Sunday, October 17, 2021

An American in Paris: The text of the talk I gave on healing from childhood sexual abuse

In Paris's Latin Quarter, with a good-humored fellow café patron in the background, October 15, 2021. Photo by Pierre Jova.

I had a wonderful week in Paris spreading the word about Je vous donne ma paix, the French translation of my book My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints. In about two weeks, I should be able to post two videos from my time there: my interview for the KTOTV show "Un Coeur qui écoute" as well as the talk I gave at Saint-Pierre-du-Gros-Caillou, which my publisher intends to post on YouTube. For now, I would like to share with you the text of my Saint-Pierre talk. 

This talk is different from ones that I have given in the past—partly because of adaptations I had to make for speaking in Paris (including using shorter sentences, to make the interpreter's job easier), but mostly because I took a simpler and more straightforward approach. From now on, allowing for minor adaptations according to my audience, it will be my go-to talk on spiritual healing from the wounds of childhood sexual abuse.

Although the following talk is not graphic, it uses frank language to discuss a sensitive topic. Reader discretion is advised.

My Journey to Spiritual Healing in the School of the Saints

It’s a joy to be able to speak with you tonight. Much of what I’ll be sharing tonight is from my book My Peace I Give You

So I would like to begin by telling you a bit about the book itself and how I came to write it. Then I’ll share about some of the things I learned from the saints about healing. And then I would like to take any questions that you might have. 

The main title of my book has been translated into French perfectly: Je vous donne ma paix. In English it is My Peace I Give You. But the subtitle of the French edition has been rendered somewhat sterile, I am afraid, although perhaps that was necessary so that French Catholic bookstores might sell it. The French subtitle is rendered Guérir de ses blessures en suivant l’exemple des saints. In this way, the book is made to appear to be about healing from wounds in general. I did write a book on healing from wounds in general, but this book is not it. 

The original subtitle of this book expresses its specific topic: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints. I wrote it because I bear, in my mind, body, and spirit, the wounds of sexual abuse that I suffered in childhood. Yet, as I will share with you momentarily, these wounds do not carry the same sting that they did in the past, for I have begun a journey of healing. 

Before I begin to speak about that healing, I would like to be clear about what I am not saying.

When I speak about healing, I am not trying in any way to deny or minimize the evil of abuse.

Likewise, I am not saying that, in the wake of the Sauvé report [on sexual abuse committed by French clergy], we, as a Church, should skip over discussing the problem of abuse and only talk about healing.

What I am saying, rather, is that in addition to having an open and frank discussion about the problem of abuse, we, as a Church, need to explore how best to help victims. I wrote My Peace I Give You to offer one way that the Church can do that. It is not the only way. But it is a way that has been profoundly helpful for me personally. And I am grateful that many readers have told me that my book is part of their own healing journey.

I said a moment ago that I bear wounds—present tense—because the wounds of abuse never go away. But my wounds are not the same as they were ten years ago, or even one year ago. My wounds are different now because I have entered into a journey that has given them a new meaning.

The evil things that my abusers did to me will always be evil. Nothing can turn an evil act into a good act. That is why we, as a Church and as a society, must take concrete actions to prevent abuse of children and vulnerable adults. But with all that said, on this journey that I have undertaken, my journey of healing, the evil that my abusers perpetrated no longer has power over me. Evil no longer has the last word.

Instead, the wounds that were once only toxic for me have now become openings for the healing grace of God to enter into me on the deepest level.

It is difficult to describe this experience of healing to someone who has not experienced it. I think of the words of a Jesuit friend of mine who died several years ago, Father Francis Canavan, who was an alcoholic and ministered to his fellow alcoholics. Father Canavan said, “Alcoholism is a terrible disease to die of and a miserable one to live with. But it is a great disease to recover from.”

Likewise, I can say, as a victim of childhood sexual abuse, that abuse is a terrible thing to experience, and its effects can cause deep misery. I know this, as I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition, I have certain physical conditions, including gastroesophageal reflux disease, that I believe were aggravated by the effects of my abuse.

But even so, I can say with all honesty, to paraphrase Father Canavan, that the experience of recovery is an experience of blessing.

There is a paradox in what I have said. It is the paradox of the Cross. It is what we hear in the hymn chanted at the start of the Easter Vigil, the Exsultet—O felix culpa! Oh happy fault! From the depths of evil, the Crucifixion of our Lord, comes the joy of the Resurrection.

As you heard in the introduction, I was not born into a Catholic family. I was born into a Jewish family and entered the Catholic Church in 2006, when I was thirty-seven.

