After Church Militant first aired our April 22 Spotlight exposing decades of abuse and cover-up in the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), numerous victims have been in touch with Church Militant revealing their personal experiences with abuse in the Society. One survivor of abuse at the hands of an SSPX priest wrote the following analysis on the devastating and longlasting spiritual and psychological effects of abuse. Her experience also confirms the longtime modus operandi of the SSPX: to transfer abuser priests across state or international borders, where they start a new assignment with vulnerable new victims unaware of their past scandals.
There's been a lot of focus in news lately on sexual abuse among priests. We hear about actions that share varied degrees of horror and deviancy and we are angry, sometimes at the priests, sometimes at the victims. Rarely, though, do we see what happens to someone after the abuse is over and so we only understand in a superficial way.
Today, I want to have an open talk about the spiritual and psychological consequences of clerical abuse. As a survivor, I want to show you the deep impact of being objectified for someone else's gratification and the resulting rubble that lies within. This is not for the faint of heart. This is not pleasant. This is an uncomfortable journey but it is one I cannot escape from and which has shaped me into the person I am today.
Almost two years ago on a summer morning in 2018, I was scrolling through my news feed and drinking my coffee as I normally would. As I sat there skimming the headlines, one of them instantly caught my attention. Somewhere in Pennsylvania, a grand jury had found hundreds of priests guilty of sexual abuse. The news was a nationwide scandal, and for me, it opened a door to a chapter that I had tried my best to forget. My heart dropped and I opened the article, stepping out of the present and back into a past that I had desperately tried to forget.
Years before, I had just graduated from high school. I was a girl with nowhere to go, a girl who felt lost and without guidance, and who struggled at the time with addiction problems. I grew up in a small town, a town outwardly but hypocritically devoted to Catholic ideals and traditions. It's a town that as someone who wore pants and smoked pot and drank a lot, I didn't fit into.
You wouldn't think that would matter; underneath the façade of piety there thrives a breeding ground of violence and abuse. Still ignorant and naive, though, I loved it as only ignorance and naïveté could. I deeply loved God, the Church and the SSPX, a breakaway group that rejects Vatican II, and which I saw as the only true Church. I saw myself as inseparable from them and thought that without them I would never get to Heaven.
Because I loved, I wanted to find a way to overcome my weaknesses. More than anything, I wanted to be good and please God, and somehow find a way to fit in. So shortly after my 18th birthday, I went on a retreat. There, I met a charismatic priest who promised that he could help me. A few months after, he offered me the opportunity to teach at a mission school where I would be replacing another teacher who had to leave halfway through the school year.
I arrived in mid-winter. The parish was at that time a small mission and this priest would come on the weekends and say Mass, oversee the school and deal with parish affairs. When I arrived, he provided me with a car, a place to live and, of course, my job was provided by him as well. I handed my life over; the trust I had was implicit. I believed I had found the opportunity I was waiting for to start a new and better life.
At first things seemed normal; I had come out there to recover and when the opportunity arose I began to do domestic work at the house, which was then reserved for his use. He told me there was something he wanted to ask me once he knew he could trust me. So I would go there and cook, do dishes, etc., and I talked and he would listen. Eventually he began to tell me things of his own. He opened up and shared some of the hardships of his life. He seemed lonely and unhappy, and I genuinely felt sorry for him.
When I look back now, I see that there were many warning signs that not all was well, but I dismissed every single one of them. I believed priests were absolutely good and above reproach. Any idea I had that he was in the wrong I quickly pushed aside and felt that I was the bad one for doubting a priest. Priests represented God to me, they had absolute authority in my mind and because of that I never doubted that they were all good and holy.
Then he began offering me alcohol — an 18-year-old alcoholic, something he was well aware of. At one point he told me, "I hear your confessions. I know your sins."
