Breaking the Cycle of Abuse
By John Mallon
From The Sooner Catholic; November 5, 1995
(One evening after work I was attempting to write a letter to someone who had written to me, basically blaming me for all that was wrong in the Church, and lumping me among those in the Church who had mistreated him in his past. I began my letter but soon something very real took over the process. I believe I am supposed to share the result.)
I am very, very sorry that you were treated so abusively by people who apparently represented the Church. And on their behalf, whoever they were, as a representative of the Church, I ask your forgiveness. Many people have reported this kind of harsh treatment received as children at the hands of priests and nuns. In fact, I experienced it myself first-hand as a child. I had a nun in first grade whom I could only describe as sadistic. I think it a fair and honest statement that she quite likely inflicted psychological scars that I may carry the rest of my life. By the time I reached third grade I had to be taken out of the parochial school, and repeat the third grade because I had missed so much school. I was simply too terrified to go. I had developed a profound school phobia, which finally culminated in my becoming involved in drugs and dropping out of high school.
When I was a child there was a young priest at my parish whom I can only surmise was a deeply troubled young man. I had the misfortune to go to him for my first Penance. The man was so astonishingly cruel to me as a six year old—again, as with the sister—I don’t think sadistic is too strong a word. This same priest harangued his congregation brutally—once on Mother’s Day, no less—blaming all the problems of society on mothers. Most of the women left Mass that day traumatized and in tears, the same way so many left his confessional—a place any Catholic has a right to receive God’s love, mercy and peace.
Eventually, that priest got involved with a woman in the parish and left the priesthood to marry her. I am not without sympathy—empathy even—for those who have suffered greatly at the hands of Church personnel because I too have suffered at their hands.
Thank God, I never experienced the kind of sexual abuse we hear reported so often. I can only shudder imagining the pain suffered by children through sexual abuse by clergy and others, not to mention the rage they feel as adults. What can one do except weep and pray for mercy on our Church?
But the Good News is that Jesus died for me, as he did for you, and His graciousness allows me to receive His gift of salvation, which begins in this life. As a result, my pain, resentment and even, yes, feelings of hatred towards those who mistreated me does not have to rule my life. It is because of Jesus that I can overcome this pain and resentment and let His light shine into it.
Sometimes it is like a ray of bright sunshine streaming into an old musty attic, and it reveals just how much house-cleaning needs to be done, and how much old junk needs to be thrown out. Believe me, it’s overwhelming! But I don’t have to do it alone, Jesus is there to help me, and to keep me from being paralyzed and terrified by the darkness I sometimes discover in my soul. But coming to terms with my darkness under the light of Christ is not something “negative,” it is life and healing itself.
In one corner of the attic is an old trunk full of memories of how I was treated by that priest and sister so long ago. It is very frightening. When I open it and start sifting through it I can easily be overwhelmed by the surge of emotion that runs through me. I want to do those people harm. I am transported back in my mind’s time machine and I see myself dragging that priest by the scruff of the neck out of the confessional where he is brutalizing little me, and pinning him against the wall and saying, “What the hell do you think you’re doing! He’s a child, for God’s sake!” I regard him with violence in my heart.
But if Jesus goes back with me in the time machine, He, no doubt, will handle things differently. I can see him taking the grown up John about ready to assault that priest, and instead directing me to go attend to little John, to reassure him and comfort him, while Jesus takes the priest over to a pew to have a chat. As little John starts to lighten up, as children do, I glance over my shoulder and am startled to see the priest dissolved in sobs in Jesus’ arms. Little John asks, “What’s the matter with him?” I look at little John, and look at the priest, and back at little John, and catch my own reflection looking back at me.
Suddenly there’s a lump the size of a baseball in my throat, and I can’t talk when I try to answer Johnny’s question. With quivering chin I start to choke out, “I guess someone once treated Father the way he was just treating you.” I look over and Jesus looks at me and gives me a gentle, knowing nod while Father is sobbing into His shoulder blade. Little John says, “Well, let’s go over and tell him it’s okay.” That was all I needed to hear. Now I’m sobbing like a banshee holding on to Johnny for all he’s worth—which suddenly seems like more than I ever dreamed.
