Editors Note: For the first time at an official assembly of the Catholic Church, a victim of the scandal has spoken, Marie Collins of Ireland, sexually abused by a priest when she was thirteen years old. She spoke on February 6, the opening day of an international symposium entitled “Toward healing and renewal” organized by the Pontifical Gregorian University, with the participation of other Vatican authorities and representatives of 110 episcopal conferences and more than 30 religious orders.
Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict have insisted that we cannot speak truth to the world if the Church is unwilling to acknowledge the sins of her sons and daughters. Catholic Exchange is engaged in discussions with those who seek to bring healing to the victims–not merely litigation against the Church. We want to do whatever we can to minister to victims of sexual abuse. If you have expertise in this area, we invite you to contact us here.
I was a victim of clerical child sex abuse. I had just turned thirteen and was at my most vulnerable, a sick child in hospital, when a priest sexually abused me. Although it happened more than fifty years ago it is impossible to forget and I can never escape its’ effects.
As was common in children of those days I had no knowledge of sexual matters, this innocence added to my vulnerability. I took my Catholic religion very seriously and had just made my confirmation. I was sick, anxious and away from home and family for the first time. I felt more secure when the Catholic chaplain of the hospital befriended me, visited me and read to me in the evenings. Unfortunately these evening visits to my room were to change my life.
This Chaplain was only a couple of years out of the seminary but he was already a skilled child molester, I could not know this. I had learned that a priest was God’s representative on earth and so he automatically had my trust and respect. When he began to sexually interfere with me, pretending at first, he was being playful; I was shocked and resisted, telling him to stop. He did not stop. While assaulting me he would respond to my resistance by telling me “he was a priest” and “he could do no wrong.” He took photographs of the most private part of my body and told me I was “stupid” if I thought it was wrong. He had power over me. I felt sick, I felt everything he was doing was wrong, but I could not stop it; I did not call out, I did not tell anyone. I did not know how to tell anyone. I just prayed he would not do it again, but he did.
The fact that my abuser was a priest added to the great confusion in my mind.
Those fingers that would abuse my body the night before were the next morning holding and offering me the sacred host. The hands that held the camera to photograph my exposed body, in the light of day were holding a prayer book when he came to hear my confession. My abusers’ assertion that he was a priest and could do no wrong rang true with me, I had been taught that priests were above the normal man. This added weight to my feelings of guilt and the conviction that what had happened was my fault; not his. When I left the hospital I was not the same child who had entered. I was no longer a confident, carefree and happy child. Now I was convinced I was a bad person and I needed to hide that from everyone.
I did not turn against my religion, I turned against myself.
The words this priest had used, to transfer his guilt to me, robbed me of any feeling of self-worth. I withdrew into myself, turned away from my family and my friends, and avoided contact with others. My teenage years were spent alone, keeping everyone at a distance in case they would find out what a bad, dirty person I was. This constant feeling of guilt and worthlessness led to deep depression and problems with anxiety which became serious enough to need medical treatment by the time I was seventeen. Long hospitalisations with depression followed and this left me unable to follow a career.