I remember the light the most. Streams of rainbow-tinted rays spilling through stained glass windows, gliding across the rustic wood floors and creaky old pews of the Catholic Church I grew up attending. Often times people would walk right through what seemed like a spotlight of dancing color as they found their seats. I giggled as I watched, filled with amusement and awe at the sight.
There was a mystical wonder about Mass that captivated me as a child. From the grandiose sound of the organ pipes echoing through the halls as the choir sang through the liturgy, to the statues of beloved saints, to the sacred space of the altar where the Holy Eucharist was celebrated. It spoke to me of something great.
I loved the church. And I trusted its people deeply. So, when I was sexually abused by a priest that I trusted, a man I called ‘Father,’ the devastation was catastrophic.
We always went to the early service. I remember riding in the back of my parents’ car watching the sunrise as we turned into the parking lot. As the sun breached the horizon, it felt like God was saying “good morning” just to us.
Three little old Italian nuns attended our service. They sat together in their white habits like three doves perched on a power line and knelt as they prayed their rosary. Week after week and months passed as I watched their discipline and devotion. It stirred something deep in me as a child and I remember for the first time wanting to know God in a real way.
I believed that God was real. I loved the church. And I trusted its people deeply. So, when I was sexually abused by a priest that I trusted, a man I called “Father,” the devastation was catastrophic. Not just because my innocence as a child had been taken, but because it had rudely disrupted my connection and perverted my perspective of what I had been taught was a holy God. A Good Father.
The betrayal was great, and the pain was deep. How could God let this happen to me? How could a man committed to representing God, someone devoted to serving the church, do something like this? To a child? How could I ever rebuild the trust I had once had, not only with God but the church as well, in all its forms?
For years I struggled deeply with these questions and my heart quietly cried out to God while simultaneously breaking. I searched for answers, clinging to the hope that I would find them.
It was during my college years that answers would begin to come and my healing journey started. I attended a small liberal arts school where a vibrant religious community was flourishing. Clubs and groups from across church denominations had meetings and activities you could join. Though afraid, my heart longed for spiritual connection. The truth is, we are all afraid, and we are all created for spiritual connection.
I made several new friends my freshman year who were eager to get involved. I wasn’t so sure at first, but it was at that first campus-wide service that everything changed. I had never seen multiple church denominations represented in one place before, unified. Can you imagine the view? A Catholic priest, a Baptist pastor, an Assembly of God preacher, a Presbyterian deacon, all gathered together to lead a time of prayer and worship. Each prayed in their own way. Worship was a plethora of musical style and expression, from old hymns to contemporary Christian music. I was captivated by their unity and the years that followed included building new relationships within the church communities on campus. I found myself observing church leaders in everyday life, not on an altar administering communion or preaching a sermon, but instead rushing through busy traffic, exasperated waiting in long lines at a grocery store, anxious in the waiting room of the emergency room.
I began to see and understand first hand that church leaders are very human. As human as you and I. And no person, no matter how much they love God, no matter their platform or title, will ever flawlessly represent a perfect God. Indeed, it was not a perfect holy man that had abused me, but an imperfect one. One who needs just as much mercy and forgiveness as I need. As we all do.
What is it about forgiveness that is so hard, so conflicting? People in their imperfection and brokenness are complicated. Life can be messy and unpredictable. When someone wrongs us, it’s instinctive and our most natural response is a desire to see them punished for what they’ve done. We want to satisfy our need for justice. If we have the power to do so, often times we’ll take matters into our own hands. And we hit back. We seek revenge in one way or another. We cut with hurtful words. We withhold our love from people. We want the offender to know what it feels like to be hurt. They must pay for what they’ve done, and forgiveness can feel like letting them off the hook.
There is no explaining away or justifying something as horrific as sexual abuse, and I’ll tell you it damaged me deeply. I went from being terrified of men in authority to pornography and sexual addiction to hating my body and thinking I would never be whole again. Sometimes you have to break down before you have breakthrough.
When I came face to face with my brokenness and a deep need for forgiveness of my own sins, something began to happen inside my heart. I stopped shutting the world out and began letting others into the pain of what I had experienced. As I opened myself up to rebuild trust with leaders in the church, God’s love and mercy through imperfect people began to heal the broken pieces of my heart.
It was not a perfect holy man that had abused me, but an imperfect one. One who needs just as much mercy and forgiveness as I need. As we all do.
When I expected rejection, I found acceptance. When I expected judgment, I found compassion. These church leaders became conduits of God’s love in my life. Jesus with skin on. As healing and freedom came from all the pain and shame of the abuse, the revelation that God had forgiven me when I didn’t deserve it worked its way deep into the caverns of my soul. That a Father would go so far as to have me as His own, He would send His Son to pay the highest price and die a brutal death for my sins. I had to receive His forgiveness and experience it in a real way before I could ever give it away. And I did forgive, even the priest who had abused me.
We all have different journeys in life. You may never experience sexual abuse, but you will experience disappointment and hurt, even by the people you trust the most. It isn’t a question of whether or not it will happen, but what will you do with the pain when it comes? We can hang onto our sense of injustice and embrace a victim mentality. Or we can let go of anger and give our questions and pain to the One who has healing in His wings, who promises to exchange your mourning for joy and ashes for beauty.
It would be many years before I would revisit the Catholic Church from my childhood. I drove by unplanned one evening as the sun was going down. As I parked and walked towards the double doors, the anxiety and tension I feared would be there was absent. Instead, I experienced a deep sense of peace and joy. As I walked through the empty building running my fingers across the back of the wooden pews, I looked up towards the stained-glass windows and remembered the light from so long ago. It was still there. I knew it always would be.