Sunday, February 13, 2011

Adults Are Also Victims of Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church

     A recent Religion Dispatches' article, "Sex Abuse in the Catholic Church: When Adults Are Victims," tells a story that I know all too well from my own experience of being sexually assaulted, exploited, and abused by my priest while I was in college.  The article tells the story of Katia Birge, who at 25 was raped by a charismatic lay minister in her Denver parish only to be bullied by church officials when she came forward and sued.  (Click here to read the full account, which because of it's length I will not repost.)

     This particular quote from the article sums up what I learned in therapy after seeing my case covered-up:
     To Jeb Barrett, Denver Director of the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a peer counseling group that Birge turned to after the attack, her story follows classic lines of abuse of authority. “There are many cases where very charismatic men develop very close and controlling relationships with the people given to them for pastoral care. There’s a kind of intimacy that’s of a different level than the grooming of a child. You groom a child with favors and candy and strokes and get their trust. With an adult, it’s different.”
     Adult victims could comprise up to 25% of all clergy abuse cases, estimates David Clohessy, National Director of SNAP, but often face considerable skepticism about their stories. “In the eyes of the law, victims like Birge are adults. But that doesn’t mean that emotionally, psychologically, in the presence of a trusted, powerful, charismatic clergy person, that in fact they can function like adults.” Considering the abundant ethical and legal prohibitions against doctors or therapists having even consensual sex with patients, in recognition of coercive power imbalances in play, Clohessy notes, “none of us have been raised from birth to think that a therapist is God’s representative or that a doctor can get me into heaven.”  [Another estimate is that over 95% of the victims of sexual exploitation by clergy are adult women.]
     In my case, I was completely groomed by my perpetrator.  Like Ms. Birge, who's perpetrator (Hernadez) called her a "whore" and told her that no man would want to be with her, after he'd just raped her, I was told by my confessor/priest/perpetrator that I was "seductive," "manipulative," and "sinful."   Because he was "God's representative," I believed him.  I believed that I was was the depraved sinner who had corrupted a holy priest.  This dynamic gave him more power over me by increasing my dependency upon him for his spiritual insights and sacramental graces, including forgiveness.  After I escaped his grasp, it took years of therapy and the recognition that my perpetrator was continuing to groom other barely-legal students--who my friends at the time referred to as "the new Tom"--for me to find the strength to come forward.

     Here are a few more paragraphs from Ms. Birge's case that ring true to my experience of coming forward:
     To victims’ advocates, this level of intimidation, and the attempt to recast Hernandez as an insignificant volunteer, is par for the course across the country, and especially in Denver, where Church lawyers have used increasingly aggressive, victim-blaming tactics as part of a brutal Church defense industry, composed of attorneys, insurers and the bishops who hire them. 
      “That’s been our experience here,” says Jeb Barrett, “that people who have gone to the Archdiocese have found their families scrutinized and questioned. It’s revictimizing, and it discourages other victims from coming forward.”
     I was told by the powers-that-be to be extremely careful with whom I spoke about my accusations and that reputations were at stake.  They asked "Why would you want to hurt your parishioners by scandalizing them with this?"  Those in power refused to speak to my parents and to respond to my sister's emails, even though my family was reeling in the face of the abuse and in need of pastoral care.  My counselor's advice and prescriptions were summarily dismissed, for she was a woman, and a lay woman, at that.  (This wasn't 1950.  It was 2004.)
     If anything, adds David Clohessy, “I think Church officials are even more reckless and callous when a predator exploits adults.”
      This is very true.  A priest exploiting an adult is almost a relief to some bishops: "Well, it's not like he raped an altar boy."  But the psychological/spiritual damage to the victimized adult is horrendous.  Like Ms. Birge, I also suffered depression and panic attacks.  After church officials covered things up, I became suicidal.  While I left the priesthood, my job, my community, and the church, losing everything I knew, my perpetrator was given a promotion to be in charge of "Catholic Identity" for the diocesan schools and remained in his campus ministry position, where he continued to have an ongoing supply of handsome, naive, and malleable young men fresh out of high school; gay boys like me, who were closeted, feeling rejected by the church's anti-gay teachings, in need of acceptance and love by God and his ministers, and ripe for exploitation by a known predator allowed to remain in power.

     Thank you Ms. Birge for coming forward.  May your witness inspire other adult victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests to speak out.  The scandal doesn't end at the age of consent.


If you or anyone you know has been abused by clergy, here are some resources:

Another (Conservative) Priest from My Alma Mater Goes Down

     Another priest, with whom I was in seminary, has been removed from ministry because of scandal.  And, I'm not surprised.  After seeing a classmate removed for having sexually abused minors decades ago, hearing about one of the most conservative fellows going down in an assault/adultery case, and seeing another one die after drinking himself to death, nothing surprises me anymore.  I'm just thankful that I got out when I did.

     Delaware Online reports:
     A Roman Catholic pastor of two city parishes -- including one that counted Vice President Joe Biden as a past congregant -- is being accused of embezzling more than $350,000 from the parishes.  
     The Rev. Cornelius J. Breslin, 59, who had been pastor of the parishes of St. Patrick and St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception until Wednesday, turned himself in at the New Castle County Courthouse and entered pleas of not guilty to the charges.  Breslin faces two felony charges of theft over $100,000 -- one for each parish -- and two misdemeanor charges of falsifying business records.  If convicted on all charges, he faces up to 32 years in prison, but likely would face far less -- including a sentence of probation -- given his lack of a criminal record and state sentencing guidelines.
     Adding insult to injury:
     St. Mary's, meanwhile, is one of the 28 parishes in the diocese facing a priest sex-abuse lawsuit. The plaintiff in the case is an anonymous "Jane Coe" who charges she was molested as a 13-year-old by the Rev. Edward Carley, who has since died.
     But the "good" news is:
     Krebs said Wednesday that he did not believe the alleged thefts by Breslin would have any effect on the diocese's bankruptcy proceedings -- because they involved parishes, not the diocese -- or the ongoing efforts by diocesan officials to reach a "global settlement" to resolve all outstanding priest-abuse lawsuits against both the diocese and its parishes.