Like a lot of people I was shocked and disgusted by the clergy abuse scandals. This held significance for me as I am an incest/molestation victim. I come from a long line of abusers and it was almost a given when it started happening to me at the young age of 5. I never dreamed that incest would be a part of it all but sadly that had happened to me and other relatives in my family.
One of the few places where I felt immune from violence and at peace was in the parish where I received the first 2 sacraments. So when the scandals started making headlines I felt the same way I did when I realized what my own father was doing to me. I felt betrayed and worse I felt like the world was coming to an end. How can holy men of god do such things? Don’t they take a vow of complete celibacy? And how can men that we are to regard as spiritual fathers violate that sacred trust? This was incest also but at a much more painful level. To me this was not my body being violated but my soul. I was angry and maybe some of my anger was transferred from my parents to the church. Either way I felt that I could not ever feel the same peace, safety and trust that I once had taken for granted.
After I left the church in the late 80’s I did what a lot of fallen away Catholics did. I church hopped but it was not with any real conviction. I understood that I was a christian but what I failed to understand is that I am also a catholic. Poor catechisis and my own unwillingness to open my heart again to the faith led me to believe that all roads lead to the same place. Still, I felt a gnawing in my spirit but my pride was getting the better of me and I refused to back down from my pain and disillusionment.
In my anger I found others reasons to hate the church and that kept me from returning even after the facts of the scandals were more clearer. My excuse of choice was “confessing sins to a man”. That kept me digging my heels in for a while. I again, did not understand the sacraments well enough to realize that Catholics do not confess our sins to men. Men act in persona Christi and absolve us but only by the authority of Jesus himself; not according to their own authority. This is the problem with having grown up in a dysfunctional family dynamic-the people who are supposed to teach you the faith and help you to grow in understanding of what the church teaches cannot also be the people who violate every law in the bible and then some.
I now believe that my mistrust in my parents spilled over into a distrust of the church. My nagging question always was and still is: How can professed orthodox Catholics like my parents commit such grave sin against their own child? In asking myself this question I was in fact questioning whether the church had somehow given my parents “permission” to be abusive pedophiles. I know now that sexual abusers are mentally ill persons and that they don’t need anyone’s permission to do what they do but in the mind of a scarred, damaged, angry 18 year old, any answer seemed plausible. Especially an answer that made it easier to deny myself the only real love I had ever known-the love of christ and his church.
Even after I had started to ignore the scandals I still couldn’t bring myself to return to the church. I had at that point (around 1991) fallen so deeply into a life of all out sin that I figured that the church was no place for me even if I wanted to get back on track and return to the lord. I was drinking heavily (trying to recreate the alcohol filled environment of childhood), I was experimenting with drugs, promiscuity and had even convinced myself that I no longer favored only men. I never went all the way to considering myself homosexual but I had no problem calling myself “bi-sexual” because in reality I wasn’t opposed to anything being offered to me. I took it all and had a number of friends who had no problem leading me in the wrong direction. I’m not blaming anyone but myself for what I did but it would have been easier to get out of the “life” if I had, had at least one person of faith witness to me about what I was doing to myself and how it was putting my salvation at risk. Instead it was a real blur of hanging out with the wrong people (it didn’t help that at the time I had a job that required me to work with people who indulged in destructive and immoral behaviors) one year turned into 2 and then 3. By the time 1994 came around I was so lost to myself that it didn’t matter who I hurt or how much I hurt myself.
After being raped by one of my male “friends” I became pregnant and decided that the best decision would be to have an abortion. At that time I had been married to my second husband for 2 years and I felt that the rape and pregnancy were a threat to my already rocky marriage. My husband is a staunch pro-lifer and begged me to reconsider that decision. He swore he would raise the baby as his own (I did believe him) but I wasn’t going to be told by anyone-especially a man-that I should suffer with a pregnancy that I didn’t plan due to a sexual act that I did not consent to. It’s funny now when I think about it; how different is rape really when you are sleeping with every guy who wants you anyway? Not diminishing rape in of itself, but who was I to be outraged by being raped when I had, had numerous partners in the recent past in relation to that time? (I actually had a scare of epic proportions when I found out that one of the men that I had, had unprotected sex with was dying of AIDS.) Despite numerous pleas to reconsider, I went ahead and had the abortion. I thought at the time that it would rid me of the disgust I felt about the rape. I also believed in a twisted way that I was “paying” for all the sin I had committed sexually and otherwise. The sad truth was: All I had done was put an innocent person to death, simply because they had the audacity to exist.
