Jessica's Story, Part 4 - Questions, Answers, and Reflections
Updated: Dec 20, 2019
As promised, we are wrapping up this series with an opportunity for Jessica to speak for herself, directly answering questions from readers. As I mentioned in my last post, I hope that everyone reading Jessica’s story will come to see Jessica and all survivors as individual human beings, each unique and each deserving of our compassion and support.
(If you would like to offer a gesture of solidarity and support for all who have experienced abuse in our Church, I encourage you sign the Open Letter to Survivors written by Awake Milwaukee.)
Thank you to everyone who sent in such thoughtful questions! (Full disclosure: I’m adding a few of my own as well.)
Jessica, thank you so much for your courage and honesty in sharing your story with all of us, and thanks also for being willing to answer some questions from readers.
First, can you tell us - What is it like having your experiences “out there” in such a public way now? How are you feeling about all of this?
While I am still a little anxious about what the response will continue to be, I am so grateful for all of the supportive messages and the prayers. Overall, I feel like a burden has been lifted; I no longer feel like I am carrying this huge secret, and that feels so much more freeing then I ever could have imagined. The process of telling the story has, at times, been painful, but it has also brought me so much healing.
Why did you decide to tell your story right now? And why did you choose tell it in this way - sharing your name, but not identifying your diocese or the priest who abused you? (Note from Sara: While I live in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Jessica lives in a different state and has chosen not specify her location.)
In terms of why I’m telling my story, the simple answer is that I believe this is what the Lord wants of me. He compels me to speak, even when I would prefer to remain silent. I know that He can bring good from my story, so I have put it all in His hands. I do this not only for my own healing - to take back my voice and to take another step forward - but also because of the weight of the suffering of so many abuse survivors, in and out of the Church.
I have come to believe that only open, honest, vulnerable conversations, moved and empowered by the Holy Spirit, will move the Church out of this time. I trust that whatever is brought to light is brought back under the Lord’s authority and power, no matter how dark or messy it is; he can act on it, heal it, and restore it. This understanding has fueled all the steps of recovery that He has brought me through. I love the Church; I want to see her move towards healing, and I have to be willing to do whatever I can to help. I long to see the Lord bring redemption here, and, in a way, I lay down all this pain and suffering and offer it as an entry point for Him to come.
As for the way in which I’m telling my story, that was a difficult decision, and I went back and forth on this choice over the last few months. I truly believe, at least in the case of my Bishop and diocese, that the problems and the hurts I experienced come not so much from any ill will, but from a lack of understanding of how trauma works and effects people, and perhaps about what victims need from the Church. For me, it seems like their desire to protect and defend the Church, and maybe their fear, blinds them and makes them see victims as enemies. There seem to be so many walls and so much darkness still, and I don’t see any way around that, except by open dialogue about what it is like to be on this side - and on their side too. I think a change of heart needs to happen, in individuals and in the Church as a whole, and stories play a role in that.
I chose to use my name to make the story personal, to allow people to see me as a whole person. If so much of the damage of abuse comes from having been treated as an object, as less than a whole human person, then the healing of that must include seeing every individual as a whole human person. And that must be true on both sides. It is for that reason I chose not to include the name of my abuser - because he too is a person, a person with infinite dignity, and I want to uphold that for him. Of all the decisions I had to make in telling my story, the decision to use his name or not was the one I struggled with the most; I feel the weight of his humanity so heavily, but I also care deeply about ensuring the safety of the children around him. In the end, I felt that the statement released by the diocese accomplished that goal; parents in his parish are aware of my allegation and can make decisions based on that information.
I did send my diocese the stories that have been posted on this blog so that they will know what this experience has been like for me. However, I chose not to identify my Bishop or diocese because I want them to really hear me and to be open to whatever it is that the Lord is speaking to them. I fear that naming them and drawing that attention to them would only make them defensive and close their hearts. We need wide open spaces for the Lord to come and work.
Can you give us an update on what has happened since your diocese made the public statement about your case back in March? Have you had any further interaction with the diocese since then?
