It seems a lot of attention during the current sex-abuse scandals in the Church has gone to the perpetrators — to how to prevent this from happening again, and reform.
This is necessary. Many commentators do make sure to say something about the victims, but, overall, not much attention has been given to them.
I’m not exactly eager to share very personal matters on a public platform, but I realized recently that my story could be helpful — both to those who are blessed not to know firsthand what being victimized in such a way is like and how long its negative effects can last, and to those who have suffered, to my fellow survivors, to give them hope. I won’t get into the sordid details — just the aftermath and the healing.
I was molested as a child by someone who later raped a relative of mine, but the memory of what happened to me was repressed until I was a young adult. Soon after getting married, I started having flashbacks and nightmares. These diminished after a while, thankfully, for a few years.
Then I saw a movie with a rape scene. It wasn’t graphic, but the smile on the rapist’s face filled me with rage. I went to the ladies’ room and paced and paced. I couldn’t shake it. When I walked out of that theater, I fell into a pit of depression.
I think most people could imagine the sense of intense violation that afflicts victims of sexual abuse. Tragically, that sense is getting blunted by the proliferation of pornography, which has gotten steadily more violent and perpetuates foul, preposterous myths that women enjoy getting raped or children enjoy being molested (or at least they bounce back quickly).
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Perhaps for the rapist/molester the experience is over quickly, but for the victim it usually haunts and harms them for the rest of their lives.
To have physical contact so extremely intimate forced upon you — to have your bodily person, your very self, desecrated — is a violation too deep to be put into words. For me, it and the indignity and frustration at the inability to defend myself inspired a burgeoning, fiery rage with no place to go, no chance of burning out.
Moreover, when you are sexually abused, you are treated as an object: not merely an object, but a shameful object, deserving to be discarded. Despite my rage, I took this on as my self-image, as most victims do.
You have been treated as a shameful object; therefore, you must be one — you feel disgusting, so you must be disgusting.
Often the assailant treats and/or tells you that it’s your fault that they’re doing this to you; something about you made them do this to you. Thus, another pain that victims commonly feel is guilt or the fear of being somehow responsible — a doubling-down of the shameful-object identity.
My spiritual life also took a severe blow. I couldn’t understand why God had let this happen to me. I felt abandoned by the One who was supposed to love me most, the One to whom I had been close since I was a small child.
I read stories about saints and blesseds who had been threatened with rape but had escaped, managed to fight off the advances, or had been miraculously saved. I couldn’t find any who had actually been violated.
Jesus had become my best friend in second grade. Why hadn’t he protected me? Nor could I fathom what “greater good” he could possibly bring from my misery. I became angry at God, too, for abandoning me and letting me suffer on and on as an adult.
The depression and rage dragged on for months and months. I had already been having dry prayer times; when I still felt no sense of his presence or love during prayer when I needed him most, I stopped trying, saying, “If you’re not going to show up, neither am I.”
But I didn’t turn my back on God completely. I kept going to Sunday Mass and confession; I met with a priest with a master’s degree in counseling; I talked to God occasionally during the day. Once in a while, at night, when I couldn’t sleep for sobbing and raging, I’d cry out to him, “How long, O Lord? Why don’t you heal me? I know you can! What are you waiting for?”
One night, after this had been going on for about a year, I was suddenly tempted by the thought that if I committed suicide it might not be a mortal sin, since I was severely depressed. It seemed like a really good idea — an end to the pain, the frustrated rage.
But only for about 10 seconds. Then I remembered that my husband would find me the next morning; I thought about how it would affect him and, even more devastatingly, our darling toddler. I couldn’t inflict a lifelong wound on her.
Victims of Clerics
I can only imagine how terribly worse it must be for those who were abused by a priest or other cleric. The spiritual ramifications must be so much worse.
A dear friend of mine was sexually abused by her older brother when they were growing up. When he decided years later to become a priest, she couldn’t bring herself to go to Mass anymore because she felt he had defiled the priesthood, the altar and the Eucharist.
