Monday, November 8, 2010

The Shareds Story: The Spiritual Dimensions of Healing from Abuse by Priest

by Elizabeth Goeke, co-founder Compassionate Gathering

I write my story of abuse as a way of saying thank you to the many survivors of priest/church abuse who have shown me the path to my own truth by their bravery. For the past five years I have mentored others along the path to healing as an advocate for those abused. I have heard the stories of several dozen survivors. Each person who told me pieces of their story made it easier for me to face my own fragments of truth, deal with my psychic and spiritual wounds and weave those pieces of self together in a story of injury and journey into recovery of self. 

Here is my attempt to tell a story that is still unfolding.  I tell my story, not as an expert, but as a traveler on a confusing and twisting journey. I tell my story with the hope that my sharing will create space for seeds of hope and glimmers of insight as we stumble along together through the valley of abuse by priest/church. In my telling, survivors will find themes and points where my story intersects with theirs. At many points we share a story. We have different and unique lives and pains. We also share a bonding experience. 

There is nothing “one of a kind” in my story. All the elements in my story belong to each of us who have been touched by this traumatic experience. Some of the common elements are:  minimalization and denial; finding ourselves standing alone in life; being silenced for years; thinking we were the “only one”; shutting the abuse away in an inner lock box of embarrassment; to survive we distance ourselves from our faith in our church and in the process we often lose faith in ourselves; protecting our families, especially our parents, from “our fall”; having our loyalty, our belonging to our church, questioned by the very fact of our being victims of abuse and then re questioned and re traumatized when we find  the courage to speak of the abuse. After priest/church abuse, we discover ourselves in a state of fear, broken dreams, fractured faith and a distorted sense of self. The after effects of this abuse vary from victim to victim. It might show as emotional scaring, trauma dealt with through addiction and mal adaptations of living skills. There is one after effect that every victim shares, which is a profound spiritual wounding. Walking my own path and sharing that path with other survivors during these past years, I know that spiritual recovery is difficult and requires the victim to travel through dangers and uncertainties to discover their own truth and own spiritual authenticity. 

 I tell my story, (our story) for those who cannot tell their own story: those who were too young at the time of the abuse to be ever able to form words and concepts to the experience; for those who died of despair and suicide; for those in prison; for those who are too afraid, too alone, too vulnerable to tell their story. I tell the story for Sharon, a woman I know, who gave birth to two children fathered by priests. As Sharon, a bright and beautiful graduate of a local Catholic college, descended into a permanent state of psychosis, the children were taken from her. Today, Sharon appears as a homeless or near homeless, mentally ill woman of the Portland streets. Finally, I tell the story for those who sit in church each week, afraid of a harsh reaction from their families and fellow parishioners lest their secret be revealed.

From the Cradle

As my bio says, I am a cradle catholic. I was not only raised from the cradle to be catholic, my life was shaped, formed in every detail by the cradle of Catholicism. Born in the mid forties in rural Missouri, I am the second daughter and seventh child of Ed and Rosella Goeke. My father was of German immigrant stock, shopkeepers and shoe cobblers by trade. Each generation was marked by those who became priests and nuns. Two Catholic churches were present in my father’s childhood town to serve the total population of 1000. Two churches across the street from each other: St. Pat’s for the Irish Americans, and St. Joe’s for the German Americans. My mother was from a different background. My mother was a fervent convert to Catholicism. To my mother, Catholicism was the most precious gift in the world. Her mother, Mary Westoff, was raised Catholic in a very non-Catholic area along the Iowa/Missouri border. There were few Catholics and fewer churches.   Mary was courted and then married by Grandfather Levi, the oldest of a huge Mennonite family of sons. Levi, was a self described “bad Mennonite”, because he loved to dance and sing. Levi met Mary at a town dance and fell in love with the woman he described as “the prettiest girl in the county”. Although he did not adhere to his family’s religion, he forbad Mary to baptize their eight children and throughout his life, refused to set foot inside a Catholic church. My mother was the eldest and the first to leave home. Immediately upon moving from the farm to town, she took instruction and became a Catholic, as then did her siblings.   She met my father at a church ice cream social and devoted the rest of her life to making a devout Catholic family.

