Survivor Story: How I Believe The Church Can Help Survivors Heal

As a teenager in the late 1960s, Jan Ruidl was abused by the priest who led the youth group at her home parish in Springfield, Massachusetts. Years later, she reported the abuse to the Diocese of Springfield and ultimately met with Springfield Bishop Timothy McDonnell, whom Ruidl found to be “compassionate and kind.”

As an adult, Ruidl worked for the Catholic Church, including more than seven years as parish director at St. John Nepomuk Parish in Racine. All of this gives her valuable insight into how the Church can serve victim-survivors.

Seeking Calm in Chaos

Growing up, Ruidl’s home life was difficult and chaotic because her mother wrestled with mental illness. “Church was where I found consistency and stability and peace and calm,” she recalls.

Ruidl says the abuse by Rev. John R. Russell involved a “slow grooming process,” with Russell offering her rides home from events and eventually fondling and kissing her. “There certainly were times when I would say to him, ‘I can’t do this, it’s not appropriate.’ And he would say things like, ‘I’m older than you are. I know what’s right. I know what God wants.’ I would capitulate because I cared for him and needed some adult affirmation.” The abuse culminated with an attempted sexual assault in Russell’s car when he visited her during her first year of nursing school. It was the last time Ruidl saw the priest. 

She went on to graduate from nursing school and work as a pediatric ICU nurse. She married and raised four children, all now adults. Ruidl’s mother died in 1994, and the loss devastated her as she grieved both her mother’s death and the difficult relationship they’d had. Ruidl began meeting with a grief counselor, and in the process came to see the experience with Russell as abuse. In 2004, as allegations against priests emerged in Boston and elsewhere, Ruidl reported her abuse to the Diocese of Springfield.

Ruidl attended St. Francis de Sales Seminary here in Wisconsin, and earned a Master of Divinity degree in 2007, writing her master’s thesis on the abuse crisis. She has been a longtime member of the group Voice of the Faithful, and has participated in healing circles for survivors across the country, including one facilitated by former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske. 

She attended numerous Listening Sessions across the Archdiocese of Milwaukee led by Fr. Jim Connell around 2010, which focused on parishes where an abusive priest had served. She has served on the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph’s Review Board since its inception around 2004 and sees the order as “a model for learning and changing as its leaders embrace models of transparency and forward thinking.” She currently volunteers with Awake as a member of the Advocacy Working Group.

Awake recently spoke with Ruidl about how the Church can better serve survivors.

Awake: When the Church responds well to abuse allegations, what does it do?

Jan Ruidl: I don’t think the Church is responding well in a consistent manner. I believe it intends to serve well. But I don’t think it’s willing to relinquish enough control to say to survivors, “We trust you to know what is best for you.”

Recently, as part of Awake, I’ve looked at how different dioceses help victims. I have to say that the Boston website is amazing. It’s so in-depth. But one of the things the Boston archdiocese absolutely insists upon is controlling victims’ therapy. It has to get progress reports and know what kind of therapy the person is getting and what medications they’re taking. They have to approve any medications. That says to survivors, “We don’t trust you to know what you need. We think you’re going to take advantage of us.” Boston is a diocese that has worked really, really hard and has done a lot of wonderful things and yet it is still giving that mixed message. If I’ve seen anything in the Church’s continuing behavior, it’s that mixed message.

That message is about protecting the assets of the Church, forgetting that those assets don’t belong to any bishop. They belong to the people. It would help so much if a diocese could say, “We are willing to do whatever it takes to heal and make whole, as best we can, every survivor who comes to us for help, irrespective of the cost.” It would help if they could say, “We take responsibility and ownership of what we have done. We take it as our highest moral obligation to earn your forgiveness. We cherish you as valued members of our Church, and we want to make sure that you feel safe and whole within. And we commit ourselves completely to assuring we do everything we can to meet that goal.”

Q. What would you like Catholics in the pews to “get” about the abuse crisis?

A. First and foremost, that every one of us, created in the image and likeness of God, is a valued member of the Church family. The loss of one lessens the whole. I would remind people that many victims of clergy abuse are minors, who cannot consent to sexual activity with an adult. Adults, always and every time, are responsible for setting and maintaining boundaries. Clergy abuse is not about homosexuality. Abuse is about access, power, control, and domination. Young males were the most common victims because priests had easier access to boys.

Victim-survivors are not “out to get” the Church or its money. They seek acknowledgement of the harm done, sincere apologies, transparency in the management of their complaints and in the status of their abuser, and finally, just compensation for the damage inflicted by the priest and by the Church’s often damaging response to their claims of abuse. This means not attaching confidentiality clauses, treatment permissions, and other oversights to effect justice.

Victims generally want honest acknowledgement and compassionate responses, not legalistic management, to receive treatment and compensation.

Q. What happened to your abuser?

A. He left active ministry in the Catholic Church in 1970. He became an Episcopal priest, and it turns out that he abused many more people in that denomination. He was defrocked about seven years ago and died last year.

I called the Episcopal diocese in New Mexico in 2004, after I made my report. I knew they had received the report, so I called to ask what, if anything, they could do as a result of it. And the Canon of the Ordinary—a high ranking priest who is the equivalent of a Vicar for Clergy in the Catholic Church—said to me, “What exactly would you want us to do?” And I said, “If you tell me that he has been a wonderful priest who has not harmed anybody in the time that he’s been an Episcopal priest,” which was a long time at this point, I said, “I would walk away and never say another word about it.” And as I was saying that, I realized that I had never thought of forgiveness, but I had forgiven him. Forgiveness is such an important part of our faith, and it had occurred without my conscious awareness of it. I think that’s the most amazing part of my story. 

I would never criticize any victim for not being able to reach that point of forgiveness because I think it’s highly individual. There are numerous factors that influence one’s willingness and ability to reach a point of forgiveness. Some may never get there, and that is what is best for them. Each individual is the only expert of their own needs. 

Q. What’s next for you in your work as an activist in the Church?

A. I’m not as involved now. My view is that I’m of the generation that’s beginning to age out. A large number of victim-survivors are entering senior citizen status. We need new people coming in who are younger and have the energy to carry on the work of oversight and to demand accountability from Church leadership. I’ve done a great deal, and I believe my role now is to function as sort of an institutional memory and advisor to those who are now devoting their time and energy to this work. 

We must acknowledge that predators will continue to exist in all walks of life—and that includes the Church. There will always be children and adults who are at risk of being victimized and abused. Clergy must continue to be trained in maintaining appropriate boundaries. 

For now, I am happy to be connected to Awake, and to do what I can to assist as the group grows and continues the work begun by others.      Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

Note from Awake: We extend heartfelt thanks to Jan Ruidl for sharing her 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.

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