I have a tiny sense of what it must be like. When I was about 15, I attended a “Teens Encounter Christ” retreat. Afterward, my parents were running late, and I was one of the few kids left waiting.
As I was waiting alone, one of the retreat leaders, a religious brother, came and sat next to me. We were chatting, but after a while, his side of the conversation took a weird turn. If it were anyone else, I would have sworn he was trying to seduce me. I felt guilty for even thinking such a thing. But as it went on, it became more obvious.
I started talking about Jesus and how wonderful the retreat had been, and, fortunately, he went away. It was very disturbing to me — a real shock that someone who had seemed so good could actually be a predator. It threatened to overturn everything he had said at the retreat. I had to work hard to separate the bad from the good, the sinful man from those truths he had nevertheless proclaimed.
It was much worse when, as an adult, I learned that one of my favorite high-school teachers, a priest, had been convicted of sexually abusive contact with adolescent boys, one of whom had been in my class. This was a priest I had known well, a mentor from whom I had learned so much and had benefited spiritually.
I felt like my world was turning upside down. If it was so distressing to me as an adult, how potentially faith-shattering would it have been to me if I had learned of it at 14?
These things give me a hint of what a spiritual apocalypse it must feel to be abused as a child or adolescent by a cleric, one who is supposed to be in persona Christi — an image and representative of Christ.
Healing and Hope
At times during that long year, it seemed like I would never be healed — at least in this life. Counseling helped me to understand what was happening to me, but it didn’t make me feel any better.
Thanks be to God, during a visit to my mother-in-law — without knowing what I was going through — she mentioned that her pastor struggled with depression, so after Mass I went to the sacristy to talk to him. I got out one sentence, and he immediately offered me the sacrament of anointing. I was dumbfounded: Why hadn’t anyone thought of that before?
I was so touched to have someone understand and to offer something that might really help. While I didn’t feel immediately healed, I could tell something was different. I suppose it was hope and grace. I was on the road to healing.
During that dreadful year, my husband had been trying to get me back to personal prayer and at least occasional weekday Mass. I resisted, saying it was too hard with a toddler. After the anointing, he tried again and suggested we take turns watching her after Mass, while the other had a little meditative prayer. I agreed. (That in itself was a minor miracle and likely the result of the anointing.)
When it was my turn, I meditated on a line of Scripture that the Lord had been nudging my way but that I had until then refused to think about:
“Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, you do unto me.”
I dared to ponder if that could possibly apply in my case, in being molested. My heart revolted: No, that could never happen to him! It came back to that shameful object idea; Jesus could not be rendered a shameful object.
But then I realized that maybe that could be true for me, as well. In my imagination, I saw myself covered with tar, which began to break up and float off. I wondered where it would go.
It went and covered the molester, where it truly belonged. I considered how to be covered with the shame of that sin, a shame that you owned, would be even more horrible than what I had been going through, especially if it proved to be everlasting.
Then, for the first time, I pitied the man. That’s when a possible greater good that could come out of my horrid calamity occurred to me: I could offer up my suffering for his salvation. Several things struck me all at once: that it was up to me to do this or to refuse; what a tremendous responsibility that was; the awful weight of freedom; how much incredible dignity God offers us in sharing his work of salvation with us; and how difficult but glorious it would be to imitate him in such a way.
Did I say “difficult”? Actually … impossible — except for his grace.
By his grace, I agreed to do it.
Strangely, when I walked out of that church, I found myself out of the pit and in a new reality, one in which I found there was little actually to offer up for my assailant. At last, I was healed. And that healing has continued for the 20-plus years that have passed since.
God is bigger than any of our problems, any of our wounds, any of our sins. He can heal anything. And he will — if we let him.
If because of sharing this even one person is set on the road to hope and healing, it will be well worth it.
Jeanette Flood is a freelance writer living in Ohio with her husband and their six children.
After graduating from Franciscan University of Steubenville, she received her M.A. from The Catholic University of America.
Her first book, Eight Ways of Loving God Revealed by Love Himself, will be released by Ignatius Press in 2019.