In a recent blog post we discussed Awake’s commitment to acknowledging the abuse of adults in the Catholic Church. The post included reflections from Sara Larson, a member of the Awake Leadership Team, about what she’s learned in connecting with victim-survivors of sexual abuse in adulthood, as well as insights from “Anne,” a victim-survivor of adult abuse in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. (She asked that we change her name because her adult children do not know about her assault.) Today’s post is devoted to telling more of Anne’s story.
Looking back, “Anne” says that it felt good to have a friend who was willing to listen. It was the mid-1990s, and she and her family were struggling. Anne’s marriage was failing. She worked full-time and was the primary caregiver of her three children. Her husband was rarely home, and they had a young teen in crisis. She and her children were receiving counseling, but Anne needed more time with a therapist than her health insurance provided.
So when a colleague approached her at the Catholic institution where she worked, explained that he was a deacon, and offered to lend an ear, she felt grateful. “That was so wonderful, because I was so overwhelmed,” she says.
He accompanied Anne on walks over their lunch hour, and encouraged her to talk. In time, the colleague began inviting Anne to after-work events. “He would say, ‘I know you’re exhausted. All you’re doing is taking care of your kids and coming to work and dealing with all of this. You really need to get out,’” she recalls.
After declining many of his invitations, she agreed to come with him to a wine-tasting fundraiser in downtown Milwaukee. “I felt that turning him down was unfriendly when he was only trying to help me escape my problems,” she explains. Anne reasoned that she would eat dinner at home beforehand, and it would only last a couple of hours.
She didn’t drink much during the event—she thinks it was two glasses of wine total, on a full stomach—but somehow in the walk to the deacon’s car in the parking garage, she lost consciousness. This had never happened to Anne before or since then. She has a few snippets of memory from the ride in the deacon’s vehicle to her home; she woke up just enough to notice that she was reclined in the car seat and to wonder why she couldn’t move her arms or legs. When they reached her house, the deacon held her up and walked her inside. Anne says she lost consciousness again, but knows she was assaulted that night. When she confronted the deacon the next day, he admitted to sexually assaulting her while she was unconscious. She thinks he slipped something into her drink at the event.
Anne did what she could to avoid her colleague after that. “I thought about going to the police,” she says. “But when I thought about the evidence, I knew it would be ‘he said, she said.’ I didn’t have a realistic hope for justice or accountability.” But roughly a year after the wine tasting, Anne says, she noticed the deacon hanging around someone at work who was going through a messy breakup and “very vulnerable.” The pattern was familiar to Anne, and she was suddenly motivated to protect that woman. “I thought, ‘Okay, I have to pull myself together and do something.’”
Reporting to the Archdiocese
She went to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee offices to report the assault. “I was shaking like a leaf when I went to report, scared out of my wits,” she says. But she pushed herself to go, “hoping that the Church would act to remove him for the safety of others.” The priest from the Chancery who took her report said he was uncertain what could be done, but he would give the information to the person responsible for supervising deacons in the Archdiocese. Disappointed, Anne says she cried the whole drive home.
A few weeks later, the person in charge of deacons called Anne to say that the deacon “admitted to it,” though it was not clear to Anne exactly what he admitted to the Archdiocese. The administrator stated that the deacon would be removed from ministry, and the deacon soon lost his job at the Catholic institution where he and Anne worked. “I couldn’t believe it. I was elated,” Anne says. But the relief didn’t last. She soon received a second call from the person in charge of deacons, this time to say that the deacon’s wife complained to the Archdiocese that if her husband was removed from ministry, she would lose her standing and privileges as a deacon’s wife. The Archdiocesan leader told Anne that the deacon’s wife had argued “that she was the real victim here,” Anne says. He also told her that the deacon would be restricted from ministry and monitored closely.
Anne eventually remarried. More than 20 years after the assault, she and her husband attended the baptism of a family member’s baby. When they entered the church, located in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Anne was stunned to see the deacon conducting the baptism. Shaking, she fled from the pew to the vestibule, and her husband followed. “I turned to my husband and said, ‘It’s him,’” Anne recalls.
She tried to stay to witness the baptism, but couldn’t. She and her husband later checked the parish’s website and found that the deacon was also a paid staff member at that parish, a different one than he served at the time of the assault. Even today, she wonders if the pastor knows the deacon’s full history, and if he’s still being “closely monitored” in this current role. She is concerned that the scrutiny of priests has not extended to deacons, and is very skeptical that the Archdiocese has honestly confronted the full reality of clergy sexual abuse of adults.
Raised in a large family, Anne was abused as a child by a close family member. She learned as an adult that several siblings endured this abuse as well. These experiences from her childhood and the abuse in adulthood have had long-term effects. Anne suffers from anxiety and PTSD. She relives the trauma every time she hears news of sexual abuse in any context, from Theodore McCarrick and Catholic composer David Haas to the Michigan State team doctor, Larry Nassar, and Bill Cosby.
Despite her experiences, Anne loves the Catholic faith. As a teenager, she attended a spartan Catholic boarding school for girls and then a Catholic college. Each became a place of safety after her difficult home life, and in both places she met wise, caring faculty whom she credits with bringing her closer to God. But Anne does not list herself as Catholic when she enters the hospital for medical procedures; she’s fearful of who might suddenly enter her room to bring Communion or perform Anointing of the Sick. And she chooses not to address priests as “Father,” viewing it as too paternalistic. “It just automatically puts all your sensibilities in a childlike trust,” she says. “That trust may not be warranted. You need your eyes much more open.”
In recent years Anne has learned much more about the psychology of sexual abuse; she can now recognize some of what the deacon did and said as grooming behaviors, designed to manipulate her and set the stage for abuse. She is glad that children now receive education about sexual abuse. “If I had grown up with this kind of preparation, I would have had the support to tell someone,” she says, “and I might have been believed.”
Anne says that she decided to tell her story now in an effort to bring light to the tragedy of sexual abuse of children and adults. “Even if you’re not hearing survivors’ voices,” she says, “it doesn’t mean we’re not here.”
And she’s glad to have found a place where her story can be heard. “Alone I feel powerless,” she says. “But the multiple strong voices of Awake give me the courage to address these issues. Together we can make change that I don’t think I can hope for on my own.”
—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog
Note from Awake: We extend heartfelt thanks to Anne for sharing her story. We also want to acknowledge that every survivor’s path is different. We honor the journeys of all survivors, and are committed to bringing you their stories.
If you or someone you love has 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 and their families. We invite you to reach out to us if you would like to connect.