When I became Catholic, I had no illusions about the Church being a perfectly safe place for children. At that time, the American Church had already begun to reckon with the problem of sexual abuse committed by clergy. It was compelled to do so after a number of high-profile abuse cases that were reported by the media in 2002, which resulted in many lawsuits.

Although the reports of abuses committed by clergy disgusted me, these reports did not prevent me from entering the Church. I entered the Church not because I believed it was made up of perfect people. I entered the Church because I believed that, over the course of my lifetime, it would make me perfect.

I believed that, and still believe it, because I knew, from my own personal experience, that perpetrators of sexual abuse are not limited to the clergy. My first abuse was perpetrated by a janitor at the synagogue my family attended. He molested me when I was five years old. A few years later, after my parents’ divorce, one of my mother’s boyfriends molested me. My mother did not stop the abuse; rather, she enabled it. My mother has no memory of this, but I remember it clearly.

When I first encountered Jesus, back when I was thirty-one, I was baptized Protestant. One of the things—really, the main thing—that made me decide to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church was that I was deeply affected by the Church’s teachings on the inherent dignity that every human life has in the eyes of God.

I realize that, in the wake of the Sauvé report, what I have said may sound incredible. We know that members of the Church have failed, time and time again, to recognize the God-given dignity of children, to love them as God loves them, and to care for them as God wants us to care for them. Yet, I was drawn to the Church not for what it practiced as much as what it believed. I would rather worship God in a Church of hypocrites who honor the truth only with their lips, than live as an agnostic in a world where secular philosophers relativize truth into oblivion. Hypocrisy is evil, but the denial of the very existence of evil is unforgivable.

So I entered the Church while bearing wounds within myself. And I believed that if there was any healing to be found, that healing was to be found within the Church, because the Church is the locus of the living presence of Jesus in the world.

My journey of healing began with learning that there are saints in heaven who have wounds like mine. I cannot emphasize enough how important that was for me. It was a revelation.

It was important for me to learn that there are saints who were sexually abused as children, because for me—and I believe this is true of many, if not all, victims of abuse—the greatest spiritual wound that I suffer is that of misplaced shame. If I were to describe this misplaced shame, I would say it is a feeling that one carries throughout life in which one believes that one has a stain that nothing, not even the sacraments, can erase.

This feeling, I hasten to add, is a lie. It is not based on facts. No child is ever responsible for the abuses that were inflicted upon him or her. One cannot speak of consent when speaking of a little person who is unable to advocate for himself or herself, and unable even to understand the actions to which he or she is allegedly, quote-unquote, consenting.

I realize that what I am discussing has a social and political context in France that is unlike the context with which I am familiar in the United States. Here in France, until very recently, the law protected adults who sexually assaulted children. You endured an entire ideological movement in which some of your country’s highest intellectuals argued that it was liberating for children to be sexually assaulted. These intellectuals instrumentalized children as innocent lambs to be sacrificed at the altar of adults’ lustful desires.

Today France is beginning to call child sexual abuse for what it is--a crime. In the Catholic Church, we also recognize that it is a sin. And this is where the stories of the saints come in. Stories of saints who suffered sexual abuse are healing because the saints are, by definition, people whom the Church believes are in heaven. When victims such as myself learn that there are people in heaven who have wounds like our own, then we begin to realize that the sin of abuse was not ours. Our wounds do not stain us. Rather, our wounds, like the wounds of the saints, are a testimony.

Our wounds testify to the reality of evil—the evil that was inflicted upon us. And they also testify to the promise of the resurrection. For the saints now wear their wounds in heaven as badges of honor. The saints bore wounds like Jesus and now their wounds, like those of Jesus, are glorified. In My Peace I Give You, I describe this phenomenon using a lyric from a song by Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.”

I remember where I was when I first discovered the healing power of the saints’ testimonies. It was December 2010. At that time, I had been a Catholic for four years. For four years, I had been trying to be a good Catholic and trying, without success, to overcome the painful spiritual effects of my childhood trauma. I struggled to believe that God loved me as much as he loved people who had never suffered abuse.

At that time, I was visiting a woman who had a collection of Catholic books. One of the books contained stories of modern saints. It was there that I discovered the story of Laura Vicuña.

Laura Vicuña is a Blessed, which means that she is on the brink of being canonized a saint. In the process of canonization, the Church calls a candidate for sainthood Blessed when God has performed one miracle through the intercession of that holy person. If God performs one more miracle through the intercession of the blessed, then the blessed becomes a saint. We believe that Blesseds are in heaven just as the saints are.

