It was a crisp spring day in the Central Valley of California. We had just finished an all school Mass at my Catholic high school when one of my teachers asked to speak with me privately.
Heart racing, palms sweating (much like Eminem) I was unnecessarily worried that I was about to be suspended as I tried to figure out what this could be about. (even though I hadn’t done anything to warrant that type of punishment #relax Mariah)
My teacher closed the door to their classroom and just said, “How you doing you’ve seemed a bit down lately?” My first thought, “is it that obvious?” What I replied, “I’m doing good”, the first lie that I would l tell in this conversation.
Just prior to this conversation my abuser had significantly increased his solicitations and communication with me. This was the last semester of my senior year, and a few months from my 18th birthday. Part of me pretended that these solicitations were happening while the other part of me sat in confusion not knowing what to do. At this point I had let what was happening go on for far too long. I was convinced it was too late to say anything or even let myself think that was happening was not my fault. I was convinced it was. The last thing I was going to do was tell anyone. I couldn’t handle anymore conflict in my family and social life.
As I have written about in previous blogs a month into my high school career, my parents divorced, and it wasn’t a nice divorce to say the least. It came right as I was recovering from perhaps one of the most severe bouts of depression I’ve ever experienced and sent me back quite a bit. I mention this only to illustrate I wasn’t in the place at any point in my high school life to add another element of conflict to my already tumultuous environment, all while I was trying to figure out who I was as an unstable adolescent girl. At the time I couldn’t bear losing the relationships that had come to be so important to me in the past few years. In fact, I was emotionally dependent on them.
As the conversation proceeded, my teacher eventually asked, “Is there anything going on? (specifically in regards to sexual harassment)” The moment I was asked this, there was a part of me that wanted to divulge everything that was going on. But unfortunately, that part didn’t win. “No, I’m just tired” I said. This was my typical response when anyone asked me if I was okay, which in hindsight I realized I was asked this quite a bit. Yikes.
When I eventually came forward about everything that happened my sophomore year of college, I thought back to this conversation frequently. What would have happened had I told my teacher back then? Honestly, I don’t know, and probably never will. I do know that back then, I didn’t have the same personal relationship with Christ that gave me the ability to do so. That relationship made all the difference. Despite a deep attraction to the faith, there was much I hadn’t yet let sink into my heart.
While I was seen as a leader in my parish’s youth and in my high school’s faith life, I walked around constantly consumed by the secret I couldn’t tell that teacher who tried to help. I put too much pressure on myself to have it all together because of how I was seen. Terrified of creating a scandal, my soul was consumed by shame. As I was constantly jumping in and out of the confessional, I despaired in the fact that I couldn’t get out of the cycle I was unwittingly baited into my abuser.
I will be forever grateful to that teacher who had the courage to ask me if I was being sexually harassed. When I did eventually come forward, it served as one of the many indicators that I was doing the right thing.
If you suspect someone in your life, particularly an adolescent or child, is suffering from sexual abuse or harassment, reach out to them. While it may not be an immediate solace for their problems, your concern may be a flicker of hope for them when they are eventually ready to come forward.
Pope Francis declared 2016 a jubilee year for the Church known as “The Year of Mercy.” For me, this was indeed a year of great mercy. It was in this year I came forward about being sexually abused in my hometown parish. It was the year I came to really know the person of Christ. It was the year Love found me in my misery.
In February of 2015, a month prior to the announcement of the jubilee year, I finally had the trust and courage to confide in another person about everything that had happened to me. I can remember the details of that day so distinctly. There was a place on campus I would often go to sit in silence and pray. It was right off of a creek in a wooded area at UC Berkeley. I headed there after class on a particularly rough day and found my best friend sitting in that spot waiting for me. I asked her “hey what are you doing here?” She said “I had a feeling you would be here!”
