Please read at your discretion. This article contains adult language and mentions of sexual trauma.
I wish there were a magic formula to bring sexual assault survivors back to God. I wish my story could bring those abused by priests back to the Church. I wish I could reach every survivor and hold them until they feel healed and at peace.
I know the psychological warfare that besieges survivors. I know how their self-esteem can be non-existent, replaced by a constant stream of negative thoughts. You deserve every insult ever hurled at you because it happened, right?
There’s no escaping it. It lives in front of you, behind you, beside you every day. It even lives inside you. It is the motion picture on the projector screen playing over and over again in your head.
This is why survivors have the life sentence — and not the abusers. Survivors relive it every day, barely making it from moment to moment. I know, because I am one of them.
Before I begin my story, I should tell you that I am not a cradle Catholic. I was raised in a devout Protestant household. Growing up, my family and I were not members of one particular denomination. Instead, my parents took my siblings and me to a variety of Protestant churches in our small hometown.
When I went off to college at a secular school, I was one of maybe five students who regularly attended religious services on Sundays. I was a virgin in college. I had never dated, I had never been kissed, and I had never held hands with someone. So I never expected what was to come in my sophomore year of college.
At the age of 20, I was raped by a young pastor whom I had met through the religious services held on campus. To protect other survivors, I won’t go into details of the assault, but there are a few details that I must share. During the assault, he recited Bible verses and told me that he was “raping me into being a better Christian.” As hard as it may be to believe this, while I was being raped, I saw Jesus standing there in the flesh, maybe 10 feet away from my reach in the doorway of my dorm room. He looked right into my eyes, shook His head disapprovingly, and walked through the door, leaving me alone with my assailant.
On that day 10 years ago, I buried whatever Christianity I had within me, and I hammered the final nail into the coffin, hopefully sealing it forever. February 27 became more significant than my own birthday. It was a day of silence and deep loneliness. I felt like my soul had died. I was an empty shell of a person. When I looked to my family for support, I found none. My own mother called me a “sl*t” and told me on multiple occasions, for years, that I was damaged goods and that no man would ever marry me. She brought me to church that Sunday after the assault. She told me that I had to “ask God for forgiveness for being a wh*re.” I was devastated. I thought my mother would be the one person who would support me. I spent the next seven to eight years trying to force myself into being an atheist or at least agnostic. How could I ever trust a God who allowed something like this to happen to His people? I stopped going to church and renounced my faith.
At the epitome of my despair, I even told people that if Jesus Christ manifested Himself in front of me in the flesh, I would kill Him. Even more so — I meant it. I was beyond angry with God and myself. I spiraled into a deep depression, riddled with PTSD, self-harm, and suicide attempts. I tried to numb my pain. I wanted to only feel “good emotions.” However, we, as human beings, cannot selectively numb emotions. If we numb the dark emotions, we also numb the positive emotions. This led me to become what I call “an emotional zombie.” I stared blankly when hearing any news, whether it be the death of a loved one or the birth of a healthy baby. I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t smile. I was in utter despair — without even feeling it.
We, as human beings, cannot selectively numb emotions. If we numb the dark emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.
As the months turned into years, I began going to therapy to work on my mental health. And, thanks to grace, I began to slowly make great strides with an amazing therapist. I was eventually able to trust again. I began dating and, in the course of time, I even met the love of my life and married him. And he loved me for me and he did not see me as damaged goods but, rather, as his beloved. I was happier than I had been in years, yet something was still missing.
I couldn’t forgive myself, because I thought that God could never forgive me. I had turned my back on Him, a mortal sin in the Church. Plus, the thought of opening my heart to Christ, the very person who had left me by myself to be raped by one of His followers, made me want to vomit. Jesus had to hate me for letting me be raped, right? So, how could I ever stop hating myself?
One day, my husband and I took a tour of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in German Village, because my ancestors had donated stained glass to that church over a century ago. The church was so beautiful that I decided to attend Mass there one Sunday. I wasn’t instantly enthralled by the Mass, but it did inspire me to learn about my ancestors’ faith — in the name of research, of course.