With that in mind—Blessed Laura Vicuña was born in Santiago, Chile, towards the end of the nineteenth century. Her father died when she was just two years old. When she was eight, her mother, in an effort to escape dire poverty, moved to a village in the Andes, in Argentina, where she cohabited with a wealthy rancher named Manuel.

I remember how I felt when I read that for the first time. I am a child of divorce, and my mother used to have her boyfriends stay over. Before I learned about Blessed Laura, I thought that saints all came from intact families. So it amazed me to learn that there is someone whom the Church recognizes as a person of outstanding holiness whose mother was in a sexual relationship with a man who was not her husband.

Then, as I continued to read the account of Laura Vicuña’s life, I learned that her mother’s partner Manuel intended to groom young Laura to become his sexual partner. I read about how, one night, at a village fiesta, Manuel, who was drunk, tried to force Laura to dance with him. Laura was then ten years old. When Laura refused, Manuel threw Laura out into the wilderness outside. Then he ordered Laura’s mother to go out and persuade Laura to return.

As I write in My Peace I Give You, the image of Laura’s mother urging her child to placate a pedophile is heartbreaking. It shows how much the mother was in thrall to her abusive partner.

Again, when I read this, it was all news to me. I thought about how my own mother was in thrall to her partner. I remembered how my own mother—in an act that, as I said, she does not remember—treated his molestation of me as though it were a game. And I was once again amazed that there was a girl whom the Church believes is in heaven, who understands my pain.

At that moment, I felt very close to that little girl. I identified with Laura, and I began to feel that she, in heaven, was, at that moment, feeling great empathy towards me.

Laura Vicuña’s earthly life ended in a manner similar to that of a better-known child victim who lived at about the same time as her, Maria Goretti. Like Maria, Laura died at a young age—a few months before her thirteenth birthday. And, also like Maria, Laura died of injuries after resisting an assault by her abuser, who—in Laura’s case—actually tried to kidnap her when she was ill with pneumonia. And, like Maria, when Laura was dying, she forgave her abuser, just as Jesus forgave those who crucified him.

But that is where the resemblance between Maria Goretti and Laura Vicuna ends. For, as much as I love Maria Goretti—and I do discuss her in My Peace I Give You—Laura made a sacrifice of forgiveness that was even greater than Maria’s sacrifice. Whereas Maria forgave only her abuser, Laura also forgave her mother. Laura Vicuna died forgiving her mother, the person who was supposed to protect her, and who instead—out of fear—enabled her daughter’s abuse.

The accounts of Laura’s life do not describe her final conversation with her mother as a conversation of forgiveness, but that is how I understand it. What we read is that Laura, on her deathbed, revealed to her mother that she had offered up her life to God as a sacrifice for her mother’s conversion. When Laura told her mother this, her mother, in tears, promised that she would leave Manuel. Then Laura’s face glowed with joy. She called out to the priest who was in the room, “Father, my mother has promised to leave that man.” Then she said prayers of gratitude to Jesus and Mary, and she died peacefully.

That story changed my life. It showed me what holiness really is. Holiness is not founded upon bodily purity. Holiness is not founded upon having a perfect family or a perfect past. Holiness is founded upon having a heart that is like the hearts of Jesus and Mary.

Jesus and Mary’s hearts are pierced. Jesus suffered physical abuse, emotional abuse, spiritual abuse—from the spiritual leaders of his time—and even sexual abuse, for we know that, more than once during his Passion, he was forcibly stripped of his clothes.

Mary, through her perfect empathy with Jesus, suffered all the wounds that Jesus suffered. She also suffered other wounds, including the wound of people making up lewd stories about her—for she knew that some people claimed that she bore Jesus by Joseph out of wedlock.

Yet, what happened to Jesus’s wounded heart? What happened to Mary’s wounded heart? If anyone knows the answer, it is you, here in Paris, where you have the beautiful basilica Sacre-Coeur and the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal.

Jesus and Mary’s wounded hearts are now glorified. These two hearts, forever united in love, are fountains of grace. They radiate God’s love to the world.

That is what God is calling me to do with my wounded heart. That is what God is calling every person to do. And I believe that victims of sexual abuse, precisely because of the wounds that they have suffered, are uniquely equipped to radiate the love of Christ to the world.

In this book, My Peace I Give You, I share my own heart’s journey from bearing the wounds that hurt to bearing the wounds that heal. If you read my book, I hope and pray that the stories that I share about the saints may help you make that journey, as they have helped me. Thank you and God bless you.