Woman finds healing years after abuse ends

By Sheila B. Haennicke
Sunday, November 20, 2011

Editor’s note: This article appeared in the September issue of Keenager News, a publication of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

I’ll always be a Catholic. No one can take that from me. That priest didn’t take that. I love my faith,” says Donna, a 66- year-old grandmother who struggled for decades with the effects of the abuse she suffered when she was 8. The abuse occurred at the hands of a popular and trusted parish priest in her small town near the Wisconsin border.

Over the past 10 years however, Donna has found help that was not available to sexual abuse victims in the early 1950s. The Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office of Assistance Ministry helped Donna channel the anger and shame she felt for so long into energy to heal herself and help others.

As a member of the archdiocese’s Healing Garden Planning Committee, Donna worked with other victim-survivors, priests and archdiocesan staff to plan the garden, which was dedicated next to Holy Family Parish on Roosevelt Road on June 9 as a place of reflection and prayer for all those affected by the tragedy of child sexual abuse in the church.

“The Archdiocese of Chicago has been terrific regarding the services they have given us. I have a support group and individual counseling. The healing garden has been extraordinary. My whole purpose has been to reach out to others,” Donna says. “The healing garden has given me the opportunity to reach out to other clergy abuse victims. The generation we come from ... you didn’t speak of it.”

Childhood abuse

Thomas Tharayil is a licensed clinical social worker and directs the archdiocesan Office of Assistance Ministry, which provides a range of services for victim-survivors of clergy abuse, and their families. These services include counseling, workshops, retreats and support groups.

“For many older adults, reviewing their life will result in a feeling of satisfaction. However, for the senior victim-survivor, their memories can leave them feeling intense loss, anger and sadness. For those older victim-survivors who continue to live in secrecy about the abuse, this can leave them feeling isolated and depressed,” Tharayil said.

“The support groups we offer provide elderly victims with a chance … to share their story and be heard by others who understand their pain.”

Some of the services offered by the office are open to anyone who has experienced sexual abuse, not just those abused by clergy. Some services are geared to family and friends of abuse victims to help them learn how to be supportive of their loved ones.

“When one person in a family has been sexually abused, it impacts the whole family. The victim- survivor may feel responsible for the changes it creates in a family. While each family member may react differently, the decision to not talk about the abuse has lifelong effects on families and those close to the victim-survivor,” Tharayil added.

Donna looks back and thinks what might have been different if she had been helped after being abused. She believes that her choices in life were sometimes shaped by her conviction that she didn’t deserve much, a belief that was strongly connected to her abuse.

Getting help as a senior citizen has allowed her to move forward with the knowledge that she deserves to be happy. She will retire soon and is planning to move closer to her two adult children and one grandchild.

Facing the past

About 14 years ago, with her children grown, Donna decided she would finally face the childhood trauma that left her with distrust of men, especially priests, fear of confinement, discomfort at being touched by others, panic if approached from behind, and extreme protectiveness of her own children when they were growing up.

Donna’s journey toward healing began with a jarring conversation with her older brother, John. Donna was close to John, who was five years older and always protective of her. John disclosed to Donna that he had been abused for years by the same priest who abused her.

Neither sibling told the other while the abuse was occurring. Donna never said anything because the priest who abused her and John was admired in the parish.

“Everyone … saw how good he was to the boys in the parish, taking them on overnights and on trips …. so I thought something was wrong with me, and was too ashamed to speak of it,” she said.

When she learned of John’s abuse, Donna could not bring herself to tell him that the same thing happened to her.

“I felt that if I told him the same priest had abused me, it would only make his pain worse, because he would feel he failed to protect me when we were kids. In addition, I felt guilty thinking that if I had spoken up when I was a child, as a girl I might have been believed and it would have ended Johnny’s abuse,” she said “I still struggle knowing his sexual and emotional abuse continued for many years, not to mention the other boys this priest abused.”

It is typical for abuse victims to feel guilty, even though they were children when they were abused and not at fault for what happened to them. Getting help through counseling or a support group allows victims a place to address guilt and other feelings that often plague them for decades.

Truth revealed

When John passed away in 1997, Donna resolved that she would get the truth out about their abuser, who had died in the mid- 1970s. She spoke to diocesan officials and gave a report. The current pastor of the parish where the abuse occurred was contacted by other victims, and though he had no involvement with the past abuse, he committed himself to helping those who had been harmed at the parish.

Donna and two of the priest’s victims went public as a way to reach out to other victims, and the resulting attention caused more people to come forward. Donna achieved her goal of getting the truth out, and in the process reached out to others, and helped them start to heal too. Some of the priest’s other victims told her that they didn’t feel alone anymore, that people might believe them now.

Donna felt she had honored her brother’s memory. She made it a point one day to drive by her abuser’s old house. “We got him, Johnny,” she recalled saying aloud to her late brother. “We got him.”

What were people’s reactions to Donna’s disclosure? Some of the people she thought would be supportive of her were not. Others who she thought would be judgmental were supportive.

Today, Donna has learned to manage the anger that used to overwhelm her. “I’ve become stronger, less fearful,” she said “The pain will always be there but some of that has changed into a positive. … I used it to make myself a better person, and to help other people.”

One of the people she helped is the pastor at her old parish, the one who reached out to other victims of the abusive priest. The pastor attended the dedication of the healing garden as Donna’s guest, and thanked Donna for helping him to understand clergy abuse from the survivor’s perspective. He continues to be open with parishioners about the parish’s troubled past.

Never too late

“A lot of seniors are carrying around similar stories,” said Jimmy Lago, who, as chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago, is responsible for the implementation of policies and programs related to clergy abuse of minors. “Sometimes time heals, and sometimes it doesn’t.”