Share this story

 | By Elizabeth Solsburg

A Victim/Survivor Forgives her Abuser

Maggie* has no idea why the priest at her elementary school singled her out. Was it because she was the tallest girl on the junior-high cheerleading squad? Was it because of her smile? Or was it just because she was the last one left on the courtyard playground after cheerleading practice that day? The day that Father X sexually abused her for the first time. She was 12.

*The subject’s real name is not being used, nor her photograph identified, in order to protect her privacy. This story may be disturbing to young children. Parental discretion is advised.

For the next eight months, the priest assigned to the church at her parish school molested her regularly. He would find her alone. He would have her sent over to the rectory in the middle of a school day. When she tried to protest, she was told that it was an honor to be singled out by Father for special attention. She was 12—so she went.

The abuse continued into eighth grade and only ended when Maggie and her family moved to a new town, a new school—a new diocese. 

A broken relationship

As soon as she could, Maggie left the Church. 

“I stayed away until it was time to get married. It was my obligation and duty to be married in the Catholic Church. That was what was expected of me, and so I had a big church wedding. Then I had my kids, and of course it was expected that they be baptized in the church, so I had them baptized.”

But although she was physically present in the building, Maggie had no relationship with the Church or with God. She had no trust in either one.

“I put on this great front that everybody saw—a husband and children who were in catechism. I did what was expected of me and that was it. There was no attachment.”

As victims often do, Maggie pushed the memories of what had happened to her away, buried them deep. She didn’t tell anyone—because Father told her she couldn’t.

“He told me there was nothing wrong with what he was doing. And he told me I was not allowed to tell. He represented God, he was the end-all. I had been taught to respect that; there was no questioning a priest. So when he told me there was nothing wrong, I had to believe there was nothing wrong. When he told me that I couldn’t tell, I knew I couldn’t tell.”

After they had moved into the Diocese of Lansing, she tried to forget. But you can only do that for so long.

When Maggie was 27, she finally told.

Disclosing the truth

“My husband had no idea when he married me that I brought this baggage—this burden—into our marriage. But it started to surface; so he was the first person I told. When I did, he was loving and supportive, but said, ‘That was in the past; let’s move forward.’ Neither one of us fully comprehended what all the ramifications would be—I was opening a Pandora’s box. I didn’t know it, but my journey was just beginning.

“The next ones I told were my mom and dad. My father had been a policeman for 30 years, so his reaction was to be so angry at the priest who had abused me. My mother’s reaction was great sorrow—I think my mother’s heart just broke for her child—even though I was grown. I was the baby and the only girl—she was sad that I never felt I could come to her and tell her.

“Then I told my brothers. They were mostly shocked. One brother had attended the same school and his reaction was, “Where is he? I’m going to go find him.” He was extremely angry.

“I didn’t report the priest to the bishop; I wasn’t even sure how to do that. I was also afraid of what it would be like to tell—and I later learned what often happened to others who did so: They were horribly interrogated. They were re-victimized through the reporting, and that’s a tragedy. These are people who are not out looking for money, but who just want to do what’s right and protect other children.”

At this point, the scandal had not hit the news. Maggie didn’t know anyone else who had been abused by a priest—she had no idea there was anyone else.

She had told the people who were most important in her life. They had believed her and supported her, but wanted to move on. Nobody really spoke about it again. But Maggie had a lot of emotions rolling around and nowhere to take them. That’s when a friend invited her on her first parish retreat at the St. Francis Retreat Center in DeWitt.  On the last afternoon of the retreat, participants were invited to take part in a healing service.  Anyone who chose to do so could ask the others to pray for some healing she needed in her life. 

“I don’t know why, but I stood up and walked to the front of the chapel and I said, ‘I need everybody to pray for me, for my healing, because I was sexually abused by a Catholic priest.’ And you heard this intake of breath taking the air out of the room. I saw my best friend in the back of the room sobbing and crying. 

“It was the first time that I had acknowledged it publicly.  My voice was shaking, I was trembling. I can’t say that I felt great about it, but looking back, it was that tiny baby step I needed to take.

Stepping into the healing process

“Forgiveness had not entered my thought process yet. It was not even what I was thinking about. I was now starting to feel anger. I was beginning the steps of grief: First you acknowledge it, you bargain about it, you get angry. 

“I was grieving loss: my loss of innocence, my loss of childhood. The biggest loss was the loss of trust. 

Maggie had felt alone until that day, but coming to that parish retreat opened a door. 

