I entered the Church officially at the age of 22, in 1990. It took me a long time. I attended daily mass for two years even though almost everything about the Catholic Church freaked me out. I had authority issues. I had spiritual issues. I had sexual abuse issues. I had issues with men. I didn’t think like the church did at all. I was raised in a purely secular environment. I couldn’t figure out why in the world I was at Catholic church nearly every day. I often left mass crying and went to sit in my car and wonder what I was doing there. I had only just begun to believe in God in my own way and to try to pray. Catholicism was a bit much to say the least.
But nothing else answered. There was something in the Catholic Church that was nowhere else. I couldn’t stay away. I felt the presence of God in the Church like nowhere else. Now I am sure that was the True Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
I experienced the love and companionship of Mary at church. As I told my mom, “I could not make up this kind of love.” I didn’t sense Mary’s presence anywhere else in those years.
I had a clear message here. “These people and this set up are totally alien and bizarre to you, but this is where you will find Me.”
I learned about how the Church understands itself, and why the Eucharist is even the Eucharist. I read the Gospels for the first time. I had never read them before. I learned about Apostolic Succession in the Church and about the origins and history of the Church. All this took a long time. But it all fit together and over time became beautiful to me.
I experienced in the Church a wonderful, protective Father and Mother who taught me what sexuality should be like ideally (as in The Theology of the Body.)
The very wounds I came in with began to heal. I had to undergo years of therapy about the various sexual abuse I suffered as a child and as a young girl. I had to be very brave. I could never have done it without the Church, without my faith, without deep prayer. I was also driven by wanting to get closer to God and know God deeply. I felt that I couldn’t until I faced what was in myself.
Carmelite spirituality was helpful to me in this. God was within me, and there was a well trodden path of others who had undergone immense suffering with great courage into the darkest nights to reach union with God with nothing but bare faith, without frills. I devoured the works of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. Sometimes they freaked me out, but they were a light and they affirmed me too.
The priests I knew were wonderful fathers to me through all that. I think the Eucharist was truly my daily bread.
I experienced a lot more suffering during my years as a Catholic. I lost both my husbands, my mother, my beloved step dad, my brother, all of them tragically. I never had the misfortune to lose my faith. That is the one constant in my life.
When the sexual abuse crisis broke in the news in 2002 I was so re-traumatized I could not listen to the radio or watch the news or read the paper. I thought about the victims. I lost sleep over them. I thought the bishops who handled it (or not) had messed up horribly. They let the whole world down. I have experienced so much healing in the Church and those victims got the opposite, God help them.
I am again beginning to have to avoid the news, and am feeling re-traumatized. Sometimes I need a hug. My abuse was not church related. But these days I really feel its effects all the time. As a writer and a survivor I feel a responsibility to write about this issue. It is hard hearing it talked about all the time, and hard to hear the news.
I imagine abuse survivors everywhere are experiencing PTSD symptoms in the wake of all these new revelations just as I am.
The survivors of church sexual abuse may want similar things to victims of family or school sexual abuse. So I will make a list.
- Please believe them.
- Please put them first in everything.
- Please don’t defend the abusers or the ones who covered for them.
- Please don’t blame them; not for the abuse, not for their anger and rage. And, especially if you are not an abuse survivor, please leave them alone and don’t tell them what to do.
- Please advocate that survivors are given what they need to recover as much as possible: we should pay for therapy of their choice and anything they need to help them get through life because life is sometimes almost impossible for them.
- Please make the abusers accountable.
- Please make those who failed to protect them accountable.
- Please make sure this doesn’t happen to any more kids. I’m here to tell you they worry about that a lot. I know I did.
- Please don’t overwhelm them with your own feelings about what has happened. They don’t need that. Tell somebody else. They need their burdens lightened, not the opposite.
- Please pray. But don’t announce it. We have enough of those “thoughts and prayers” remarks. Prayer is a powerful, powerful thing you can do. So yes, pray. Better yet, allow prayer to lead you also to action.
As for the rest of us, we have a lot to deal with and we need to deal with it.
As we all know by now, some bishops have horribly, unbelievably, harmed children and broken faith with us. It’s devastating to us. I don’t know what we’re going to do, or how we’re going to do it.
What I know is that most sexual abuse happens in families. The family is sick with it whether they acknowledge the abuse or not. As with the better known family pattern with alcoholism, everyone starts playing out a role and the roles, though they are protective to the family system, end up enabling the abuse, protecting the abuser, and throwing the victims under the bus because nobody can deal with what happened or bear the shame of it.
Some Church authorities have acted just like a family infected with the sickness of sexual abuse. They have done all the same things. They circled the wagons. They closed the system. They worried how things looked more than the children being abused. They became secretive and self protective. They lied. They discouraged open-ness, intimidated survivors and tried to keep them quiet. They resisted bringing in outside help.
They got sicker and sicker and so did the offenders.
Because of this more children were sacrificed just like the Old Testament prophets of Baal sacrificed little children to their false God.
We know our God is not false. We know the Church is true. However, we’re also a human family and we’re really sick right now. Church authorities we trusted have harmed countless numbers of our children. We lay people wonder what we could have done to stop this and wondering what we can do now. The family of the Church, is having an intervention now with and in front of the whole world. Everything is out on the table. That’s the first step. We’re out of denial.
We’re in no mood to protect sex offenders anymore, but to protect children. That is the second step. That’s what this needs to be about.
It’s up to us what happens next. That’s how I see it. We have taken the first steps of believing and acknowledging the problem. A lot of us are outraged and demanding change and accountability.
We will need to pray for the knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry it out, whatever it takes.
What will we end up with? We have to be willing to deal with that too; mass on lay people’s porches with the only few holy bishops and priests left? I don’t know.
I do know the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. But we have to suffer now, and we have to do what is right, and make our leaders accountable to do what is right. They are the servants of the servants of God. That is how it should be.
Some people are so disgusted they are leaving us. We’ll have to face that, too. How can we blame them?
Being Catholic is an integral part of who I am. I’m not leaving. I’m here to fight. As I have heard a few people say, “I can’t leave Jesus just because of Judas. ”
Right. Those of us who can stay should stay… with the knowledge and the insistence that Judas needs to resign immediately and live a life of quiet penance, perhaps in jail, depending.
There is so much more to do I don’t know where we will begin. I know we will though. St.Teresa of Avila said we are the only hands and feet on earth Jesus has.
May God show each of us what is ours to do. As the Lord called to St. Francis from the crucifix at San Damiano, “Come, rebuild my Church, for as you see, it is falling into ruin.”
Jesus is talking to us too.
As St. Catherine of Sienna said, “Start being brave about everything now.”
Come, Holy Spirit,
power of truth, justice and love.
O cleansing FIRE.
Help us to be brave.
To Jesus, and to sexual abuse survivors everywhere let us make sure at the end of this we can say: NEVER EVER NEVER AGAIN.
And let there be reason to believe us.