By Deacon Larry Normann
In 1968 at the age of 19, while in studies for priesthood, I was abused by the priest who was my superior, the individual with the most input in evaluating my suitability to continue. He was well respected in the seminary community; I had respected him as well. There was no one to whom I could reach out; who would believe me? Consequently, I kept silent, ultimately leaving the seminary six years later, prior to transitional diaconate ordination, not because of the abuse, but because I did not believe God blessed me to live a celibate life.
In the sixteen months that followed the abuse, I was distressed and felt very much alone. During the first few weeks, God enabled me to see my experience and the resulting wounds in these words from Isaiah 53: “Like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep silent before shearers, he did not open his mouth.” I was a lamb; my innocence was slaughtered. Because I believed no one would accept my account of what had occurred and fearing I would be expelled for damaging the priest’s reputation, I did not open my mouth. Clinging to Jesus’ words spoken in John’s Gospel at the Last Supper, “I will never leave you orphans,” I searched everywhere in the Gospels for a way to find comfort and healing. Like my favorite saint, Francis of Assisi, I gradually came to understand during those months that healing and peace would only be possible through a personal encounter with Jesus.
As my studies for priesthood continued, I persisted in prayer with Luke’s Passion narrative. One afternoon, while praying, my heart was touched. Jesus’ words to Simon were being spoken to me: “You must now be told. Satan has been granted his wish to sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for you, Larry, and when you have recovered, you in your turn must strengthen your sisters and brothers.” Jesus told me the abuse would sift me like wheat, which it did; it was moving to know Jesus prayed for me! He told me I would recover. He gave me a charge to strengthen others, which I have tried to fulfill since ordination as deacon in 1984.
This experience altered my understanding of these words from the Passion narrative in Luke: “The Lord turned and looked at Peter, and Peter remembered the Lord’s words…and went out and wept bitterly.” I became convinced Peter did not weep out of guilt; when Jesus looked at him, Peter saw in Jesus’ face and eyes a tremendous love. He cried overwhelmed by that love. I cried many times realizing Jesus’ love for me in spite of the abuse! Blessed with these gifts received over those sixteen months, I gradually came to see: our Lord Jesus was abused, our Lord Jesus was stripped of his human dignity, our Lord Jesus was used as a pawn and victim in someone else’s agenda.
When he was lifted up on the cross, our Lord’s first words were: “Father, forgive them.” (To be honest, I spent many hours in prayer asking, “How could you do that?”) My wounds were truly a sharing in Jesus’ wounds. Healing and reconciliation came into the world through his wounds and forgiveness.
At the Last Supper in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us, “As I have done for you, now you do for one another.” Eventually I was able to begin praying for my abuser. I realized healing was truly entering my heart the day I first prayed for him by name. The months and years passed, and those words of Jesus continued to stir in my heart. As deacon I walked with many, especially at the time of a family member’s death, and often heard peoples’ expressions of regret over failing to reconcile. My own dad, who was deeply wounded, died without ever forgiving his younger brother. Forgiveness does not depend upon or require a face-to-face encounter. It can be a matter of the heart. For myself I gradually recognized that meeting my abuser was something I needed to do, knowing full-well it would be very difficult. After many years, at the age of thirty-five, I reached out to him, we met, and in an emotional encounter I forgave him. He died the following year.
Because of how this journey unfolded in my life, I have come to believe spiritual healing within the Church will be realized to a great extent through survivors of abuse coming to identify with the sufferings of Christ and praying for the fortitude and humility to forgive in a way appropriate for their situation. A very tall order indeed, but “nothing is impossible with God.”
“I waited, waited for the Lord; who bent down and heard my cry,
Drew me out of the pit of destruction, out of the mud of the swamp,
Set my feet upon rock, steadied my steps, and put a new song in my mouth,
A hymn to our God. Many shall look on in awe and they shall trust in the Lord.”
(Psalm 40:2-5 NAB)
Jesus Christ is the light of the world; a light no darkness can overcome—not even clergy abuse.
Deacon Larry Normann serves the cluster parishes of St. Joan of Arc in Nashotah, Wisconsin, and St. Catherine of Alexandria in Mapleton/Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. He and his wife, Pam, have been married 43 years; they are blessed with twin daughters, both married, and one grandson.
Note from Awake: We extend heartfelt thanks to Deacon Larry for sharing his story. We also want to acknowledge that each survivor’s path is different. We honor the journeys of all survivors, and are committed to bringing you their stories.
If you have experienced sexual abuse, you can receive support through the National Sexual Abuse Hotline, 800-656-4673, which operates 24 hours a day. In Milwaukee, you can contact one of the Aurora Healing Centers at 414-219-5555. If you seek support from the Catholic Church, contact the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Victim Assistance Coordinator at 414-758-2232. Also, Awake is always open to listening to and learning from survivors. We invite you to reach out to us if you would like to connect.