The sexual and physical abuse began almost immediately after the Primary School doors closed behind me and the Junior Seminary doors opened. Two priests – from a staff of six – were later to be put in prison for what they did to us. Others may well have served time too, but they were called to face judgement in a higher court before earthly justice could catch up with them.
My purpose here is not to go back into the details of the carnage and cruelty visited upon us. For me, it is at long, long last, time to move on. I share the following in the hope that it may give hope to those who are still trapped in the endless cycle of depression, substance or alcohol abuse or an inability to form deep and lasting adult relationships. This is for you, my brothers and sisters in Christ.
I had reached the end. My life as a priest had fallen apart and I left, angry, disillusioned and hope-less. I considered not walking this planet any more. I was staying in a mice-ridden hovel. Most of my friends had long since deserted me. No wonder. Who would want to be around someone so consumed with self-pity and so angry at the world and the Church? I had even applied for three jobs working with Catholic charities as a chaplain. In one case I actually got the job, then the chairman googled me and sacked me before I had even started. That was probably the lowest point. Every door slammed shut in my face. It was cruel.
I lurked on a BBC website which discussed moral, ethical and religious issues. I posted regularly but again, my posts tended to be irate diatribes. One evening, about a year ago, the blogosphere turned blue. A group of fundamentalist Christians invaded the website and began hurling abuse at each other. They were using Bible quotes like poisoned arrows, condemning each other and threatening each other with eternal damnation. They all had one thing in common – they were all right and everyone else was wrong. There were over three thousand posts – the most ever on that website. Some of the “Christian” comments were so twisted and bitter that the BBC put the site on permanent moderation. Many of the comments were simply deleted after appearing, such was their venom.
From my perceived righteous platform, I decided to post a scripture quote too. It read, “When you are making an offering at the temple and you realise that your brother has something against you, leave your offering, go and make peace with your brother, then make your offering and it will be acceptable to God.” I swithered about pressing the ‘send’ button for a moment, then went for it and off went my post, consigned to half an hour in cyber limbo before popping up like a sunbeam in the midst of all the on-line darkness. Or so I thought.
The other posters didnt see it that way. (lol.) For the next few hours I was subjected to some pretty vicious stuff as the Christian bloggers went for me. I think the term I would use would be ‘righteous indignation.’
Something happened to me that night as I sat there wallowing in how I had shown these people just how far away from the Gospel of Jesus they were. I was pathetically triumphant. I suddenly realised that I was a complete hypocrite. For years I had held a very deep-seated grudge against another priest. I detested him and had often justified my bitterness towards him. And here was I preaching to others about making up with ‘your brother.’ For the first time in many years I got down on my knees. I pleaded with God to let all of this stop. I could no longer live like this. I was angry and nothing made me angrier than someone pointing that out to me. I decided that the next morning I would drive to the priest’s house and apologise to him. No, “But you did this or that to me!!” Just an unqualified apology, from me, to him. (The crucial step here, I now realise, was that Christ’s teaching on forgiveness means swallowing, above all else, our pride.)
The next morning I got into my car, started up the engine and, for the second time in twelve hours, something happened to me. It is difficult to put into words, but I’ll try. It was as if a very calm inner voice was saying, “At long last! I have finally got you where I wanted you to be. You have arrived. What took you so long? Now, I can use you.” I switched off the engine realising that this was not about me offering an apology to anyone, it was about me. It was about a change of heart, a change of direction – metanoia. From that moment, everything changed. The closed doors began to open, every one of them.
When I was twelve, my mother had contacted the priests at the Juniory Seminary and asked for permission for me to attend my aunt’s final profession as a Little Sister of the Poor. It was to take place in France. The priests were not happy about the request but eventually they relented and allowed me to go. But, boy, was I to suffer for that one upon my return!
We stayed in a little French village called Dinard. I fell in love with the place. It was all cobbled streets, nice cafes and sunshine. The first evening in the hotel, the waiter took the order. I wanted French omlette and chips, the height of French cuisine – for a twelve year old. I cant remember anything tasting so nice in my life – certainly a world away from the stodge we were routinely served up at the seminary.
For reasons that may be obvious to some (and not to others), I couldnt tell my mum what was going on back at the seminary. The five days came to a close all to soon and I had to return to that hellish place. The abuse recommenced almost immediately and continued for years until I was old enough to stand up for myself. The way I got through it was by dreaming of that little French village and by praying to God that one day he would get me out of this wicked place and let me live there.
Thirty five years later, the day after I had decided to apologise to the priest for whom I had carried so much resentment, my phone rang and an old priest asked if I was available to go abroad to take over his parish. The day was my 20th anniversary of ordination. He sent me my flight tickets and, two days later, I found myself in a little French village with cobbled streets, lined with cafes and glorious sunshine. The parishioners wanted to meet me and convince me to take the job so they took me to a very posh restaurant. (I was a ‘sure thing’, but they didnt know that!!) When the waiter arrived, I asked for…… French omlette and chips. The people protested and urged me to have something more expensive like foie gras or crevette. I stood my ground and insisted. I wanted French omlette and chips.
At the end of the meal, a lady asked if I had enjoyed it. I told her that it was the most beautiful meal I had ever had in my life. They gave me the job. They all went home, I went for a walk along the lake and watched the sun go down over the Alps. I am not ashamed to admit that I wept. I knew that the pain and suffering was over now. I kew that the bitterness which had so scarred me, had lifted.
It was now an inescapable fact – to me – that God had indeed heard the tears of a young boy being abused by monsters in a crypt all those years before. He had not forgotten me. I now consider myself to be the parish priest of paradise. There isnt a day goes by where I dont pinch myself and thank God for his goodness to me. At times, I find his love overwhelming. You will often hear victims of clergy sexual abuse say, “They stole the Church from me.” I KNOW what that means. They stole it from me too, but God gave me it back.
I hope that those who were abused and for whom there continues to be no ‘happy ending’, will forgive me if this appears insensitive to their plight. I hope and pray that they find peace. For me, it didnt happen – couldnt happen – until I handed the pain over to God. I took seriously, “Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest”, the most beautiful promise that Jesus made to all of us. I had been trying to do it all on my own my whole life and it sapped every ounce of energy and much of the goodness, out of me. (I dont believe in original sin any more, I believe in original goodness.)
My parishioners are a very educated people who have experienced the Church around the world. They are very open minded and just a pleasure to serve. There is no one sitting there listening to my sermons with an angry pen and a stamped addressed envelope to the local Bishop. I no longer bark with supposed authority from the pulpit. I know now how much I dont know. I tend to speak much more softly and from the wisdom of experience. And the humour has returned, this time without the barbs though. I hope I am now able to touch broken hearts because my heart was broken. I now consider it a privilege to be given a microphone and to be allowed to stand in front of a congregation and speak – whisper – about God and about life.
I often hear people describe the abused as ‘survivors.’ I dont like that term, accurate though it is. Life is not for “surviving”, it is, as Jesus said, for “living to the full.” But I just didnt know how to do that. After much darkness Jesus drew me to himself and I was able to hand everything over to him, all the unpallatable truths about myself, the anger, the frustration, the apathy, the lack of forgiveness and the helplessness. My life changed the day I got on my knees and asked – pleaded – with Christ to help me and put everything on his lap.
Carl Jung once said that Christianity is ultimately a very simple thing but that very often, simple things are the hardest things to do. I think I now know what he meant. I have now found the inner peace that I sought for so long in all the wrong places. I pray that everyone who is carrying burdens of guilt, shame, anger or resentment can let go and let God. It is a beautiful place to be and it doesnt need cobbled streets, cafes and sunshine to make it so.