by Gordon Nary
Gordon: You suffered clerical sexual abuse as a child. What impact did your abuse have upon your faith?
Eileen: I was 12 when our parish priest abused me. He apologized to both my mother and me and then left our parish (he was sent to the Archdiocese of Chicago). So at 12, I felt safe because my mother who had walked in on the abuse took care of me by reporting it, and the immediate threat was gone when this priest left the area. There are many factors that impact how a child survives something like sexual abuse. Being believed and assured that the perpetrator cannot hurt her again makes a big difference. What I was too young to realize was that by moving him and keeping him in the priesthood, other children were vulnerable to his deviant behavior.
As I aged, I noticed that other priests in our parish were lost with boundaries. I began to see the hypocrisy in what they preached and how they lived, so I joined a Protestant youth group and spent many years outside the Catholic church. I grew in my faith during those years, in my understanding of scripture and my relationship with God. Because I was so removed from the church, I didn’t experience many triggers until one day when a priest moved into our neighborhood and I started to have flashbacks and other signs of trauma
I was in my 40’s when I decided I needed to walk towards, not away from my fears and I explored coming back to the church. I think as much as I had grown in the Protestant church, I had been away from sacramental life, and despite everything, I missed it. My first battle was to accept that it was this abusing priest’s fault that I had stepped away from the church and that God did not blame me, but welcomed me home. It is very common for victims to carry the shame of what was done to them. It is a result of the culture of clericalism in which we were raised.
Gordon: What impact did your abuse have on your choice of a profession?
Eileen: The abuse that I experienced as a child in the church didn’t impact my profession as much as my life in the church did. Many wonderful Catholics taught me about the social gospel and the social teachings of the church. They were involved in political activism, in advocating for the poor, and in committing their lives to serve and caring for others.
When I think of “the church” of my childhood, I don’t think of that one drunk priest who cornered me in my parent’s kitchen. I think of those wonderful servants of God. They are the church. Even as a girl, because of my love of the Eucharist, I wanted to be a priest and didn’t understand then that I couldn’t. When it came time to talk to my parents about college and career, being a social worker was a very natural extension of those desires.
Gordon; Please describe your leadership in Hear Our Prayers Heal Our Church.
Eileen: Over all these years of knowing and talking openly about the abuse that I experienced, the diocese where I live, and where the abuse occurred, has kept silent. They have never sent my case to a review board or been willing to list him among the credibly accused. Silence is a wicked weapon. It invalidates one as a human being. It says “We don’t see you. We don’t hear from you. We don’t care. To us, you don’t exist”. The institution remains more important than an individual soul.
Ever since the movie “Spotlight”, I have committed to speaking openly and freely and encouraging others to do so. We must change our Catholic culture of silence. There is a line in that movie that stayed with me. It is “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them”.
Over the years since I have been back in the church, I have determined to speak truth to power, calling something that it is, to creating safe spaces for others to do the same so that this culture of clericalism and culture of silence and coverup will be forever changed. Our Hear Our Prayers, Heal Our Church project was created for this purpose.
I am very involved in our Peace and Justice Ministry at our parish. A man approached us one Sunday after news of the McCarrick case hit the airways. He asked if we could do a class on the sex abuse crisis. This man explained that his wife had determined that she would leave the church. He felt that an honest look at the crisis might convince her that she could stay. We decided to create an open forum where parishioners were encouraged to read several articles from different perspectives and to come together for dialogue. It was a huge success. Around 60 people came and talked in large and small group formats about their reactions to the crisis, their pain, and their ideas about change.
From this meeting, parishioners expressed frustration that the church uses the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel at Mass in response to the crisis. The sentiment was that this was a way of dismissing responsibility (the devil made us do it) and playing the victim (the church is being persecuted). Our priest said we couldn’t replace the prayer because it was ordered by the bishop, but we could create our prayers.
So we gathered our spiritual directors and interested parishioners and created a book of reflection, with real-life stories of victims, and abusing priests and not abusing priests and bishops and others, encouraging people to go deep. The book guided parishioners on how to pray.
From that project, we collected prayers from parishioners and held a retreat that encouraged the creation of visual and written art expressing the hearts and minds of our members. Then on one weekend, the prayers of our parishioners were presented at mass. We led the congregation in a prayer to St. Mary McKillop, patron saint to whistleblowers. She had been excommunicated at one time for reporting abuse by a priest and was reinstated and is now a saint and a model for us of speaking truth to power.
We then hosted an art show of the work created by participants. It was powerful and well attended. I do believe we have established that space for authentic communication about the abuse that happened, even in our very own parish years ago. We are in a much healthier place.
Gordon: What concerns do you have about the continuing cases of sexual abuse of children by the clergy?
Eileen: I think we have done many things well. We do have safety standards in place that have made a difference with our children. My concerns now are about those who are vulnerable and perhaps until lately not recognized as such. I am concerned about our young men in seminary and the power differential they face with professors/priests who teach and train them.
