We all face darkness along the human journey. I have. On the eve of another Advent, as Christmastime nears, I give thanks to him, Emmanuel, God, father, son, and the Holy Spirit for his grace alive in me, a survivor of clerical sexual abuse.
Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine author, wrote, “Weeping is a very life-giving thing. It wisens the soul of the individual and it sounds alarms in society. The Book of Ecclesiastes may be nowhere more correct than here. There is definitely a time for weeping. If we do not weep on a personal level, we shall never understand other human beings.”
At the beginning of Lent in 2011, a few months before the landmark John Jay College of Criminal Justice report was released about the possible causes of clergy sexual abuse — a study commissioned by the American Roman Catholic bishops — news came out of Philadelphia: Thirty-seven priests credibly accused of sexual abuse or inappropriate behavior toward minors remained largely active in some ministerial capacity. Twenty-one have since been suspended. Back then, too, Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley of Boston led a delegation to Ireland to evaluate the life of the church there. He proclaimed in so many words that Catholicism would be virtually gone from the rhythm of Irish culture in 10 years.
Nearly a decade later, we have a grand jury report out of Pennsylvania, we have a credible history of cover-up in Chile, Germany, France, and Australia, and, closer to where I live and worship, in the Archdiocese of Newark, a former prelate strayed.
We are all hurting — good priests, good nuns, good people alike. But no one suffers more than the abused. Their despair, my despair, is the human abyss of the paschal mystery of salvation, touching the raw wood of the cross from being violated.
There is no greater pain than the feeling of shame. I know. As a victim of clerical sexual abuse, my tears waited nearly half a century to stream from my eyes. Trauma is the devil. It simply stays in the core of your being. Many go to their graves never revealing what they endured. Some take their own lives, as a fellow victim friend of mine did.
For me, the pangs of addiction, subsequent lies, the depths of depression, bankruptcy, loss of job and home, and suicidal thoughts were all harsh realities. A childhood lost. Life was so fragile, isolation real. My father was gone at only 40 years old. My mother, lonely, drank and fell into rage. She died young too. A perfect storm to be groomed. I was a vulnerable child. I wept inside. The line was crossed. Sexual development was stunted. I was afraid. I did not know how to break away. Trust was broken. Little did I know that the beginnings of my own brokenness took root. And the hole in my soul lasted for decades.
Sexual violation of a person, male or female, especially a child who is developing emotionally, physically, and sexually, naturally affects normal growth. This manipulation, fueled by clericalism and a lack of the abuser’s own sexual maturity, is troubling and underscores a void of normal intimacy. It is, simply, wrong.
The saving grace in all this for me was grace itself. God’s loving grace through his incarnate son somehow reached me. The Holy Spirit has been and remains my ultimate spiritual director. Many good priests, flawed and holy, human like all of us, are part of my story. They still are. Religious women, family and friends, bonded together by a loving Christ in their own lives, never failed to love me. None knew my secret, the same secret the hierarchy of the church has kept for too long. It just took time to find my voice.
This is a watershed moment in our beloved yet broken church. There is no time more pressing in the life of the Catholic Church for all to weep. Bishops must weep, including the bishop of Rome. So many people are leaving the pews. Catholics will not continue to embrace a hierarchical church if those appointed to lead us do not encourage healing, which involves offering forgiveness but not exoneration to abusive priests and bishops, including those who acted to cover up the sins. Removing them from all active ministry must be the course of action.
Pope Francis calls us to be a missionary people, to go out to the margins, to shape a renewed community of believers. We can no longer ignore the collective voice of the abused. The church ought to help these troubled men — the predators — in their weakness, but not at the expense of the faithful.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” must not mean in the years to come perpetuating ongoing secrecy and avoiding accountability. What it does mean is owning up to the truth. To understand the Gospel, we must live the good news. We must realize, as I have, that the truth does set you free. It is only by forgiving my abuser that I found inner peace.
I have not forgotten. I never will. But, as Carl Jung put it, “I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.”
Mark Joseph Williams, a native of East Hampton, is a management consultant and forensic social worker. He and his wife, Karen, have four grown children. He is at work on a memoir titled “Wept” and can be reached at [email protected].