A SURVIVOR: SEXUAL ABUSE IN THE CHURCH (PART 1 OF 9)

Today’s Prayer to Passage will be from the book ‘The Freedom Writer’s Diary’ by Erin Gruwell.

Today I pray, “Dear God, Writing frees us. It is through writing that we may open the doors that liberate us. It is through writing that we may let go. Amen.”

Following my prayer, I held the closed book in my hands and opened it to this passage:

“Silence ensures that history repeats itself.”
—ERIN GRUWELL

I am continuing to post interviews I have conducted with people willing to share their stories of why they have stopped attending church. I interviewed Sarah five years ago in 2011. Here is her story:

SARAH, 50, MOTHER:

“I was born in 1961. I’m 50 years old. Life as I knew it was one where my parents were coming out of the Depression Era. I was born and raised in Willmar, Minnesota. There were three children in our family. I’m the middle child.

Back then, most people my age had parents coming out of the Depression Era. We all were coming into an age where we didn’t have a lot of credit. It was a basic life. We didn’t have all the different things that stressed us out. My mom was an Ophthalmologist so she worked out of the home, and my father drove truck.

My parents didn’t really have a big culture in church, but my grandmother was raised a strong Catholic. And it was her wish that we would all go to private school, or Catholic school at least. So my Kindergarten was elsewhere and then I was enrolled into Saint Mary’s. At that time Saint Mary’s was the Catholic school, and there was a nunnery in the town. The building still exists. I think it’s owned by Divine House, Presbyterian Foundation. And they house clients there.

And the pastor. Or the father at the time — I’m Lutheran now — was Father Roney. And he had been there. Actually, they moved him over from different congregations. He had come from Benson. So I don’t really remember him. Age-wise, I’m assuming he would’ve been in his thirties. I don’t really remember.

So, private school. I was feeling different, as that would be because all the neighborhood kids went to one school and I went to a different school. I remember the long bus rides there. Never because I didn’t know any different; just because the other neighborhood kids got walked to school and we got picked up. The bus driver drove us to school and then directly to church. And we did church every morning.

It was a private parochial school. We started the day with church every morning, and then we moved on to the journey of the day. I didn’t like school, which probably goes back to a lot of different reasons — and much I’ll never know. It was challenging. Insecurities. And I do not remember exactly when the abuse started but I remember the very first time, vividly, when I was… I remember… I’m not sure if the pastor… I keep calling him a pastor; I’m not used to it. I’m not sure if Father Roney wore clothing underneath his cloak, but I remember one of the very first times, going into the lunch area. And he would have a few of us embrace him. And then he would always have an erection.

I remember that vividly. And finding… I guess I didn’t know any better. Children didn’t know any better. We didn’t know. And I was really feeling that I was in a place of such safety. I’m 50, so never ever ever were we ever taught anything about touch or anything like that. And people worshipped him.

He was the head honcho. He was the person who was… I think we give so much power, and we did back then, to the leaders of the congregation. We feel that they are the be all, end all. We feel that they will save us. They will help us. They are as close to God as we’re going to get. As a matter of fact, to a child, I think that I was almost assuming that they were a part of God.

God as I knew it. Because I was so young. I was in the first grade. The abuse lasted from age seven-years to eight to maybe 11. And then the school closed down, so by the time I was in the fifth grade, I was gone.

I remember going back to the rectory. He kind of had an open format. He’d come over to the school all the time. The church was right across the street. His access was visually open all the time. He was always wandering the halls. And children, of course, would run up to him.

And then I kind of started to hold myself at arm’s length. Though I never really knew what was wrong. So then, when the actual abuse started taking place it was because… I just remember being back in his rectory. I can tell you how it looked, but I don’t remember the exact circumstances other than him… I visually remember seeing him naked. And then oral sex. But not anything that I really remember.

As I journeyed through life, I think that I went into a part where — whether I was aware of it consciously or subconsciously — I went into a type of insecurity. A type of… What’s the word I’m searching for?

I don’t think I grew into my teen years feeling secure. Because — and I will never know how it would’ve been prior to sexual abuse. Or if it just would’ve been that way anyway. I don’t really know. Who or what would’ve changed, if anything. I might have still been the same person with the addictions and the insecurities and all the other things. It could have very well played into a big part of my life, but I do not know that. I mean, obviously, it does something.

By age 16 I absolutely despised my body. I absolutely had no… I still struggle with that. By 16, I wouldn’t even look into a mirror. I had a full-fledged eating disorder. Bulimia, Anorexia. Back in the ’70s nobody had heard about it. I mean nobody.

My doctors in Willmar didn’t know how to treat me. They absolutely didn’t know what it was. It was so far back. There was no… Anorexia was just a word that… I mean this is back in the ’70s. It was 34 years ago. So back then I didn’t have a clue why. I remember I went in and I had some tests done. Doctor Hanson, at the time, referred me out. There was a government study down at the University of Minnesota. I was invited to try that. But I had to be X amount of low weight in order to do it. Yada, yada, yada. I weighed 101 pounds, I think.

And in the meantime, I flitted in and out of different periods of my life. Then I was 18. That was the summer after I graduated high school. I finally went in for help. My potassium levels were really low. I was in the intensive care unit for about three days prior to my parents, of course, becoming upset. They put me in an eating disorder ward. And then slowly…

At age 18 I was petrified of gaining weight. I was not getting to the root of anything. Of course they called me in for family, and my dad was a man’s man, so the words “sexual abuse” terrified him. And he automatically took that into “I have not touched that girl.” My dad never associated it with… “Could it have been someone else?”

“No. No. No. No.” The answers to sexual abuse were always, “No. Absolutely none.” So then I started going in different directions. And I was so persistent. We all were. There was absolutely no sexual abuse. So the blocking began. And I suppose during that course it was a hold-over until I was released. And two or three years later, I was right back to where I was before, so I never really began on the cusp of anything.

There was never anything really good… Oh, one. I had a boyfriend. It was probably my junior and senior years of high school. I was still feeling unsettled. My mind would go from thing to thing to thing — never really feeling a placement of belonging. And it could have of stemmed back from the earlier years when I didn’t feel like… When I knew something was different.

I went through that. And my teen years were… I think of them as a mess. I don’t think that’s a good word, but by age 16 things had gone totally amuck. I never got into any trouble with the law or anything but I was definitely out there.

My other two sisters have no recollection of any abuse. I was in the middle. I have one older sister and one younger sister. So things went on as they would.

I got married and had three children. In the process of one of my pregnancies, I met with a woman. I told her about the eating disorder. I told her about the self-loathing, which is still there. And she asked, “Are you sure there’s never been any sexual abuse?”

That was the second time it had ever come up in a conversation. That was in 1989. I was 28 years old. And my answer again was, “Nope. Nope. Nope.”

And she said, “That’s so amazing because usually people with such inner hatred will have something else going on.” And I could not figure it out. I think I always knew, deep in my head, that there was something.

And then my mom passed away. It was sudden. I had attended a funeral two weeks prior to my mother’s death. And I remember going to the funeral and turning to drive down 15th Street toward the old Catholic church. I remember thinking “I know I’m going to have to do this again.” I still remember the corner. Turning, thinking, “I’m going to have to do this again really soon.” And two weeks later, my mom died. A premonition, maybe.

So she passed away and, of course, another Catholic funeral. And that’s when it all hit me. “I will not return to this God-forsaken church. This place makes me sick.””

(TO BE CONTINUED…)

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