Two-and-a-half years ago, I was prepared to walk away from the Catholic Church, along with my family. The reasons are personal, yet quite universal. Although our experience is deeply painful and private, and our recovery ongoing, sharing it now is quite cathartic, and will hopefully help others who feel disenfranchised.
After the Boston Globe exposed sex abuse in the Catholic Church, and the subsequent deceit and deception among the leadership of the Church, we thought the Church leadership learned their lesson never to repeat those mistakes. But what my family and I witnessed during our own ordeal is that the lessons learned are simply to have better legal representation, while continuing to perform in their own best interest.
We walked away from our experience with three difficult realities confirmed: 1) Most schools are run as businesses, not ministries; 2) Not all shepherds wish to shepherd their sheep; 3) Our expectations of Church leaders are unrealistic.
Our family supported and promoted the Catholic educational system for 10 years. From preschool to eighth grade, we watched our daughter blossom in the Catholic environment; receiving the Marian Award (most like Mary), Citizenship Award (service to others), Altar Server (yes, I know), D.A.R.E. Girl Award (most likely to live free of drug/alcohol) and Junior Honor Society. Even one of her Dominican teachers confided, “She’s nun material, you know.” So it only seemed natural that we continue the Catholic tradition into high school.
Three months into her freshman year, our daughter made a prophetic statement: “This isn’t the school you think it is, Mom.” Her father and I dismissed the statement as merely part of transition into high school; an assumption we regret.
A year later in her sophomore year, our daughter survived a sexual assault on the campus of the school. The attack occurred after school while she and literally hundreds of students were waiting outside for their rides home. The assailant grabbed her cell phone and took off running into a building where other students and adults were present. Knowing that every teenager has a personal connection with their phone, the assailant knew she would follow him. But what our daughter did not know was the 6’-2” 210 lb. classmate had a “history of inappropriate behavior towards girls on the campus” and was poised, waiting for her in a remote part of the building.
The rest is documented. Legal limitations, and self-preservation, prohibit me from sharing anymore about the incident, or the nature of the legal claims. We removed our daughter immediately from the school. Filed legal action. Began homeschooling. Began therapy. Survived one suicide attempt. Witnessed deceit and deception by both the school and the diocese. School clergy never reached out to us in an effort to help our daughter heal. Every attempt to meet with the bishop to seek his help in spiritual healing was ignored, including three certified letters. A Vatican representative failed to respond to two certified letters requesting intervention. Thus, the school, the diocese, and the Church failed two children under their care. One student did not receive a safe environment or the love of the Church in healing, while the other student was emboldened by never facing consequences, or receiving the professional therapy he obviously required, while continuing to actively participate on the football team.
Sadly, our family were the only ones surprised by these events.
According to education attorneys, peer on peer sexual assaults on primary and secondary school campuses are quite prevalent. There are cases that involve students as young as second grade. It is important that parents recognize that schools are businesses. In these assault cases, school officials will, and do, take whatever steps necessary to maintain their Title IX funding and donor contributions, even sacrificing a student or two, while impugning the family’s reputation in the process. This fact holds true for both public and religious schools. Of course, this reality is most difficult for Catholic families to accept. Such behavior blatantly defies Christ’s teaching. We must remember, however, that Catholic institutions are run by fallible human beings, often employing non-Catholics who lack respect for Catholic teaching. For those who are Catholic, they often replace Church teaching with moral relativism.
When adversity challenges your life, you have your faith and your church to sustain you. Imagine for a moment your life without your faith; no church to call upon for counsel, spiritual healing, or guidance.
At the onset of our ordeal, our parish priest met with us privately to offer healing. As an alumnus of the school, he was not surprised by how we were treated, saying, “The outcome will probably not be what you expect.” It wasn’t. The diocesan Safe Environment Coordinator, who was never notified about the incident, apologized to us profusely after meeting with him at the request of our pastor. The SE Coordinator advised us . . . “the bishop will never respond to you, preferring to let the diocesan attorney take care of it. That’s how he prefers to work. I certainly do not agree with that approach.”
Apparently, some bishops prefer not to smell like their sheep, as Pope Francis suggests.
Then our parish pastor took a sabbatical due to health concerns, making him unavailable to continue counseling with us. After all that we had experienced and witnessed, we frankly didn’t trust any other clergy.
Attending Mass was no longer a blessing, but a torture. It served as a trigger for our daughter. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was so intense until the experience was debilitating for her. Assault victims do not want to be touched by strangers. Mass only made it worse. The announcement before Mass to “take a moment to turn and greet someone sitting near you” triggered severe panic disorder. The Sign of Peace gave her no peace. Touching strangers is triggering. Her injury was deep; her spiritual wound an abyss of constant pain and suffering. She was robbed of everything she trusted and believed in by the very Church that taught her to believe that she is loved by God and His Holy Church through First Communion and Confirmation.
