stay home with him. (Yes we are one of those families who stocked up on toilet paper.) However, this presented an unexpected challenge for me. For the first time in a long time, I was able to be thoroughly present and focused on the Mass and I was really looking forward to it. While it provided some necessary time for me to pray and be with Jesus, the silence and focus opened the door for a flashback.
At the offertory, as the altar server took the lavabo (water bowl) to the priest to cleanse his hands, I fondly remembered my own time as an altar server. In the memory I was carrying up the lavabo and an old friend, a priest, jokingly splashed me with water (I know, a bit irreverent.) While this was a positive memory, the thought of this priest and the good relationship we previously had sent me in a spiral of negative emotions. These feelings affected the rest of my day and made it harder to communicate with my family when I got home.
After months of painful discernment and coming to terms with the sexual abuse I had experienced as a teenager, through an act of pure mercy and love, Christ showed me that it was time to report the incident. He prompted me to do this once I had a solid, prayerful foundation in His love, and a truthful perception of myself as His sister. Without this foundation, I know I would not have gotten through the consequences of coming forward.
“You are going to lose friends, and people will speak ill of you, but you are doing the right thing and Christ is close to you in this.” I clung to these words from a priest I spoke to about my abuse. He lovingly sat with me for hours and helped me make a plan, but nothing he said could have prepared me for experiencing the loss of a friend and the invalidation of deeply personal trauma that I was about to endure.
Step 1: Call my father
This was the conversation I was dreading most, however it ended up being the easiest part of my journey in the grand scheme of things. My father loved me through the news I shared with him. As a parent now myself, I understand the amount of devastation he must have felt as his child told him that she had been sexually targeted by an individual he knew.
Step 2: Call the Diocese
As I mentally prepared to contact the diocese, I paced back and forth thinking about what was awaiting me upon making my report. I called the Victim Assistance coordinator for the diocese who set an immediate appointment to see me. This appointment was scheduled to take place in the parish I met my abuser with the pastor of the parish also present.
A Meeting That Still Hurts
This particular day was my pastor’s day off, but because of our friendship he had agreed to meet. Although he was dying to know what this meeting was about, I followed the advice of a trusted mentor and did not tell him until the day of the meeting. My mentor feared that my pastor would run to my abuser for confirmation of these events. Del (my abuser) and my pastor were very good friends. I wanted to tell him first for the sake of our friendship, but I also feared he would tell Del prior to my report and Del would persuade him I was lying. As I arrived for the meeting, he was visibly nervous, as any pastor would be with the unexpected presence of the diocesan victim’s assistance coordinator.
During the meeting I presented what had happened to both my pastor and the Victim Assistance Coordinator in a private room. I delved into the personal and explicit messages on Facebook messenger (don’t let your kids have Facebook) illustrating what had happened. I showed them Del’s explicit solicitations for sexual images and electronic communication while I was well under the age of 18. I showed them my “failure” to explicitly refuse Del’s requests, instead giving him vague and avoidant responses while not fulfilling those requests. I spoke about the in-person event that happened 2 days after my 18th birthday which left me feeling gross and the most worthless that I’ve ever felt. It was horrible. While the Victim’s Assistant Coordinator constantly reassured me that I had reason to come forward and expressed that I was clearly groomed by my abuser, my pastor was in disbelief. I shared with them the most personal and disgusting realities and events of my life. And the person in the room with which I had a deep and established relationship did not want to hear me.
Expecting my pastor to react in a loving and trusting manner to what I had brought to him, as I identified myself as his spiritual daughter, he kept asking “Why I had to bring the diocese into it?” I didn’t know what to think or how to respond. While the amount of freedom I felt after divulging this information was well worth the pain of coming forward, a new pain emerged: betrayal.