He says, “C’mon.” and leads me by the hand over to the two of them. When we get there, Father sees me, and he suddenly embraces me sobbing and retching, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry! Please forgive me! Please!” I could hardly remember why, just a few minutes ago, I wanted to clobber him. So here’s the two of us slobbering and gasping, and the only thing I want to do in the world is tell him he’s forgiven and reassure him that everything turned out okay. After a while we see ourselves puffy faced, soaked with each other’s tears, clear stringy mucous everywhere, and we break into that silly laughter that usually follows these scenes.
Jesus comes over to break it up and tells Father to go have a seat and points to a pew in front of the Tabernacle, telling him He’ll be with him in a few minutes. As Father obeys, Jesus takes Johnny and me aside and explains, “You see, Father had a lot of musty trunks in his attic but no one ever told him that I loved him anyway. He thought all his trunks needed to be cleaned out first before he could come to Me. Tragically, most of the stuff in those trunks were not his sins, but someone else’s sins committed against him when he was an innocent child. But the stench from those trunks overwhelmed him and he tried to slam them shut and pretend they weren’t there. But all the while he felt accused and guilty for sins he didn’t even commit. Eventually he began sinning against others in the same way he’d been sinned against, because he couldn’t face it. He was too terrified of what he would see. He thought it would be so terrible, it would mean he would deserve nothing but hell—but they weren’t even his sins to begin with. But the intensity of the emotion was too much for him.
“After all,” Jesus continued, “look how you felt, John, when you looked in your trunk.” “Mercy!” I murmured. “Exactly. He even went into the priesthood thinking that would magically fix or protect him somehow; but of course it only made things worse when it turned out he was still a sinner as a priest.”
Johnny asked, “If they weren’t even his sins, what was the big deal?” “Well,” Jesus said, “he didn’t know that. The only message he got was that if he wasn’t perfect he was terrible, and judging from the adults in his life that meant punishment. Worst of all, he got the message that if he wasn’t perfect no one would love him. And because children can’t help thinking that God must be like their parents, he began to believe that if he wasn’t perfect he would certainly go to hell. He wasn’t perfect, of course, and the stress of that caused him to sin all the more, and the cycle was in motion. No one ever told him of My mercy.”
Johnny asked, “Gee, he was a priest, couldn’t he have heard it somewhere along the way?” Jesus answered, “It was certainly spoken of during his studies, but you have to remember that fear has a way of closing people’s ears, and for him it was too terrifying to even listen to. Of course it came up in his training, but what was too frightening for him he just treated as academic and clinical, and buried his feelings. He kept it all superficial—at a distance, because it was too volatile for him to get too close to it personally.
“Hearing confessions became a torment to him, because the vulnerability of his penitents was something he couldn’t bear, because he was too frightened to be vulnerable, even with Me! He never learned to pray because he saw Me as an authority figure always ready to punish him. He wasn’t even able to give Me a chance. But by now he was an authority figure as a priest, and in his mind this was how authority figures acted. He never knew any different. So many people like him grew up unable to distinguish My loving authority, which I bequeathed to My Church, from the sin of authoritarianism. In their fear they lump it all together. Of course the devil gets involved too. One of Satan’s favorite weapons is fear. I think you can see why. That is why my Pope, at the end of the 20th century, travels around the world saying ‘Do not be afraid! Come to Christ!’”
“Well, what about that, Lord,” I asked, “what is going on at the end of this century? In my work I get such angry, hateful letters from such mixed up hurting people... and they are aiming their hatred at the Church. It’s enough to break your heart...” “Yes John, The Church sometimes must imitate Me in my role as scapegoat, no matter how unjust it is. I know that it hurts you and I thank you for it. I need people who will offer their hearts to be broken for Me.”
I had to look away. There was that baseball in my throat again—how off-handedly He said that. I could hardly keep my composure. So typical of Jesus to affirm you right where you think you are failing. But Jesus has this way of sometimes addressing us as we ought to be, thus moving us into the vision.
“But,” He continued, “Sadly, we have a lot of people who have a background like that poor priest over there,” We looked and we was kneeling before the Tabernacle gently swaying with a deep smile on his face.