In everything that happened following this greeting, I have no doubt she was prompted by the Holy Spirit to meet me there that day. I told her everything. I trusted her with my heart and the things I suffered the most humiliation from. I believed I was “unlovable, unworthy of relationship, and intrinsically flawed” (although at the time I couldn’t put these beliefs into words I couldn’t really put these beliefs into words). I told her how embarrassed I was about the sexual relationship “I had engaged in” with a much older man at my church. While this relationship had started while I was still a minor in high school, I continued to receive messages from this individual into my freshmen year of college, at the time of this conversation. As her eyes teared up, she lovingly helped me see that I had been manipulated due to my age and vulnerability. Because of this, my culpability in the situation had been compromised.
I had been living in the lie that everything that had happened was entirely my fault and I could not forgive myself. Although I had made efforts to cut off communication throughout the course of this relationship, he kept coming back, and I kept responding because I felt a guilt in not doing so.I felt I owed him for paying attention to me. I also felt a sense of attachment to this individual that had developed over the course of few years. Because of this attachment I believed I had complete freedom to choose and continually attempted to minimize what had happened. This was not the first time I had ever been trapped in a lie like this, but perhaps the most shameful I had ever felt. My friend’s empathetic and loving response was exactly what I needed to be free of this lie.
Her compassion was a reflection of Christ’s compassion. He was saddened by my hiding from others and most especially from Him as it prevented our relationship from growing. My greatest sin in this situation was the inability to forgive myself and give my woundedness completely to Jesus. While God is perfectly just He is also abundantly merciful. Like many others before me, I tended to focus on just one of those. I’ve come to know since this day that that is how I hurt Christ most, through my failure to acknowledge his Divine Mercy.
Just prior to this experience I had become familiar with the devotion of Divine Mercy thanks to the same friend I had confided in. She had begun reading a book about St. Faustina and would share what she had read with me. In these discussion I came to once again realize that Christ wanted me to come to Him above all else. I came to understand the actual person of Christ, not just the idea of Christ.
The biggest obstacle in my journey to find mercy and forgiveness throughout my life has been myself. It’s way too easy to believe that you’re the only one whose ever committed the wrongdoing that you can’t forgive yourself for or are afraid to talk to anyone about. That’s pride talking, pride disguised as humility. There is a 99.9999999% chance that the wrongdoing you’re afraid to talk to anyone about is not unique to you. The only thing unique to your sin is you. One of the things I’ve come to learn about what we call “sin” is that it is NOT creative in any sense of the word. I lived in this false humility for a long time in my struggles with sex and abuse.
There’s something particularly shame-inducing and painful when it comes to sexual sins. Why is that? Perhaps it is because our sexuality is very personal or sacred part of who we are. A different friend of mine once confided in me that they were struggling with the sin of masturbation. “I can’t even say that word” my friend said. What stuck out to me most about this conversation is that I had to say the word “masturbation” for them. It was physically painful for them to say what they were trapped in. But once they did, they felt a power to overcome it. I myself, knew the pain of not being able to speak truth. My friend was able to take it to the Sacrament of Confession and felt a freedom they had never known. Christ was waiting for them there just as He had been waiting for me.
It was at the very beginning of the Year of Mercy I came to a priest in the Sacrament of Confession and confided in him my inability to give all of my woundedness completely to Christ. He listened to my entire story and met with me after the confession to help me navigate how to come forward with my abuse. With the help of this amazing spiritual father, and through a miraculous moment in adoration, Jesus said “Yes” After months of getting “No” to my question “Should I come forward?” I got a “Yes” And at the moment I felt this “Yes,” I believe I saw the face of Jesus in tears in front of the monstrance I was gazing at. He was weeping for me. This gave me strength to do what I had to do.
In hindsight I recognize that Jesus waited to give me this “Yes” until I was strong enough to bear the fallout of coming forward. I had to be completely rooted in my relationship with Him before I could endure the losses that would come. Perhaps there are elements of His timing that I have yet to see or may never know. But I completely trust that it was His will.
Recently I have found a renewed fire for the Devotion to Divine Mercy and have cracked open the Diary of St. Faustina that has been sitting on my book shelf for quite some time. In March of 2015, Pope Francis announced the 2016 jubilee year would be called “The Year of Mercy.” In January of 2016, following months of discernment with a spiritual director and daily conversations with Christ, I came forward to Church officials and my family about what had happened. That year April 3rd, my birthday, fell on Divine Mercy Sunday. I believe that through this providential landing Christ was telling me that everything that had happened in this year had a purpose and His mercy was with me in it all.
