A Survivor Speaks: What Catholics Have Said to Me
As part of our ongoing discussion series, YArespond hosted a clergy abuse survivor to share her perspectives and experiences. We focused particularly on the question, “What are things Catholics told you that were helpful or harmful on your journey towards healing?” Since her abuse, she’s returned to the Church as a passionate Catholic, though her perspectives have changed as a result of her experiences.
She told us about the shame she experienced when considering opening up about her abuse. She worried that she might be at fault, that her abuse might make her a bad Catholic, and that others might judge her. Eventually, she decided to share it with a priest she had known for many years. When reflecting on why she told him, she said, “I knew he would tell me the truth and I knew he would love me unconditionally.” And he did.
But some Catholics, rather than helping, had hindered and harmed her on her journey towards healing. She’s been in multiple conversations where someone has said, “All these victims are just coming forward for money.”
These people didn’t know that she herself was a survivor. In the past, she tended to just respond with silence. As she’s considered her experiences and what the Church needs to heal, move forward, and help survivors, she’s come up with another response. Now she responds directly with the question,
“How much money would it take to heal the heart of someone who’s been raped by a Catholic priest?”
Victims need money, she stressed. Therapy can be expensive. Some victims suffer with trauma so great that for extended periods of time they are unable to leave the home and can’t hold steady jobs, even though this had been easy for them in the past. She shared how she had a reliable income and was financially responsible prior to her abuse. After her abuse, however, the resulting trauma created conditions under which she found herself, for the first time in her life, in crippling debt. She’s since moved forward from this place, but many victims still suffer.
Victims also find Catholic spaces to be triggering. Many were abused in sacristies. Entering Catholic churches can result in panic attacks and PTSD that can take years to overcome. Though she now attends Mass frequently, she shared how she wasn’t able to attend Mass for five years. Even driving by a Church could be triggering, even though during much of that time she longed for the sacraments.
During those years, some Catholic friends who knew she wasn't going to Mass asked her, “Aren’t you worried about your soul?” This response demonstrated such a lack of empathy that it made healing and a sense of belonging in the Church even more difficult. It compounded her deep shame, rather than helped her re-enter the Church.
She also shared a story where she had reported strange behavior by a Catholic priest. She worried that he was not exercising appropriate boundaries with another lay woman, and she shared this with another priest. The priest responded, “I think you’re projecting your own experiences.” Later, the priest about whom she was concerned was criminally convicted for an inappropriate relationship. One might wonder how many other reports have been dismissed by the priest she had spoken with, or by others. Reflecting on her role in the Church as a survivor, she shared that survivors have a gift of sensitivity. They know what questionable behavior from a clergyman looks like because of their experiences. This sensitivity to abuse should be accepted as a gift, with gratitude, rather than rejected.
Although many Catholics had hindered healing with their words, she also shared ways in which Catholics had helped her along in her healing process. She shared the stories of two priests, both of whom listened to her, believed her, knew how to exercise appropriate boundaries, and recognized when they were not qualified or sufficiently experienced to help with certain questions.
She also shared how empathy helped. She said,
“I wanted people around me to be mad for what happened to me. When they weren’t, that was painful. The people who were enraged at what happened were the people who stuck by me.”
Catholics who responded by simply saying that she should pray weren’t helpful. She said that whenever she felt unsure about her relationship with her abuser, for her abuser “prayer was always the solution.” Clergy abusers sometimes use prayer as a way to dismiss their victims, to push aside their concerns, and to delay action. Thus, responses by Catholics that simply “prayer is the answer” can be re-traumatizing, a re-inflicting of the abuse. Certainly, prayer is necessary. But it is not the whole solution and is often used as a means to dismiss the problem.
For her, the space to experience her emotions was incredibly helpful. “My closest friends were super helpful at just letting me be me,” she said. She needed to be able to feel happy, sad, angry, or whatever emotions might arise. But “they were also not going to let me stay stuck either.” They helped her to see when it was time to take further steps forward and when her sharing of emotions devolved into mere wallowing.
In the end, she shared that healing in the Church can be very difficult. It is possible. But it doesn’t just happen. Catholics must be proactive in creating space for healing to occur.
Are you a Twin Cities young adult interested in learning more about these issues? Consider joining us for our discussion evenings, where we'll invite survivors, activities, and others involved in this work to share their experiences! You can apply here!
YArespond is a group of Catholic young adults based in the Twin Cities seeking informed and holistic ways to respond to the abuse crises in our Church. We focus on a fourfold response consisting of prayer, education, dialogue, and action. Currently, we are working on developing resources for parishes and ministries to host events and dialogues. Learn more: