Surviving Abuse in the Catholic Church

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“This is not a story about sexual abuse. It’s a story about power abuse, and conscience abuse–which is the first key of sexual abuse.”

His words carried a hushed yet urgent tone; a muffled sound that came from many miles away within a bustling hospital cafeteria in Chile. The cellphone service was staticky, but the message was clear: Power, even in the hands of those we trust, is a dangerous thing.

Vincente*, who asked that I change his name for the sake of maintaining both his personal privacy and that of his seminary, is a priest living and working in Chile. He is just one of countless individuals who has been negatively affected by the string of abuses occurring within the walls of the Catholic church for time immemorial.

For those unfamiliar with the scandal, here’s a brief catch-up: Prolific media coverage, and cultural backlash, landed the Catholic church in the hot seat after it became clear that priests were sexually abusing children at an alarming rate, all over the world.

In 2001, a team of investigative journalists in Boston broke open the story of massive misconduct and subsequent cover-ups occurring right under their noses, in their own city. Cases of the same nature have been confirmed in numerous countries spread across each of the seven continents.

The story was cast back into the public eye recently, in the wake of the Academy Award-winning Best Picture film of 2015, Spotlight. The movie outlined the efforts of the Boston Globe reporting team who conducted the investigation, as well as the shocking scope of the problem.

Mostly, narratives surrounding this grand disgrace center on the parties directly involved. Vincente’s story, however, is slightly different than those that have been chronicled in media coverage of the church’s far-reaching impropriety.

He is not a child whose adolescence and innocence were stolen at the hands of a trusted mentor. He is not a pedophilic priest who took advantage of those who he was tasked to guide. He is, simply, a benevolent man; he is humorous, humble, and authentically attempting to follow what he considers to be his calling–to be a man of God.

Vincente is disgusted by his clergymen’s wrongdoings, and is furthermore a victim at the hands of these same men, albeit to a slightly different kind of crime: one that he calls “conscience abuse” (which can be roughly translated as psychological abuse).

Vincente describes to me his time spent coming up in the seminary. He was a part of a group of about 250 priests; among them there were approximately 50 who considered themselves to be elite.

“All the time they wore their collars, their rosaries, they were very pious. But they never questioned the social system of the church, or were compassionate with people.” Vincente says. There was one among them who rose highest in the ranks. He grew incredibly powerful, and eventually became the director of his seminary. “The old priest, all of them called him ‘The Saint.’”

Once “The Saint” took charge, things changed for Vicente. Immediately the new leader wanted everybody to follow every single thing that he said. This felt intrusive and unfair, and furthermore, Vincente believed it was well within his rights to maintain a certain level of individuality–of free will, and of personal reckoning.

“There is a doctrine [of the Church], but there are many things that you are free to think about,” Vincente asserts, “how to welcome gay people, how to welcome people who are divorced, and how to feel as though they are all children of God.”

Six years after beginning his tenure at the seminary, Vincente was kicked out. “The Saint” deemed him psychologically unfit. There was no concrete evidence of these purported “psychiatric problems,” yet he was expelled nonetheless, along with others whose thinking didn’t directly align with the man in charge.

At the time, Vincente was only 28. He was out on the streets, with no job, and no means to find one. He was the collateral damage of the power-hungry behavior of individuals who were supposed to be men of faith, men of truth, men of poise.

After being forced to leave the church, it was revealed that the man responsible for the termination of Vincente and his colleagues, the one they called “The Saint,” was not the righteous man he’d claimed to be. He had been sexually abusing children for over 30 years.

“Sexual abuse is a kind of power abuse,” Vincente explains. “The first thing you do is try to become very close to the person, and then you start abusing their conscience. Then you rape, or whatever.” Vincente specifies that he never witnessed sexual abuse, but that he saw it as part and parcel of the type of behaviors he’d been victim to from his superiors.

He goes on, “In my case I never saw sexual abuse. But I saw how they were forcing us seminarians to do things that we didn’t want to: like to dress in a way that we didn’t want to, like to remain silent. We weren’t able to talk. We were asked to be perfect guys, like holy saints.”

Six years after being forced to leave, Vincente was reinstated (an extremely unusual practice). Beforehand, though, he was asked to pass a psychological test to prove that he wasn’t crazy.

He says it didn’t feel like his unwarranted dismissal had been rectified.

“It was like they were doing me a favor, and not an act of justice.”

Vincente and some of his fellow clergymen who were wrongfully expelled launched a report about the inappropriate actions of their superiors, but there were no repercussions. He explained to me that canon law does not have a mechanism to consider abuse of power, or conscience abuse as a transgression, so there were no sanctions upon which the church could act.

It was the relative silence of the church which hurt him most. “No one ever asked forgiveness,” he admits with great pain. “No one ever told me ‘we made a mistake.’”

He considers the lack of remorse on the part of the church as a second victimization, on top of the first being discharged without grounds. Vincente compares this to the same type of double victimization children who are abused experience if they are molested by one parent, and the other–when informed–remains in denial and does not believe them.

I asked Vincente if this whole experience made him question whether or not he wanted to continue on his path as a man of God, if it made him wonder whether he should still be a priest after all.

“Never,” he assured me. “My family thought that I was crazy to go back to the same seminary. But one thing is that I do believe that God is calling, and I will be faithful to him.”

*Named changed to protect the identity of the source.