Every day and most activities of our family were focused on church. Mother was in the altar society. I learned to iron while pressing the altar linens. I cleaned the gold candlesticks, learning to melt the wax without scratching the beautiful holders. Each Saturday, I would bake with mother as we made cinnamon rolls to sell after the 10:00 Mass.   My father was also very much of the church. He and my older brothers were in the Knights of Columbus.  Dad was choir director and as a family of musicians we could ourselves provide four-part harmony and the organist for Mass.  And we all belonged to the Legion of Mary. I was in the Junior Legion from middle school on. I learned to garden so that my Mary altar could have fresh flowers and extend many months beyond May. Besides daily devotions, and weekly meetings, I visited the sick and the shut ins. My social conscience was shaped by visits to the Adair county nursing home where I encountered the mentally ill locked in cubicles, screaming in an age prior to anti-psychotic medications.

I learned about purity and “keeping safe”. I was taught that it was the girl’s behavior, which caused the boy’s actions. Therefore it was all about proper behavior at all times. Watch the hem of the skirt, watch the tightness of the blouse and watch the eyes, watch the hands. And always tuck a quarter into your shoe, for if the boy companion lost control, even with my watchfulness, I was to quickly get to a pay phone for emergency help. Above all, and at all times, I was to  “keep safe” (meaning keep my “virtue”)…my body safe.

All that watchfulness was good training for convent boarding school and then convent life with the Benedictines at St. Mary’s in Nauvoo.  A religious life, living fully to serve God and the church in a life of prayer was an easy, natural and deeply satisfying career choice. I loved the music and the chant; I was a cantor and occasional organist. I loved the silence and the sisters. After first vows I was prepared for the classroom. I was the first of my class to go on mission. St. John’s was a tiny school in a remote town in central Illinois. St. John’s needed a teacher of first and second grades, who could also teach music and play the organ. 

A Hard Lesson in Life

Mother had prepared me for out-of-control boys. The convent did not however prepare me for out-of-control priests. When our confessor (a priest who came from another town in the area) arranged for me to be alone with him on Christmas Eve, I was not on guard. When he stated that he was going to have sex with me, because “it was Christmas” I found myself in a place beyond my imagination, my knowledge, my scope of understanding, my life preparation and my spiritual definitions.   Stunned and dazed, enough of my mother’s conditioning kicked in and I fought and got away. I was bloodied at the face where the coif was torn, my arms bruised and I was shaking, but there was not time to have a crisis as I had two Christmas services to play, and that ancient organ required my full attention.

It was a week into January before anxiety set in. I had to deal with the situation, and I did what I knew to do:… I went to confession. Not to “that confessor”, but the extra-ordinary confessor who came “from a town somewhere else”.  He, unlike the other, was young and kind. His  first question was “Did you enjoy it?” With that clearly out of the way, we settled into coping with the situation. First, he said, I was not to blame…. that was good. Second, I was to tell no one, except him in the confessional.

Confession after confession we “worked on the situation” together. My anxiety did not dissipate; it grew.   I had decisions to make. I had renewal of vows coming up in the summer. I was miserable and knew I could not request vows. I was not the same person I had been before Christmas. I was “less than” that person. The community did not know the person I had become. I could not tell them. Father told me I could not tell them. “It would cause the community problems, it would cause me problems”. My anxiety grew more, and Father consoled me that it was time for me to recognize that my vocation had changed. It was clear to him that God no longer wanted me to be a sister. I was being called to a different life of service. My service was to live a life of “sealed lips”. A life, which Father assured me, was God’s plan and for which I would be abundantly blessed, showered with happiness. 

At Easter, mother prioress came to visit. We had a private meeting in the same parlor where the abuse had happened. I told her I would not be requesting vows. Mother prioress asked no questions. Mother expressed no regrets. Mother gave me a blessing and said that the community would pray for me.

In June, at the end of the school year, the other two sisters left me alone on Saturday while I changed from the habit into one of the two dresses sent from the motherhouse.  It was lime green. I attempted to push my hair, newly grown out for these few months into a shape. I drove away from the convent life with my oldest brother and father in a VW bus. The first night was at my brother’s house where his wife (not I) remembers today her question to me…. “ Why did you leave? “Because priests have too much power!” She did not question more, she says, because the answer made so much sense.

My father was gracious and generous in helping me establish a new life. In my time away, mother had died. It was awkward, but not unhappy to be back in our hometown. I did not know how this new life would go. My only plans were to finish a degree at our local college and learn of my “new vocation”.