“When I went on that first retreat, I had never been at the retreat center before and I didn’t know Father Larry Delaney, the director at the retreat center. When I got up and told my story, Father Larry said, ‘I want to talk to you.’ He sat down with me and said, ‘Talk to me. What’s happened to you? You don’t have to tell me details, just tell me.’ For the first time, I sat next to a priest and felt like I should feel in the presence of a priest—the care and the concern. He talked to me and he got angry about what happened to me. For the first time, someone who represented the Church was angry on my behalf. He was just what I needed him to be that night; he let me talk, and no one had really let me do that yet. 

“My husband had had a hard time listening to me talk about this—his wife was wounded and he couldn’t fix it. I felt tremendous guilt about not revealing this before I married him—that I brought this as a burden into our marriage. 

“Finally, someone let me be mad out loud and was mad for me. I needed someone from the Church to say, ‘This was wrong. What happened to you was wrong. It was evil.’” 

Although Maggie continued to see Father Larry on retreats, she spent her 30s roiling in anger. When the national scandal broke in the secular media, her pain intensified. The news reports were filled with the story almost every day.

And every day, every time there was another victim, it was like opening the wound. 

“Every time I heard about it, I was re-wounded. Even now, when I hear of a new case, I feel the pain of it. But now, for me, it’s not as intense because I have journeyed so far. But in my 30s, it was like pouring alcohol in an open wound. 

“It was even worse when reports surfaced about the abusive priests who had been transferred, about the victims who were ignored.

“The whole hiding of the scandal is appalling. It increased my anger and disbelief. And  made it even harder to trust. I was shocked by the depth of the dishonesty; people knew and tried to hide. People knew and didn’t try to protect innocent children. And I had my own children by then, so I also felt the pain and anger of a mother.”

Maggie had no idea where the priest who had abused her was or what he was doing until one night when she was lying in bed with her teenage daughter, watching the evening news. Suddenly, the face of the man who had abused her filled the TV screen. It was like he was there in her home. He was accused of doing to other children what he had done to her.

“My mouth dropped and I said to my daughter, ‘You have to go now.  I need you to go to bed now.’ I needed to be alone to cry. 

The decision to forgive

“Immediately, a friend called to ask if I’d seen the news. And the next day, he was on the front page of the local papers. He denied everything and continues to deny it.”

Maggie knew she needed her life to change; needed to move out of the anger that was tearing her apart on the inside. She needed to forgive, but she didn’t know that yet. The first step on that walk took place at two charismatic conferences she attended. At one of them, she realized the priest who abused her had taken even more than her innocence—he had stolen her name.

“The priest who abused me always called me Margaret. Nobody else ever did. My attitude was: ‘Nobody ever better call me Margaret!’ I had registered for the conference under my full name, so my preprinted name tag said Margaret. When I was having a priest-author autograph his book, he looked at my name tag and started writing, ‘To Margaret.’ I quickly said, ‘No—make it out to Maggie.’ And then I laughed, ‘Oh, you know, my parents only called me Margaret when I was in trouble.’ 

“But that night, as I was falling asleep, I realized that my parents had never used my name in anger. Never. But my abuser always used my name, and it had become dirty and shameful and ugly to me. And it has been a process for me to reclaim it, but I did. It’s mine and I love it.” 

Then someone at the conference who knew her story came up to her and said something that would change her life and set her on another path. 

“‘He’s going to go to hell for what he did to you.’ And I had a light-bulb moment. I said, ‘I don’t want him to go to hell for what he did to me.’ And that was the first time I ever prayed for him. And to this day I pray for him—for his conversion. He needs that conversion—he needs to repent. God already knows the truth. 

“But when you really think about what hell means, I thought, ‘I don’t want that for him.’”

She laughs a little.

“Maybe some extra time in purgatory, though.”

Although she leaves his fate to God, Maggie’s been told that Father X has been removed from ministry and is no longer allowed to represent himself as a Catholic priest.

She had come to a point where she realized that she would need to heal and forgive in order to break the bond that tied her to her abuser.

“I knew that the man who abused me didn’t remember me, my name. He had forgotten who I was; he had moved on. I had been held hostage by him for so many years—by what he did and by my anger. Because I never forgot his name and his face.”

Helping others to heal

When she was on her annual parish retreat at St. Francis after the scandal had broken wide open, Father Larry approached her with some news, and a request. The bishop wanted a healing retreat for the victims of clergy sex abuse. And when it was time to share stories, Father Larry encouraged Maggie to tell hers in the hope that others would then begin to open up and share their stories.

“I had been coming here for so many years that my car knew its own way here. But coming that time was the most terrifying trip, because it was for a whole different reason. I knew that if I didn’t want to stay, I would leave—bishop or no bishop.

“None of us knew each other or each other’s stories—we were coming in blind. There were six of us—we sat in a small room with Pat Martin, Father Larry and the bishop. 

