IMAGE: CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters
By Zita Ballinger Fletcher
(CNS) -- Sexual assault victims say they were hurt not only by individual
priests, but by church officials and ordinary Catholics who treated them with
intolerance and indifference.
survivors of sexual assaults by priests shared their stories with Catholic News
Service. They are: Jim VanSickle and Mike McDonnell of Pennsylvania, Michael
Norris of Houston and Judy Larson of Utah.
of them have not been to a Catholic church in years. They say the atmosphere of
their former parishes created breeding grounds for abuse due to the hardhearted
attitudes of diocesan officials, staff and ordinary churchgoers.
raised Catholic, I remember -- you don't speak out against your own church,"
said VanSickle. "Nobody's going to listen to you."
of them belonged to extremely traditional parishes and were attacked as
vulnerable children. Their view of Catholicism changed when fellow believers
showed them no compassion and acted to protect selfish interests.
known others that came forward. They were ridiculed and ostracized -- even by
their own family members," said VanSickle, 55. He stood next to Attorney
General Josh Shapiro when grand jury findings were released to the public
Aug. 14. He had suffered silently for 37 years after being sexually abused by
a priest at age 16.
lived in a neighborhood where most of the people in the subdivision were
Catholic. Everything in our lives revolved around the church," said Larson, who
is now retired and in her 70s. "To be in that kind of environment and try to
say something horrible happened to you, by a person everybody thinks is a god
on earth, you're all alone."
abuses these survivors suffered at the hands of priests were not crimes of
passion, they said, but cold exploitations of control. Most victims were not
aware that their attackers were serial abusers. Each felt alone when he or she
think it's opportunistic," said VanSickle. "I feel like I was targeted."
a lifelong impact. I deal with it every single day," said Norris, a chemical
engineer. He said he was abused by a priest in Louisville, Kentucky, at age 10.
After many years of struggle, he revealed the truth to his devout parents at a
point when he "couldn't take it anymore."
he acted to report the abuse, he and his family members were mistreated by
fellow Catholics in the archdiocese.
discredited me," he said. "Probably the biggest disappointment in my life was
how the church responded to my accusations. Maybe I was naive, but I expected
them to believe my story and take action. When they didn't do what I saw as
morally right, I became more disillusioned with their teachings."
also faced a stigma caused by sexual assault. The victims were molested at an
age when they did not know about sex. Confused, they realized what happened
when they grew up. Feeling disgust, anger and shame, they feared hostile
reactions from their traditional communities.
I was growing up, we were told, 'It would be better for you to die than lose
your virtue.' This was told to me in fourth grade," said Larson. "I didn't know
what 'lose your virtue' meant."
was raped by a priest one year later at age 10. After realizing the truth as an
adult, she did not tell her parents. She knew they would not listen, since it
was taboo to speak ill of a priest or nun in their presence.
Catholics viewed sex as scandalous and treated victims as if they were
say, 'You're a bad person,' or 'You must have wanted it,'" said VanSickle.
"It's amazing that they attack their own people. They attack their own
survivors are disillusioned with the way church officials handle abuse cases.
This disillusionment has affected their personal beliefs.
is no longer Christian. "I personally can't set foot in another church because
of what's happened and the way I was treated," he said.
hasn't been inside a church in over 50 years. "For a lot of us, going to church
is a triggering experience. It's re-traumatizing to victims," she said.
said he has strong belief in Jesus and has become a Christian. His family
members are Catholic. He welcomes interactions with Catholics and wishes to be
reconciled with the church, but wants the institution to change first.
be away from the Eucharist in my life is a hard thing to deal with because of
my belief as a Catholic," he said. "But I can't reconcile myself with the church until I see change."
feel sorry for Catholics who are struggling with their beliefs in light of the
recent grand jury report. Norris and VanSickle say they do not wish for
Catholics to lose their faith.
the pain caused by recent revelations, they hope change will result.
reopens a wound from the past for me as a survivor. But I'm also extremely
happy that this information is coming to light," said McDonnell, a specialist
at a drug and alcohol treatment facility in Philadelphia, regarding the recent
grand jury report. "It is vindication and validation for many survivors and
believes the church needs to stop withholding information about abuse and be
honest with the public. "It will invite people back to the Catholic Church once
they see that the church is not just publicly making a statement that 'we're
sorry,'" he said.
the church hierarchy considers change, Catholics can make simple changes in
their homes and parishes. According to Larson, the average age for a clergy
sexual abuse victim to come forward is 42. As child victims grow into adults,
they begin to realize what happened to them -- and fall silent due to religious
and social pressures. Ordinary Catholics can solve this problem, she said, by
treating others around them with openheartedness instead of moral superiority.
compassionate," said Larson, sharing her advice to families coping with
revelations of abuse. "Believe your family member. They're in pain. And they've
held this terrible secret for many, many years because of their fear of your
reaction when they tell you."
of the hardest things McDonnell experienced in his life was the shattering
effect of the abuse on his parents. They did not find out about it until they
were much older. One of the last things his father expressed on his deathbed
was sorrow for what happened.
said a family's first responsibility is to love and believe a child who speaks
out about sexual abuse by clergy.
need to wrap their arms around that kid and make them feel safe. That never
happened for me," he said. "You need to hug and protect your child first. Deal
with the church after."
said victims recover with support from others, including fellow survivors.
of the healing process is coming forward. I'm only as sick as my secrets," he
added. "Talk to somebody."
- - -
Copyright © 2018 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at email@example.com.