Within weeks, I was back at confession. It was Saturday. My hometown church, the only Catholic Church for miles, Mary Immaculate. It is right downtown on Washington Street.   It is a comfortable, familiar, beloved building. This is the church of my baptism, my first communion, and my confirmation. Here stands the altar where I had knelt to receive the Eucharist all of those mornings of daily mass. The altar of those pressed linen cloths and wax free candlesticks. Here is the choir loft where we had sung so many masses and below is the church basement where we had served all those cinnamon rolls. All my life, this church, huge in my memory and my mind was the place of prayer, self-definition, purpose of soul. It is my family’s place of baptisms, weddings and funerals.

It was Saturday. It was summer. It was hot. I had not been to confession outside of the convent for years.  It was vacation time and there was a visiting priest “from a town somewhere else”.  I was the only one waiting as the confessor entered the church. He entered the confessional.  I entered the side box, and moved the little door, “Bless me father, it has been two weeks since my last confession”…..
I don’t remember what I said next, but I do remember what I came for…. I needed to ask for direction for the “new vocation” I was starting. Since I could only talk about “the situation” in confession, I came for help. But something I said pushed the wrong button of this visiting priest, a stranger to my parish, the priest from “somewhere else”. He started to yell at me. He called me a name; I think the name was  “dirty woman”. He expressed disgust with my words, he was angry that I would dare to waste his time. In a loud and terrifying voice, he ordered me out of the confessional and out of the church. Get Out!

I went to the car, the car my father had just given me, and I quickly drove away. I didn’t know where to go. I was crying. I drove to the cemetery, to the graves of my mother, my two brothers, my paternal grandparents. I had just been thrown out of my church. This was really it. First the abuse, then being sent away from the convent and now thrown out of the church….three strikes. I’m out! Now I had a crisis!  In time a strategy came to me. I would obey the orders from the confessional and stay out of the church, but not in an obvious way. I needed to be subtle and secretive.  I had to protect my father. I could not let him know what I had become. That would kill him. I arranged my activities to pretend to attend Sunday mass at different times than the rest of the family. I did go to church, but during the day, during the week, and I would sit in the quiet at the side altar before the statue of Mary. I’d just sit. I had nothing to say, nothing to ask, I was out of words and out of thoughts.

 I kept busy. I attended college and completed majors in comparative religion and philosophy: the boxes, which neatly fit my course work from the convent. I worked to support myself by teaching piano lessons. To keep up appearances, I volunteered at the parish school. I taught remedial reading to fifth graders.   And I looked for a boyfriend.  I found one, a returning vet, my age (older than other students at 24), bright, verbal, arrogant and strongly anti-church (like Grandpa Levi). After graduation we accepted an invitation to move to Oregon. I continued to pretend with my dad. I pretended to marry in the church.  I pretended to be happy in my marriage.  I pretended I was living as a Catholic. I visited my father once a year. I arranged visits mid week to avoid Sundays and mass times. When he was dying, I sat by his hospital bed and recited the rosary by the hour. He died a bliss filled death. I was grateful that nothing had come between us.

I returned to Oregon, filed for divorce and started graduate school to continue in my career in community mental health. I gradually let my siblings know that ”I don’t do church”.  In time I chose another partner, a Quaker fellow, a conscientious objector. We’ve been married for decades; have grown kids, grandkids and a lot of fun in our lives.

Breaking Silence

So what’s the problem about this old abuse thing with a priest? How did that pop up again? The silence had worked for so many years, and the “I don’t do church “ explanation was all that was needed.  On September 11, 2001 we all found ourselves living in a place of new fear and uncertainty. As a nation we looked around and within to find ways to deal with our grief.  In 2002, my life slowed down with cancer and my family was touched with crisis. Then the clergy abuse story broke. I was vulnerable when I went back to the convent.  There was a reunion. The trip was a gift of dear friends.  The Dallas meeting of the bishops had just happened. Catholics were talking.

My classmates and I talked round the clock as we gathered in the retreat house, sharing intimacy as women do. On Saturday night, after a full day, a gentle woman, a faithful churchwoman, turned and asked, “Why did you leave? You, of all our class, seemed so suited for the convent” I automatically said, “The year on mission I learned that I was not cut out for the life.”… THEN something of the closeness of the evening, the honesty of the past days combined with the vulnerability of my life, flowed together and created a moment, a flash, in which my tongue loosened, and without checking with my brain, my mouth spoke the words, “And there was the fact I was abused by a priest.

