Forgive You Father, For You Have Sinned
Forgive You Father, For You Have Sinned
Guest Post for The Breathe Network by ST
It was just one year ago that I saw Spotlight. I knew that seeing this film might be highly charged for me since, as a child, I had been sexually molested by my father, who was also an Episcopal priest. I went to the movie theater by myself one mid-week afternoon when I knew it would not be crowded, armed with a large tub of popcorn as a hedge against anxiety.
Spotlight is a remarkable film, a gripping retelling of a team of investigative reporters from the Boston Globe uncovering mounting evidence that Catholic priests had sexually abused hundreds of children and the cover up by Boston’s political and judicial establishments. Watching Spotlight revealed the iceberg-like proportions of both the abuse and the cover up. This meant a lot to me, since when my memories first returned at the age of 30, I thought I was the only one who had ever experienced this horror. I offer this piece in the hope that sharing my response to the film and the story of my interactions with my father at the end of his life will be helpful to other survivors and make them feel less isolated.
For me, the most powerful line in the film was, “This is not only sexual abuse, it is also spiritual abuse.” I have personally experienced the double whammy of the horrifying breach of trust by father and priest in one person. I identified strongly with the survivors of the Boston scandal as they spoke of the priests being “like God” to them and therefore somehow strangely beyond the reach of the law and moral ethics. For many who suffered abuse at the hands of priests, the Church and a spiritual connection were lost to them from that point forward. I was fortunate that my sense of spirituality, which had more to do with Nature than the Church, always remained intact. I have always known for certain that there was a divine presence who loved and looked out for me. That connection has been an essential part of my healing and I am most grateful for it.
Spotlight was also stunningly effective in conveying the lasting damage that the victims carried. It was sobering to see them portrayed as such a damaged bunch. I was reluctant to claim membership in that club, but the characteristics of the child targeted for sexual abuse were sickeningly familiar to me. I recognized myself as one of the lonely, uncertain children, so eager for love and connection.
Even as a young child, somehow I understood that it was somehow my job to keep the horrible secret and that I would destroy my family if I spoke up. When I was nine years old, I had a vivid, terrifying dream that my parents were getting a divorce. They explained that my sister would go with my mother, but that I would be cast out into the world alone, since I was the one who had broken up the family by spilling the beans. The terror of that dream has stayed with me, so that sometimes I still feel like that nine-year-old trying to navigate a very complex, adult world with very limited resources.
I gasped at the moment in the film when one survivor, who had become an addict, tried to hide the needle marks from the reporter. Depression, addiction and suicidal thinking have always lurked in the shadows of my own brain. I attempted suicide at nineteen and turned to alcohol in my fifties in an attempt to control my feelings of being overwhelmed. Fortunately, I am also what they referred to as “one of the fortunate ones,” who has survived and thrived well enough to have a family, a career and loving relationships, thanks to years of therapy, a 12-step program and a fierce commitment to my healing above all else. After 35 years of working through the anger, sadness and paralysis, I can say that I have found many moments of peace and calm, but the truth is that the accomplished, professional woman and the terrified nine-year-old face the world together every day.
Here is my own story: I was abused by my father from the time I was three until I was nine, although I did not consciously remember the incidents until I was thirty. After two years of working with a therapist, I confronted my father. At first he denied everything and suggested to other family members that I needed to be hospitalized because I had had a mental breakdown. Then he asked me if I was planning to go to the bishop with my allegations. At the time that question completely baffled me. It was 1986, sixteen years before the Boston scandal broke and I saw this as a personal matter between the two of us.
I have no idea what my father knew about the larger history of sexual abuse in the Church. I do know that after nearly 80 years of being extremely healthy, he became ill the winter of 2002, just as the story was breaking in the Boston Globe. I recall the Episcopal bishops meeting in Texas that spring to debate how to deal with their own priests and I always felt on some level that my father chose to exit quickly as the going got tough. He was dead by Memorial Day.