Our daughter felt betrayed and unworthy. She heard the attorneys reference how the school was protecting the boy because of his football ranking, which they did, she asked, “Why wasn’t I worthy of protecting?” Why indeed! Aren’t all children worthy of protection?
Witnessing her torment impacted me and her father deeply. We all dreaded dragging ourselves to Mass. There were times when we would walk into the church only to turn around and leave due to her PTSD. Our saving grace became televised services, the Rosary, and family prayer.
A State of Being
One morning, I awoke in a deep spiritual exhaustion. I texted my dear friend, Cathy, reaching out in despair; “I am so tired. I quit. I just don’t want to be a member of the Catholic Church anymore.”
Now Cathy is a woman of deep discernment and fortitude with a dry wit and an extensive understanding of Church doctrine. She is one of the many grounded and faithful Catholic women I am blessed to know. Within a couple of minutes, I received the response only she could deliver, “The Church is not a country club. You can’t just quit. Being Catholic is a state of being.”
Simultaneously my friend and spiritual mentor, Debi, sent me this strong message: “You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. You can’t leave the Church. The Church needs you.”
In the days that followed every Scripture I read, every prayer I prayed, every Church doctrine I researched, all fueled my passion to reclaim my faith, re-enforce it and impart that knowledge to my daughter and husband. I immersed myself in the writings of the Desert Fathers, Henri Nouwen, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, while Scripture resonated our responsibility to hold our prelates accountable. (1 Timothy 5) Soon I was infused with the Holy Spirit. Jesus was betrayed by those He loved and believed in, and He didn’t let them detract from His purpose in life. And my purpose as a mother holds a high calling.
“It must be observed, however, that if the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly.” – St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica II, II, q. 33, a. 45)
The Body of Christ
If the Catholic Church is the Body of Christ on earth, established on the shoulders of Peter, a fallible man who denied Christ three times, what makes us believe that any one of us, including the clergy, are infallible just because we call ourselves Catholic Christians? When someone discerns their vocation in life and chooses to serve Christ, and His Church, as a religious, they are not guaranteed immunity from sin. In fact, they are more guaranteed to suffer greater because of sin. Who would bring Satan more joy and victory than a Catholic priest, bishop, monk, or nun who lives a pious life outwardly, but embraces sin and falls from the pedestal we create for them? Did not Satan tempt Jesus in the desert?
As the Body of Christ, we are all called to lift up one another in prayer, in counsel, and in admonishment. “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” (Prov 27:17) If we cannot lift up our own, who are we fooling?
When schools and churches strain to protect their reputations and finances at the risk of destroying the souls they vowed to protect, they are greater than hypocrites. For causing a child to lose his faith is a great sin.
“Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.” (Luke 17 :1-3)
The Other Side of the Mountain
With any loss there is grieving. Recovery from a sexual assault is a long process of grief. You never quite forget, because there is always something to trigger a memory of what was lost and what might have been. Your body and spirit struggle to manage the pain. You are at great risk to develop eating disorders, insomnia, panic attacks, social anxiety, and self-harm behavior, as a way to cope with the trauma. And your recovery is ten-times harder to manage when the faith foundation you were taught to rely upon crumbles. You must reclaim yourself in the midst of rebuilding whatever faith you have left. You question everything. You trust nothing. Having a good therapist is essential. After two therapists that were more interested in money than results, we found a Catholic-raised therapist who respects the importance of spiritual healing. She has supported us and worked tirelessly to impart the truth to our daughter; “God did not do this to you. Man did. There is a difference.” The message is slowly being embraced.
Today, we keep our eyes firmly fixed on Christ. Recovery on all levels continues. Our ordeal has made us acutely aware that all Christians are fallible and susceptible to moral relativism, even those who lead within the Church and Catholic institutions. Scripture and Church doctrine clearly define the responsibilities of the shepherd, as well as the sheep. (1 Timothy 5:17-21) (1 Peter 5:1-4) Make no mistake, we are to forgive. And with each occasion of sin and suffering, trials and tribulations that we survive, we become the wounded healers for others. For I truly now appreciate:
“The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.”
― Henri J.M. Nouwen,
And so my ministry begins.
© 2016. Diane McKelva. All rights reserved.
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
– St. Paul to the Romans 8:18 –
UPDATE: We recently learned the reason why the Papal Nuncio never responded to our repeated requests for intervention. He was rather busy destroying evidence. Vatican Papal Aide Told Bishops to Destroy Evidence Two Years Ago of Sexual Abuse
Postscript: Ms. McKelva has retired from Catholic Apologetics to focus on her family’s continued healing and recovery. She is grateful for the prayers and support from the staff of Catholic Stand and her readers.