Like most Catholics, I grew up with a secure sense of structure and religion. I knew Jesus, the bible, and the Ten Commandments since the moment I walked into Kindergarten at my Catholic grade school. My friends and I used to pretend we were nuns by wearing a dark colored piece of clothing on our heads and my brother and I used to play “mass” by lighting a candle and praying and handing out bread and juice. We knew that God, like Santa, was always watching, and that whatever you did, good or bad, was seen and known by someone keeping score, and that cardinal sins sent you straight to Hell if you did not confess and that venial sins earned you significant time in purgatory……God’s version of “time out”.
My life, whenever I was not with my mother, was contained within a mile of my house…between home with my parents and school with the nuns and teachers and priests. I lived within a very safe bubble. And the implication was, as long as I stayed within that safe little bubble and did as I was told, life would be simple and good.
Life had an explanation. And when life became confusing or difficult or not so good…like upon the death of my father…there was someone familiar there in a familiar place and a familiar traditional ceremony in which to find comfort. And people need this. They need something to explain the unexplained. They need comfort when life kicks them in the gut. They need to belong and have similar beliefs as others. They need continuity when life throws them unwanted change. They may not go to church every Sunday, but they need the church to be there when needed.
In a life full of changes, the church has been there since birth. It stays the same. We can depend upon that. Just like we can depend upon the grass always being green and the sky always being blue. For the most part.
But what happens when the things we hang onto in life as steady and reliable and constant no longer are? What happens when our basic foundation gets flipped around? When the dust finally clears, what happens to the world we once knew? What happens when the grass now looks blue and the sky looks green when we’ve been taught all our lives to expect the opposite?
In other words, how does being abused by someone in the church affect how you see the church afterwards?
Someone said to me that they cannot look at a priest without wondering if he is sexually abusing someone. This thought caused this person to feel ashamed as it is a bit prejudicial, but seeing as how the thought that all priests are good and can be trusted left us all open and vulnerable to abuse, perhaps being a bit more closed off and hesitant to trust is not such a bad thing if it protects you or someone you love. I too find myself thinking the same thoughts. I have been to church since my abuse. And I look at the altar boys and girls and I find myself praying for their protection and the wisdom of their parents.
That is one way my life has changed. I look at priests differently now. Even the priests I knew and loved as a child. I remember thinking how special one of the seminarians who used to come to our house for dinner made me feel. He brought me a plant one time he visited. When I was walking to guitar lessons, he ran across the field to carry my guitar and walk with me. I was 12 at the time. Was he just being nice or was I possibly being groomed? And what about the nice monsignor who taught me about photography and who offered to show me his dark room? Would I have been in peril had my mother allowed me to go work with him so he could show me how to develop pictures?
But it’s not just priests themselves that I now question. I have also begun questioning their teachings. There was a time when I would never question a priest…..I may not totally agree with them but I saw them as a step above me and knowledgeable and sincere so they had my trust and my respect. But I don’t see them the same way anymore. I don’t trust them anymore. To me they are just human beings working in a system that some take advantage of. I have seen them use pretty words to sway people and to influence them. Many of them are abusing their positions of power. Many others are covering for them out of complicity or fear for their own jobs or safety. I don’t see love when I see a priest anymore. I see potential danger. I also see experts in the art of manipulation and the ability to influence crowds.
So I question their solicitation for money. I question their reasons for having overnight retreats and I question their need to know every personal detail of someone’s sex life in order to grant an annulment.
I find that I can no longer trust anything the church says or does. I want to believe that there are good people and good priests, but once you have had a priest threaten your life and tell you that you had better do what he tells you because you should be afraid of him….but then see how easily he can slip back into holy father mode….handing out communion to people who bow their heads before him….you begin to see what is really true…and you know that nobody will believe you.
And you can see the fear. My co-worker….the one I got the job for….originally asked me why nobody asked her anything when Human Resources did their “investigation”. They had only asked the other priest who worked under my boss if he had seen anything suspicious. Then my co-worker did a complete about face and told me she wanted to keep her job and stopped talking to me.
Make no mistake, bad things have been and are being done by bad people wearing kind faces. So I don’t feel at all guilty about having them have to earn my trust. Because it is not just the sexual abuse or harassment that is the worst thing that is being done. The worst part is the emotional abuse that happens along with and as a result of the abuse. The threats, the lies, the betrayals, the cover-ups, and the smooth talking that makes it sound as if the survivors of abuse are attacking God, the church, and all morality. And let us not forget the alienation, self-hate, PTSD, suicidal feelings and the feeling of having your life turned upside down that victims live with daily.
But as our numbers grow, we grow stronger. And our message of truth grows louder.