I kick myself now for accepting, but at the time, it was my biggest weakness. The temptation was strong, and I drank. Yes, it was stupid and naïve, yet at that point in my life I didn't think much about the future but took the moment as it came. That I was walking right into a trap still didn't occur to me. Every source of security in my life came from him: my job, house, car, etc., and he told me, "I took you in when no one else would." I still believed he was looking out for me, being a friend and a father.
Holy Week is the most sacred time of year for Catholics and Christians. It is a time when we stop and remember the Passion of Christ, Who died to save us from our sins. At the time I believed that, and Holy Week was the apex of faith.
The Saturday before Palm Sunday I was at the house and he dared me to take shots. After I don't know how many, he took me into a side bedroom and started touching me in an extremely inappropriate manner. At this point, it was like a bomb had gone off in my head. Everything I believed in, everything I had been raised to believe crashed down around me, and for the first time, I felt like I had absolutely no point of reference from which to view the world.
That a priest could do something like this, that I had been groomed and exploited took, me over 10 years to even begin to process. I felt like my world had shattered and I was an orphan in an alien landscape.
Feeling completely overwhelmed and trying to understand what was going on and who he was, I asked him, "Don't you have to say Mass tomorrow?" All I could think of was that his hands would consecrate the Host the next day. He did stop.
The next day it happened again. I felt like I had no choice. I imagined he was going to kill me. He didn't seem violent, but if he had done this horrible thing, in my mind any horrible thing could have happened, and I didn't want to be a threat to him. I didn't know what to believe or what to expect. That was Palm Sunday and it went further this time.
Later that Holy Week, he bought me a bottle of Schnapps, took me to dinner, stopped to buy condoms and then took me to a sleazy motel and ... three times in about three hours. He told me that the thing he had been wanting to ask me, once he knew he could trust me, was if I would go to a certain bar with him. I had naïvely believed he was going to ask me to do something important; at the time I wanted to go to India as a teacher which he said he could make happen. If it had always been his intent to gain my trust in order to ask me this, then it was always the intent to exploit me for my weaknesses.
The day after, he fired me and bought me a one-way ticket back. He called the priests there and told them he fired me because I was crazy and making up lies about another (decent) priest. He told his direct superior that he fired me because I wasn't doing a good job at the school. He sent me an e-mail afterward saying he had to let me go because I was a "danger to myself and others" and he was sorry for "however he had failed me," that he had "brought me out to recover but it didn't work out."
I didn't know to go to the police. I didn't understand the concept of grooming, exploitation or abuse of power. I believed what happened was my fault. I still believed that for everything, the answer was to go to the priests. So I told them — and the first priest I told accused me of attention-seeking and essentially threatened me, telling me if I couldn't prove anything there would be nowhere in the world I could go where I would be safe.
That scared me even further, and it took a long few months of being questioned by different priests before they believed me. I was then told the priest was being assigned to another country. That was his reward: a fresh start in a country where he could continue to do what he was doing and where no one would know. He never made it, though, choosing instead to leave the priesthood behind.
In September of that year, I attempted suicide. That was when the SSPX decided to take some action, sending me to a convent in France on a three-month visa. Then that was it. I was left with absolutely nothing, not even a place to go.
Sexual assault is not just a physical injustice. Yes, the actions are momentary, but the consequences last a lifetime. For me, those consequences amplified over time. I felt powerless, voiceless and isolated. My identity had been taken away, my ability to love and to see good in the world was damaged, and abuse experienced at the hands of someone who represented God, it very much so robbed me of my ability to find a loving God.
Initially, I stayed in the Church, but only for about two years. It was not until 2018 that I tried to return as I began to process what happened and search for a solution to something that was destroying me inside. Church wasn't comforting, though; in fact, it was exactly the opposite. I started having panic attacks before going in. During Mass, I couldn't concentrate and physically struggled to keep from crying and keep it together. I would sit in the back as close to the door as possible, trying not to be noticed by anyone.
By the Epistle, I would feel completely exhausted and wrecked, but I kept pushing forward, thinking that was the only way God would love me. I felt unloved by God and thought He wanted to hurt me. There were days when I thought God hated me so much it seemed like even death wasn't an escape. My chest would hurt, my hands would go numb, it felt like time slowed down and the prayers I couldn't say rolled silently down my cheeks instead.