The feelings surrounding my memory of the abuse, my confrontation of my father, my family’s reaction and my own ongoing healing are all so complex. It is an understatement that my life has been deeply affected by the abuse. In many ways, I believe that recovery and the hard work of dealing with my memories cost me my marriage. My then-husband tried to be understanding, but ultimately said, “I didn’t sign up for this. It’s just too dark.” One of my sisters said, “I can’t talk to you about this now or ever.” In one way or another, every member of my family of origin has asked me if I could please “just move on”, not tarnish my father’s reputation and certainly not “air dirty laundry” by speaking or writing publicly about sexual abuse in our family. This kind of response by family members has felt like a whole other round of betrayal, one that has gone on for decades. I am so grateful to my two sons for supporting my healing no matter what.
My relationship to my father changed after I confronted him. At first I cut myself off from him entirely, needing the distance to feel safe. After a time, he did say that something like what I described could have happened when he was drinking heavily. At some point, compassion crept in and I began to wonder if perhaps he had been abused as a child, as is so often the case. He was a confusing mix of good and bad in my mind. Part of me was grateful for the many gifts that he gave to me, including an excellent education and a commitment to a spiritual life. Another part of me was filled with rage and committed to finding my voice and speaking my truth.
When my father was hospitalized at the end of his life, I had no question that I wanted to see him. The morning after I arrived, my stepmother said, “I wouldn’t bring up that thing that your father may or may not have done that one time.” I looked her in the eye over the breakfast table and said, “He raped me repeatedly over several years.” She had no response.
As I sat with him in the hospital the week before he died, I did not bring up either his abuse of me or the current Boston scandal. I left time in our conversations for him to speak of it if he chose, but I doubted that he would. It had been 16 years since I had first confronted him and I don’t think that he could ever reconcile his sense of himself as a “good man” with the things that he had done.
Somehow we managed to meet that last time in a place of grace, beyond judgment. He sat like an old Indian chief, wrapped in the handmade blanket I had brought for him, listening to me read the prayers from many traditions that I had brought with me. Finally, he asked me to read the King James Version of the 23th psalm.
23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Although we did not speak of it directly, we both knew that the one place to find that in The Book of Common Prayer was in the burial service, and that the next time that I would hear this prayer would be at his funeral a few weeks hence.
Three bishops and about fifty members of the Episcopal clergy wearing vestments filled the front rows of the large church for that service. I asked to read a lesson so that I would not sit entirely silent that day. What I longed to do, however was to speak from my heart, to say “I ask your prayers for my father and your fellow priest, for the redemption of his soul and healing of the sickness that inflicts our families, churches and society. May the peace that passes all understanding be the gift that we continue to give to one another until all of our wounds are finally healed. Amen.”
My work over the past 35 years has been to find as many ways as I can to heal myself. The first therapist I told about the abuse, in 1984, was a male psychiatrist who said, “Oh, that really is bad. I don’t think you should tell anyone else about it.” “Not even my husband?” “Oh no, I don’t think that he would deal well with this at all,” which turned out to be true. From there, like so many other survivors, I found my own way, to a woman therapist who could hear and support me, to writing, meditation, yoga, and sharing my stories with other survivors. Along the way I decided to write the book that I had desperately needed but could not find in 1981. I am still working on that book and I hope that, despite my family’s resistance, I will get it out there to the people who still need it.
When I left the movie theater that afternoon one year ago, I was glad that I had seen Spotlight, glad that it had been such a thoughtful and powerful film, glad that I had only needed to eat a quarter of that tub of popcorn and curious about the stories of the people who sat around me. If it is true that an average of one in five people has been sexually abused, there must have been a lot of stories in that theater. I had the dawning revelation that it is time we stopped looking to the Church or the medical establishment for answers. It is time for us to realize as survivors and thrivers, we are the ones that hold the power to bring about our individual and collective healing.
“May the peace that passes all understanding be the gift that we continue to give to one another until all of our wounds are finally healed. Amen.”