Just as Christ desperately desired my vulnerability He desperately wants yours. Bring them to the foot of His cross and let Him love you!
What its like to suffer a tragedy during a global pandemic?
Life doesn’t stop for a global pandemic. I guess your agreement of that statement would depend on how you define the word “life”. For the purposes of this blog, here are the characteristics of “life” that I want to discuss. A majority of our life occurs internally. It is how we perceive and communicate within. Our experience of giving and receiving love brings us the most life. It propels us into action, fills our hearts, and even injures us. It’s a great adventure. This experience of life does not stop even though external factors change. Perhaps these external factors have the power to change what we experience, but not how we receive and give love. At least, we don’t have to let them.
When times are tough, people show their best and unfortunately their worst. Fear influences a great deal of our life if we give it the power it demands. It tricks us into thinking we can control the outcomes of our life, when in reality, no matter what we do we have very little power. This is when the worst comes out. For the past few weeks, as coronavirus has began spreading the United States we have seen just that. (All you have to do is go to the store and look for toilet paper to figure this out.)
March 15, 2020
On March 15, 2020 my husband and I found out we were expecting our second child. I felt the life of the child. I had so many hopes and dreams for him or her already. I couldn’t wait for Joseph to meet his brother or sister. The child was very much alive and instantly a part of our family. While I was overjoyed by the fact our family was expanding, if I’m being completely honest, I was terrified of the timing. How does COVID-19 effect pregnant women? Will there be enough space in the hospital for my baby to be born? What if my baby catches the virus? These were some of the thoughts passing through my head as I processed the wonderful fact that life was growing within me. Knowing and believing that God wills every life into existence, I knew no matter what we were going to be okay. But I didn’t anticipate anything could further complicate or fuel my anxiety.
As the week progressed, something didn’t feel right. This didn’t feel like my last pregnancy (which was healthy and normal). I kept telling myself “You know what they say-‘every pregnancy is different’” and “your just anxious because everyone else is” but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was very wrong. By Tuesday night I started having physical symptoms that reinforced this feeling. (I’ll spare you the details.)
March 18, 2020
The next morning, my husband and I were being interviewed by hospital staff as we entered our local ER. “Any fever in the past week? Cough? Family with Coronavirus?” No. No. No. Much like all non-essential businesses, the ER waiting room was completely and eerily empty. Not only were we worried about catching the coronavirus by the mere fact we set foot in a hospital, but we had no idea what was going on with me and the baby. While the added safety precautions at the hospital were good and necessary, this didn’t exactly make the experience as peaceful as it could have been.
When we finally got the ultrasound, I could see the baby and the yolk sac in the exact spot where I was experiencing the most amount of pain. Twenty minutes later the doctor came back into our room, sat down, and said, “I’m sorry to tell you guys the pregnancy is ectopic.” In the 30 minutes in took for her to deliver the results, we sat already knowing what was happening. Working for a Catholic health care organization as well as being involved with pro-life activism, we both knew what it meant to have an ectopic pregnancy. The baby had implanted in my fallopian tube instead of my uterus, meaning there was no room for growth. The baby was not going to make it no matter what was done. And if nothing was done, my internal organs would eventually rupture, threatening my life. We also knew that not every treatment given for ectopic pregnancy would recognize the dignity of the child that was growing inside me.
The most common treatment, Methotrexate, is a pill typically given to cancer patients and works similar to chemotherapy as it attacks rapidly dividing cells. This was not an option for us. Although small and attached to an area of my body that was dangerous for both of us, I knew directly targeting the life of my child was still wrong. So what was the solution?
A salpingectomy is a surgery that removes the fallopian tube (or a segment of it.) With an ectopic pregnancy, a salpingectomy removes the fallopian tube the child has implanted in to save the life of the mother, and the death of the child is a secondary consequence. While the child will ultimately die as a result, the child would die if left in the fallopian tube, as it will rupture. This procedure does not directly target the life of the child. The principle of double effect dictates that the life of the mother must be sustained in order for the child to have life. In this procedure the dignity of both are recognized.