They gasped, I checked to see if I remained in one piece. I was asked if the sisters knew…No, I had not told them.”…. “You must tell”…. “Yes,” I promised. We talked more. I minimized the abuse…”Oh, it wasn’t really all that bad.” Another friend said, that she also had been abused by a priest…. same year…different place, and also…really not such a big deal!

I didn’t sleep much that night in the retreat house. We talked late and I rose early as I had asked to join the sisters in prayer before mass. In the chapel, the morning office started, the light was streaming through the windows and I experienced something breaking inside: profound, deep, firm, shaking me to the core. Something broke. Something opened.   I started to cry with a homesickness that could not be contained.  I was overcome with a flood of unbearable longing. The desire and demand to “Come Home” was an earthquake, which has shaped every day since.

                                                     Breaking Silence: Opening the Wound, a Spiritual Opportunity

I wrote a letter detailing the abuses…and how I couldn’t “do church”, on the flight back to Oregon.

Five years later, I know that when I broke the silence I opened my heart. I opened my heart, by breaking through the scar tissue of an old wound.  I opened my heart and started a spiritual journey to find my way “home”.  This has not been a clear or straight path. It has been both painful and rich in treasure.  The crooked road takes me into my shadow, my shame, my feelings of unworthiness, my loss, my grief for my young self, grief for what might have been. It is a journey which has taken me into my fear: first, a fear that my current life will lose its balance if I open this Pandora’s box of old memories; then fear of being crushed, destroyed, hurt if I break rank and defy the authority of the church; fear of putting my loved ones at risk, of causing pain and embarrassment to my community of sisters; fear of new rejection, again of not being wanted, by a church I once loved with every ounce of my body.

The road has not been pleasant but abandoning the journey is not an option. This is my life and my chance to “get it right” to understand myself and my purpose. I am a gardener and I understand that ground needs to be broken, softened for new seeds to grow. One of the new crops in my growth is  compelling curiosity. Where will this road go? What is ahead? What will  I learn? How can I best and most fully serve?  Who will I become?

So I follow the path as I have for the past five years. It is twisting and turning.  For a while, it turned back toward the church. For months, I assumed this journey would take me back into the church. I was intrigued and started to inquire and study.

A friend suggested that I begin my reintroduction to the Catholic Church by reading the National Catholic Reporter. I started reading online. My inquiry took me to the current happenings of the Church. I read of the events around the disclosures of abuse around the country. I read that victims were being questioned, challenged as to the authenticity of their stories and the realness of their experiences and their claims of injury and pain.

I was outraged. Persons abused by church are already suffering a loss of spiritual definition and spiritual comfort. Instead of consolation and pastoral kindness, the Church was treating victims of abuse as the new lepers, the despised and unwanted of the Church family. I was moved to raise my voice in support of victims and their truthfulness.  I become a volunteer with a national survivor network and began to get calls from survivors around the state seeking validation.  I found myself within a new community of persons with whom I continue to share common experience and camaraderie.

I continued to deal with my own abuse. I pushed the sisters and had them get me the name of the abusing priest. I had no names of any of the three priests in my saga. None of them were a priest of my parish. I knew them only as “confessors from somewhere else”.  (Part of my healing is to acknowledge I have never had a bad experience with a priest I knew or who was in a position of pastor to me).  I pushed the sisters because I had to have a name; I had to know if my abuser was alive (he is not). After a false start the sisters got an identity by locating former nuns at St. John’s who had been abused by the same man. These women had more stories/rumors of other abuses including rape and impregnated women. I filed abuse reports with the diocese of Peoria.

As my journey turned to the church, it just as suddenly twisted again away. I made a request for “reconciliation” with the diocese of Peoria, and instead of reconciliation; I experienced another round of rejection. I opened myself to a new level of vulnerability and told of my abuse. However, I was not welcomed as the lost daughter, the one kidnapped and hauled off into foreign lands…the one coming home after all these years after crossing miles of desert and sand to find my way back to the home camp… which was my self image.

The church did not want to hear my story. I spoke; therefore I was suspect, maybe even someone who might “file a lawsuit”, the worst kind of traitor. There was no “reconciliation” with the diocese of Peoria. I was ignored, repeatedly.  This rejection caused turmoil.  This time I had no place else to run. This time I did not have youth to escape into. This time I was rejected for the mature and aging woman I am. I saw myself as a peacemaker, a problem solver, and part of the solution. The church saw me as a troublemaker, a traitor, and a problem to be avoided. There would be no reconciliation. There would be no apology.