I am concerned with parishioners who are confused by emotional intimacy that comes from pastoral care and occasional lapses inappropriate boundaries, mixed messages and appearances of favoritism that might suggest more than what is there. Because of our continued culture of clericalism and an occasional unhealthy priest with arrested psycho-social-sexual development, we are still not where we need to be and I fear this will be obvious in continuous waves of accusations of one kind or another.
I am also convinced that not all bishops and cardinals are onboard with the notion of full transparency and are too embroiled in their systems of cover-up and quid pro quo that they cannot join the movement towards change. We must weed those men out and replace them with a new generation of shepherds who seek to serve God above the institution that protects them.
Gordon: What, in your opinion, could the church do to reduce the sexual abuse of children by the clergy?
Eileen: We need full repentance by the church. Whatever it takes. We need to stop hiding behind claims that boy scout leaders and other religious groups abuse children as well, or that most cases happened decades ago. Those are excuses and reveal less than the repentant heart. We need to take priests off pedestals and priests need to stop using that pedestal to control congregants.
You can’t have it both ways. We need to walk as brothers and sisters in Christ, holding each other accountable. We need to encourage open, honest dialogue. Our project shows that it need not be something to fear. And if you are a pastor and you think your congregants don’t want to talk about this, you are only fooling yourself. It just means they don’t feel they can talk about it around you, or within the walls of your church. But for authentic healing to happen, people need to be authentic in their prayers and their expressions. We must start where they are, and then walk alongside one another on this path towards healing. We need to take back our church.
When my mother was alive and a young woman in our parish she participated in a program called We are the Church. Yes, we are. We need to be able to make decisions about our buildings, our programming, our mass schedules, our ministries, our leaders… the laity must play a legitimate, decisive role in parish life. And I would like to see women as priests and priests able to marry…but let’s start where we can.
Gordon: What recommendations do you believe would be helpful to survivors of sexual abuse?
Eileen: Come home. Come home to a God who loves you first and foremost. God’s healing arms are ready to embrace you. I understand if the journey through the doors of the church might not happen right away or at all for you. But start where you are. Your feelings are legitimate. Your pain is real. I believe you. So do many others. Come home to love and healing will unfold for you one step at a time if and when you are ready.
Gordon: Healing from sexual abuse is challenging. Please share with our readers how you addressed healing.
Eileen: Healing for me is an ongoing process. There was a point in time when I sought counseling. Many symptoms of PTSD became triggered during that process although the therapist was gentle and kind. I have accepted that my experience of clergy abuse will always be a part of my life story. It has impacted me but it does not define me. Each day I grow in awareness of how it might color a perspective or add an intuitive response to the presence of someone who abuses power or is weak with boundaries, or predatory or grooming in nature. I have learned to be grateful for and to value that intuition.
Gordon: Depression is often a problem for some survivors. As a healthcare professional, what are your suggestions for addressing depression?
Eileen: People use the words depression or depressed in many ways. In general, they are referring to a state of sadness, hopelessness, and despair. These feelings can be quite rational and normal especially when dealing with losses of any kind, or conflicts with friends and family, or traumatic events. Most of us heal with time, good coping skills, kind and loving support, and personal reflection. But when we don't and these feelings linger for more than a couple weeks, especially if they intensify to the point that we start to consider harming ourselves or others, then we need to reach out for professional help. This might mean seeing a licensed therapist and/ or seeking a prescription for medication to improve depressive symptoms. For victims of clergy abuse, we often battle feelings of shame and isolation. There are many good peer-led support groups available to us so that we can hear from others about their experiences and can likewise be heard, believed, and cared for.
Gordon: How helpful is faith in the healing process?
Eileen: Faith is also a complex term, isn't it? Especially for those of us who were wounded by the ones who have taught us and formed us in our Catholic faith. For me, I had to step away from the Catholic church for a while but always sought a connection with God and attended Protestant churches where pastors were married with healthy boundaries, and I felt like I had a role and a voice. I had to heal in my self-image as a daughter of God. I had to work to separate my divine nature from the institution of the church. Ultimately it was the Eucharist that brought me back. I missed sacramental life and those symbolic ways in which we encounter God. For me, faith has been a constant. But the sources I lean into for growth depend a lot on how healthy that person is, how much clericalism is on display, and whether or not I am treated with dignity and respect as a woman, and as a survivor. There are times that it helps work with the image of the feminine Divine, or to trust the Blessed Mother with my wounds and my spiritual needs. It is not that I resist connecting to men because of my trauma. I have a loving husband and five wonderful sons. But it is that ability to rise above the experience of being objectified and tossed out that I find in remembering that God created them in the image and likeness of God, man, and woman God created them...that I can see a restored and renewed face when I look in the mirror. That brings me wholeness that is hard to find in a church so deeply encoded in the language and power of men.
Gordon: I realize that this interview was difficult to do, and I know that it will help many who have also experienced abuse.