In the 30 minutes (which felt like 3 hours) we sat waiting for the doctor I ran through every scenario of what could happen next in my mind. Will I be able to find anyone willing to do surgery in the midst of this pandemic? If the hospital refuses surgery, will I find someone else who can treat me in time? In this scenario I’m taking the chance of rupture, possible death, and leaving my almost one-year old son without a mother. This was my nightmare.
We called trusted mentors and friends who had backgrounds in bioethics. We prepared our response to the doctor if offered methotrexate. We decided that if we were not given any other option than a procedure that directly ended the life of my baby we would find another hospital. By the grace of God, we had the energy and clarity to do this. There were moments in which I was tempted to justify any easy way out. “Well maybe it’s okay to directly kill the baby because the hospital is overwhelmed for preparing for COVID-19? They are going to think I’m crazy. Some argue all methotrexate does is attack the cells of the fallopian tube! Yeah” No Mariah, still wrong. But our mentors and my wonderful husband kept me on track and gave me the courage we needed.
Thankfully the hospital respected our wishes for surgery instead of methotrexate. It was the best possible outcome given the situation, and I will be forever grateful for that. We were not forced to make that nightmare choice. But what would have happened if this occurred two weeks later after COVID-19 spread the entirety of the country? I’m not sure we would have been so lucky.
In the aftermath of last week, I faced the hard realization that we probably wouldn’t have been. After finding out we were having another child, losing that child, and facing my own mortality in the span of four days, I was (and still am) a complete mess. All of this happening in the midst of social distancing has been really hard. There have been instances where I’ve asked for support, was not met with compassion, but fear of COVID-19. I wasn’t expecting people to do anything unsafe, but only to be there for us virtually if possible. I don’t blame anyone for being scared. This whole situation has convicted me to express that life doesn’t stop amidst COVID-19. Things are going to get worse. But we can choose to unite through it, or let our anxiety consume us. (and trust me I know how easy that is, I take pills for it.)
Even before COVID-19 became the only thing in my Facebook feed, having an ectopic pregnancy was terrifying as not everyone in the medical field sees the unborn as persons. If we lose ourselves in this panic, more people will die, particularly the most vulnerable. Fear makes us justify the unjustifiable. People who fight for the unborn will feel a pressure never before seen in the midst of crowded hospitals. People who work in the medical field will undergo the torture of not being able to save everyone. This is a time to pray for courage and perseverance and stand firm in what you believe as the coming days could be really hard. My husband and I faced a horrifying moral dilemma, which we knew the right answer to, in the looming threat of the coronavirus. Are we prepared for when the threat really hits hard?
I ask you to take a step back, turn off the news, and call your friends even if its just for tonight.
Do not let COVID-19 rob us of our shared humanity. While we are still processing everything that’s happened and will be for a while, we have had many moments of pure grace. Sharing with friends who have experienced the same thing and unexpected gestures of love have helped us make sense of it all. And most of this has been done in the proper social distancing fashion! The loneliness of this time has made the love we’ve been given even greater. Our healing process is far from complete but I take consolation in the fact we did everything we could to honor the dignity of the baby we named Claire Francis. And while we won’t get to experience our lives here on this Earth with this precious child, I have no doubt Claire is in the arms of Jesus waiting for us.
In honor of Claire Francis, I ask that you reach out to someone this week whom you haven’t spoken to since social distancing began. Claire taught me that what we should fear most is losing our good will. And what better way to keep that good will than by showing someone you care. COVID-19 cannot keep us from living because it cannot keep us from loving.
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.
I will carry the emotional memory of what I experienced for the rest of my life. There are times that this emotional memory has caused me to be upset at seemingly trivial things. It’s something that I and other victim’s abuse have to work through day by day. But I have no doubt Christ is and can use this for His glory and my ultimate good—which is to be with Him in eternity!
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, thatexists.
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 timeI 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.
