Keeping the Faith Amid Suffering

One survivor of clergy sexual abuse reflects on her pilgrimage from despair to hope and a faith-filled meeting with the Pope.

Faith Hakesley Johnston
Faith Hakesley Johnston (photo: Courtesy of the author)

My life has been a test of faith and strength. Like countless other individuals who have survived the trauma of abuse, I have fought through hard times and found myself waging a battle that often seemed unwinnable. At age 15, while working as a secretary in a parish rectory, I endured months of sexual abuse at the hands of the now-laicized Father Kelvin Iguabita.

Nothing could ever fully express the suffering, anguish and betrayal a victim feels. Only someone who has experienced abuse can fully understand the powerful manipulation of an abuser.

I had been raised in a Catholic home where prayer and the sacraments were a part of everyday life. I had never really doubted my faith until the abuse began. Afterward, I hated God for “allowing” it to happen. Indeed, the priesthood — a vocation I once held in high esteem — became something disgusting. I agonized over my decision to tell someone about the abuse. I truly believed that even my closest loved ones would turn against me.

A year later, my world came crashing down again when my oldest brother passed away unexpectedly from an undetected heart condition. The grief over his death and the secret of the abuse were just too much to bear.

Following weeks of what my parents originally intended to be grief therapy with a wonderful Christian therapist, I found the strength and courage to tell my parents about the abuse. Never once did they doubt me; and they truly displayed the meaning of unconditional love.

I wish there was a predicable checklist for people as they embark on the journey to healing. The fact is that everyone deals with suffering differently. For me, it took owning the pain, as well as lots of support, therapy and prayer. Most importantly, however, it took the courage, encouragement and example of faith of countless others to help me move forward.

I struggled through my interior battles of faith, and I did not want to go to church anymore. One priest offered some unexpected advice: “You don’t need to go to church if it’s that difficult for you — I’m sure God understands.”

Part of me wanted to hold that priest accountable and say, “Well, God can’t blame me if I choose not to practice my faith!” But shortly afterwards, I picked up a book, and this quote from St. Thérèse of Lisieux said everything I needed to hear:

“May today there be peace within. May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith. May you use those gifts that you have received and pass on the love that has been given to you. May you be content knowing you are a child of God. Let this presence settle into your bones and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us.”

From then on, I strove to allow my faith to drive me, no matter how weak it felt. I chose not to spend the rest of my life holding God accountable. The abuse I had endured was the result of the evil of a human.

My rapist was sentenced to 12-14 years in prison in 2003 and he was laicized in 2009. Five years later, four survivors and I from the Archdiocese of Boston were given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a personal meeting with Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to Washington, D.C.

As we waited in the chapel of the apostolic nunciature, I fingered a pair of my mother’s rosary beads, praying to the Blessed Mother for the grace to say the “right thing” to the Pope.

The Pontiff entered the room, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the slight, old, humble-looking man. He was there for survivors everywhere, conveying a message of love and hope to the world and to the Church brought to its knees by the sex-abuse scandal. He knelt at the altar and prayed with us for a few moments.
When I was finally called forward for a few private moments with the Holy Father, the profound “right words” never came. Instead, I reacted in a way that a child would — with tears, the simplest, most innocent and heartfelt form of expression. My tears spoke not only for my own pain and suffering, but for the pain and suffering of each and every abused child.

The Holy Father spoke kindly to me. “I understand you are getting married soon?” he asked gently. I nodded through the tears. “My blessings on your marriage, your family and your future family.”

He presented me with a beautiful white box imprinted with the Vatican seal that contained a pair of rosaries. He said, “There is hope, and I’ll be praying for you.”

Four years later, I still struggle with my faith. But, following that momentous day in Washington, I felt more hope than I had in a very long time. My mom has always reminded me to look for life‘s “glimmers,” no matter what doubts we may have. Faith is not always something that we “feel,” and there are still many days when I just “do it.” Even the saints struggled!

Without faith, there is no hope. I have truly realized the importance and meaning of hope throughout my journey, particularly when I held my husband’s hand and my baby boy for the first time. The innocence and purity of a child is a reminder that there is always hope and God never abandons his children. I’m still here, and I’m still standing strong. There is always an “afterwards.” That afterwards is, in part, what you choose to make of it. Faith can lead you there.