Jesus continued, “and when someone’s first exposure to me is surrounded by fear—I can’t tell you how it grieved me when children would be coming forward for first Communion and the teachers would be barking, ‘Get in line! Stay in line! No talking!’ just scaring those poor children to death. I just wanted to enter their lives to bless and love them—but here—more wounds inflicted in My Name. It’s been happening ever since the Gospel times. The poor teachers meant well, but it was all they ever knew too. There were saints among them, but alas, I hoped for more...
“Anyway, people naturally began to wake up that all this fear wasn’t what I had in mind, but they blamed it all on the Church. They mistook the misbehavior of people in the Church to represent the teaching of the Church, which of course it never was. But these people were hurting too much, and trying so hard they couldn’t make those distinctions. Fear goes deep and the enemy is clever. So instead of recognizing those teachings as their very freedom and healing, they attempted to discard them.
“But of course they still had consciences steeped in the waters of baptism and they weren’t able to discard them, really, because My Law is written on their hearts. So here is a new conflict. But the fear was still there. Because of it they still couldn’t hear My message of mercy over the desperate noise of their lives.
“Because of their fear they could not hear the Good News, but rather blamed the Good News for their pain, as if the message of the Church was the source of their guilt and fear, instead of realizing it was the antidote for their guilt and fear. They began to deny the fact of sin, because they experienced every mention of sin as an accusation. And in that sense they were victims of a demonic lie.
“As you well know, John, sin is a reality that cannot be denied, but the only way to escape its clutches is to acknowledge it honestly, and be washed in My blood in the sacraments and prayer. That is freedom. But for those victimized by this fear of guilt, to admit guilt is an admission of total failure. They don’t realize that all have fallen short of the glory of God, yet all are still loved by God. For them the admission of guilt means that they are ultimately unlovable—that I have abandoned them, but that is a lie! I could never abandon them! I love them! Every lovable, sinful one of them! I just want them to come to me. We can work out the misunderstandings but come to me. I will teach them all they need to know if they would only come to me.”
Here I was startled by His passion—He was swept up in it. If He were not God, I would say he was desperate about it. But then, passionate lovers do tend to get desperate when it comes to their beloved.
I asked him, “So, Lord, it staggers the imagination. That priest over there abused me, because he was abused by someone else who was abused—perhaps going back centuries—where does it end? “It already did end,” he said, “right there.” He pointed to the crucifix. “I felt the secret agonies of every one of them, every link in every chain, every hurt, act of abuse, every cutting, unjust accusation, I saw each one of them and felt it pierce me, in the garden and on the cross. As for the individual seeking to appropriate this freedom from the cycle, that takes place right there.” He said, indicating the confessional. I wish not only to forgive each of My children’s own sins, and the pain and regret they caused, but also heal the painful effects of sins committed against them. The confessional is the normal place for that. But the important thing for them to know is that I want embrace them in my healing, not scold or shame them.
“But Lord,” I said, “For me, as a six year old, the confessional was the very place the abuse was being handed on!” “Yes,” said Jesus. “And I’m here aren’t I? I am pouring graces on the world for people to awaken to me and be set free. I did that for you, didn’t I? Plucked you off the dung heap? Despite how many times you were failed by officials in the Church? And despite all the times you failed Me? And now I have put you in a position of serving officials of My Church to help them communicate the Good News of My grace.” “Yes, Lord.” There was that baseball in my throat again. I didn’t know if I was about to grin, weep or both.
“No one,” He continued, “need be fearful of the message of My Church. It speaks My words of love. Every word exists only to guide you home to Me. Don’t let fear keep you from Me. Walk right through it. I have promised you, though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will be with you. When you walk through the burning flames they will not harm you. The depths of the sea will not overwhelm you. Do not be afraid, just come to me. The Church is my very body, my very heart, come into my heart!”
With that I found myself back sitting at my computer, with the baseball-sized lump still in my throat, my little six-year-old self reintegrated in me, and wondering how best to get across to the people what Jesus so longed for them to know. Prayers graciously accepted.
© By John Mallon, 1995, 2013, 2020