While nothing concrete has changed in my case, I have had one further meeting with people from my diocese since the statement in March. After I reached out to ask some questions about the wording of that statement, I was invited to meet with the Victim Assistance Coordinator and the new Director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection. I feel like this meeting was a positive step. They listened to my concerns about the wording of the statement. They acknowledged that I had been harmed by the way the diocese went about releasing that statement. I genuinely felt like I was seen and heard, and that my concerns and my pain were taken seriously. They made an action plan to address several things and answer particular questions that I have. There is still obviously much, much more work to do, and this does nothing to address the outcome of my case. However, while it is still very difficult for me to trust them, I feel hopeful that this meeting is a sign of better things to come, especially in regard to how victims are seen and treated when they come forward.
Why did you decide to report your abuse to the Church instead of going to the police? Did you ever consider reporting to civil authorities?
By the time my childhood priest walked into my restaurant in 2015, my case was only a few weeks away from passing my state’s statute of limitations. I just saw no way that I would be ready to report to the police in time; the prospect of a criminal investigation was more than I felt like I could endure at that point. While reporting to the Church felt overwhelming, it was the Church, and initially, that felt like a smaller, easier step. I expected the Church to respond with more compassion and understanding than the criminal justice system.
A few months ago I did make a report to the civil authorities here, because they are now investigating all abuse allegations against priests, including those outside the statute of limitations. My meeting with the local investigator was an eye-opening experience for me. It certainly made me aware of the scope of the problem here in my local Church. But also, the way that I felt in that conversation was so different from the way I felt when meeting with people from the diocese. Granted, I have found a lot of healing in the time between these two experiences of reporting. But while every interaction I had with the Church overwhelmed me with shame, my conversations with the civil investigator lessened my shame. I guess it comes down to this - the investigator was not afraid of my story, and he knew how to talk about these things. While my gaps in memory were a huge issue for the people in the Church, this investigator assured me that these gaps were normal. When I had trouble telling him the details, he assured me that there was, unfortunately, nothing dark I could tell him that he had not already heard. At the same time, he made sure to say that this didn’t in any way lessen what had happened to me. All of this was so different than my experience reporting to the Church.
I have not received any further information from the civil authorities, but I understand this may take time.
At the end of the last piece, you said that back in March you weren’t sure if you were going to be able to remain in the Church. Do you still feel that way? If you have stayed, how do you stay in a Church that has hurt you so deeply?
Some days are still very difficult, but no, I will never leave the Church. I know her to be the Truth, the place where the Lord fully resides, the first fruits of the Kingdom.
She is still my home, but I fear that this feeling of being not quite a part of her will always be my cross. For a long time, practicing my faith was incredibly difficult. I no longer felt, and sometimes still don’t feel, welcome in the Church. For a period of time I was severely triggered by priests, especially in shirt and collar. Mass was excruciating, as I had panic attacks and flashbacks constantly. Receiving the Eucharist was especially challenging.
However, in the weeks after that diocesan statement was released, I was fortunate to be able to attend a week-long retreat that offered me so much healing. It gave me a tangible experience of a different side of the Church - one that was not afraid to walk with me into the most difficult parts of my story and invite the Lord there. That retreat was such a concrete reminder of the good in the Church and the good people in the Church. Since then, it has become so much easier to find those parts of the Church all around me. While there are still times when I struggle, the retreat brought so much healing to my ability to practice the faith. My fear at Mass is gone, and my fear of approaching the Lord is greatly diminished. I can’t begin to express my gratitude for that.
Also, the Lord knows what it is like to not be seen for who you are, to not be believed by religious leaders. So I draw closer to Him, because He knows who I am. He has bought my place in the Church. With my baptism, I belong here in a way that no one can ever nullify. On the days when it is especially difficult, I hold on to that truth. If I am His, and He has a place for me in His Church, then I will stand my ground and fight for Him. I won’t leave and let the evil win.
Based on your experience, what changes would you like to see in how the Church handles cases of clergy sexual abuse? Put another way, if the Church said to you, “Come and help us with this terrible problem,” what kinds of things would you like to do or help others to do?
