“Man in black”

Man in Black

What is your calling Man in black?

What is your desire?

We are just children of five and seven years

All dressed up in white.

Angels and saints

Innocent we sit with folded hands.

Where is your sanctuary Man in black?

Where is your God?

Is my child‑body the altar of your sacrifice?

My innocence the lamb?

Do you worship

At my temple and bloody its doors?

Go home, Man in black!

I have seen your God.

He will not feast at your table

Or eat your bread.

For he is here, weeping, at my feet,

Wiping the tears with his hair.

(From Hurt to Healing, PublishAmerica, 2004)

A double trauma

“The purpose of religious faith is to provide individuals with a system for making meaning and a community in which to celebrate and mourn the major events of our lives: birth, maturity, marriage, suffering, death. But those of us who are victimized by priests are robbed of faith, sometimes permanently. We face all the debilitating effects of childhood sexual abuse in general and the added devastation of a loss of hope, a loss of meaning, a loss of community, and a loss of God.”

(From Hurt to Healing, PublishAmerica, 2004)

One of the first books I read that dealt with sexual abuse by priests was called Slayer of the Soul, by Stephen Rossetti.  I found the title terribly true. Since then I have known and shared my story with a local group of fellow victims.  Of this group of less than twenty members there have been three deaths in the last seven years. probably all of them suicides.

There is now a national support group for family members of victims who have committed suicide. Since 2002 the numbers of suicides are in the hundreds nationally. Why since 2002? Because that was the year that victims discovered they were not alone, that they belonged to a club with thousands of other members. That was the year that sexually abusive priests came to be understood not as an isolated aberration  but as a  small but long known, well documented part of church life.  That was the year that Catholic victims and their families had to confront a church hierarchy that had enabled the abuse of children and the re-assignment of known pedophiles.

Ironically, many victims had continued as members, often as active members of the Church. But the revelations that confronted them caused a new trauma: the loss of the church they trusted and loved, and often the loss of their faith in the God  that Catholicism had presented to them — the slaying of their soul. There is no way to estimate the effect of this re-traumatisation but the numbers of suicides is a strong indicator.

Playing God

Playing God

You sat children on your knee

just like he did.

Were you playing God then,

creating Him in your image?

Did you claim your power

In His name,

the power to be

a “slayer of souls?” *

And when you realized

you were not God after all,

when you lay dying in a bed of sweat,

did you know fear then?

And when you breathed

your last breath

and went to meet your God,

did you know despair then?

Did it crush you,

stealing your words

and leaving you powerless

as we once were in your hands?

And in your despair did you pray to be released

from the hell you had been shown,

And did this prayer go unheard

like a child’s silent tears in the night?

If so,

then perhaps,

there is a God,

Wolves in shepherds’ clothing

“The sexual abuse of children is a crime; sexual abuse of children by a Catholic priest is also a spiritual tragedy.”

(From Hurt to Healing, PublishAmerica, 2004)

As a child and through my teens my parish church was a place of refuge. I loved the smell of candles and incense; I loved the sound of the organ and the harmonizing of the choir. Somehow my abuse by a priest did not affect this experience. I suppose it was because, although I never forgot the abuse, I didn’t reflect on it. In my mind I didn’t associate Fr. D with my parish experience; he abused me at home and I never saw him celebrate mass. He was a family friend and benefactor. And like a typical victim, I felt the  abuse was my fault, that I had somehow attracted this evil to myself. So I was not angry at God or the church, instead I turned the anger and hatred on myself.

I was very involved in my parish. As a teen I was a founding member of the first guitar mass choir and I belonged to a prayer group and the youth group.

Ironically it was not until I began to deal with my abuse by Fr. D in therapy that I began to experience anger towards the church and God. But I still felt that this experience was about who I was; I still carried blame and shame. Then the issue of Catholic priests abusing children became a national and international scandal. I could no longer labor under the delusion that my experience was unusual. Not only was it not unusual it was known to the bishops and popes of the Church. So many priests had been involved that there was a document specifically written on the subject of how to deal with accusations of abuse with the least amount of damage to the Church’s reputation and bank balance. And this document was decades old.

