Earlier this year I edited an anthology, Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds: Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church. The essays and poetry in the anthology explored how people who have been deeply hurt by other Catholics—by racism, gossip, financial crime, or various forms of abuse—come to learn that Jesus is not their abuser. The authors offered glimpses of faith they were still reshaping, trust they were still recovering.
This has been a hard year to trust God in the Catholic Church. Jesus tells His apostles, “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matt 10:16). But for many Catholics, the wolves have been our own shepherds. I returned to several contributors whose pieces for Christ’s Body touched on abuse or who had written about their experiences of abuse elsewhere, and asked them to reflect on how things had changed for them since the anthology came out—and since the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, and the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Here are their responses.
Elena (a pseudonym) wrote about the sexual abuse she had experienced at a Catholic school—and the warped images of God the school had taught her.
At the end of my story in Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds, I was disappointed with how my diocese had handled my reporting my abuse but had found peace in attending a Byzantine Catholic church. Since then my family and I have fallen in love with the Eastern church, unexpectedly and for reasons completely apart from my abuse.
When this summer’s scandals first broke, honestly, my first reaction was gratitude that God was permitting me to be a little bit insulated from it this time around. The Byzantine Catholic churches have their own bishops and patriarchs. So I was able mentally and emotionally to stand outside of each devastating revelation about the Roman Catholic bishops and cardinals, and not be retraumatized.
As I watched my Catholic friends go through shock, sadness, pain, anger, and doubt, I felt that I had already done this exact same thing several years ago. So why wasn’t I reacting now as I had reacted then? I didn’t feel emotionally knocked off my feet and wasn’t breaking down sobbing this time. It was almost like a virus that I had had prior exposure to; I had already built an immune response.
At first I thought this meant I would get to skip the hard work of going through it. But then Jesus’s words to Peter came into my head and would not leave: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you like wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). So many people had stood by me when I was suffering the betrayal of a man who was supposed to be “another Christ.” Now it was time for me, strengthened by this experience and the grace that came through it, to strengthen my brothers and sisters.
So I started talking to some of my friends, and listening to them. Because I am an artist, I decided to make something to try to say what my words could not say. I made a “Catholic in Mourning” pin, and an illustration of the heart of Our Lady of Sorrows, pierced by seven swords, on a teal background (the color for child abuse awareness). One of the things that helped me as I processed my abuse was realizing that God was on my side. Imagining Mary’s heart as the heart of a loving mother pierced with sorrow at seeing her children mistreated and abused helped bring back that idea for me. I had this image printed onto a scarf to wear during Divine Liturgy.
When this new round of scandals emerged, I felt vindicated. The bishop’s office to which I had originally reported my abuse was that of Bishop Kevin Farrell, who now appears to be a possible associate of McCarrick. I no longer wonder why I felt like I was being brushed off or silenced. My intuition that the diocese’s response was not what it should have been was correct. It had nothing to do with me.
Paula Gonzales Rohrbacher
Paula’s essay described her experience testifying about her abuse by a seminarian at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2002 meeting in Dallas, and the reactions from those in her hometown.
In July of this year, the news broke that (then Cardinal, now Archbishop) Theodore McCarrick had not only protected priest perpetrators of sexual misconduct, but stood accused himself of sexual abuse of a minor. In August, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury released a scathing report that detailed sexual abuse of minors by priests dating back decades. Finally, on November 3, reports from the Philadelphia Inquirer and Boston Globe revealed that since 2002, at least fifty bishops have been non-compliant with the Charter For The Protection Of Children and Youth and the Essential Norms.
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, before I became aware of this shattering news, I was already suffering from PTSD, triggered by the #MeToo movement and reports of sexual harassment and rape by men in positions of power.
Since this summer, my anxiety and depression have increased exponentially.
I am so angry. What I am experiencing is beyond anger. It is more like a white-hot volcano of rage at the bishops who have lied to the authorities, the parishioners, and—not least of all—the victims of abuse.
I’m still not leaving the Church, because I need the Eucharist. But it is definitely becoming more difficult to stay in.
Gabriel’s poem, “Via Angorosa,” offered a phantasmagoric picture of a church in which gay believers were sacrificed to appease the divided camps of progressives and conservatives.
It's been a rough few months. The institutional Church's betrayal of abuse victims, and of all the laity, was—how shall I put it—shocking but not surprising. I was raised as a Calvinist with a skeptical view of people and of institutions in general, and in some ways I've retained that skepticism. When I converted in 2008, it was after the earlier form of the abuse scandal had broken, and the bishops claimed to have dealt with it. Their assurances were not why I converted, but I did believe the bishops when they said that. I trusted even the human element of the Church. Granted, I've always had my complaints about ignorant and reactionary Christian attitudes toward LGBT issues (not to be confused with the actual teaching, which is much more specific); but I tended to attribute those attitudes to the aching joints of anything that's two thousand years old, and to trust that the institutional Church would have my back if I ever needed it.
I don't think that now. My confidence in the Church has been shattered. I haven't stopped believing Catholic teaching, but I've stopped trusting Catholic teachers; and while I will not leave the Church, I am prepared to ignore and avoid her ministers as much as I have to, in order to survive.
While I was writing Via Angorosa, I wondered now and then whether I was being too harsh with my fellow believers. Now I wonder whether I was too soft. The dishonest, selfish, corrupt behavior of so many bishops (His Eminence Donald Cardinal Wuerl, for example, in whose archdiocese I converted) almost defies description. Refusing to admit what they knew and when, concealing and enabling and minimizing abuse, dismissing all criticism as slanted or irrational, whitewashing their remorselessness with half-truths and barefaced lies, scapegoating LGBT people as agents of moral corruption while they themselves were practicing the worst forms of depravity. Rapists of the Lord's bride, figuratively and literally. They assert the Last Judgment every time they recite the Creed, but I don't know how they can really believe that they will one day answer for this.
My relationship with God has changed dramatically, too, in a way that the poem itself foreshadowed, I think. I don't trust Him less—if anything, I trust Him more. Perhaps I am more prepared than before to attribute much of the anguish I've experienced as a gay Catholic to the Church, instead of to Him. Whatever the reason, God feels more mysterious, bigger, than He did five months ago; and I'm glad to have that.
Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker living in Washington, D.C.