As the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church continues to make headlines, I think back to a radio program I recorded with two victims of sexual abuse and their painful stories.
“While he was raping me,” Monica said, “he kept telling me that I was no good, that I wasn’t listening, that I was no good, over and over again, he kept saying it.” The “he” she was referring to was a Wisconsin priest, and the “I” was the quiet, shy 8-year-old girl she was many years ago. When the assault was over, the priest assigned her penance to do for her sins and told her that if she ever told anyone about what had happened, her parents would burn in hell for all eternity. It was a mighty load of guilt for a little girl to carry, and a mighty threat that kept her quiet for over 20 years. It was only when she was 31 and saw a TV news report of that same priest being arrested for sexual assault of children that was she able to tell of her own abuse at his hands. It was the beginning of a healing journey that will never completely end.
From a different Wisconsin community, at a different school, and with a different priest, John’s story is eerily similar. “When I was 7,” John said, “I was selected from a room full of children who raised our hands after a request from the priest for assistance with a ‘special project’. Unfortunately, he chose me, and I have paid a lifelong price for that day.”
For John was subsequently taken to the rectory where he was raped. Like Monica, he was also told of the penalties of hellfire if he ever spoke of this. After the incident, John developed a stutter that lasted well into high school. And for him, as for Monica, there were other lifetime ramifications including depression, lack of trust, difficulty in forming relationships. John was 36 years old and in the hospital near death with a bleeding ulcer when he, too, decided it was time to speak of what had happened to him those many years ago.
I sat across the desk from Monica and John in the radio studio, listening to their stories and aching for the little children they were, and for the long journey of recovery that they would always face. They were guests on a radio program I hosted, “Heroes in Our Midst.” And heroes they are. As John’s mom said to a newspaper reporter, “When I look at the pain my son has had to go through, he is such a hero. He’s not an angry person, he is a very peace-filled person. He wants children to be safe and so he keeps going forward patiently. I don’t know how he does that, but I am so proud of him.”
What is a hero? We usually think of heroes as firefighters and soldiers and astronauts and others who perform grand deeds. And it is true that those individuals are often heroes for their courageous acts. But is there anything more courageous than speaking out about incidents that are personal and painful and that would continue to happen again and again if they were never spoken of?
“He keeps going forward patiently,” John’s mom said. And that is what John and Monica and the survivors of sexual abuse continue doing with what happened to them. For the sake of other potential victims and for the sake of other survivors, they continue speaking out. As John and Monica remind us, the victims who are still with us today are called “survivors” because there are so many who did not survive, so many who just couldn’t bear the pain anymore and took their own lives.
There were adorable closeup photos in the newspapers of John and Monica as little children with their big eyes and sweet faces and shy smiles. Yet John and Monica will tell you that it hurts them to see photos of themselves as children because they wonder who they would have been if the abuse hadn’t happened. What more could they have become? What more could they have accomplished with their lives?
E.E. Cummings once wrote that, “It takes courage to grow up to be who you really are.” Today, we can tell the Johns and the Monicas and all survivors of childhood sexual assault that your stories and your voices are changing the world. By speaking truth to power, your courage is bringing accountability to the powerful, justice to the victims, and protection to the defenseless who, like the children you once were, may have no one else to speak out for them.
What greater legacy could you leave?
What greater courage could you demonstrate?
What greater heroes could you be?