Faith in Church Helps Victim of Abuse Cope

By Jo-Anne Mackenzie
Times-Argus [Vermont]
April 22, 2003

She was 7 when her father died, 8 when her mother started taking her to bars.

She was 14 when her mother started molesting her and in her 20s when she found out her mother had confessed her crime to the parish priest.

A lot has changed in the 30-plus years since her mother abused her, but some things haven't. The memories are still painful; tears still flow when she describes what her mother did. And her faith in God and in the teachings of the Catholic Church remains strong.

She believes in the sanctity of the confessional. But she also believes priests should be on the list of professionals who must report suspicions of child abuse.

Like Bishop Kenneth Angell, she said she favors mandatory reporting, but is concerned that the sacred trust of the confessional not be violated.

She said the church offers many things - hope, sanctuary, forgiveness - and it might risk losing that if priests were required to divulge what they heard in confession.

"I still think other people are supposed to be watching - doctors, teachers, neighbors, aunts and uncles," she said. "I don't think it will be a priest in a confessional who will protect a child."

There were other people around when her mother was abusing her. Some, she found out many years later, did express concern about her well-being, but no one stopped her mother.

Her mother already had an alcohol problem when her father died, but after his death she became overwhelmed with caring for her children. The others were older and able to stay out of the house, avoiding their mother's wrath and alcoholic ranting.

But her youngest child was too young to run away. At midnight, 1 o'clock in the morning, the little girl would be sitting in a bar between her mother and whatever man was buying her drinks. Her grades in parochial school started falling - dramatically. She was up too late, not sleeping enough. In fourth grade her marks slid off the chart.

"At Catholic grammar school there were nuns, priests. No one ever asked me, 'How're you doing?'"

There was an aunt, her father's sister, who came to take her away from her mother almost every weekend from the time she was 8 until the aunt died of cancer when her niece was 12. A single woman, she never tried to gain custody, but she did offer her niece a regular recess from her life.

"My mother would be abusive, standing in the doorway, ranting, but my aunt would wait while I got my little suitcase and marched out the door. She put up with her drunken rambles. That's what people need to do."

And when she got bold enough to tell her mother she wasn't going to the bar anymore, that she could stay home alone, she called her aunt to sit on the phone with her those long hours when she was home alone and terrified.

Even though her aunt offered her comfort in a world where there was little, she didn't tell her what life was truly like with her mother.

Her aunt was her refuge, her link to a world of kindness, grace and compassion. But she couldn't tell this beloved relative what was really happening with her mother.

"Even with her, and I loved her completely, I think it was the shame."

Before her aunt died, she asked other people to watch out for her niece. No one did.

She and her mother had shared a bedroom since her father died. Sometimes her mother would kick her out of the bedroom while she entertained men.

"The abuse started when she was very drunk and very lonely. I think she had gone out looking for men and they weren't interested in her, so she came home and abused me."

She told her mother not to do it, told her to leave her alone, but she felt powerless to stop her.

"I felt ashamed. I was raised Catholic and anything sexual had a gross amount of shame associated with it. . I guess I thought if anybody in the church knew what my mother was doing, they would try to make her stop," she said. "It was the '60s; nobody really interfered."

The abuse continued until she and some friends painted the dining room, moved her bed in there and made that her bedroom. She put locks on the doors. And she didn't tell her friends why she wanted her own room.

And through it all, her faith sustained her.

quot;All the time I was abused, I prayed. I probably prayed for it to stop and then just prayed to get through it. 'God, give me the courage to get through it, keep me safe.' Whenever I prayed like that I believed someone was listening to me," she said. "I didn't feel alone."

The first time she told anyone about what her mother had done to her she was 19, a college student and still living at home.

She chose to confide in her college dean. He happened to be an ordained minister.

"He told me: 'There's nothing you can tell me that I haven't heard before. There's nothing that will shock me.'"

Those two sentences were enough to finally make her comfortable to share her story.

"I knew he couldn't say anything. I guess that's why I felt safe to tell him."

His advice was simple: Get out.

She took it. She moved to another school and entered counseling.

When she was in her 20s, she got into an argument with her mother.

"I said, 'You did things that no mother should ever do to their children,'" she said. "That's when she told me, 'Well, I went to confession and the priest told me that God forgave me.' She said, 'You should forgive me, too.'"

That confession, years later, mattered. It mattered more than any confession her mother might have made to a priest, she said.

"I got validation that day. She said she did it. That's invaluable. The idea that she knew it was a sin, the idea that she felt guilty. She went to a priest and said, 'I'm guilty of this terrible sin.'"

Her mother has been dead for more than a decade now. The burden of her childhood has worn her down at times, but she says she has forgiven her mother.

"I have to forgive my mother all the time."

But she doesn't think the church requires her forgiveness. In fact, she credits the church and her faith with seeing her through what some would characterize as a living hell.

"The building of the church was my haven. I felt so safe there. No one was going to abuse me in there. It was always open, always warm in the winter. I could light candles, pray. I was surrounded by saints."

For years, she said, she thought her mother was a bit smug about her confession. And she thought that her mother had gotten off too easily.

"She did a bad thing, she got forgiven and I'm walking around with all these bad memories."

She went to a priest about five years ago to talk about it. His advice was to forgive her mother, that the pain and loathing in her heart were weighing her down. The church helped arrange for more counseling.

An active Catholic still, she said the idea that the state of Vermont might require mandatory reporting by priests prompted her to share her story. Like Angell, she agrees with mandatory reporting - outside the confines of the confessional.

"As a victim, I needed a safe place to say it and I think offenders need a safe place to say it, too."

Confession gives people a chance for redemption, she said.

"Maybe they can say, 'I'm sorry' to God before they can say it to their victim."

When she spoke to the priest five years ago, she said, she told him she thought the church treated the abuse as "no big thing."

He told her that wasn't true, that the church would feel it was a terrible thing. But, he added, if her mother had come to confession with a sincere heart, seeking forgiveness, God would forgive her because God forgives everyone.

And she sees that aspect of confession as invaluable and worthy of preservation. Within the Catholic Church, the act of confession offers people hope.

"Hope. It's what gets you out of bed every morning. Hope links you to the future, not the past, to the person you can become, not the person you've been."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.