An Abusive Response
In a previous blog I mentioned my life changed dramatically in the spring of 2015. I had come into a closer relationship with Christ and with that, for the first time, I saw myself as someone with immense value. I no longer felt like a worthless and shameful waste of space. At that time, I had cut off all communication with Del, who had still been contacting me into my first semester of college. On February 25, 2015, my life began when I sent him this final message:
“The other night may have come as a bit of a shock to you in regards to how I reacted. In the case that it did, I hope it helps you wake up. When I began getting messages similar to that as a 16 year old I did not know how to take it. If you knew my history (which I have a strong feeling you know more than I am aware of) you would understand why I played in the way I did. In brief summary it stems from the sexual manipulation from a young man I was very close to who was significantly older than me when I was age 12. I have a lot of healing to do because of these situations and unfortunately my relationship with you has only made matters worse. (I know harsh) I am telling you this and taking the time to do this because I care for you as fellow human being and hope that this will not happen to anyone else again that you come into contact with especially a young adult/minor. The depth of damage you have caused me is outstanding. Granted I was young[,] your age and experience gives you an obligation to guide youth to clean and Christ-like interaction. In the culture we live in unfortunately that is not something that is attractive. I can only imagine the hurt you have received in your lifetime and greatly sympathize with you. In my interactions with you I can tell you are very insecure about yourself and only wish you to feel more secure and confident in the goodness you were made for. I am ashamed that you used me to feel more secure. But you cannot let this cycle continue. As I look back on any intimate interaction that took place between us I realize now the gravity and imprudent nature of these events. These interactions caused me intense amounts of pain as well as your constant need to flaunt your sexual experience. We are made for much deeper love than this and your abuse of yourself and others deeply violates the natural order in which we have been created. I continued to justify our situation the past two [years] as I thought myself to be old enough to understand and make a decision. However, I now realize just how young I was when this started. That being said, if I ever find out you are doing this to someone under 18 again I will not hesitate to file a police report. The only reason I haven’t already is that it would deeply hurt several members of my community who know both you and [me.] I wish you the best of luck in finding healing with yourself and hope you do not continue to justify what you have been doing. I see much goodness in you but the gravity of your actions deeply blurs my view of you. You are not entitled.”
As your sister in Christ,
After I sent this message, I noticed my pastor becoming less friendly and interested in maintaining friendship with me. He and Del had become even closer and I worried that Del was planting seeds of doubt about my character in my pastor’s mind.
In conversation with my pastor, his views kept fluctuating between having my back and justifying Del’s innocence. Some of the comments that still ring in my ears include:
- “She was 18.”
- “Why didn’t you tell me first?”
- “He has a right to be here.” (Even though he was far closer to other parishes in which he could attend Mass.)
- “Does she want money?” (Even though no lawsuit or the talk of one was ever mentioned or pursued.)
- “Let’s talk when you’re not so upset.”
- “Maybe one day you won’t be so negative.”
These comments touched on the things that prevented me from coming forward in the first place, and that I had to battle with daily to build the strength to come forward. There are still moments in which I struggle with these lies. The mental torment that has gone through my head could have been eased with a much more loving and just reaction on the part of those I thought important in my life, such as my pastor. This is why listening and justly assessing accusations WITH CHARITY is so important. I will deal with the wounds from the abuse for the rest of my life. The negative responses I have received compounds the trauma. In the moment I received them, it had the potential to set me back drastically in my journey to find healing. Providentially, I had the support and tools to get through it even though it was far from easy.
Love In Misery
After Mass yesterday I struggled with emotions of rage and worthlessness. While nothing in my life is actively causing it, the mere reminder of how my pastor handled what happened sent me in a spiral. It is horrible that it was within the Most Holy Sacrament that I received this reminder. This is why abuse in the Church is so horrendous. While it took a bit of effort to recover, I thankfully have the tools I need, thanks to cognitive therapy and a supportive Church. Had I not had access to the Sacraments and those other healing resources, I would not be here today. It is the truth and beauty of 2000 years of wisdom that has healed me. Our Church is full of sinners, which we all are (and some of them are very vile,) and I was hurt by a member of it, but Christ has healed me through His Church. Christ came to heal sinners, and He left us His Church so we might come to Him.
Immediately following the meeting my pastor, the diocesan representative took me to the police department to file charges. She constantly reassured me that I was doing the right thing and I shouldn’t doubt myself. She displayed the love of a mother as I ran through the explicit details of everything that had happened to the police. I could see the pain in her face as I spoke. This was the Church in action. She didn’t have to come with me to this appointment, but she did. She didn’t have to check in on me as I returned to campus to make sure I was doing okay, but she did. She reassured me that no matter what happened with the police, Del would be restricted from work and ministry in the diocese indefinitely, and he is.
My friends back in Berkeley and the campus ministry at the time helped me as well. The Church was supporting me whether I was at home or at school. Despite the emotional heartache and moments of self-doubt I was experiencing, I wasn’t alone and Christ had placed everyone in my life that was there for this reason. They were amazing and kept me going. And the thought and memory of these people, the people who responded with love, make days like yesterday bearable.