‘Forgiveness is a decision’: Abuse survivor shares journey of healing and faith

Moira Cullings

Growing up, Pat was a strong Catholic with a deep passion for her faith.

“I knew all of the responses before Vatican II,” she said. “I knew all of the altar boy responses in Latin. I even knew what they meant.”

That foundation of faith has carried Pat through a remarkable journey of strength and forgiveness. She’s remained in the Church her entire life — despite the abuse she suffered at the hands of a priest at just five years old.

Remembering

Pat came forward about the abuse in 2002. It took several years, not because she was hesitant to talk about what happened, but because she didn’t remember it.

“I was gifted with repressed memories of the abuse,” said Pat. “I had no [recollection] of it at all until I was 48 years old.”

Psychologists say that repressed memories are unconsciously blocked by the mind because they are connected to a trauma. Although Pat couldn’t remember the experience for decades, its impact lingered. She has dealt with clinical depression her entire life, and, starting in 2001, that depression worsened for a reason she couldn’t place.

The next year, the abuse scandal broke in the Catholic Church and Pat began to realize what had happened to her. While sitting at Mass at Spirit of Christ Catholic Community in Arvada, Pat listened as Monsignor Robert Kinkel, the pastor at the time, read a letter from then-Archbishop of Denver Charles Chaput addressing the scandal.

“There was just this sense that came over me that said, ‘It’s ok,’” said Pat. “Within two to three months of that is when my memories started returning.”

Pat was abused for three months in San Jose, Calif. by the pastor of her family’s parish.

Once the memories flooded back, she decided to call Spirit of Christ and, within 30 minutes, found herself in Msgr. Kinkel’s office telling him her story.

“He was listening to my story and witnessing the pain I was in, the tears, the sobbing,” she said.

Pat had been a friend of the pastor for years and felt comfortable opening up.

“There was a sense of relief of being able to reveal what happened to me to the appropriate levels of our Church,” she said. “Father Bob played an [integral] role in the healing process for me.

“He stood in the gap,” she continued. “He took all of my anger and my venom. I was free to scream and yell and curse, and curse the man who did this to me. I went to reconciliation over and over and over, trying to deal with the murderous anger that I had inside of me.”

Forgiveness is a decision, not a feeling… I made the decision that I was going to head out on this path. I did not want to live the rest of my life in this angry, bitter space. I was hurting myself, I was hurting my family members, my children. I was not a happy person.”

Dr. Christina Lynch, Director of Psychological Services at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, explained the importance of opening up about traumatic experiences.

“We all need to talk about traumatic experiences rather than just bury them where they continue to live and fester and manifest in destructive ways,” she said. “Toxic memories need to be integrated into the fabric of our lives, rather than hidden away or buried.”

Because she was abused in California, Pat was unsure what the Archdiocese of Denver would be able to do about it.

But Msgr. Kinkel sent her to talk to Msgr. Thomas Fryar, who was in charge of dealing with abuse allegations at the time. Pat would have to share her testimony with him before the case could move on to San Jose.

“I was terrified,” she said. “But the Holy Spirit was with me and allowed me to have the courage [to speak]. I just kept getting strengthened to tell my truth.”

Monsignor Fryar didn’t just listen — he took action.

“What Denver did about it was facilitate me getting my story back to San Jose where this priest was still living at the time,” she said, “and to get a police investigation opened as well as getting help for the tremendous cost of care for me.”

Pat was grateful for Msgr. Fryar’s help.

“When he met with me and when he heard my story, he was so gentle and so sweet and immediately said, ‘We believe you 100 percent,’” she said.

“It didn’t come back from my abuser, but it came back from the larger system of which my abuser was part. It set me on a road to healing and to understanding that our Church has a lot of problems. But our Church is still the true Church of Jesus Christ.”

Healing

Healing from abuse is complex — perhaps even more so when the abuser is a central figure in your faith. Separating that person from God isn’t easy.

But Pat knew she needed her Catholic faith to work through the trauma.

“When you’re confronted with a darkness in you — whether it’s your own making or something awful happened to you — a person needs to face into that, embrace it and move through it if you want to grow closer to God,” she said.

“There’s just no other route. I see a lot of people trying to do a lot of other things and get there in a whole other way. In my opinion, in situations like this, there just isn’t another path. That was my path. I whole-heartedly, with complete abandon, embraced what was happening to me.”

Pat joined an online chat group with other survivors to cope with the pain.

“When an abused person hears the stories of another abused person, it reduces that shame and often gives the person the incentive to talk about and work through their own traumatic experience,” said Dr. Lynch.

And although forgiveness was “the last thing” on Pat’s mind when she was sorting through her memories, she came to understand how necessary it was.

“Forgiveness is a decision, not a feeling,” she said. “I knew that, and I made the decision that I was going to head out on this path. I did not want to live the rest of my life in this angry, bitter space. I was hurting myself, I was hurting my family members, my children. I was not a happy person.”

Pat took the advice someone gave at a retreat: to picture her abuser when praying about forgiveness during the Our Father. Although it took time for her mind to formulate his face, it eventually happened.

“The day that I prayed that prayer and his entire face became in focus for me was the day it was finished,” she said. “I laid it down.”

Pat holds a rosary and a necklace that’s dear to her, which has charms representing “survivor,” “faith,” the birthstones of her children and more. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

But the pain of abuse doesn’t simply go away.

“I do still struggle with it,” said Pat. “There’s times where I think, ‘If you hadn’t done that to me, how much different would my life have been?’”

Hearing about the Grand Jury Report that came out of Pennsylvania was incredibly difficult. Pat often thought about leaving the Church.

“And the thought kept coming through my mind of the scripture verse, ‘Oh Lord, to whom shall I go?’ (John 6:68).

“With my love of the Eucharist and my community at Spirit of Christ, I don’t have a choice but to stand and witness to what happened,” she said.

Pat is disappointed when others leave the Church because of a priest’s actions.

“That breaks my heart,” she said. “There really are a lot of good priests. I have been blessed with beautiful priests in my life.”

Pat found a home at Spirit of Christ, where she has been a parishioner for 40 years. She remains grateful for the Archdiocese of Denver’s support and system of dealing with abuse allegations, and for the positive experience she had coming forward.

“Archbishop Aquila has continued the set path for the Denver archdiocese to deal with this crisis straight up,” she said. “And I’ve got to respect that.

“I think my experience is kind of rare,” she added. “But I think people need to know that it can happen. Part of the reason it happened is because I said it’s going to happen this way.

“And God gave me the gifts to keep moving forward.”

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