Survivor Story: Deborah Rodriguez

“The greatest challenge I have had to endure as a survivor is shame. Because others forced me to keep silent about the abuse, I thought I was the one at fault, that I had done something wrong.”

Deborah Rodriguez, 57, is a wife, mother, physician, and practicing Catholic who lives in Tacoma, Washington. She has developed a ministry of working with people who have a history of abuse and trauma and is a national speaker on the topic of trauma-informed care. In fact, last May she spoke about trauma in the Catholic Church for one of Awake’s Courageous Conversations. She is also a medical missionary who serves on short-term missions in Honduras, Ecuador, and Uganda. “I love to travel, watch Disney princess movies,” she says, “and have long conversations with friends.”

Awake: Deborah, we’re truly honored to have you share your Survivor Story with us. To begin, what would you like to share about your abuse?

Deborah Rodriguez: I am a survivor of child sexual abuse. My first abuser was a family member, my second was a Catholic priest in my elementary school. I am also a survivor of reporting the abuse to the Catholic Church. This was one of the most traumatic events I have ever endured as an adult. I reported the abuse many years after it occurred. I was encouraged to report by well-meaning priests who heard my story. Unfortunately, the report was horrifically mismanaged by the office of victim assistance. If I knew then what I know now about trauma, I would have insisted on extra support from trauma-informed therapists and a slower path through the reporting process. I would have demanded complete transparency from those who handled my case.

Q. I’m sorry that this process was so painful, Deborah. What has challenged you most as a survivor?

A. The greatest challenge I have had to endure as a survivor is shame. I learned very young to keep quiet even when I was being harmed. Because others forced me to keep silent about the abuse, I thought I was the one at fault, that I had done something wrong. I started to blame myself for what was happening and that blame turned into a life of shame and silence. I never truly knew that I mattered and that I could voice an opinion, an objection, or a reaction. As a response to the shame, I turned to risk-taking and self-destruction. Thankfully I was spared the worst of the consequences of the risks I took as a teenager.

It was also this life of shame and silence that motivated me to escape the places of my abuse. My escape was my love of learning, and, through grace, I excelled. Ultimately, I left my hometown and went to college, medical school, and started a new life. Only recently as an adult was I able to face the shame and silence of my childhood. With the help of a loving family, a skilled therapist, and a gifted spiritual director, I have experienced deep healing and now have a voice.

Q. It’s good to hear that you’ve achieved this healing. Could you name one person who has been particularly helpful in your healing and recovery process?

A. Aside from my husband and close friends, I was blessed to have a Catholic priest who was willing to walk with me in my early healing, from the time I reported the abuse to church officials and several years after. Though he was young and didn’t have specific training in trauma, he allowed me to express my very honest, sometimes brutal thoughts. He let me be angry at priests, at the Catholic Church, and even at God. He let me express raw anger and emotion, and never once judged or corrected me. He even traveled with me to a gathering of survivors; I asked him to accompany me so he could hear other stories of abuse. From my work with fellow survivors, I know I’m lucky to have found this kind of care in the Church.

Q. That kind of patient listening is wonderful. So what is your relationship with the Catholic Church like today?

A. I am a faithful practicing Catholic. Each day is a deliberate choice to remain in the Catholic Church. Some days, especially when I see continued wounds in the Church that cause trauma, I am tempted to leave. I really love the Catholic Church and especially the sacraments. I have found continued healing through the sacramental life of the Church even though I was abused while receiving a sacrament. I can now say it was a sick and evil priest that abused me, not the Church. Having said this, the leadership of the Church has a lot to learn about trauma and its aftermath. I am also privileged to minister in the Church and help bring about this learning.

Q. Thank you for giving us the chance to learn from you. Is there anything else that has been useful in helping you heal?

A. Having a safe place to share my raw feelings, thoughts, emotions, questions. This happened not just with professionals, such as therapists, but with fellow survivors. To this day, being among survivors who are facing their own trauma is a great gift. Often we don’t have to say a single word, but we understand each other and can feel safe.

Q. Deborah, we’re grateful to you for sharing your story with our community. As we close, what have you learned that you think other victim-survivors might benefit from hearing?

A. You are not alone. When I first faced my story of child abuse, I felt I was the only person in the entire world that had a story like this. But I eventually found others who had also been abused and hurt in the Church, specifically by clergy. This was the beginning of my healing. If you are a survivor, please know you are not alone and someone does care. Find safe people with whom you can share your sacred story. Know that wherever you are on your healing journey, you are not alone.

–Interview by Erin O’Donnell

Note from Awake Milwaukee: We extend heartfelt thanks to Deborah Rodriguez 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 Deborah’s story, we encourage you to read our previous Survivor Stories, including our last story from Carol Longsdorf.

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 saralarson@awakemilwaukee.org.

One thought on “Survivor Story: Deborah Rodriguez

  1. Thank you Deborah for sharing your story. I felt completely alone too until I found survivor support groups. You’ve created a lot of good and help for others with your story.

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