Simcha Fisher: Wounded by silence

PHOTO: Unsplash/Kristina Flour

The following testimony is from a friend who has suffered. She has pinpointed something that so many are missing, as we wrestle our way through the latest wave in the Catholic Church’s abuse and cover-up scandal. Whatever your hobby horse is — gay people, libertines, intolerance, the demands of celibacy, the dearth of women, the errors of Vatican II — whatever it is you choose to focus all your wrath on, you’re missing something huge: It’s an institutional conspiracy of silence that gives power to predators and takes it away from victims of abuse, and it’s a conspiracy that is busy on all levels, from petty to catastrophic. Listen to what my friend says:

This week I have written three letters, one to my pastor, one to my bishop, and one to the superior of [name redacted] religious sisters. The past year has been an absolutely hellish year thanks to the harassment, bullying, and ultimately isolation my family has been a victim of from our own diocese.

This all began because I reported a relatively small incident of harassment, when the secretary of the school made crass comments to me, saying that I needed to ‘close my legs’ when my husband came home to solve my problem (apparently having too many kids). All things considered, this incident was minor, though it certainly needed to be addressed.

However, as I reported this through the chains of command, the harassment became worse and worse. The principal, a nun, expelled my family with no warning, no explanation, no history of any problem whatsoever. When I sought help in the diocese, they confirmed her expulsion, explaining that as a private institution they had no legal right to me to provide explanation, and if I sued them they would ‘burn me’.

Over the course of the following months, despite no provoking from me whatsoever, they wrote us letters threatening us and intentionally isolating us. They even banned us from using the bathrooms at the church.

Meanwhile, the pastor knew they and the nun were lying and admitted this in private meetings (with a witness) and just asked that I play along. I wrote to the bishop numerous times pleading with him to intervene, telling him I was writing as his spiritual daughter but that this church was making us into enemies.

On the other end, I was very close to the order, one year into a three-year process discerning to be a member of their third order actually. So in addition to writing the bishop I was desperately trying the avenue of writing to the superior of the sister’s order. The principal was lying about us and claiming false harassment claims, threatening to arrest us. It all had escalated so quickly while being completely unprovoked by us. And the reality was that the bishop or superior could have stopped it at any point and I received not a single acknowledgement or response from either.

I was still very naive, thinking it all was some misunderstanding and not understanding why they couldn’t just come to the table and reconcile this problem. It took a very long time to finally see how intentional their actions were. These expositions of the cover-ups in the last month have been exactly identifiable to me.

I think with the recent scandals, if the focus was just on the sexual deviance that caused the original wounds of the victims, we lose so much of the battle. The focus must also be on the clericalism and system of dissimulation that caused this. That is where we will win. If we attack the system, pedophiles and abusers will still have their inclinations, but they will have them without the protection and abilities to act and prey that they’ve enjoyed for so long.

I am a rape survivor and a survivor of molestation. While I can only speak from my experience and not speak for everyone, my rape was so much easier to heal from than the wounds the Church has created for me. And I think reflecting on why gives insight into how to help other rape victims.

And these are the things that stand out, regarding why I was able to heal with less damage from that: 1. I had justice. 2. I had community. 3. I had faith. What happened to me was not done in secret. I was kidnapped, violently tortured, escaped, went to the hospital and the authorities found my perpetrator and prosecuted him. He was arrested and is still serving a life sentence in prison.

Why? Because I had physical bruises, because people could identify the crime. It’s sad but true.

So many other victims of rape and abuses that were silenced will tell me, “Your story is awful,” but I tell them, no, the story of those victims who suffered in silence is far worse. The “drama” of my story makes it identifiable. The silence of children who are quietly molested makes them internalise that shame. The silence is damaging. Often it is said that abuse comes from voicelessness, from powerlessness. And I learned this.

Because I was not voiceless, because my perpetrator received justice, because my community supported me so much, I was able to cope. THOSE things are what the Church (and every institution) can provide its people. Justice, a voice, accountability and community support. If those things are provided, then even navigating rape and molestation become so doable.

The silence is what kills. It’s what makes the victim internalise the shame that is not rightfully theirs. The silence of the Church has shattered me. They robbed me of my community and of my voice, and they stood between my faith and me. And they did it intentionally.

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