"My church was my everything. They were my family... When I came forward, they left me in despair."
In the work that I do, I read and listen to many, many accounts from survivors of clergy sexual abuse. After months of being immersed in these narratives, I find that the stories are still painful to take in, but I am also less shaken by these horrible tales than when I first began. However, on some days, a particular news article, interview, or video clip breaks through and pierces my soul all over again.
Today was one of those days.
I clicked on the link to a press conference that took place in North Dakota yesterday, and Kateri Marion’s words broke my heart.
The emotional, spiritual, and sexual manipulation and abuse she describes are terrible, but sadly, the pattern sounds very familiar to me by now. So, why did her story impact me in such a deep way today?
I think it’s because her feeling of betrayal is so raw and unvarnished; because she invested so much in her parish community and eventually felt abandoned by them; because it's clear that both the priest and the church broke her heart.
Also, because of these words: “My church was my everything. They were my family. They were all I had. When I came forward, they left me in despair to pick up the pieces myself.”
And these: “I just wanted a father who loved me.”
Please, dear Church, let’s be better - for Kateri, and for every other beloved child of God.
You can read a news article summarizing the story here: Belcourt woman publicly accuses priest of sexual assault during confession, sues Fargo Diocese. You’ll find the video of the press conference linked within, and I would recommend watching it if you are able. (Kateri begins speaking around minute 6:40, then alternates with the lawyers in responding to questions after her initial statement.) I am including a transcript of Kateri’s comments below, but the written version doesn’t do justice to the power of these words when you hear them directly from her lips.
My name is Kateri Marion. In July of 2016, I came forward with the case of Fr. Michael sexually abusing me.
I can’t tell you how scared I was when I came forward. My church was my everything. They were my family. They were all I had. When I came forward, they left me in despair to pick up the pieces myself.
I have tried to share my story multiple times; nobody was listening. But now, everybody is listening.
I hope that as survivors come forward… I know how hard it is, I know how scary it is. But I stand here before you guys not only for myself, but for everyone who has ever been abused in the church and who will ever be abused in the church. It was not your fault. You were the victim. And it was not my fault, even though I was treated like it was.
God used to be my everything. That’s all I had in my life. Father Michael Wight stole that from me, by his own actions and by his choice. And my church stood up for him and defended him.
Everything that is on these papers is the truth. I was a very vulnerable adult. I have suffered a lot of abuse through my life. I thought Fr. Michael was my spiritual father. I trusted him even when I didn’t trust him. I just wanted a father who loved me. I never had that. And I thought I found him in him. Every day he would tell me that he was my beloved father, like God the Father loved me. Every day he would tell me that he hated everyone who abused me, only for him to abuse me himself.
His last words to me was that I would get over it. This is something that you do not get over.
With the #MeToo movement, I would just like to say: Me too. Church too.
Response to Questions from Reporters
What has this done to your faith?
I don’t have a faith anymore. Anyone who knew me before can testify that I was at the church always. I have two sons, and we went to mass every single day. We went to Adoration once a week. I helped out at every single retreat my church had. I, on behalf of my church, with another person of my church, went into people’s homes on behalf of our church, in support of that. There isn’t anything I have done for my church. But that was everything I had.
And not only am I affected, my little boy, who was old enough to understand this, had to see his mother go through this. And he has seen how we were treated, before I was abused and after I was abused. When I told him I was coming forward, he was very proud of me.
You said the church blamed you? How did they go about blaming you for this abuse?
A priest told me that I dress immodest and that I make all holy men of God lust me. When I tried to talk to my church and to heal in my church from this, I was forbidden to talk to people. One priest told me he would walk out of confession if I brought up what happened to me.
Did you ever report to police?
The day I left on July 12, the last day I talked to Father Michael, he told me to go ahead and report him because he would tell them himself. So, when I walked out the doors, I called the Fargo Diocese. I called the pastor at the time. I went to the police station immediately. The police went up to see him. When I saw them, they said they going to do something. But when they called me back, they were laughing, saying he admitted to it, but they were going to let the church take care of it.
What is your reaction to the statement from the Fargo Diocese, who said “even though this behavior was not of a criminal nature,” they want to “express the deepest apologies, prayer, and support for the woman who was subject to this behavior.”
My response is that it was sexual assault. The church has tried to say that he tried to “have relations” with me. There was no relations. He took advantage of my vulnerability.
I would also like to say that I believe Father Michael is a very high risk. It took him six months to groom me and control me. In that six months, he destroyed my everything, my whole entire life.
What brought you to wanting to come speak out and share your story? What was the breaking point that that you could no longer hide in the shadows?
I actually have never tried to hide in the shadows about this. Since it happened, since the day, there is numerous messages and everything. I have reached out to many people about my story, but [this lawyer] is the first one to take it and to give me an opportunity to share my story.
If you could talk to a person that’s out there, still dealing with this, what message would you give them?
I would tell them that there is hope. I know how you feel. I know how hard it is. I know that the majority of the time, the church leaves you and blames you as a victim. I stand here for you, for myself, and for everyone. But I hope that you guys know, it’s ok to come forward now. It is ok, and it is time. It is time that we unite. It is time that we stand together and stand strong. Stop these priests from doing this; stop the church from hiding this.
In past years, it has been so hard for victims to come forward and when they do, they are not believed. But in recent months, people seem to be paying more attention to the victims. What are your thoughts on that and what awareness that could bring, not only to Native American women who usually do not have the sources available to fight something like this, but just any woman in general or any victim?
I think this is a very powerful moment in time. I am a Native American. I’m from the Deer Mountain Tribe, and there’s not a lot that my tribe can offer me right now to help me with this. Where I am from, a lot of people are abused as well, and it’s covered up as well. And when I went to the church, they taught me that was wrong, to cover it up. They told me that they were my family, but when it was one of them, they did the same thing as everybody else, to cover up. And people need to stop covering up abuse.
Believe a victim, because why would somebody lie about being abused? It destroys you.
Will you join me in praying for Kateri today?
Lord, heal your daughter's broken heart and help her to know the love of a true Father.
Please give her your strength, your justice, and your peace.