Courageous Conversation: Abuse Survivors Share What They Want Catholics to Understand

Last week, Awake Milwaukee launched the third season of its popular Courageous Conversations series with “What I Want Catholics to Understand,” a panel discussion that featured five victim-survivors of abuse in the Catholic Church. A recording of the conversation is now available on Awake’s YouTube channel. Here we offer a summary of the main insights shared during the conversation, which was moderated by Sara Larson, executive director of Awake Milwaukee.

Deacon Larry: “I want Catholics to understand that there are many invisible wounds in our communities.”

Deacon Larry Normann, who serves in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in the parishes of St. Joan of Arc in Nashotah and St. Catherine of Alexandria in Mapleton/Oconomowoc, experienced abuse as a nineteen-year-old studying for the priesthood. His abuser was his superior, the priest “who had the most to say about my fitness to continue. It was a gross misuse of power,” Normann said. The priest was well-respected, and Normann had no one to go to for help. He prayed with the passion story in the Gospel of Luke and began to see Jesus as someone sexually abused; he died naked on the cross. “The degradation was total,” he said.  

On Good Friday 2001, Normann chose to preach for the first time ever about his abuse experience. “I tried to help the people understand that our Lord Jesus went through abuse as well,” Normann recalled. “You could have heard a pin drop in that church, because no one in the parish to which I was assigned had ever raised the issue in church.” Over the Easter weekend that followed, 11 people in the parish reached out to him to say they had also been abused.

Normann shared that church leaders sometimes tell him that the abuse crisis is over and that there are no abuse survivors present in their communities. Normann said he disagrees. “I have preached in a number of parishes,” he explained. “In every case where I have spoken, people have come up to me afterwards to share the fact that they were abused. Unless you talk about it, people are never going to feel moved at all to even attempt to reach out. They need to hear it to feel that there is a care there to warrant taking a risk.”

He encouraged Catholics in the audience to take action by asking their pastor or liturgy team to include a regular petition in the Prayer of the Faithful for victim-survivors of abuse. “If the community hears a petition like that,” Normann said, “over a short period of time it’s going to begin to have an effect.”

Gigi: “I want Catholics to understand that healing has no timetable.”

Gigi Fontanilla lives in Florida, where she works for a nonprofit organization. She shared that she was sexually abused by a friend, a priest that she had known since high school. “I honestly think it’s a miracle that I’m still employed and still Catholic,” she said. “It’s a miracle I’m even alive because the abuse affected my life in numerous and profound ways.”

More than a decade has passed since her abuse. Fontanilla said she has spent a lot of time since then working with a compassionate spiritual director and a therapist in an effort to heal from the wounds of both her abuse and the process of reporting the abuse to her diocese. But the pain of the experience lingers. A few months ago, she said, she received a spam email sent by her abuser’s email address. She felt certain that he did not intend to send it, but she still wondered what she should do with it. She texted a friend and asked for his advice. He texted back that she should delete it, since “out of sight, out of mind.” Fontanilla said that while the friend didn’t intend to be dismissive, his comment was hurtful.

“If I really wanted to forget what happened to me and for it to be out of my mind, I would have to be reincarnated into a whole new human being,” she told the audience. “I can never forget what happened to me. It is not my identity, but it is part of my story and it has changed me forever.”

When it was her turn to offer an action step, Fontanilla asked for prayers. “Don’t be afraid to request prayers for abuse survivors and the overall healing of the Church,” she said.

Shaun: “I want Catholics to understand that survivors are not your enemy.”

Shaun Dougherty is the national president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). A survivor of clergy abuse as a child, he has advocated for statute of limitations reform in New York and Pennsylvania. “We at SNAP are not out to destroy the Church that my mother has faithfully served longer than I’ve been alive,” Dougherty explained. “What we are out for better protections for future generations and current generations of children.”

Dougherty noted that the Catholic Church has been especially vigorous in lobbying to maintain statute of limitation laws that prevent victim-survivors from pursuing cases against their abusers. The Church has been particularly aggressive in preventing so-called “look-back windows” in his home state of Pennsylvania and in New York, he said.

He encouraged audience members to take action by checking into legislative efforts in their local diocese. “The lobbying efforts that they are engaged in are protecting all the predators,” Dougherty said, even abusers in sports, scouts, and families. “If when you research, you disagree with what they’re doing,” Dougherty offered, “I encourage you to reach out to your bishops and your dioceses and please discourage this behavior.”

Kathy Ann: “I want Catholics to understand that adults can be abused too.”

Kathy Ann Coll, an active Catholic in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, was raped in her home in 2016 by a priest serving in her parish. Born outside the United States, the priest came to Pittsburgh to study for his doctoral degree in counseling.

Coll was 65 at the time of her assault and was shocked that “a sacred man of God” would do this to her. “My life had been spent in service of the Church and a God who I loved with all my heart,” she said. “My life became a crazy world of doctors and therapists and nightmares and depression and anxiety attacks,” as she struggled to recover from the attack.  She has since made it her mission to support other women who have experienced abuse in the Church through the SMG Catholic Women’s Support Network, which she founded.

It has been particularly painful to Coll that her diocese’s resources meant to serve people who have experienced abuse are geared only to those abused as children or as “vulnerable adults.” The term “vulnerable adult” is typically used in the Church to describe someone who has an incapacity that prevents them from making decisions on their own, Coll explained.  

Nothing in the diocese mentions the needs of other adult survivors, like her. “We’re here,” Coll said. “I’m here. There are other women [who survived] clergy abuse who are here. Why aren’t we being recognized? It just adds so many, many layers of hurt.”

Coll, who serves on Awake’s Courageous Conversations planning team, encouraged audience members to take action by reading the summary report from Awake Milwaukee’s Synod sessions this past summer, which centered the voices of survivors. The report includes an action plan, drawn from the suggestions of survivors, designed to make the Church safer and more trauma sensitive. “Share it with your priests, share it with your bishops, share it with your community,” Coll said. She sees the report as an effective way to stimulate conversation about the issue of abuse by church leaders.

Esther: “I want Catholics to understand that the spiritual effects of abuse last a lifetime.”

A devoted Catholic who lives in Ohio, Esther Harber serves as Awake’s Survivor Circle coordinator. She spent several young adult years as a lay missionary in New York where she experienced spiritual abuse and a sexual assault by a Catholic priest. “While all abuse is awful and profoundly impacts and changes a person,” she said, “clerical abuse is particularly heinous because it couples … assault [with] a direct attack on that person’s faith.”

Harber explained that the Code of Canon Law was revised in 2021 to define sexual abuse by Church leaders as not only a sin of fornication, but also “an attack on the dignity of the person and a crime against the faith.”

Harber touched on some of the ways that abusers use the sacraments and other elements of the Catholic faith to manipulate their victims. “In my case, after my rape, which happened in a Church, the priest looked at the tabernacle and said, ‘Isn’t it amazing, we’re in the presence of God.’”

“For me that compounded deeply the shame and the guilt that I felt,” Harber said, “and it made God a co-conspirator in my assault.”

She encouraged audience members to take action by educating themselves about trauma, which will make them better able to support people who have experienced abuse. She suggested a video on trauma-informed care by Diane Langberg or the books The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk and Altogether You by Jenna Reimersma.

The panelists also answered a series of questions from the audience; check out the event recording to hear more.

The Conversation Continues. Join Us!
Don’t miss Part 2 of the Courageous Conversation, 7 pm Central on Thursday, September 29.  Attendees will break into small groups to discuss the ideas shared by the panelists in Part 1. To join us, please complete the registration for Part 2 and watch the video recording before you attend. See you on Thursday!

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