“One of the most helpful things is working with a trauma therapist who has helped me understand why childhood trauma is so very difficult to uncover.”
A wife and mother of eight from Forest Lake, Minnesota, Carol Longsdorf, 55, teaches second grade at a Catholic school. Her hobbies include golfing, especially with her husband, Paul, and downhill skiing with her family. Carol also enjoys listening to podcasts about the Catholic faith and “watching how God is working through the people around me,” she explains.
Awake: Carol, thank you for talking with us. What would you like to share about your abuse?
Carol Longsdorf: I suppressed memories of my abuse for many decades, until I was in my 50s. I grew up on a dairy farm as a middle child in a family of eight kids. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, my family attended a Benedictine mission church called Seven Dolors Catholic Church in Albany, Minnesota, and I attended Holy Family School, also run by the Benedictines. The parish is located in the Diocese of St. Cloud, but the diocese has no jurisdiction over this order.
My mother was fond of one of the parish priests and cooked for him often. He and the principal of our school, a nun, came over to our house often for Sunday dinners, baptisms, and First Communions.
I was deeply private and painfully shy and quiet as a child. I felt that no one understood me. Between first and fifth grade I wet my pants often. I remember that I was afraid to use the bathroom at school because it was near the office of the nun who was our principal. I also remember crying when I came out of my piano lessons, which were held each week at the convent.
The principal told my parents that I had a religious calling and invited me to spend the night at the convent. I spent at least one overnight there in first or second grade. The principal left our school after my fourth grade year and was sent to a monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota, where she has lived ever since. When I was a fifth grader, my mother dropped me off at the monastery for a “vocations retreat,” where I was left in this nun’s care. I remember little from this retreat.
After I left Holy Family for junior high, I began using alcohol. I was introduced to other drugs in high school and college, which became a way of self-medicating. I led a promiscuous lifestyle in high school through my late twenties and lived with deep shame from those experiences.
Memories of my abuse began to surface 45 years later, in 2019—after I attended a college reunion where I ran into the former principal of Holy Family. Over the next four months I grew increasingly depressed and stopped sleeping. At one point, after being unable to sleep for seven days, I fell asleep and woke up to a memory of abuse by the principal. This memory led me to work with a skilled trauma therapist. Over time, memories of abuse by the parish priest surfaced as well.
Why Do Victim-Survivors Sometimes Forget Their Abuse?
The phenomenon of forgetting painful memories is formally known as “dissociation.” It’s most common in people who experience trauma as children, though it can happen to adults as well. For more detail, check out our past blog post on this topic.
Q. Carol, I’m so sorry that all of this happened to you. I know you have tried to report this abuse to the Benedictines. How has that gone?
A. The Benedictine Order has set up repeated roadblocks as I’ve tried to report my abuse. They dismissed my many letters to them for the first year. A priest I know requested that the abbess call me, but that meeting was a dead end. The abbess sent me to diocesan “advocates,” who turned out to be ill-equipped and were rude to me. (They were clearly advocates for the abbess, not me.) Her lawyer also interrogated me. When I tried to report the abuse by the priest, the abbot ignored me for two years. He recently had his assistant contact me to berate me. They have no interest in listening to my story.
Q. Again, I’m so sorry, Carol. What has been helpful to you in your healing?
A. It has helped me to connect with the victim–survivor network in the archdiocese where I live, as the Benedictines have no victim support available. I attend the talks provided by both the Archdiocese of St. Paul–Minneapolis as well as Awake Milwaukee.
I also belong to an intercessory prayer group of three mothers who listen to me and give me space to be upset and cry. They pray with me and encourage me to “fight the good fight” on behalf of other victims of Benedictine abuse. They remind me that “the battle belongs to the Lord.”
Two of my siblings have supported me by sitting with me on the phone or in person, validating my childhood memories and helping me put the pieces together. I spent 45 years believing that I was a “bad seed” in my youth. The Sacraments of Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, and the Eucharist have also been a comfort to me.
One of the most helpful things is working with a trauma therapist who has helped me understand why childhood trauma is so very difficult to uncover. Many people never bring their memories of childhood abuse to the surface because of denial and self-protection. My spiritual director has also been so important in my healing, as he is the voice of God, reminding me of my worth in God’s eyes and that I am His beloved! I deeply trust his guidance. It is good to trust again.
Q. Could you describe your spirituality and relationship with the Catholic Church?
A. After I got married in my late twenties, I knew I wanted to raise our children in a strong Catholic home and I wanted to give them the stability and consistency I didn’t have growing up. As an adult, I lived in the Archdiocese of St. Paul–Minneapolis and appreciated the humble, holy priests I met there, so different from the priests I knew as a child. The archdiocesan priests preached about reaching heaven by becoming saints. I see it as my goal as a spouse and mother to help my family members become saints one day.
I began to fall in love with the Catholic faith after our wedding. The sacraments became my initial healing from the brokenness of alcohol, drugs, promiscuity, and lies. Later, some very kind, loving priests helped me as I began to process the abuse. They understand trauma and know that it is difficult to bring to the surface. They have provided resources that have helped my slow healing process. The Church has been my salvation.
In contrast, the Benedictines have been harmful. They continuously put roadblocks in my path to stop me from reporting the abuse and are hiding from the reality of the sexual scandal.
Q. Thank you for sharing your story with us, Carol. We’re grateful for your honesty. As we close, what would you want people to understand about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church?
A. There needs to be greater awareness in our culture regarding institutional betrayal by the Church hierarchy. The Catholic Church insists on protecting abusive priests and nuns and doesn’t want to face the darkness of this serious sin. They put priests and nuns ahead of the victims, even though victims are the wounds of Christ. The Church needs greater humility to admit that they have wronged victims by abusing their innocence and vulnerability.
I also believe the Church needs to learn more about trauma and to understand that God always wants the darkness to be brought into the light. He seeks the desolate victims and desires for them to be fully healed from the abuse of the Church.
–Interview by Erin O’Donnell
Note from Awake Milwaukee: We extend heartfelt thanks to Carol Longsdorf 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. In addition to Carol’s story, we encourage you to read our previous Survivor Stories, including last month’s story from Bill Kessenich.
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. If you would like to connect with us, we invite you to email Sara at firstname.lastname@example.org.