Friday, January 19, 2018

Physicians of Bodies, Physicians of Souls, and Child Sexual Abuse

I'm not exactly sure how I stumbled upon it, but for the past few days, I've watched coverage of the sentencing hearing of Dr. Larry Nassar, a physician who sexually abused scores of adolescent girls over a thirty year period. For four days, incredibly articulate and courageous young women testified to their horrific experiences of abuse and to the devastation caused by that abuse to themselves, their families, and their lives.

Of course, as a Catholic priest, I cannot hear their stories without relating it to the experiences of those who were abused by priests. These young women spoke about being "powerless," "afraid," and "voiceless." They spoke about how they felt guilty for the abuse that they suffered or how they felt ashamed. They did not want to tell their parents because they did not want to disappoint their parents.  Shockingly, many of these girls were abused by the doctor while their mothers were in the room, oblivious to what was taking place. Many of these women now feel betrayed by Michigan State University, the gymnastics world, and the US Olympic Committee. I was struck by one woman--in her thirties--who no longer receives any medical care because she is terrified of the medical profession.  One doctor--one man--did all of that.

I grew up as a Catholic. I went to Catholic schools my whole life. I was an altar boy, hung around the rectory when I was in high school, went to seminary, and was ordained a priest. The Church is the air that I breathe. That there exists in the Church persons who do bad things doesn't shock me. (Heck, I'm in the Church and I do bad things.) I've been hurt by people in the Church and I've probably hurt some people in the Church. But, I've always been able to shrug it off, move beyond it, chalk it up to sin.  Done.

I mention that because I think that sometimes when I hear about sexual abuse, it is easy to think about it in terms of "all the bad things that happen in the world." But, the testimony of these amazing women during these past few days laid bare--once again--the unique and devastating destruction that sexual abuse causes. Everything about their lives was thrown into chaos. Familial relationships were destroyed, trust was broken, addictions ensued, and anxiety and other mental disorders destroyed years of their lives. 

Each time one of the women mentioned how angry she was at Michigan State University, USA Gymnastics, or the US Olympics, I thought to myself, "and these are just mere human institutions." The abuse that these young women experienced in their youth took place within the context of institutions which they were taught to trust. How much more devastating must that be when that institution is the Church? And when they said how they now feared doctors and medical professionals because of this one man, it made me sad to think that one priest could so damage persons that they live a life away from the most beautiful of God's gifts, the Sacraments.

I was deeply impressed by how many of the young women who spoke over these past few days mentioned their Faith, quoted scripture, or spoke about prayer and their relationship with God. It was profoundly moving. And then, I saw anew how grievous sexual abuse within the Church really is because it attacks even the spiritual refuge of the one abused. It is hideously evil because it attacks and undermines the one place where true healing and peace are to be found. It twists the place of refuge into a place to be feared.

I was really impressed by the women who spoke over these past few days. Many of them said how for years they felt like they had no voice or no power. They felt helpless. It was deeply moving to witness them regain their voice and begin the process of reclaiming their lives. 

I'm just one Catholic priest. I write all of this today just thinking that maybe one person affected by sexual abuse in the Church might someday read this.  Firstly, let me say this: If I have said anything here the wrong, way, I sincerely apologize for that. I don't claim that I know the right things to say or the right way to say them. Secondly, I'm sorry for what happened to you or to your loved ones. I don't really comprehend the full weight of it, and I never will. But I'm really sorry that the place that should have been your greatest refuge became the worst place of terror. That it was, is truly evil. 

And lastly, I pray for you. I pray that your voice is heard. I also pray that if you were driven away from the Sacraments because of the evil perpetrated upon you, that you be given whatever is necessary to return to them. Those gifts--the Sacraments--were given by Christ for you. I think of the woman who spoke about how she no longer receives medical care because she was abused by a doctor and is now terrified to be treated medically.  In an analogous way, it is easy to see how someone abused by a priest (or by someone else in the Church) could be too terrified or too angry to approach the Sacraments. If that's you, I really pray for you. You were robbed. Nobody had any right to steal those healing gifts from you or to instill fear in you about approaching the greatest of God's gifts, the Sacraments. I pray that somehow you are able to find your way back to these gifts and that you reclaim what rightfully belongs to you. 

Again, if I've said anything wrong or in the wrong way, I apologize.  God Bless You.

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