Writer’s Block: Rattling the Cage
Shame and fear of retaliation keep feelings and memories incarcerated.
I’m normally a pretty fluid writer. Trying to write about this subject, however, is like trying to make an insect specimen board with live hornets. It’s frightening to approach, painful to touch, and almost everybody who cares and knows the story wishes I’d just forget about it all.
It’s hard for me to talk or write about it. I can’t even analyze why. There’s numbness and, where it’s not numb, there’s pain.
I grew up in a dysfunctional family situation. My father was a sex addict and my mom wasn’t equipped to set healthy boundaries with anybody, my father most especially. My dad violated my personal boundaries my whole life, physically and emotionally. My spiritual life didn’t interest him, so at least that part was somewhat safe from his invasions. Mom was emotionally absent most of the time, living in her own hell of PTSD from her childhood and current marriage situation. When I was ten, my parents divorced after having been separated for about a year. Mom left home and five of us were living alone with Dad. I was the second oldest child and the oldest girl.
During the divorce process, Mom moved all the way across the country. Forty years later she still lives there. She told me recently that Dad had threatened her, “If you ever leave me, I’ll tell everybody you’re crazy and teach the kids to hate you.” He succeeded. Just after the separation started, Dad managed to get a restraining order against Mom. That was the beginning. I was estranged from my mom well into my adulthood. Of the five children from my parents’ marriage, I am the only one who has a relationship with our mother. It’s a classic case of parental alienation syndrome.
Less than a month before my thirteenth birthday, my dad remarried. My stepmother perpetrated sexual, physical, verbal, and emotional abuse on all five of us. She was much worse than Dad over all. A very needy person, she would cry and have temper tantrums if anyone made even a subtle gesture suggesting that she was responsible for her abusive behavior. Her life was, and I think probably still is, an eternal pity party. Dad was her loyal enabler. I don’t have relationships with them any more. I “divorced” them after work in therapy.
I married when I was 21. My marriage was abusive for the first fifteen years. My husband will concede to this fact. My husband was emotionally and verbally abusive toward me. Having been garnering strength from therapy and an association with the local women’s shelter, I was preparing to leave and divorce my husband when our seventh child was conceived. I feel strongly that a child needs attentive parenting at least the first three years of life, so the pregnancy put the brakes on my plans to leave. My husband and I had separate bedrooms for about a year during that time. When the new baby was about a year old, my husband was deployed for 12 months. During that time he dedicated himself to improving and saving our marriage. He read books and discussed them with me over the phone in frequent phone calls. He talked with the chaplain. After the deployment, he went into therapy. I was determined not to be the demise of our marriage, but I credit my husband’s effort with saving it. We still have occasional episodes, but things are very good now. We have both seen therapists.
I was raised in an environment that punished me for trying to set any kind of physical or emotional boundaries. I was punished and shamed for any effort at privacy or defending my personal space. In my thirties I learned that I had a right and responsibility to decide how I did or did not want to be touched or spoken to. I had a responsibility to honor and enforce the rules I set. Because setting and maintaining boundaries was programmed out of me from birth, I still cannot do it naturally. I have learned to be cognizant of the need for boundaries and, as a matter of intellectual discipline, I do my best to protect myself from intrusion by unhealthy and predatory people. I have gotten a lot better, but I have a long way to go. I honestly do not think I will ever master the concept. Much as I try, I think proficiency might one day be my greatest achievement. My skills are still very basic and I’m in awe of women in particular who have a strong sense of themselves and the self confidence to avoid being “pleasers.”
To admit and acknowledge my wounds and they role they play with my experience with a predator is painful and difficult. I am weak because of repeated, deep injury that was perpetrated against me my entire childhood and into my adulthood. It is not a “fault.” It’s a truth, a condition, an organic vulnerability that I cannot fix, even though the desire is there and I put every ounce of available effort into healing. I have consulted and paid experts to help me overcome my weaknesses. I read books, participate in online forums, skim websites, share in support groups, everything I can think of doing. I’m trying. I want to be well. It’s almost like giving someone an arm transplant. The transplanted arm can look normal, but the strength and familiarity of the limb, the fluency of motion, they’ll never be the same as someone who was born with a healthy arm. My ability to set boundaries will always be weak, but I’ll never give up trying to make it stronger.
This brings us to the point that is the most insidious in the priest-predator dynamic: blaming the victim. I believe that predator priests are most likely wounded much like me. I have compassion for that. Part of my compassionate disposition is my natural personality, and part of it is an inability to get angry for being abused. Turning the anger on myself was a survival skill. If I was angry at my abusers as a child, the abuse escalated. I think a lot of survivors, maybe all of them, are like me. It makes us vulnerable and predators sniff this out like a hungry shark smells blood.
I think the predator dynamic in people is just as natural as the predator-prey dynamic in wild animals. There are some fundamental differences, however, First, human beings, and educated Catholics (priests) in particular are not wild animals. We have the gift of reason. We have societal rules and religious institutions. Over all, I would say that our gift of reason and our propensity to build civilization are good qualities about being human.
Second, the Catholic Church has an essential mission: to spread the good news of the Gospel. It is ludicrous that I am feeling the need right now to enumerate what this mission means. Priests are trained to know what this means. They vow to undertake it.
Exploiting people is contrary to the gospel. Someone in a position of authority in the Church, a priest, who exploits people, especially by using the authority and esteem provided by his ordination, is a fraud. Even if he is a great preacher, he’s a fraud. Even if he boosts mass attendance, he’s a fraud. Even if he is attentive to social justice, he’s a fraud. Even if he marches in prolife events, he’s a fraud. Even if he’s “so sweet,” he’s a fraud. Even if he seems truly contrite when he’s caught, he’s a fraud. This applies especially to priests who perpetrate these misdeeds habitually. They’re frauds. Yes, the ordination is valid, but the authority, the freedom, and the esteem of the position are being thrown into Gehenna when they are given to priest frauds. No behavior of any victim influences or changes this fact.
In my case, I knew things were going in a scary and dangerous direction. I had to fight the inclination to freeze up and allow it. I battled against it. I was only capable of doing that because of the therapy I had gotten and the practice, which was guided by my therapist. Again, sharks smell blood. Someone like me is swimming in the sea with weeping wounds. I have plenty of practice.
When Church officials blame victims, which happens regularly, the Church is saying, “You’re broken and worthless. You deserved it. Your weakness is your own problem. The blame is yours, the priest made an excusable mistake. We have decided to let you die by exposure. The Romans had it right.”
That’s not Christian. It’s lazy and stupid and evil.
Predatory behavior is objectively disordered, unChristian, in many cases criminal, and it’s always, always wrong. Predator priests need to be punished and removed from ministry. Their presence in the Church as ministers contradicts the Church’s mission. Predator priests are destructive. They’re wolves in sheeps’ clothing.
Today I prayed along with Walking the Way of the Cross with Survivors from Awake Milwaukee, a support organization for survivors of abuse by priests. I cried with such bitter grief that I surprised myself. I was closed up in a room away from my husband who is still working from home due to the pandemic. I wore my earbuds so he couldn’t hear the recording, sobbing and sniffing as quietly as I could. It’s so difficult for him. He’s a victim too because he loves me, and he doesn’t know how to fix it for either of us. He’s a man. He wants to fix it.