The depression grew. I tried prayer, talking to a priest, medication, therapy and transcranial magnetic stimulation, but the pain inside grew exponentially. I have scars on my arms from this fight, each one associated with some thought about God. No longer sure if I could survive, I felt like I was shrinking inside myself in order to get through. I began to feel like I was a small child sitting inside a very big person, like a Matryoshka doll. I thought of this big person who was helping me get by as "No One." Who are you? No One.
When the memories began to come to the front, I started having nightmares. One night I dreamt that I was being violently raped and choked. It was such a vivid dream that I felt like I left my body and it seemed like what was happening was occurring in a parallel universe. The next morning my throat hurt as if it had actually happened. I was not violently raped, but the scars inside do not care. The wounds created there at the deep place where the soul and the mind intersect heal far more slowly than any physical injury.
Personally, I have felt that the memories from that time made me into a sort of Dorian Gray portrait; I have felt painted with an ugliness that seemed unforgivable. There have been times I felt this so heavily that I had a hard time seeing my own face. I would do my make-up in patches, never seeing the whole, and carried a self-image that was fragmented and Picasso-esque in nature.
Fear and guilt have kept me prisoner for a long time. There were many things I couldn't remember, and the things I could were shameful. I have had to face the deeply disturbing question: In the moment, did my body ever respond like what was happening was normal and OK? I can't remember, but even if I could, it would not make what happened my fault.
I have felt guilty for seeing no way forward then but to surrender without a fight or protest. I've wanted to be silent knowing that I will face a great deal of scrutiny, afraid to stand naked before an unkind audience and have my life picked apart. I know what people can and will say. They may say, well, you were 18, maybe you wanted it. But that is not true. They may say, you didn't say no, you didn't fight, you didn't run — and that is true. People can point to my many mistakes, and I can't ever say that I was a saint. I wasn't; but that's exactly what made me vulnerable. I trusted a priest, a bad one, and it changed my life forever.
I have spent years beating myself up over those things, feeling like what happened was my fault. I have thought that what happened to me happened because I was a bad person, and the fact that it happened made me into a worse person. I have felt despair. I have searched for God and felt there was no answer. I think that if He were looking for me too, I would have found Him by now.
Though I hope it brings me closure in the end, there are days now when I feel guilty for speaking out at all. I have been apologetic and hurting for years. I still panic and think of silence as something I owe to those who hurt me. There are nights now when I dream that I am being killed for speaking up. Why? I don't know, but I do know that the fear and guilt and shame have kept me hostage for far too long.
If you are reading this and you too have been abused in some way, I just want you to know, whatever happened didn't happen because of you. You are not a bad person. The aftermath, no matter how hard, is not your fault. These are lies. I hope you know you aren't alone in how you may feel. Reach out for help. It's never too late to report. You are worth every investment made towards peace and healing.
To you faithful, I know just how heartbreaking and gut-wrenching it can be to realize that someone who represents God could betray your trust in such a horrible manner. I know it's easy to try and ignore when it hasn't happened to you, but what if it will be your child one day? What if you could prevent that from happening?
Silence is complicit when it chooses to protect a falsely "good" name rather than souls. Obedience is cowardice when it submits to injustice. Perverted men who hide behind God and religion mock both. Evil is not a distant threat; it exists closer than we want to admit, and it takes more than prayer alone to drive it out.
Clergy need to be held responsible for their own actions. There needs to be accountability for every single soul destroyed by the actions of men who should have protected them and for every superior who continued to turn a blind eye to that.
That said, I recognize that there are good priests, and I hope they begin to take a harsher stance against abuse within their ranks. Widespread, long-term abuse is a cultural problem, and not until the good people begin to speak up and demand real change will any real progress be made. It will take a great deal of humility and courage to see that through — and that burden lies with you.