“Then Pat Martin apologized for all the parents who didn’t believe us when we were little, whom we didn’t feel we could tell when we were growing up. She represented our parents. And Father Larry apologized for all the priests who abused us, on behalf of all the clergy. And then Bishop Mengeling apologized for the Church who wounded us, was not there for us, who should have represented God for us.

“Bishop Mengeling said, ‘Tell me what you want to tell me—how you feel, what happened, but no more than what you are comfortable with.’

“So, I sat there and Father Larry looked at me, and I thought, ‘Oh all right—I’ll start.’ And I told my story. On every retreat I’ve been on, no one gives gory details. They’re too private, and nobody needs to hear them. 

“The bishop listened to everyone’s story that night, no matter how long it took. For some,  it was half an hour. For one, it was two hours, and she sobbed through all of it. The bishop was visibly shaken by what he heard. Because now the abuse had a face; it was the sobbing person in front of him.

“One thing I remember so clearly about him is that he was so humble and filled with sorrow. We sat around the table as a group of wounded sheep who felt we had no shepherd. And here was a man who was willing to step up and be our new shepherd.

“The retreat was a watershed moment, in both a figurative and literal sense. Tears were shed, and the first steps of transformational journeys were taken. And the best thing?

“Having each other. Because it is like a club we didn’t choose. You get a choice to be in a book club, but you don’t get a choice to be in the sex abuse club. But at this retreat, I found I had somebody in the club with me; there were people who had an inkling of what I’d gone through. They knew how I felt; I knew how they felt. It is one of the most important components—having each other. What Pat and Larry and the bishop do is amazing, but sharing with each other is a gift. My husband and children and friends cannot understand it. Only someone who has walked this walk can understand; and that is an important part of this healing process.”

Everyone who has been on a healing retreat is invited to come back for days of healing and reflection in the spring and fall. Maggie says that it’s a good time to reassess how they are doing—to offer continued support. 

“I’ve seen people who have grown in the way they can begin to forgive and come into a relationship with God, to find faith again. Sometimes it’s not in our Church, though. People often say, ‘You were betrayed. How can you stay in the Catholic Church?’ 

“It’s the Eucharist. Because the church down the road has great music and the pastor gives a great sermon, but there is no Eucharist. The Church is my community, my connection. Over the last six years, I’ve grown in love with my faith. That’s a new thing for me. I love my faith, the depth and richness of it. I love the connectedness of it. I don’t know where I would be without my church. And it’s not just the Church—I am in relationship with God.”

Now, when Maggie thinks about her abuse, she thinks of the story of Lazarus. When Mary and Martha sent for Jesus, he delayed in coming. And Lazarus died, just as Maggie’s childhood died. But when Jesus went to Lazarus’ tomb, he wept. And then he raised Lazarus.

“I now know—although I didn’t know it then—that all through the abuse, Jesus was there with me and he wept for the child that died that day. And through my healing and forgiveness, there is resurrection.”

There are still struggles, though. 

“Some of my abuse occurred in the confessional. I go to the sacrament, but I never have the sense of freedom and release—of a weight being lifted, that so many other people describe. And it’s a place where trust is particularly difficult. I often find myself sitting with my hands clenched on my knees, my head down, on the edge of my seat. One of my confessors has noticed, and will walk with me in a parking lot to make it more comfortable.”

Forgiveness again and again

Maggie continues to forgive—an active and continuing process, not a one-time event.

“Forgiveness allows me to be free. It does not condone what happened to me as being right, because that act was evil. Forgiveness does not mean that I’ve forgotten, because I can never forget. I don’t need to forget—it made me who I am. But it means letting go of being bound by anger.” 

She comes back to healing retreats to help other victims—welcoming them at the door, walking them to their rooms, leaving a note and a bag of chocolates on their beds. Then, at the end of the evening, she shares her story. She models the hope of a life without anger and bitterness. 

“I want people who are sitting out there, who need this, to have the courage to take the first step. I know that the hardest thing is driving in that driveway and walking in the door. I greeted  a man on one retreat who was trembling so violently that he grabbed on to me and wouldn’t let go. He told me later that if it I hadn’t been there, he wouldn’t have stayed. He said, ‘I think I might need a beer” instead of chocolate. I said, “Help yourself.’

“The only thing you find on a healing retreat is love, compassion, caring, understanding. As Father Larry says, there is no making excuses for what the church did. There is no trying to whitewash it, make it less than what it is. It was wrong.

“The only reason you’re coming is for yourself—for your own healing and your own spirituality, and your own journey. This is a first step for a lot of us. “

Maggie is a woman of great courage and great compassion. She has looked unflinchingly at evil and beaten it down through the power of faith, forgiveness and God’s healing grace. Her life transforms the horrible thing that was done to her as a child-—“What happened to me was a defining moment in my life, but it no longer defines my life. It’s not who I am.”