Collateral damage

“Collateral damage is damage aside from that which was intended.”

There are many ways in which collateral damage has been and continues to be caused by the bishops of the Catholic Church as a secondary effect of its treatment of victims:

  • When the Church acts like a sexual offender, re-abusing innocent victims in its attempt to avoid more court cases and settlements
  • When bishops attempt to silence victims through lies (by applying the doctrine of “mental reservations”), intimidation, or threat of prosecution for court costs
  • When they protect, defend, and re-assign credibly accused and even admitted sexual offenders who cannot be prosecuted due to the statute of limitations
  • When they refuse to follow the guidelines they themselves have

… when they do any of these egregious things, they hurt not only the victims, but many, many others.  

First of all there are the victims families, whose trust in the Church and in God is violently assaulted not so much by the original abusive behavior of one sick priest but by the ongoing systematic, cold-blooded, legalistic, un-Christian, sometimes illegal behavior of the organization which purports to be led by God’s representative and to be Christ’s presence in the world.

Then there are our friends, our co-workers and our clients, these people all become personally, if indirectly, exposed to the evil perpetrated by the Catholic bishops and the  Vatican . They all become part of the collateral damage. If they remain faithful to the Church they will feel a conflict of loyalties, and may find it necessary to cut us out of their lives. If they are family this will cause a fracturing of the family unit. On the other hand if they are Catholics and remain faithful to us, they may find their support of and participation in the Church becomes untenable and their faith in God questionable.  They may, like us, suffer spiritual trauma.

What happens when you rip the soul out of someone’s life? What happens when you destroy someone’s hope in a loving God? What happens when you tear someone from their support community, from their rituals of comfort and consolation, renewal and restoration? What happens when you emotionally or physically lock someone out of their spiritual refuge?

What happens is that people die — from the inside out.

Their soul shrivels, their hope disintegrates, their sense of belonging evaporates. It feels as if the hand of God that was holding them through life’s trials and losses is withdrawn, and they can fall into an abyss of depression, alcohol and drug abuse, relationship-destruction, self-destruction.

There have been many physical deaths among the community of victims and victims’ families, but there are many more spiritual deaths. One aspect of survivor support needs to be a spiritual outreach of some kind. We need to find ways to foster hope, dialogue about our understanding of God, share rituals of renewal and enrichment. We need to combat the spiritual death that is part of the collateral damage of the sexual abuse crisis.

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Priests sharing victims…not just in my family

Five charged in church sex scandal

February 11, 2011|By David O’Reilly, Inquirer Staff Writer,  Philadelphia Inquirer
According to the grand jury report, Lynn (Msgr. William Lynn, former secretary for clergy) was aware of credible abuse allegations against the three priests, but did not bar them from contact with minors, thus enabling four rapes of the two boys.

The accused include the Rev. Charles F. Engelhardt, 64, an Oblate priest most recently a parochial vicar at the Church of the Resurrection of Our Lord in the city’s Rhawnhurst section. He is charged with orally sodomizing a 10-year-old altar boy in 1998 in St. Jerome’s sacristy.

Despite the boy’s resistance, Engelhardt allegedly told the Rev. Edward Avery, a diocesan priest then assigned to St. Jerome’s, about the assault. Weeks later, Avery, now 68 and defrocked, assaulted the boy in the same way, according to the report.

Bernard G. Shero, the boy’s sixth-grade teacher at St. Jerome’s parish school, allegedly learned from one or both of the priests about the assaults and one day offered the boy a ride home. Instead, the grand jury said, Shero, now 48, orally and anally raped him in his car and then left him to walk home.

One of my struggles has been getting my head around the fact that two priests knowingly conspired in the abuse of members of my family, and confessed and absolved each other.  Even if I can admit the fact that two different priests abused us, the thought that they knew each other, supported each other’s behavior, covered for each other … it was just too grotesque, too evil to be true. But in Philadelphia the grand jury uncovered just such a story of collusion, of victim sharing.  Priests really can be that evil.

To be fair, the third abuser was not a priest, just someone they included in their little circle of pedophiles. How nice of them not to be selfish but instead to share information about an easy mark, a child who would be desperate to get the support of a safe adult.  Child rape … just a game they played with children’s bodies and with children’s lives.

But the rape is never just of the body it is rape of the soul too. The faith in their priests, their Church, their sacraments, their God is ripped apart and bloodied along with their bodies.  And too many of these children will die, perhaps not at 11 or 15, perhaps at 35 or 55, because the violence done to them then continues to be compounded by the violence inflicted on them today through the indifference of bishops and advisory boards, through the adversarial tactics of lawyers, and through their ostracisation by parishes and support structures within their Church.

Dear Pontiff — Letter #3

September 10, 2010

I just wanted to drop a note and thank you for the invitation, but I really can’t make it.  I hope you have a good visit with the other victims, though.  Mona 

Happy Rosh Hashanah,

What if the Pope really had invited me to one of his face-to-face meetings? Would I have gone? I gave this some serious thought and realized that in order for me to experience such a meeting as safe and positive I would need my own “people” with me to help me survive and remain emotionally healthy. This may seem ridiculous to you, but as a victim of profound and prolonged sexual abuse as a child, by more than one priest, I want you to know that I write this in all seriousness. I want you to understand the scenario as it would impact me and I imagine many other victims like me. 

How can I summon up some of the feelings for you?  Imagine a nightmare in which you are being chased. It is nighttime. Someone is trying to hurt you, to kill you, to rape you. You are running but you can’t escape. You enter a room but the door doesn’t lock. You keep running, keep running. Now imagine that this awful nightmare was actually based on the real fears and real danger that you experienced on a regular basis as a child — bad men who were always trying to get you alone to hurt you, and then threatening you if you told. Imagine the nightmare haunting your sleep for years during your childhood and then imagine it returning in times of stress for decades long into adulthood. Now imagine that you are going to a meeting in which the players in your nightmare drama were going to be in the room with you, in the flesh. And imagine all the fears of being chased, hurt, raped and killed, that haunted your nightmares rising up in your guts and into your throat and swirling around in your mind as you walk into this room, sweating, shaking, clammy, nauseated. Now you have a sense of what it would feel like for me. 

What would I need?
 ~  I would need my therapist because I would need “handling.” Someone talking me through the preparations and keeping me grounded in the present. “They cannot hurt you. You are safe. You are no longer a child, you are an adult. They can’t keep you here against your will. You are going to leave with us and go home. You are not doing anything wrong; you are allowed to tell.” Advocacy and compassion.

~  I would need my husband next to me so I could hold his hand or just lean on him and know he was there and that I would be leaving with him. Safe, male touch.

~  I would need a  group of strong, religious women in the room to balance all the men in clerical garb. Preferably these women would be American Dominicans from the Dominican Alliance. Feminine, Catholic, strength, wisdom and spirituality.

~  I would request that the Pope not wear a medieval costume but the simple, white cassock and zucchetto (cap). I have really bad memories involving a priest in a black cassock and a black biretta (three-ridged, square hat). But I know that would be pushing it.  

As it would not be possible to have all the above people with me when I met with the Pope and all his “people,” it would not be a good experience — at all. It would very likely lead to a serious mental health episode. I worry about those victims who do meet him and the conflicted feelings they must experience. And I worry that they don’t get to bring their “people” with them.  I hope they can process the visit and remain safe and that it gives them what they are looking for.

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.