I have held onto a 40-year secret of abuse. It happened to me, but now I understand, it happened to me but it does not define me.
All that being said, I am trying to reconcile this post with what Brené Brown has said that one should only share with people who earn the right to hear your story. Everyone reading this has not earned that right, but I also know that I am tired of the secret and that I am not concerned with controlling the outcome. Once it’s out there I will be in uncharted territory, yet I have no problem being in that terrain.
From the ages of 14 to 24, I was abused by a Catholic priest in California.
That sentence carries with it a lifetime of explanations. I don’t have to strain hard to hear some of the questions and internal dialog:
24 years old? Why did you allow it to continue as an adult? Did you want it?
My youth brain answers: For sure, I can absolutely tell you I wanted it. By the time I was 15 or 16 I was wildly in love with this man. I relied on him for all my emotional needs and he more than met them. I was in a “relationship with complications” but it was a relationship, nonetheless. He was my first love and we even had plans to marry. Then he decided, for the umpteenth time, to return to the priesthood but only AFTER my family found out what had been going on. Betrayal. Betrayal mixed with exploitation.
My 25-50 year old brain answers: I know it was wrong, this relationship, and he should never have done that to me. I am slowly “getting over it”. It doesn’t affect me much anymore because I am a strong person who overcame it. Look at all the great things I have done with my life. I have not encountered major emotional problems as a result of him.
My today brain answers: It was not a relationship because it was built on grooming, not mutual respect. Grooming was where my perpetrator gained my trust with the intent of sexually abusing me. He then gained access to me in a parish youth group by isolating me, and lastly, he hid and controlled the “relationship”. The grooming signs were all there: he took an interest in me, found ways to be alone with me by giving me extra responsibilities, drove me home from any meeting, contacted me outside the group to provide me with additional counseling, bought me gifts, and catered to my needs, interests and problems. All of which are signs that I was being groomed. By the time I was 16, the age my daughter is now, I was 100% dependent on this person for my emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. I didn’t want to leave him. Why would anyone leave a “relationship” they value? The feelings of love in my head back then were real, but they were also invalid because they were put there by manipulation, exploitation, and selfishness on his part.
What do you mean by abuse?
There was emotional/psychological abuse. My world revolved around him. As so many young women experience in their first relationship, it was all encompassing. There is nothing wrong with this if it eventually becomes less about dependency and more about empowering one another. But how could a person of authority, seen as a moral community leader, a person who acts as your counselor and confessor and is a man who is 25 years older, ever say we shared a relationship? When I look back on it, it is clear. I was vulnerable. He had power over me, and my family. He took advantage of that vulnerability and good will for his own pleasure and emotional needs. The embarrassment, shame, self- doubt, and depression that set in when it ended left me with years of issues to work through.
Part of the emotional abuse also included the need for secrecy. I lived two lives for the ten years it was happening. I kept this secret from my family who eventually found out before it ended. That fact alone impacted my relationship with my family, even if they weren’t aware of it. There was a narrative in my head that played over and again every time we said grace at a meal, or I went into a church for a wedding or funeral, or when topics of abuse would come up and I would become almost embarrassed with silence. And I kept the secret for another 30 years for good measure.
And there was sexual abuse.
And there was spiritual abuse.
And there was mental abuse.
Why now? 40 years later?
I want to be clear; the consequences of this abuse have not been a constant in my life. As many can attest to, I am a well-adjusted, generally happy person who is strong willed, self-confident and supportive of others. That being said, there have been a few times in my life that I have felt deep betrayal at the hands of others, and it is this betrayal that triggers my feeling of abuse. It lets me know I still have work to do. Some of you will then understand why this subject was triggered for me again in 2017 with the sale of Tinhorn Creek winery. I will leave it at that.
In 2020 I stumbled on the virtual international conference for SNAP (Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests) and it was a blessing. The epiphany I had that weekend was that my abuse counted. It counted. I also found out that weekend that California opened its statute of limitations for three years to allow for civil suits against the priests and the archdiocese who employed them. I was finally in a strong place in my life so I began to pursue a legal course of action. I currently have five lawsuits pending against various parties in the state of California, including this priest, who is retired but still alive.
Six months later, Canada’s indigenous residential school abuse exploded. I don’t know where my story intersects with that one, but I know that each narrative that came to light impacted me the likes of which I had not felt for decades. I cannot begin to understand what the residential school survivors feel, but I understand a lifetime of secrecy. I understand being abused by a religious person of authority. And I understand the difficulty of coming forward after so many years.
Although I was not held back by this abuse, it did pop up at various times in my life and I did try to get a handle on it. I told the San Francisco Archdiocese about what had happened when it ended in 1990 but, as is par for the course, the Archdiocese never pursued my complaints. The man was allowed to move to another parish unimpeded. Meanwhile, I was not strong enough to push my complaint forward, and now, in retrospect, I am glad I didn’t. I focussed on staying alive, getting back on my feet, finding a new passion (wine), and mending family relationships. I am proud I spent my energy on these things and not on him.
In 2002 after the Boston news story about priest abuse broke (Spotlight), I pursued a legal criminal course of action against him. When the police found out that I was an adult when it ended they did not take my case. And again, I did not push hard on it because at that time I was also not in a strong place.
Over my lifetime I have tried to deal with this part of my life, but it was never going to happen until I was in the right place and I had surrounded myself with an army of support. I choose to do it now because it is on my terms. I am comfortable in my skin. I am not out for vengeance or apologies but I repudiate those who have betrayed me in the past and, specifically, this man.
Where from here?
I do not look for closure or resolution, the things my younger self thought I had already attained, but I do expect to glean bits of knowledge that eventually make up a complete harvest of healing and self-empathy. That’s all I expect for and from myself. In 10 years my 65-year-old brain will know more than my 55-year-old brain knows today. I hope someday my 90-year-old brain will nudge me a step or two further forward.
You never know if what happened to you will resonate with others. I am putting this out there to tell anyone interested that it is never too late to tell your story and waiting makes it no less meaningful. As that linked article says “If we say publicly that one survivor waited ‘too long’ to tell, we tell those who have not yet disclosed that we will not stand with them when they are ready. In so doing, we become an obstacle to healing.”
Each story that goes public honours the stories of other survivors out there. Some found their voices and helped me find mine, some have yet to find their voices, and some never found their voices before leaving this earth. Brené Brown said we should only share our story with people who have earned the right to hear it. Only other survivors have truly earned the right to hear my story. And I hope this finds its way to them.
When you tell your story you are saying what happened to you, but it does not define you. It does not define you.
If you wish to discuss, ask questions or comment further on this post please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org