“From Victim to Victimizer?” Human Development Magazine, Summer 2005

“From Victim to Victimizer?” by Mona Villarrubia
 Human Development Magazine, Summer 2005

I was a victim, will I become a perpetrator? This question is loaded with the shame and guilt and fear of forty-five years of my life. At the age of four I began to be sexually molested by my oldest brother. By the age of six I was also being molested by a Catholic priest who, I only recently learned, was also molesting my two older brothers. Was it his own experience of sexual violation that caused my oldest brother to victimize me in return? Again, a simple but loaded question for which no one can supply a definitive answer, not even my brother. How much of his behavior, if any, had to do with a genetic predisposition? Our father had been sexually and physically assaulted by a priest in his childhood. Did that have any impact of my brother’s behavior? If so, how? How much of my brother’s behavior was influenced by an environment in which he lacked positive parenting from his father? How much was the result of his own trauma, a repetition of his own abuse caused by the psychological imprinting that results from the sexual abuse of children?[i] So many questions.  And then there was me. Molested from about the age of five until the age of ten by the priest; sexually harassed by my brother all the way into my teens. Would I be a safe parent? If I had children would I molest them? Was I a time-bomb that would one day explode without warning, wrecking havoc on my family?

Luckily I didn’t ask myself these questions before I married. I wasn’t aware that I needed to. I have always remembered my abuse, because I have clear picture memories of certain events, but I had not associated any emotions with these memories. To use the psychological terminology, I was dissociated.[ii] The events had created a traumatic shock response.[iii] This response is different from other degrees of trauma. In a shock response the feeling of powerlessness, and the fear that one’s life is in danger, cause one to disconnect from one’s feelings and to deny the severity of the event. It also causes one’s memories, which are ordinarily incomplete anyway, to become severely fragmented. So I had told myself for years that it was “not that bad;” it was “no big deal.” But I had never actually confronted the fear, shame, and anger associated with any of the abuse, and I had managed to forget much of the first nine years of my life including any memories of my bedroom. Then I married and had two sons.

My first indication that the effects of my abuse remained with me in the present and could not be dismissed any longer occurred when my two sons were toddlers. I found I became uncomfortable bathing them. As any parent knows, toddler boys are rapturously happy with their bodies and enjoy streaking as a past-time. They are happiest with their hands down their shorts or their fingers up their noses, or both. It is a wonderful, physical innocence. But I had a strange reaction to this stage. I became uncomfortable around my sons’ bodies. Even afraid. I was afraid that I would inadvertently do something or say something to rob my sons of their innocence and cause them to feel shame.  I became very insecure about appropriate touch boundaries. I had to ask my husband to take over bath time. I obviously had issues but I didn’t connect it to my own abuse; I didn’t believe I needed help…yet.

 My second indication that I might be capable of becoming an abuser was my rage. I have no memories of expressing anger growing up; other people’s anger frightened me. But when my oldest son was five, I discovered my rage and he was the target. I sometimes literally shook with the effort of not hitting him. Sometimes I slapped him. Just a slap I told myself. No big deal. But it was… because I didn’t know where my anger was headed, or what I might be capable of.  So I entered therapy. To begin with I felt I was in therapy for the sake of my sons but I chose to remain in therapy for my own sake and that is what has made the difference in my life: I have been willing to face, and I continue to confront and heal, the effects of my abuse. My therapy was vital to my ability to parent without abuse and I am convinced that in order to avoid some form of repetition of abuse, be it sexual, physical, or emotional, all childhood victims must at some point seek out therapy, before they become parents preferably. Being victimized as children may be a reason why some people become victimizers, but it is not an excuse. There is no excuse. Even though your body and your trust were violated there is no defense for violating another child and continuing the cycle. 

I have not become a victimizer, but I continue to suffer the consequences of being a victim and trust remains a major issue. When the sexual abuse is incestuous the issue of trust is more profound because by definition you are dealing with a love relationship. Sexual abuse by a priest is considered similar to the violation of incest because the priest is usually a known and trusted adult who has a relationship with the parents of the child and is perceived as a “father-figure”.[iv] Sexual abuse by a priest therefore involves more than just a physical violation; it involves an emotional violation too. Someone your parents have taught you to trust, someone who has shown affection for you, has used your trust to manipulate you into sexual contact. How will you know who to trust in the future? How will you be able to identify safe people?

Beyond the physical and emotional, there is a third and unique level of violation involved with sexual abuse by a priest: spiritual violation. Viktor Frankl is famous for his insistence that discovering a meaning for one’s life is essential to one’s well-being and happiness.[v] For people raised in a religious faith, God is viewed as the Ultimate source of meaning. In the face of suffering and death, belief in a benevolent Father/Creator who will reunite you with your loved ones after you die enables many people to avoid despair. But what if your experience as a child was to be sexually violated by the man who represented God, who was God’s agent on earth? This must mean that God wasn’t looking out for you, that you were bad and therefore undeserving of God’s love. As a child I believed this to be true. I was bad so God had taken away my guardian angel and I was no longer “safe ‘til morning light.” As I grew up I realized that the priest was a sick man; he was evil. But did that mean that God was evil? Or perhaps there was no God after all.[vi] For victims of clergy abuse the whole fabric of meaning created by a system of religious belief and practice is torn out of their lives. They lose faith in priests, in the Church, and in God. They are then left in a deep spiritual despair that leads many to suicide. I have been lucky; I managed to retrieve my faith in God and even in my Church, although I view Church as the community of the laity not the structural hierarchy.