In cases of abortion (even if it is due to rape) there is no healing in doing it. It is simply a cop out and a way to lie to yourself that you are better than your attacker and that you deserve to seek your own twisted justice. Honestly, if I had believed the lies I told myself then maybe I would have filed charges against the rapist and gone to court. Truth was I didn’t want to be judged on the facts of my immorality. What could I have said if the question had been put to me in the courtroom: Would I have had sex with the same man consensually? I would have had to admit, yes. In knowing that much about myself at the time; what defense could I have made for myself in front of people who were probably living a way different life than I had been? I’m not saying that I deserved to be raped but what I am saying is-and this is just me judging myself-maybe my actions up to that point made me into a person that no one thought they had to respect. Would things have gone differently if I had not been acting out sexually as a response to my unresolved issues involving the incest and abuse I suffered as a child? Sadly, I’ll never know for sure. You can’t go back and do it over again.
I suffered immense PTSD and I assumed that it was the rape that was haunting me. Now I know that I had “post abortion syndrome“. This is a sad mixture of PTSD from the procedure and guilt and anger at myself for making that choice. At the time I didn’t know there was a program run by the catholic church for women who needed to heal and reconcile their choice to abort. If someone had told me about Rachel’s Vineyard that might have been enough to get me to go back to the church. I toughed it out on my own. My wild ways were long gone but I could never shake the shame and emptiness that I was always under. My marriage suffered and started to edge towards extreme abusiveness. Thankfully it never got to the irreparable extreme but there was so much damage and estrangement; we suffered numerous breakups and reconciliations because of all that had went on surrounding the rape.
We were married in the church and I didn’t want to get divorced-again. I had one Annulment granted from my first husband due to my age but I didn’t want to be a person who rolls the dice on one Annulment after another just so that I could keep getting remarried in the church. Its weird how I thought about the church only when it came to getting married “in the eyes of god” but still had not thought enough about her to come back to the Eucharist. I am shocked that the church married me a second time even though I was not practicing. I guess in small towns they just don’t care as long as you have some of the other sacraments, I suppose.
This is the weirdness of trying to live a normal life without the church. I thought that if I just got “some” of it right than the rest of it (faith and self-respect) would not have to matter as much. I wanted everything that I missed about belonging to the church without having to actually go back to the church. I assumed,wrongly, that my relationships and my spirituality would just somehow come together and be healthy without any involvement in organized religion. I had spent so much time and energy looking for loopholes where I didn’t need any. I had 2 sacraments. At anytime I could have simply gone to reconciliation and been admitted back into the church but I wanted to prove to myself that I didn’t need anything outside of myself. This is also a sad reality of abuse; you feel like you can’t rely on anyone to help you and so you live your life trying to do things the hard way. My motto was: I’d rather f*ck things up myself and have myself to blame than trust another person to help me to not make mistakes.
By this point it was already the late 90’s. I was still doing it my way and feeling miserable. I was now on the internet and by chance a lady I met through a mutual interest in a musician-not a-ha related-asked me about baptism and it gradual came around to a discussion of faith and what Catholics believe. I found that I had no answers and worse what I did know was dead wrong. I felt like this friend needed help and was trusting me to give sound advice and I felt like my ignorance was letting them down. I decided to investigate the faith for the purpose of answering questions-but not for “reversion“. Please! I was not ready to make that leap-not until Pope JP2 passed away. Meanwhile I found myself feeling the starts of a reconnection. I found myself wanting to know more about what it is I left behind. I was excited that someone who came from a background where they weren’t even baptized was eager to find out what salvation really meant. I convinced myself I was doing it for someone else’s good and kept side stepping my own yearnings to “come home” to the church.
I started to surf the web less for entertainment and more for knowledge of the church and was very sad at what I learned. I learned that a lot of people don’t believe Catholics are Christians and they also think we are idolators due to our devotions to the saints. I was hurt that anyone would question whether I was a christian, when I understood that I was indeed a baptized christian and that Catholics do have the holy bible and believe that Christ died for our sins. But then I started to feel that I was not worthy of my hurt feelings considering I still had not gone back. But that sadly came to a head when I realized how ill JP2 was with Parkinson. By the time September 11th came to pass, he was already declining rapidly. No one knew how long he would live and everyone was grieving for a future church where he would not be our spiritual leader. I watched the news constantly in the weeks leading up to his passing. I was glued to the television (I didn’t know I was watching EWTN at the time) waiting with the rest of the world to say goodbye to a good, holy man. I remember when he was shot and how that shook me at the time because even though I was still young I understood what a loss it would be if we lost him. Now as an adult I felt like I was losing a “father”. I considered the pope differently than I had considered regular priests. I considered our pope to be above all the scandals. When he finally left us I felt that I had lost a link to the church I knew as a child. I felt the pain that all Catholics were feeling and I knew I had to do something. I had to go to a mass and grieve with my people.
