Not About You

10-21-2018Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

Over the last several weeks I’ve heard from many survivors of abuse, both at the hands of priests and others. The scope of how many people sexual abuse in general touches is really mind-numbing. But I tell those who were abused that the first step out of the damage of abuse is to realize that it was not about you. It was never about you, it was always about the abuser and his or her sickness and sin.

One of the psychological mechanisms of abuse is that it makes you think there is something about you that caused it to happen to you. Why did he pick me? What was it about me that this happened? That thought can be turned against yourself into some serious self-hatred. Or, and I have heard this more times than I can count, “I thought that if he abused me he would leave my siblings alone” --heroic but not helpful. Only to later find out that the abuser had abused their siblings as well.

Once you realize it was not about you, then the next thought is: “I’m probably not the only one.” And indeed, there almost always are others. The sooner you have that realization the sooner the abuse can come to light and the abuser be held accountable. But the longer you are trapped in the idea that it was somehow about you, the longer the abuse can continue and an abuser can pile up dozens and dozens of victims before being stopped.

Sexual abuse by a priest inflicts the most damage on a person, more than abuse by anyone else. That’s because, as I have said before, it is a form of incest, the worst crime known to humanity. The priest is an icon of Christ and therefore abuse at his hands often destroys faith and any belief in a loving God. But other forms of abuse are much harder to report. Particularly those that involve family members since to reveal the abuse often blows up a family.

The hardest cases to reveal are when girls are abused by their stepfathers or their mother’s boyfriend. Women who do reveal such abuse often tell me that their mother did not believe them. They were told by their mothers, “you never liked him”, or “you always blamed me for divorcing your father” or “you never wanted me to be happy”. That basically destroys the mother-daughter relationship. So rather than risk that, many women keep silent.

Now you would think that things would be handled differently by the Church. Once an allegation of abuse has been substantiated you would expect the Church, especially the Bishop to treat the survivor with pastoral concern. (If you bring forth an allegation of abuse you have to be ready to be cross-examined as you have an obligation to demonstrate the facts that substantiate the abuse.) But many of the survivors of clerical abuse stated to me that they were treated very poorly by the Church, meaning by a Bishop or his representative. I think there are two reasons for such pathetic treatment of a victim. The first is Bishops tend to listen to their lawyers before they do the Holy Spirit. Their lawyers tell them, don't do anything that will cause you liability or seem like you are admitting guilt. (Well after paying out $3 billion in lawsuits how well did that work out? There probably would have been less lawsuits if the Bishops acted with pastoral rather than legal concern as many victims aren’t looking for a payout but an apology.) A second reason is that most Bishops just don't know how to handle such a situation. (Most bishops before becoming a bishop were part of the academic teaching world or ecclesiastical bureaucracy not parish priests.) They could use some training in this area. In fact, it would be good for all priests to learn the needed skills to help abuse survivors. That is one way, we priests can begin to make amends for the harm done by fellow priests.

Many of the people I have heard from are no longer Catholic or anything for that matter. They pretty strongly despise the Church and believe they were never taken seriously and never received anything approaching an apology. Yet many others have stayed in the Church and feel it their duty to help change things for the better. They realized that to cut themselves off from the streams of grace which are the only way they can really find healing and peace would be an exercise in self-destruction and allow their abuse to have final say over their faith life.

Somedays I feel like I have been asleep and just woke up and the year is 1495. Alexander VI, the infamous Rodrigo Borja is Pope, the crazy monk Savonarola (the originator of the Bonfire of the Vanities) is up in Florence decrying the decadence and debauchery of Pope Alexander and the Church is in the midst of a great historical crisis. I really never thought I would be living in the middle of one of these historical crises in the Church that I read about in Church history. But here I am, here we are. God has obviously seen fit to have us here at this historical moment. What we do with it is up to us.

Honestly, I’d much rather find out that a Pope or a Cardinal had fathered a child or that a Bishop had embezzled tons of money than finding out that priests abused children. But I guess I don't get to choose the historical crisis that I am apart of. At the start of the summer of shame of 2018, I told God very emphatically that I did not want to live through another round of this abuse crisis. Of course, he replied that I had no choice in the matter. Thanks. I do take that answer as meaning that God will give us the strength and courage to do what we need to do to rebuild his Church. Please God.

Love, Fr. John B.