Survivor Story: Six Things I Wish Catholics Knew About the Abuse Crisis

Patricia Gallagher Marchant, MSW, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice in downtown Milwaukee who has worked for almost 35 years with individuals and couples on issues including anxiety and depression, marital problems, grief, and sexual abuse recovery.

She understands the recovery work in a deeply personal way. Marchant is a survivor of clergy sexual abuse. When she was 7 years old and a student at Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Monona, Wisconsin, she was chosen to deliver a carton of milk to one of the parish priests, Rev. Lawrence Trainor, who groomed her and repeatedly assaulted her.

The trauma of that sexual violence led Marchant to repress those memories for years. “Trauma is so overwhelming for the body and the mind, so victims file it away until they’re ready to face the truth and the pain,” she explains.

Marchant saw psychotherapists as a young adult and knew she had been sexually abused as a child, although she was not sure by whom. When her own daughter turned seven, Marchant was bombarded by what she described as “a tidal wave of feelings” and she then began to piece together what happened to her.

In 1991, when Marchant was 35, she went to the Diocese of Madison to share her story, in part because Lawrence Trainor remained in ministry.  “I said, ‘I work in this field. I know how damaging this is.’ I genuinely thought that they would care, and stop the cycle of violence perpetrated by Lawrence Trainor. I was bringing them critically important information that required protective action by the Diocese,” she says. “Instead, they responded with a massive defensive reaction. They hired four attorneys. They realized I was very powerfully credible, so they retreated into a legal process, and protected a known pedophile.”

The Diocese settled with Marchant in 1992. In the 28 years since then, she has spoken often about clergy sexual abuse to groups and journalists, a process that she says has been painful and lonely at times. “There were only a few of us trying to educate the Catholic community about the depth and breadth of clergy sexual abuse in their diocese and in their community,” she says. “Even now, most do not want to hear about or face the reality of child sexual abuse in their midst. It is simply too difficult to comprehend and to determine what actions to take.”

What Catholics should Know

As a victim-survivor who has also walked with other survivors for many years, Marchant offers six ideas that she would like all Catholics to know about the sexual abuse crisis.

  1. Sexual abuse is real and widespread. The problem of child sexual abuse is unfortunately common in our culture. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 4 girls, and 1 in 13 boys are sexually abused in childhood, but researchers believe it’s even more common than statistics suggest because it’s an underreported crime. Marchant wants sexual abuse to be discussed more openly. “As we have brought alcohol and drug abuse out in the open in our culture, we need to address more directly the reality of childhood sexual abuse,” she says.
  2. Secrecy allows sexual abuse to thrive. “Sexual abuse of a child is a felony, and keeping it secret protects the perpetrating body,” Marchant says. Secrecy also compounds the pain for victims. “Imagine, God forbid, that your child or somebody you love has been harmed and you can’t speak about it. You go underground and suffer alone. It’s really quite crazy making,” she explains. While revelations such as the Pennsylvania grand jury report in 2018 were upsetting to many Catholics, the open conversation has been positive for Marchant. “This crisis is massively relieving for those of us who have been harmed,” she says. “For some, of course, it provokes more memories and pain and anguish, but many of us are relieved that mainstream Catholics are now wrestling with what to do, how to respond. Clergy abuse is being directly confronted differently than ever before.”
  3. Catholics need to demand more of Church leaders. “Members of the Church should know what happened in their midst, on their watch, and with their financial contributions,” Marchant says.  She asks Catholics to hold leaders responsible for new protective measures, and real transparency. “That’s how we would create safety for all,” she says. 
  4. Survivors need the opportunity to share their stories. Survivors need places where they can talk about what happened to them if they choose, where they can be heard by people who will not minimize or deny what happened.
  5. Families of survivors need support and care. Marchant believes the Church needs to do more to acknowledge and attend to the suffering of victims’ families. “No one reached out to my parents or my family, to tend to their anguish, their frustration, their pain.”
  6. Catholics need to be in touch with their anger. When people ask Marchant what they can do about sexual abuse in the Church, she asks them to “show their outrage, to speak out on behalf of victims and the injustices they suffered.” After all, these victims were innocent children. It’s normal and healthy to be angry about an injustice,” she says. “Until it impacts your family or your heart space, it usually doesn’t spark outrage. That’s the human condition. But I think anyone leading Catholics right now needs to create discussion groups and other opportunities to allow difficult feelings to be heard. The pain some within the Church have created is real and needs to be processed as a community in an up-front and honest fashion for real healing to occur.”

Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

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.

11 thoughts on “Survivor Story: Six Things I Wish Catholics Knew About the Abuse Crisis

  1. Hello Patty. Please accept my very delayed response to your blog of March 10, 2020. As a family member of a survivor, I was so relieved and grateful to read that you also see sexual abuse of a child as a felony. Your blog inspired me to write a fictitious story about the priest who molested my late husband. The title is, “The Trial That Never Happened.” Writing eases my anger and pain. Thank you for what you do to help others.

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