I was intimidated the first time back. I wasn’t yet convinced about the “reconciliation thing”. But I understood that the lord was in the Eucharist and I knew it was a sin but I took communion. (I made sure I confessed this at my first reconciliation). I remembered most of the parts of the mass and was pretty surprised at how natural it felt to be back there again. I kept going back and as it was nearly Easter I participated in the Paschal events. I knew that I needed to make things right but I looked at the enormity of all the sins I had been living with-going back years and years-and felt hopeless. I kept going to church and found a beautiful church in San Francisco, CA. St. Dominic’s. I looked into RCIA but I hit a stumbling block: the other Catholics and the way some of them viewed the church. Its one thing to NOT be practicing and have negative feelings against the church but it’s another to be calling yourself an orthodox catholic but say at the same time that you don’t agree with church teachings. I was fallen away or lapsed but not a “cafeteria catholic”. That irked me to no end. I could honestly say that as a person who was out of the church for so long, I had a lot to learn but at least I wasn’t going to classes and badmouthing the church to the people who were discerning whether or not to enter or come back to it.
I went to several different RCIA’s and found that it was not what I expected. Most of the time people really wanted to understand the faith but then there were the people who used RCIA as a way to “prove” to themselves that we were NOT the one true church and so these people would argue every point the leaders made and a lot of times I would end up feeling like I was being misguided. I also couldn’t get my head around all the hatred for Vatican II that some older people had. They would go into classes and try to convince seekers that the only legitimacy in the church is only in parishes that conducted themselves in the pre-Vatican II style. The new liturgy was not considered valid to those older people and so fights would ensue as to which liturgy was the valid one. I started to give up on going back at this point. I felt that the church had let herself become fractured and divided.
As a married person I also had a hard time understanding why any form of contraception was wrong (except for NFP). I had contracepted though my cycles were crazy and even that wasn’t always reliable. I honestly thought that the church left it up to couples to decide for themselves and that ONLY abortion was wrong. No to mention the prohibitions on masturbation and what married couples could and could not do in the bedroom. I again, thought that as long as you are married anything goes. (When I finally understood what marital rape was from a survivor’s stories of her abusive marriage-I finally understood why ,even when married, sexuality still had to be cared for.)
There was a mountain of myths and misunderstanding to wade through and I was starting to think that maybe this was not where I was supposed to be. Then things with my health started to change and I realized that I couldn’t just sit and do nothing. I had to either accept it or reject it.
In 2011 I had the privilege of seeing the same friend I spoke of earlier preparing to finally enter the church herself. I was happy for her and felt the excitement that she felt in finally being able to come into the church. She had some legalistic set backs but with loads of prayers and skillful letter writing we were able to resolve them. I still had hard feelings about reconciliation but I wanted to prove to her and myself that it is a vital sacrament. I wanted to go to Easter Vigil with a clean slate and a fresh start. I knew it was going to be gut wrenching having to lay it all out there but I “manned up” and made the appointment (I had 24 years of crap to get in order and so I needed the half hour that I had scheduled). I hadn’t been to confession in two decades. I had only just found it that its not called “confession” anymore-that’s how late I was. I was intimidated and I didn’t know where to start. I had made a list but forgot to use it and so I just poured it all out there. The Father asked questions as we went along so that he could understand what it was I needed to confess. I felt terrible looking at everything I had done. I felt especially terrible when it came to discussing adultery and marital infidelity. I hated saying all the things that I had done and at times I felt like I was floating above myself listening to all that I was saying to him. I did feel something else in that space: the presence of Jesus. I felt that it was not the priest listening to all my sins but the lord himself. I felt awful like I had betrayed not only myself but Jesus as well. I wanted in that moment to feel the joyful exhilaration that other people feel when they reconcile but I didn’t. What I felt was sorry. I felt crushed. I felt like I had failed the only one who had been with me all those years and seen me through all the sufferings that I had endured. I felt like there was nothing I could do or say to deserve the love and mercy of god. I told the priest this and he said, “that’s why absolution is a gift”. He absolved me of everything-even funny stuff like misusing a credit card to buy a tv from Costco (I threw that in to lighten the heaviness of what I had just poured out. I was actually kinda silly.)
I felt numb as I went and sat in the car. I cried for what felt like hours. I was watching the school kids having recess and I mourned that I never had the gift of the innocence that they were experiencing. I know that it was never an excuse for all the sin I did against god and myself and others but I understood that what I was weeping over was not only my sins but what I never had and how that put me on the course that led to all the sin I had just confessed. I felt awful for quite a while after that but as soon as Easter Vigil came around I was able to shake most of it off and I finally received communion for the first time in almost 25 years! I was like everything I had been suffering with melted away. I was as whole as is possible for me.
And Now I Was Finally Home.