I have been brave in my writing. I attempt to tell truths that may be uncomfortable to others, and there is much tragedy and grief in my story and those of each human that has the potential to make us squirm. As people we often prefer to avoid reality because it is so difficult to face. Whenever I write or speak about mental illness I feel the discomfort that ensues. I know that my readers want to be uplifted and so I balance such stories with lighthearted tales of puppies and travel. Still, I know that there are times when it is my duty to be honest about challenging topics.
We are presently in the throes of the Me Too Movement. So many women are stepping forward with stories of sexual abuse that it sometimes feels as though there is a kind of hysteria washing over the world. Surely, we think, there must be a certain level of exaggeration when it comes to the numbers of accusations that are suddenly condemning men of all stripes, including priests. We wonder and worry if there is just a kind of mass paranoia that is behind all of the revelations, at least until we hear of a case that is close to home.
Earlier this week a woman who was a year behind me in high school posted a shocking essay on Facebook in which she outlined the horrors of her own encounter with sexual abuse from one of her high school teachers, a priest. It was stunning in its detail and honesty, and I might have simply disregarded it as being too fantastical to be true had it not been for the fact that I knew this priest and had felt oddly uncomfortable around him when I was in high school.
Being a single parent my mom taught me how to be exceedingly careful around men. I thought that she was overly worried that someone might take advantage of me sexually. Her constant lectures on how to comport myself and how to avoid sticky situations seemed paranoid, and in keeping with her mental illness. Her instructions also made me unduly wary of every male that I knew. Nonetheless, there were times when I sensed trouble because of her admonitions and as a result I have sailed through life having had some highly suggestive encounters, but never any actual physical attempts to take advantage of me. I ran like a deer at the first sign of innuendo.
So it was with the very priest that one of my fellow students described as her abuser. He had shown an undue interest in me and often asked me if I was dating. I was still a wall flower of the highest order at that time and I didn’t like discussing my lack of a social life with anyone save for my closest female friends, so I never engaged in his inquisitions. One afternoon at the end of the school day I encountered him in the school hallway and he grabbed me from behind and locked me in a hug in which he held me with my back being held tightly against his chest. My instinct was to kick him and run away, but he was a priest and one who lifted weights at that. I was a very small girl who was taught to be respectful, but in that moment I was also conflicted as I thought of my mother’s instructions to follow my instincts and run from any situation that felt wrong. I remember willing myself to become as rigid as stone as he held me for what felt like an eternity.
While we stood there he wanted to know if I had been invited to the prom. I had not, and it was a great disappointment to me. I was a senior and as far as I knew virtually every girl in my class was going. I mumbled a quick answer hoping that he would loose his grip, but he persisted in his conversation by telling me that if he were my age and not a priest he would have been proud to take me to the prom. He said that in his mind I was one of the more attractive girls in the school. In fact, he rambled on, he thought that I was a real catch. As my mind raced at what felt oddly inappropriate I did some quick thinking and told him that my mom was waiting for me outside and I had to go. He let me go immediately, and from that point forward I treated him as though he was a carrier of a deadly plague, In other words, heeding my mother’s advice I made certain that I would never again find myself alone with him. I moved on and so did he.
Years passed but I always recalled how uncomfortable he had made me. I vacillated between thinking that he had indeed been targeting me for something unnatural or that I had simply been a school girl with a big imagination. He eventually moved away, left the priesthood and married. I assumed that I had made a mountain out of a molehill in my teenage mind, and then I read the expose from the woman who had borne the full effect of his attentions. With each revelation of the pain that she had endured over a lifetime I felt a pit in my stomach because my own brush with danger felt more real than ever. Her accusations might have been unbelievable given how egregious they were had I not felt so uncomfortable with this same man. Somehow I knew that her sordid tale was true, and I was sickened.
But for my mother’s admonitions I might have been the person telling a story of deep abuse. I shudder to think how it may have changed my life as it did the woman who so endured the pain and the fear that is almost always associated with such horrors. The priest who abused her is long dead, but what he did to her will live with her forever and those of us who Knew and trusted him. The greater sin in her tragedy is that she eventually came forward with her story and virtually nothing was done to rectify the terror that should never have been inflicted on her. Her abuse was filed away as though it never happened.
It’s time for the Catholic Church to change dramatically and quit protecting bad priests from the full impact of the law. They have to listen to victims and be transparent with parishioners. In the meantime we must instruct our sons and daughters to assert themselves when vile acts are being forced on them and to speak up regardless of who is the perpetrator.We must honor those courageous enough to tell us about these incidents and ferret out those who would take advantage of innocents. I suppose that I will be eternally grateful that my mom took the time to be open and honest about such issues and to make me aware of the evil that lurks in this world. Her wisdom has protected me throughout my life. Not everyone has been so fortunate.