By Sarah Riggins
On New Year’s Day in 1994, shortly after celebrating our 21st wedding anniversary, my husband and I were returning home from visiting his father, who was dying of leukemia. As they had unresolved issues between them, I encouraged him to seek counsel from our pastor, a frequent dinner guest at our table. He had helped me immensely after my own father’s death. When my husband resisted, I said “You know he helped me. He is easy to talk to. Why won’t you trust him?” He was driving, but, irritated by my insistence, my husband blurted out that he couldn’t trust our pastor because he had been sexually abused by a priest.
My first reaction was tears—for the pain that he must have been experiencing alone for almost 40 years. I said, “That explains a lot….” The moodiness, the self-medication with alcohol, the constant TV or music in the background: these were about constant escape. Even his impatience when he drove was explained by the fact that he frequently had traveled with his abuser in the past and, now, did not like being “trapped” behind a slow moving vehicle.
It turned out that I was the only person whom my husband had ever told, and he swore me to secrecy. For the next 16 months, I carried the burden of our shared secret alone. I knew my husband desperately needed help, but I had made a promise. I was on my own to offer love, support, and gentle encouragement to him to seek that help.
Inn time, I was relieved when he told someone else, and I was sure the therapy that ensued would help. To my dismay, an inappropriate therapy combined with medication seemed to make matters worse. Being a devoted Catholic, actively involved in my parish and a daily communicant with a regular prayer life at that time, I became all the more devoted. Prayer would provide what therapy lacked.
My husband tried another therapist, and eventually there were four. Between therapists Number 2 and Number 3, we found a dear Franciscan nun who started us on the right path. By the time we found her, the extent of the abuse of children by clergy and its cover-up were national news.
That is when my own crisis of faith started to unfold. I was not angry at the abuser, assuming that he was mentally ill, but I was shocked and outraged at those who knowingly failed to stop the abuse and prevent future victims. Now I started to question not only their judgment, but their teachings as well. Were any of them true? Does God truly exist? And if He does, why didn’t He act?
Our Franciscan nun encouraged us to contact the diocese where my husband’s abuser was still in active ministry in 2004. In his response, the bishop, who had my husband’s abuser residing in his diocese, restored my hope that there were good and holy members of the hierarchy who wanted to help victims and protect children. We unfortunately had quite the opposite experience with the bishop of the diocese where the abuse had occurred.
Meanwhile, we were living in a different diocese from the dioceses where the abuser had been stationed. Here, in our home diocese, the bishop held the first Mass for the victims of abuse at the Cathedral. We attended and met the Victim Assistance Coordinator, who encouraged us to meet privately with our bishop. At the end of the meeting, my husband said “If there is anything I can do to help, I am happy to do so.” Bishop took my husband up on his offer, and the result has been a wonderful transformation. “The secret” has now been told in small gatherings and in a very public way in a Catholic News Service article with my husband’s name and photo attached. My husband now realizes that the shame is not his, and he has found the good that can come of his experience by helping others.
I attend the various programs offered by our diocese with my husband as his support person. I have found them to be as helpful to me personally as they are to him. I have gleaned insights into some of my husband’s behaviors from the stories of other survivors and their spouses. The reflections offered, the tales of spiritual journey, and the loving support of Bishop and all associated with the Office of Victim Assistance have nurtured my once-faltered faith. My faith in the Church and hope in the goodness of at least some of the hierarchy has been restored—only time will tell if complete trust can ever follow.