In the Fall of 2018, I was overwhelmed by headlines of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church following the release of a grand jury report in the state of Pennsylvania. These headlines are enough to make anyone sick to their stomach. But for some of us they do a lot more than just make us sick. I was abused by a volunteer in the Catholic Church as a teenager. At a time when my family was separating and I was greatly struggling with chastity, as normal for many teens, I was taken advantage of. Someone with distinction in the parish and diocese at large took advantage of my vulnerability. Someone who was friends with Church leadership. Someone who took on liturgical roles. Someone who I wanted to trust.
I know what it’s like to live every moment of the day in hiding. To wake up in the middle of the night in cold sweats. To constantly have a burning head and elevated heart rate because your body doesn’t know what to do with the memories. What I went through is nothing compared to some of these victims whose abusers were listed in Pennsylvania grand jury report. But I know their pain to some degree. The fear of someone finding out about what had happened led to strained relationships and a desire to escape life. Amidst all this, something was always searching for me. And no matter how much I tried to avoid the pain this something was asking me to confront it. I never strayed away from the Church but lived my faith with a mask on. A mask that said I had everything together and was truly thriving. Amongst this I began living a double life. One that was a “faithful” practicing Catholic and another who was exploring the hedonistic lifestyle of an unchaste and far from temperate college student. I found only more hurt and pain in the latter.
An Imperfect Spouse
Although I had been gravely wounded by members of the Church, I found the Church was the only entity on this Earth calling me to total healing. It was members of the Church, the bride of Christ, who were calling me to take off this mask and patiently waited with me until I was ready. Most of all, Jesus, was waiting for me to give it to Him completely and surrender my control of this knowledge to those who could do something about it. I was saved by Christ through the Catholic Church from a lifetime of letting this memory overcome me. With the help of FOCUS, the Paulist Fathers and the great Dominican Order I experienced the love that the Church is called to give to the world. A priest from none other than Pennsylvania itself is a huge part of the reason I am on the path of healing.
I was randomly placed in confession with him at a FOCUS conference. (Go FOCUS!) His spiritual fatherhood encouraged me to come forward and let all in the light. When I finally did this, there was some in the church that did not act appropriately. One even being a member of the clergy, whom I considered a dear friend. They wrote off what had happened to me for reasons that greatly anger me to this day. However, the diocesan officials did everything in their power to help me and protect the church from further damage done by my abuser. One in particular stood by me as I filed police reports and checked in with me repeatedly to ensure I was getting the help I needed. While the police were keeping me waiting in the dark, the diocese was constantly pushing for progress in the case. I’ve experienced a church who takes care of its abused despite a few of its members not doing so. Not one that is passive and decisively ignorant as a whole.
A Call to Faithfulness
Although this isn’t true in every time and place, it rings true in my case. This experience not only brought me closer to our Lord but showed the humanity that comprises the Catholic Church. Some people chose not to act appropriately by not protecting me and others. But most others did. This is a reflection of humanity as a whole. Regardless the Church should be held to a higher standard. By standing firm to its own teaching and working to root out sexual immorality and confusion in the clergy and the laity, this will happen. It will not happen through the means of our sexually confused culture which the abusers within the church have bought into.
What I’ve experienced outside the Church was not a call to healing. The Church offered healing to me despite individual men who led me to need it. Let us not forget the men who committed these grave acts were not born sexual abusers. They came from families. That’s where their formation started. We must change the culture which church leaders are born in. This culture is comprised of you and I.
As an abused I ask you to not let these scandals take away your faith but rather see it as a call to keep our leaders accountable. I ask you to seek truth in all situations and not let the emotions that these cases stir up in us skew your mind from seeking true justice. I ask you not to punish innocent church officials for the actions of a few. I ask our priests to protect and care for the wounded in these scandals. I ask you to listen. Renunciation of the Church and its teachings will only lead to less grace in the world and more abuse, as I have experienced through my experimentation in the secular culture.
I am writing this blog to share my love for the Church and how Christ has used to it to pull me closer to Him. I am writing for all those who are looking for healing, in hopes that Christ in my life will give hope and grace to those who need it most.