The World Goes On

However, my needs were more internal than external. There would be no apology but the drive to walk into my own true discovery had to continue   My head was wrong with the assumptions of where the path would lead; however, my heart directed me to continue. The journey to spiritual healing is bigger than my story, even my life. Spiritual healing is the need of the entire world. There will be no peace until millions of us embrace our own spiritual healing and regain our own spiritual strength. To be concerned about my family, the state of this nation, the peace of the world, the environment of the globe was to make the commitment that Peace begins with me.

To quote Lao Tse, Sixth Century, BCE.  “If there is peace in my heart, there will be peace in my home. If there is peace in the home, there will be peace in the neighborhood. If there is peace in the neighborhoods there will be peace in the cities. If there is peace in the cities there will be peace in the nations. When there is peace in the nations there will be peace in the world”. My own healing efforts are all I have to offer to the world peacemaking needs. 

I am a different person now. The glass floor and ceiling of my old defenses prior to Sept 8, 2002, were shattered. The journey continues as a spiral. My joys of the spiritual journey continue to pile up, one after another. I now find delight in being a Christian. I have found books and study. I see both the ugly and beauty of Catholic history and tradition and hold both as my inheritance. I continue to be excited to learn of the scholarship and wisdoms of the historical Jesus and AramaicYesuah.  I have been befriended by Taize, that wonderful service which calls for the wounded, the hurt and the broken to come and receive the grace of music and healing. I have fallen in love with the Labyrinth, a sacred pattern of pilgrimage and journey to God, direct from the great Mary Cathedral of 1200:Chartres.

To my surprise, I find pleasure at the Mass and joy within the Eucharist (at the Episcopal church). The spiritual search has not brought me back into the Church or any other organized faith.  It has brought me to places of comfort and prayer within a variety of diverse organizations, ranging from institutes of spiritual learning to contemplative retreats. It has brought me into a need and appreciation for silence. It has brought me to a place of honesty and peace of heart. It has brought me to a place without pretense and without fear. 

Most of all it has brought me to reconnecting with a piece of myself, which had been severed. With this reconnection, this action of being made whole, I now experience living at a deeper place.  This is an inner place. It is a bigger place that can hold more of the polarities of my life experiences. I am learning to hold the extremes with some tenderness. It is place of more peace where I can live more gently with the ebbs and flows of life.  From this place I love more deeply and have more patience for myself, my family, the others in my world. From this place I more often appreciate the awe of the present moment.

This process of reconnecting to a lost part has led me to touch my center. The center within each of us. The center which holds steady through the chaos of our lives. This place described by spiritual writers is always within us, but is not always so obvious to us. The only way I know to get to my center is with the practice of mindful breathing. Breathing in new creation and exhaling those parts of memories, experiences, enmeshments, expectations, knots and ties, which no longer serve me in becoming who I most deeply want to become.

That is what I hope happens with the writing and reading of this story, that myself and the reader will find new ways to more fully become the persons we deeply want to be. Each survivor has a story of events, which has disrupted that dream of who they wanted to be.

What heartbreaking stories: Women abused as nuns who then had their communities turn against them, women abused before they became nuns, which ended that path for them, old women who were abused when they were little girls, women abused as young college students, women abused as young converts.  Some women abused by rape, others by seduction, all hurt and wounded.  Men, seminarians and pre-seminarians hurt as young men, forever feeling separated from their spiritual paths, goals and dreams. Boys abused when their religious eagerness led them to become altar boys, others because they were students in a Catholic school. Each person hurt because they were close to and trusted a member of the clergy, religious or staff. Our individual stories have kept us in a prison of silence, shame and isolation.

With the telling of the individual stories, a release happens, the heart opens a bit and I believe that each time a survivor tells his/her story, a hero is born. A hero who is breaking the shackles of shame. A hero who is walking beyond the limits of his/her personal story to search for true authenticity.  A hero on a unique and sacred journey to discover her/his spiritual self, the highest self. .

None of us know where our road will lead us throughout our life. An open heart is often surprised.

I expect my journey to continue to be that of a Catholic in exile. I sense that I am doing a cradle to grave dance with this church of my birth. It is a rough dance of attraction and rejection. It is a compelling dance; it is where I continue to learn of my true self, my wholeness, and my holiness.

I am starting to be aware of another dance, even more encompassing. Is this the dance of life? The dance of creation?
I know that –
                             Within this bigger, deeper, wider dance, as at the center that holds, 
                                         Now, as in my beginning,

  I feel gentled
into the arms of God.  

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