I offered a brief presentation today on my experiences of people surviving sexual abuse. The clergy have been meeting since Tuesday at Sacred Heart Retreat Center in Sedalia, Colorado. My presentation was part of a discussion on the Safe Environment Policies for the Diocese. This brief talk tells the tale of some people I have known in Portland, some of the circumstances have been changed to protect people’s identity.
Thank you for this opportunity to share with you a few stories of living and working among people who have suffered sexual abuse. I moved here in July after spending over eleven years serving at Saint Andre Bessette Church in Portland, Oregon. The small parish serves people surviving urban poverty, people living outside, people battling long-term addictions and people living with mental illness.
I start with a young man whom I name, “Joe”. Shortly after I arrived in Portland, he shared with me over coffee that his mother was a lifelong drug addict. When “Joe” was a child, she sold him to men for sex so that she could get money for drugs. The scars on “Joe’s” neck and arms are from cigarettes that were extinguished on his body while a man raped him. “Joe” grew up addicted to drugs and was tossed from one foster care family to another. He told me as he sipped his coffee that he was raped while staying with each one of his foster families.
“Joe” whispered to me in the coffee shop that he had found his way to the Catholic Church while in college. He relapsed a couple of days before his scheduled baptism at the Easter Vigil. He was baptized later when he had a few days of sobriety. He also shared with me that he had tried to commit suicide many times. “Joe” contacted AIDS from years of dirty needles and sex with men. He has turned away from people. He believes that God will never love him. He could not believe that his shame could be washed away in baptism, that his dirty feelings of his boyhood might be made clean.
The last time I saw him was on Ash Wednesday about four years ago. I noticed him at the noon Mass. I also noticed on that day two other men whom I knew had tried to commit suicide just days before. “Joe” had just been released from the hospital because he had tried one more time to take his life. Among the crowd on Ash Wednesday were these three men in their twenties and thirties who wished them selves dead because they had been sexually abused as children. One had gone to college. One was a veteran. All three were raped as boys.
Our staff and volunteers heard such stories while hosting a two-hour daily hospitality center. We entered into relationship with 100-180 people in our mornings. We served mostly men, inviting them to rest, to share breakfast. We provided clothing, hygiene products, a foot ministry and an art program. Our staff estimated that nearly 85% of the men we served in our parish center were sexual abused as children and nearly 100% of the women. Social workers and therapists who were community partners with us confirmed these statistics.
People in poverty who face such abuse seldom heal. People do not have the resources for adequate medications or therapy or social support. Their lives dive into depression, which continue to spin out of control with alcohol and drug addiction. More mental illness then finds a home in them.
I often hear from people in our churches, “If people just got jobs, they would not be a burden on society.” The problem is that most people do not have the emotional health to consider employment, to find a job or to keep a job. Most will never find or stay in housing, have a long-term partner or live what most people would consider a fruitful life. They are too broken because of the destruction of sexual and emotional abuse.
The result of sexual abuse is that we as a society often blame people for being poor and for being abused. We must stop blaming people for their mental illness, past abuse and even their addictions. We must help people release the shame of their abuse. Shame is a killer. Being shamed is sheer torture for people. In most cases, people have been stripped of a healthy future because other adults have raped and abused them.
In my first couple of years in that Portland parish, l offered a morning retreat for people with depression. I asked a Franciscan sister and another woman who was a retired social worker to help me. On the day of the retreat, fifteen people from all walks of life attended. As we introduced ourselves, we found out that all fifteen people were sexually abused as children. People were emotionally raw, brutally honest and very grateful that the church offered a step toward healing.
People ached for healing from their abuse beyond their years of counseling and medications. Many people believed that they would never heal. I verbally connected their emotional loss with the healing power of Christ Jesus. I wound up meeting with those folks every third month for the next three years. After that, I no longer had the emotional stamina to listen to such profound suffering. The grief, the loss, their shredded self-respect, their depression and raging anger create a life that for most people may never be healed. They live with the heavy conviction that they will never love or be loved.
One of the women in that parish became one of my most important spiritual teachers. She had been sexually and emotional abused as a child. Her mother would strip her, cover her in feces and lock her in a closet. The abuse was so severe that her emotional life split into seven different personalities. She is now in her sixties and she has spent most of her life trying to heal. When she came to the parish she developed important friendships for the first time in her life.
She spent her entire adult life believing that she needed to heal herself from her childhood. She entered the Catholic Church as adult, believing that the Church was a stable place, where life could always be perfect. I listened to her for years and she is now aware that God is there for her. She finally believes that God is the one who is doing the healing one moment at a time. Her shame condemned her to emotional decay, now God is alive in her heart. I have learned so much from her, more than I can ever recount here.
Several years ago, people working for the State of Oregon spoke at our October gathering of priests for the Archdiocese of Portland. They educated us on human trafficking on the Interstate 5 corridor from Canada to Mexico. They told us that Portland was the city of pimps. They painted a picture of our suburban malls where pimps identify young girls and boys with low self-esteem. They promise them money, housing, jewelry, food, cars and get them hooked on drugs so they will sell their bodies to strangers. Pimps often target girls and boys as young as eleven years old. A very small percentage of parents even report their children missing in the state of Oregon.
People surviving sexual abuse are praying in our pews. I preach parish retreats and parish missions around the country. When I tell stories or mention sexual abuse, people line up afterwards to speak with me. When we speak the truth of people’s lives, we offer people a place for possible healing in our worshipping assemblies. People want a home in the church but they are often too afraid to ask for such a place.
They want to know that we care, that God is accessible to them, that they will not be judged or put down. People want to know that we will not continue to emotionally abuse them or point our fingers is disdain or accuse them that their suffering is just all their fault. We need to listen to people. We must strip away the labels, the prejudice and the barriers between people who need lasting healing, genuine community and forgiving love.
I learn so much from people who have been sexually abused and who then turn to alcohol, or sex or who sell their bodies, or who cut them selves. People look to us as religious leaders and priests for help in recovery, in healing their souls. These are the holy women and men who teach me how to depend on God on a daily basis for my own sheer survival, for the rich relief that God’s love is in all of our issues of pain and suffering. People turn to us for help, but most of all for hope in the name of Christ Jesus.