“Writing has been a catalyst to health. As a child I didn’t have language for what was happening to me.”
Kathryn Walczyk, 61, lives with a more balanced rhythm to life than she once did. “When I am in balance, all facets of my life are easier and more authentic,” she says. Walczyk treasures family, friends, and the wilderness most. She works as a spiritual companion, and at a faith, justice, and spirituality center, and with her husband in their shoe repair business. She also writes and speaks, sharing spiritual perspectives and responding to the spiritual and relational crisis resulting from religious and clergy abuses. Kathryn lives and works in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the same town where she experienced the abuses.
Awake: Kathryn, what would you like to share about your abuse?
Kathryn Walczyk: The parish priest sexually abused me when I was seven, eight, and nine. The effects of the abuse were complex, spiritually traumatizing, neurologically altering, and bodily charged. It felt as if an electric current was wired through my inner organs, into my bones, nervous system, brain, bowels, and beneath the surface of my skin. A touch, smell, sound, word, song, or image could, without warning, ignite shock waves throughout my body. As a child, I sensed enormous power behind the man called Father. My young brain and what I witnessed in church led me to believe Father, my abuser, was Father God. He abused us in broad daylight, in public, and in sacred spaces. People rose and sang when he entered for Mass. Only he could change bread into God. My abuser controlled Jesus in the tiny wafer he put into my mouth and by locking the hosts inside the tabernacle. Jesus-hanging-on-the-cross was as helpless as I to the Father’s power. I believed I was the sin that caused the priest to abuse us. I felt responsible to tell and to get help. Horror silences. I was silenced for four decades.
When I did tell, as an adult, I told a priest. I was involved in church ministry under his direction at the time. The kind way he talked about God drew me in, nudged my injuries, and set off triggers. This priest took charge of my healing. He was a good listener and present to my suffering, but unqualified. This was a pivotal moment when alternative options would have benefited me.
As healing progressed, my childhood urgency to tell and to do something increased. I began taking classes, reaching out to the diocese, and working together with church leaders including the priest helper, to address clergy sexual abuse locally. I was met with compassionate and destructive responses. Sometimes compassionate responses triggered me. I grew dependent on this priest and on the church for everything. Parts of me healed and parts were reinjured. I was naïve to church dysfunction and to the added damage happening inside myself. This priest helper and his church lacked accountability, trauma understanding, survivors’ perspective, and the ability to admit their limitations and define their roles. A cycle of emotion and confusion reflective of childhood years intensified. I felt like a ball in a pinball machine, batted this way and that, until I lost all control of my life. The priest helper’s behavior changed. He ended communication. Bad endings with others followed. No one followed up. Paranoia, shame, and guilt escalated. For years I woke with bruised arms from holding myself too tightly during the night. The good gained during those years darkened. Opportunities to learn and reconcile were lost. I felt abandoned.
Q. I’m so sorry that this happened to you, Kathryn. What have you found particularly difficult about your journey as a survivor?
A. Guilt and shame were ingrained into my brain and spirituality. I spent most of my life feeling guilty for crimes I didn’t commit and behaviors resulting from unrecognized PTSD. I would desperately pray for forgiveness when I learned friends or strangers were harmed, or when I did something wrong, or when I was blamed for something I didn’t do. I’d confess to things I never felt or thought.
Q. Could you tell us about someone who has been particularly helpful in your recovery process?
A. Marge Wilbur. She was my supervisor during a spiritual direction preparation program. Marge was a gentle guide. She helped me to unlearn habits I picked up by observing church leadership during my healing years. She helped me to clarify and separate my roles of spiritual companion, advocate, and friend. She helped me to be accountable to my practice and to hold boundaries. She believed in me. Before Marge died she said, “Kathy, you will be able to use all of what you have experienced for good purpose.” All I wanted was to use my experiences for good purpose.
Q. What powerful words for you to hear. What else has been useful in helping you heal?
A. I sense that humans contain an internal road map. Learning to read and trust my internal compass has been healing and life changing. Writing has been a catalyst to health. As a child I didn’t have language for what was happening to me. As an adult suffering from PTSD I couldn’t access the part of my brain I needed to speak and articulate. Through reflective writing I gain health and the ability to offer perspective.
Vipassana meditation, time in the wilderness, small spiritual groups, and my spiritual director are also critical to my health. Education in trauma science, theology, pastoral care, and spiritual direction, as well as the people I met in those learning environments, lift my dignity and empower me to use my life for purpose.
Q. Can you tell us a little about what your spirituality is like today?
A. Eventually I left the Catholic Church and returned to a simple, earthy spirituality that includes all of my experiences and relationships. Basically, I believe in a love force that supersedes all other forces and that connects us together. I try to participate with that love force as best I can.
Q. Can you tell us about a person who inspires you?
A. Karen and her family. Karen was my childhood friend. She did not survive. I am still here. Her beautiful spirit is with me when I am with her family and in my work of speaking up.
Q. Kathryn, thank you so much for sharing your story with us. In closing, what have we not asked that you’d like to share?
A. Once a bishop asked, “Do you think Satan did this to you?” I said, “No. A man sexually abused me.” The bishop thought it was Satan. As a child, I thought it was God. It was neither. This is a human crisis with massive human and spiritual casualties. This is an interpersonal crisis that involves criminal offenses and catastrophic damage. This is a power crisis that causes suffering through bodily invasion, spiritual infliction, mind-altering damage, defensive strategies, and avoidance, and often does so in the name of God. This is a relational crisis that is revealing man-made hierarchies that now impede restorative justice efforts. Policies, legal accountability, full disclosure, and education are necessary, but without human-to-human interaction and follow through, there will be no authentic lasting change.
In my forties I woke with a little girl’s belief, if I told someone, together we could make it better. We. When the priest helper showed compassion in my injury, when church leaders saw my potential, when theology peers recognized my value, I felt like I was finally part of the We. When everything fell apart and relationships ended, the monster god returned full force. I heard him laugh at my attempts to be part of the We. Slowly I gained health and rid myself of unhealthy dependency on the Catholic Church. I sent the false god packing. I grew independent. Forgiveness seeped in, then outward. I grieved the loss of friendships and opportunities. I softened. My childhood belief strengthened: In the telling of our stories and through human interaction with each other, something better will evolve.
—Interview by Erin O’Donnell
Note from Awake Milwaukee: We extend heartfelt thanks to Kathryn Walczyk 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. We encourage you to read our previous Survivor Story by Michael Koplinka-Loehr.
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 414-769-3332. Also, Awake is always open to listening to and learning from survivors. If you would like to connect with us, we invite you to email Sara at firstname.lastname@example.org.