At that point in my life, I was too scared to admit that I needed God again and I knew that I wasn't ready to go directly to the Source. I was still terrified of men, and I was scared of the masculinity of the Trinity. But, I found myself learning about the Blessed Virgin Mary and the communion of saints. I dove into readings about St. Maria Goretti, St. Agnes, St. Agatha, St. Joan of Arc, and so many more. I spent months researching saints who had been raped, abused, or assaulted in some way. I tried to find solace in them. I began praying, asking them to guide me to their Savior. Yet, He was not yet mine, and I was only trying to force a relationship that wasn’t there. I was once again lost in a wasteland filled with despair.
One day, I spent hours in deep prayer and meditation. During my prayer, I had a vision of a woman who came to me. She was not the Virgin Mary, nor any of the saints that I had researched, but she said she was Mary Magdalene. She sat with me in my abandonment, in my despair, in my loneliness, in my self-hatred. It was there that I no longer felt alone.
This was the woman of whom seven demons were cast out, the woman who followed Jesus to the foot of the Cross, and the woman whom the Lord first appeared to after His Resurrection. Mary Magdalene had led me to my Savior. She seemed to know the pain I had experienced during my abuse. She seemed to understand my problems with the patriarchy and the pitfalls of a religion that seemed to be led by sinners. Mary Magdalene had helped me soften and open up my heart to be healed by Him.
As time went on, I decided to open up to a Catholic friend of mine. I knew I needed to talk to a priest, but I was terrified that he, too, would hurt me. My friend immediately gave me the name of a woman in the local parish. It took time, but I worked up enough courage to call her and explain my situation. She told me that she, too, had been sexually assaulted, but by a priest. She then gave me the name of the priest who had helped bring her healing after her own sexual assault and who had assisted the Diocese in removing her assailant from the priesthood in the Church — for good.
It didn’t take long for my husband and me to make the trip and meet with this wonderful priest. When I told him my story, he comforted me by telling me that it was not me that Jesus was shaking His head and turning away from but my rapist. That thought had never occurred to me before. In Scripture, we hear Jesus say that He is close to those who are crushed with a broken spirit (Psalm 34:18).
Through my new Catholic allies and Mary Magdalene’s guidance, I was brought to Jesus, to the Trinity, to the Eucharist for true healing. Mary Magdalene has even become my patron saint, and I will be glad to take her name on my Confirmation this upcoming Easter.
Through my new Catholic allies and Mary Magdalene’s guidance, I was brought to Jesus, to the Trinity, to the Eucharist for true healing.
Once more, I wish there were a magic formula to bring survivors a sense of peace and genuine belief that God is still there for them. But every survivor’s experience is unique. There are a few things that I have learned from my trusted priest ally, the Catechism, and, of course, our Lord, who has brought me healing:
- “Rape is an act of violence in which a person forces a sexual act on an unwilling partner. Rape deeply wounds the respect, freedom, and physical and moral integrity to which every person has a right […] It is always an intrinsically evil act” (CCC 2356, emphasis added).
- Sexual abuse of any kind harms the victim on many more levels than only the physical. Rape “causes grave damage that can mark the victim for life” (CCC 2356).
- You are strong and courageous.
- It was not your fault. The perpetrator is solely to blame.
- The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit love you.
- Those who do not support and comfort you in your time of need are terribly misguided.
- Do not turn your back on God. If you need to be angry, be angry. Heave it up to the Lord. Tell Him that you are a frayed survivor covered in ash in a fallen world. Your feelings are valid — even the rage, even the extreme sadness. The only way to get out of our dark emotions is to enter into them and work through them. Let yourself have your feelings, but at the end of the day, know that God is there when you are ready.
- Silence has the rusty taste of shame. Survivors do not need to carry the burden of silence and shame when they already carry the memories. Tell someone, whether it be a trusted friend, a saint, or, if you are ready, God. Open your heart, and let love in.
The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit love you.