I believe that my Bishop followed all the steps required of him by Church law as it is today. Honestly, it seems like many Bishops may follow the letter of the law, but I wonder how much they truly follow the spirit of the law. So, I really believe the Lord is trying to move the Church at a heart level - to radical courage, love, and trust in Him. Policies are important, but the heart of the Church must move towards Him - individually and then collectively. I believe the Lord is asking the Bishops to care for the people of the Church, be bold in their trust in Him, and be courageous in letting Him protect the institution of the Church. This seems to be the answer to the problem of victims being seen as threats or enemies: trust the Lord to protect the Church, stop worrying about how things look, and focus on people.
Also, I would like to help the Church learn how to talk about sexual abuse and the woundedness of the human person. The entire Church needs to become more educated about trauma, what it looks like, how it affects memory, and how it impacts the whole person. They must be able to hear the stories and know how to respond in a graceful way. The time is past when they can excuse themselves by saying that it makes them uncomfortable. If the Lord is asking victims to have the courage to speak their stories, He is asking the Church to have the courage to hear those stories.
If there are other survivors reading this post, especially those who may not have reported their abuse or shared their story with others, would you have any words of advice for them? Are there any resources that have been helpful to you that you would recommend?
First, I would tell them: I am so sorry for everything that you have suffered; my heart is with you.
I would say: Walk this walk with the Lord. He has a heart for us, and he has a way forward for you. He can and will and longs to heal and to bring good from every evil. He is big enough to hold all of the broken pieces together. His heart is a refuge for you. His heart will even beat for yours, when yours is too broken or weak. All He needs you to do is look to Him; He will do everything else. He will gently win your trust and lead you on the way. Don’t worry about what the road looks like, or worry if it looks longer or different than anyone else’s; take your time and just take each next step. And when you are ready, don’t be afraid to speak the truth. We are children of God, and as such, we have every right to speak the truth in His name. Stand in that truth.
Also, I can’t recommend the John Paul II Healing Center enough, especially the Healing the Whole Person retreat. Some books I have found helpful include: Be Healed by Bob Schuchts, Veronica’s Veil: Spiritual Companionship for Survivors of Abuse by Teresa Pitt Green, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints and Remembering God's Mercy: Redeem the Past and Free Yourself from Painful Memories by Dawn Eden, and The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk. The Abiding Together podcast has been incredibly helpful too, as it showed me a piece of the Church I felt like I could belong to and rest in, even in my brokenness.
I also recommend therapy and spiritual direction. And of course, lots of prayer. And the saints!
This was the most commonly asked question from readers: What do you think the average lay Catholic can do to support survivors?
I would say - listen. I realize my story is hard to hear, and I know that it is easier than that of so many other survivors. But we drown in our shame. Having people who are able to listen to my story and give space for all my feelings and thoughts has been such a gift. Make space for us. Pray with us. If you know someone going through the reporting process, offer to go with them to the meetings or let them know you are praying for them while they are there.
Also, don’t be afraid to talk about abuse in our Church; sometimes it’s really helpful for me to just hear someone else telling me how angry (or whatever) they are. It is easy to feel like the rest of the Church moves on, while we are still dealing with this every day. Keep talking about it!
And finally, what can we do for you in particular? What can we pray for? How can we support you?
I am so grateful for the support I have received. I would say: Please pray for me as I continue to discern what next steps the Lord may be asking me to take with all of this. Please help share this story, and the stories of other survivors, and pray for and support this ministry and other ministries seeking to help survivors.
Jessica, from the bottom of my heart - thank you. Thank you for your honesty, your courage, and your faith. I am so honored to be walking with you as a friend and sister in Christ.
And I know I am speaking on behalf of many readers when I say this: We are so grateful for your willingness to share your story with us, and we hope and pray you experience continued healing and peace.
Now, let’s end this journey as we began, with a prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, in our Church, and in our world:
Come, Holy Spirit,
Fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created.
And you shall renew the face of the earth.
O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful,
Grant us in the same Spirit to be truly wise and ever to rejoice in His consolation.
Through Christ our Lord.
(Update 12/20/19: Jessica recently shared some information on what has happened in the four months since we published her story. You can find that post here: "He Changes the Darkness Itself": An Advent Update from Jessica.)