Through more than eight years of therapy and three hospitalizations I have learned many things about the effects of sexual abuse. I have learned that my experience of abuse will never be simply in my past, it is a part of me on every level of my “Self”: emotionally, psychologically, physically, spiritually. I have learned that a loving physical touch from my husband can feel like abuse to the part of me that knew only abusive touch. I have learned that having my first orgasm on a priest’s lap at the age of nine imprinted a confusion of fear and shame with sexual pleasure that can cause me even now to be reduced to tears at the moment of sexual climax.  I have learned that I cannot accept the theodicy of the author of Ecclesiastes[vii] who wrote that God has a plan for everything that happens; instead I have learned with Job[viii] that understanding the place of evil and suffering in a world created by a benevolent divinity is beyond our ability as humans. Instead we have to trust. Trust in the power of Goodness, Truth, and Justice. Trust, even in the face of systemic deception and immorality in our Church. Trust, even in the face of dogmatism and denial.

I am reminded again of Viktor Frankl. In, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl describes how some camp inmates would give away their last piece of bread to offer comfort to the dying.[ix]  Thus, in the midst of one of the most profound evils of modern history, Frankl finds proof of the existence of Conscience and therefore of the existence of a loving Creator. For victims of clergy sexual abuse, the challenge is likewise to look for Goodness, Truth, and Justice wherever it can be found and therein find evidence of God, even in the midst of an imperfect world and an imperfect Church. I have personally found that evidence in the students I teach and in the community with whom I work, a community of faith-filled men and women. I have also found God’s grace in the community of fellow survivors in SNAP[x] and fellow Catholics in VOTF[xi] and, most especially, in the community of my family in whom and through whom God loves me every day. 


[i] For a presentation of this theory see the following articles:
van der Kolk BA. “The compulsion to repeat the trauma: re-enactment, revictimization, and masochism.” Psychiatric Clinics of North America 1989;12(2): p.389-411.

Eissenman, R. & Kristsonis, W. “How children learn to become sex offenders.” Journal of Sexual Behavior, 1995; 32, (1): p.25-29.

[ii] The word dissociation is being used here not as a synonym for Multiple Personality Disorder but in the broader sense that has been adopted by the International Society for the Study of Dissociation.

“Dissociation is a word that is used to describe the disconnection or lack of connection between things usually associated with each other. Dissociated experiences are not integrated into the usual sense of self, resulting in discontinuities in conscious awareness (Anderson & Alexander, 1996; Frey, 2001; International Society for the Study of Dissociation, 2002; Maldonado, Butler, & Spiegel, 2002; Pascuzzi & Weber, 1997; Rauschenberger & Lynn, 1995; Simeon et al., 2001; Spiegel & Cardena, 1991; Steinberg et al., 1990, 1993). In severe forms of dissociation, disconnection occurs in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception. For example, someone may think about an event that was tremendously upsetting yet have no feelings about it. Clinically, this is termed emotional numbing, one of the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

The International Society for the Study of Dissociation, http://www.issd.org/indexpage/FAQ2.htm#dissoc

[iii] For a simple presentation of the difference between trauma and shock see the following site, especially the second reflection: Sexual Problems – Part 2: Shock and Abuse. 


[iv] The definition of incest has been expanded by some mental-health professionals to include sexual abuse by an adult who has authority or power over the child. This definition would include teachers, priests, baby-sitters etc.

“Incest between an adult and a related child or adolescent is now recognized as the most prevalent form of child sexual abuse and as one with great potential for damage to the child”. Courtois, Christine A. Healing the Incest Wound: Adult Survivors in Therapy. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1988, p.12.

[v] “There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.” Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning, Pocket Books, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1985, p.26.

[vi] A traditional formulation of the Problem of Evil is as follows:
If God is all-good God would not want us to suffer.
If God is all-powerful God has the power to stop us from suffering.
But we are suffering.
Therefore, either God is not all good, or God is not all-powerful, or there is no God.

[vii] Ecclesiastes 3: 1-11

[viii] Job: 42:1-6

[ix]  “ We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Frankl, p. 86

[x]  SNAP stands for Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. SNAP is the nation’s largest, oldest and most active support group for women and men wounded by religious authority figures (priests, ministers, bishops, deacons, nuns and others). Their on-line site is at: http://www.snapnetwork.org/

[xi] VOTF stands for Voice Of The Faithful. VOTF is an organization composed of Catholics who are attempting to remain faithful to their Church while striving for greater lay participation in its governance.  Their on-line site is at: http://www.votf.org/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s