Survivor Story: Esther Harber

“That profound understanding that I am not alone takes a great deal of the shame away. ”

Esther Harber, 39, is a devoted Catholic, mother, and wife, and a convert from a fundamentalist Protestant denomination. Originally from Texas, she has moved around a lot and now lives in Ohio. She spent several years as a lay missionary in the Bronx and about a year as a religious sister in Maryland. 

Harber enjoys weightlifting at her local YMCA and crafting and sewing when she has the time. “I start way more projects than I can finish!” she says. Currently a stay-at-home mom and volunteer with Awake as the Survivor Circle Coordinator, Harber is also in formation to become a spiritual director. “It is my passion and joy,” she says, “to share the many graces I have received with others.”

Awake: Esther, I’m grateful to you for sharing your story with the Awake community. What would you feel comfortable telling us about your abuse?

Esther Harber: I met this priest at a local parish during my time as a lay missionary when I was 27. I come from a problematic family of origin, and I confided in him during confession about my lack of forgiveness toward someone who had perpetrated sexual abuse against me as a child. Looking back, I can see this is when the grooming began.

In the six months leading up to the assault, there was a lot of grooming, abuse of power, and spiritual distortions. He used my deep love of the Catholic faith as a means of gaining my trust. I believed him when he told me that what we were doing was God’s will. As time went on, I trusted him more than I trusted myself, which I now see as a result of my abuse history and the power he holds as a priest. He used many elements of our faith to justify his actions and break down my boundaries. Many of the holy and good things of the Church became tools of grooming. This profoundly impacted the way I see God and the Church. I am still working to unwind the insidious lies I came to believe through the grooming and reporting process.

Q: I’m so sorry about all that happened to you, Esther. What would you say surprised you most in your journey as a survivor?

A: I was surprised and deeply saddened by how painful and traumatic the reporting process was. In many ways it was as traumatic as the rape itself. I had a great deal of naiveté when I approached the Church—I assumed the leadership would handle the situation properly. Unfortunately, this was not the case. While mostly nice to my face, Church leaders lied to me on multiple occasions and my “situation” was covered up. I wrote a dozen letters to various people trying to get action and nothing came from it. I did not want to bring further scandal to the Church but knew my abuser would abuse again. It was not until I went public with my story that a canonical investigation was initiated. I have requested information about the result of that investigation but have received nothing.

I have shared my story with a few priests and bishops over the years and have often been treated like a pariah and a liability, rather than a faithful and wounded daughter of the Church. I have also encountered fellow parishioners who think that victim-survivors are “making it up” or exaggerating, often without knowing my story. These moments are heartbreaking and make me feel exiled from the Church community.

Thankfully I have also met wonderful priests who have walked this journey with me, including my current spiritual director. I also have a beautiful community of friends who do know my story and believe and support me.

Q. It’s good to hear that you have supportive people around you; those relationships sound so beneficial. I wonder how you would describe your relationship with the Catholic Church.

A. As a result of what I went through during the rape, reporting process, and the ongoing aftermath, my relationship with the Church is complicated. I am tremendously grateful for my spiritual director, who has been through trauma training and understands some of the complexities of PTSD and has helped me navigate some of my triggers around Mass and confession.

I am blessed to walk with other survivors, so I hear many stories. I know my experience is all too common, and that is a heartbreaking reality I live with. I do not trust the Church leadership to be good shepherds. However, over the years I have come to a deeper understanding that we, as lay members of the Church, are just as much “the Church” as the bishops and priests.

I am called to be a part of transformation in the Church. While changing the Church as a whole is certainly out of my power, I can impact and help those around me. It is still a struggle for me to remain Catholic but I know ultimately the Church is my home and I could never leave Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I identify with the words St. Peter offers Jesus when asked if he and the other Apostles would leave: “To whom would we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life.”

Q. Esther, it’s a gift to hear about your experiences and insights. Thank you for sharing with us. As we close, what would you say has been the most useful in helping you heal?

A. Community has been an indispensable part of my healing journey. Awake has connected me with other survivors who understand the deep pain and struggle of remaining Catholic as a clerical abuse survivor. That profound understanding that I am not alone takes a great deal of the shame away. I have been privileged to walk with other survivors and it gives me deep joy when they find that same hope as well.

I have also sought out good therapeutic help. I began by looking for Catholic therapists, but unfortunately, the Catholic therapists I encountered did not have training in treating complex trauma, and I have learned that I need that expertise. I also rely on tools for grounding myself, such as mindful breathing, playing with my dog, walking, and singing, which have been instrumental in helping me live a more fulfilling life.  

Eucharistic Adoration and the Sacraments have also been vital parts of my healing journey. It almost seems like a contradiction that the source of my wounds would be the source of my healing, but I know that Jesus wants me close to him. These beautiful and sacred elements of my faith were distorted for evil and Jesus wants to redeem and heal that. We, as survivors, have a special place closest to the Heart of Jesus. The enemy wanted to tear me away from Him. But Jesus, in His goodness, has given me the grace to stay. 

—Interview by Erin O’Donnell


Note from Awake Milwaukee: We extend heartfelt thanks to Esther Harber 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 Esther’s story, we encourage you to read our previous Survivor Stories, including our last story from Zac Zepeda.

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

6 thoughts on “Survivor Story: Esther Harber

  1. Thank you for sharing your story. I share so many of the same feelings expressed in your story. I too find the biggest help I get from support groups is knowledge I am not alone. 💞🙏🏻

  2. Thank you for sharing your story. I am so sorry you have gone through this and I am amazed at your strength and courage to want to help heal the church rather than walking away. I grapple with belonging to a church that has turned it’s back on survivors so I appreciate your perspective and am grateful for your insights. Truly you are an inspiration for others.
    Thank you.

  3. I like you am working on strength training, ( but at 66 years of age I started a bit late) and I enjoy embroidery.
    Thank you for your courage in telling your story. I am so sorry you were not believed when you first went to report your abuse. I encourage you in your continued recovery
    I listened to the conversation you had with Father Zollner.
    It made a difference. His resignation could have a lot to do with the conversation he had with you.
    You are loved by God and the Awake community.
    Happy Easter! Have faith in the Resurrection.

  4. Thank you for sharing your story so honestly. Much resonated with me, and my journey has been different (as an advocate for greater protections after an incident with my daughter), not a victim-survivor. I, too, was naive or believed Safe Environment – protect and heal – and thought we would engage in respectful dialogue that would lead to policy changes. Immediately, it was like I was on the other team. I, too, was lied to. I was lied about. I had no idea this is what people who were reporting may face. I am so grateful for the walk with the Holy Spirit, who was the one who did not leave me ever, and that I know this truth, so I can work to support change. Thank you so much for your openness in sharing. I could relate to so much of it.

  5. I’m not catholic–i was raised Baptist– but I believe that we the sheep hear His voice and know Him and we follow Him from wherever we are.
    Thank you for sharing. I have had many similar experiences with my messed up family of origin who shunned me after I reported my brother. I know the pain of not being believed. I ❤ Jesus and He has walked with me through it. Learning forgiveness and true love that I honest and safe and good.
    Be well dear. We soldier on. Glad for your existence.

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