At the time I was Theology Department head in a Catholic High School. I had made it my goal to explain Catholicism intelligently, without resorting to “we just have to accept it on faith” kind of answers. I encouraged critical thinking and did not get offended by respectful challenges to Church doctrine from my students. I like to think I brought more skeptics closer to God than sent further away.  But even as I was defending and explaining Church teaching I was becoming sickened by the stories of abusive priests, day after day, in the newspaper headlines. And day after day the bishops of my church, the church I loved, were shown to have lied and covered up for the priests, and intimidated into silence and paid off the victims.

So it wasn’t my own abuse, or the abuse of my brothers and my parents, or even the abuse of so many thousands of other children that broke my Catholic heart, I could argue the abuse away as the evil of individual, sick, perverted men. No, what robbed me of my trust in the Catholic Church was the knowing and complicit behavior of its leaders, men who were not themselves driven by sexual disorders and compulsions, but men who were rational, sane, healthy, religious leaders for whom the rape and abuse of children was unimportant, for whom the spiritual welfare of the victims and their families was unimportant. “Shepherds” who had no concern or compassion for their youngest, most vulnerable “sheep”  but instead protected the rights of “wolves” in shepherds’ clothing to devour these sheep, and then protected the “wolves” and sent them off to hunt among other flocks.

One Touch is Enough

“One touch. Just one. Changing a child’s life in a second. What power!  Perhaps that is what sexual abuse of children is about—power. I don’t remember the first time Fr. D  touched me, but I cannot forget the last.  He touched me once, and I didn’t tell, so then I was his to touch whenever he chose. He had the power and could do anything he wanted. There was no going back.”
(From Hurt to Healing, PublishAmerica, 2004)

When I wrote this I thought that the time I experienced my first orgasm (on Fr. D’s lap) was the last time he touched me. I don’t know that this is the case, though.  I think it may be that after this experience I was no longer fully “present” when he touched me. But I’m not sure.  I was somewhere between six and nine.  I do know that after this experience I was still exposed to him a couple of times a month and my mother sent me to visit him and let him take me and my sister on outings. I have memories of these events but not of any sexual contact after that moment of very confusing pleasure. My clearest memory after this is of having my first period at eleven and deciding that I could not let him touch me again. So, I guess that confirms that he hadn’t stopped.

As to the pleasure, I didn’t know what I was experiencing, I just knew it felt very good and yet I felt very bad about feeling so good.  I remember putting my arms around around his neck and wondering if I loved him and if I had to marry him. Apparently it is possible for children to experience pleasure even at such a young age. It wasn’t until I was in therapy that I described this experience and learned how traumatic it must have been.

But, as the quote points out, it is not a matter of how many times a child is abused; once is enough to cause a lifetime of pain and anguish. And when the abuser is a priest, the levels of that pain and anguish are multiple: hatred of oneself, hatred of God, hatred of one’s body, fear of sexual pleasure. Strangely, I have a very difficult time accessing anger towards Fr. D, himself.

Where to begin?

There is no comfortable place to begin. I have been writing about my abuse for a few years but that doesn’t mean it is easy. I still consider myself Catholic even though I sometimes wonder what I mean when I say that. I will not be describing my abuse but I want to share some of the personal and faith struggles it has created. Suffice it to say that my abuse lasted for a number of years and I was not the only victim in my family.

If you were a victim of sexual abuse as a child, reading this blog could create difficulties for you. So please be kind to your child-self. You deserved to be safe then; you deserve to be safe now.

I am not sure how this blog will take shape. I think I will create separate pages with excerpts from previous writings. I will try to make it easy to navigate as I know that your visits may be brief.