“If my story helps just one person realize the danger of clericalism and abuse of power, it’s worth it to me.”
Jennifer LaVoy, 44, is a stay-at-home mother to six children, four of whom still live at home and two who are married, with families of their own. She and her husband live in Wisconsin and have been married for 25 years.
LaVoy aims to live intentionally. “The Danish culture has a term called hygge, and I feel that word exemplifies very much who I am and how I live,” she says. “It’s not so easily defined, but it is a way of embracing wellness and contentment by creating an environment that nourishes those emotions in your soul. I strive to create this daily within my home and in my daily activities.” For LaVoy this involves simple things like meeting an old friend for coffee, spending time with her grandchildren, trying new recipes, reading books and talking about them, doing Pilates in the sunshine, being active with the family dog, and enjoying the family garden. “All these things are my hobbies,” she says.
NOTE: We offer this post with a warning that it includes mentions of abortion and descriptions of sexual assault.
Awake: Jennifer, we are honored that you are willing to tell us about your experience. I believe this is the first time that you have shared your story in a public way. What would you like to tell us about your abuse?
Jennifer LaVoy: I think it would make sense to start with my past, which I believe contributed to the abuse. When I was 18 years old, I had an abortion. This brought on self-hatred, shame, and a conviction that I was going to hell. It wasn’t until years later that I found the courage to confess my abortion to a priest who told me for the first time that Jesus and my baby forgave me and loved me. I couldn’t believe it! I devoted myself to my Catholic faith, now with the hope of heaven. We moved away shortly after this and I never forgot that kind priest.
We had truly found a home at a new parish, where I was a regular daily Mass attendee with all my children. Eventually, a new priest to our diocese was assigned as pastor of our parish. I later learned that he had been kicked out of his previous diocese for sexual relations with women. After spending four months of in-patient therapy at a mental health facility, he was eventually incardinated into my diocese and after a one-year assignment with a senior pastor, was placed in a parish of his own as administrator and then pastor.
He began grooming me and the community immediately and it was textbook. He continually sought me out, came to my home unannounced during the day to give me special holy cards, and sent me letters in the mail telling me very personal things. I felt special and honored that the pastor wanted to be my friend. Eventually, he told me that he was convinced that God brought him to my parish for him to be a gift to me and me to be a gift to him. He called me “Angel” because he said I was his angel of light. He said that I was very special to have a priest pray for me and to spiritually place me on the altar during Mass as he did. He said that I was receiving special graces from God because of his prayers. At one point, he suggested that if I was not willing to be this gift for him, he would find someone else who would, implying that I would no longer receive these special graces.
The psychological and spiritual abuse which began subtly became grueling. He wanted me to say certain prayers with him and became upset if I didn’t. He once took me into a church, sat me down in front of the image of Divine Mercy and instructed me to look at it while he went to another pew to pray. Another time, he took me to a monastery and anointed my hands with holy oil and then instructed me to anoint his. At times when I questioned him, he responded by shrieking that I needed to trust him and “allow God’s gift.” Sometimes he would repeat, “Come, Holy Spirit, come, Holy Spirit” again and again until I agreed with him. At one point, he forced me to listen to him over the phone as he hit himself and screamed that I hated him because I had made him late for his regular volunteer commitment with high school girls.
Q. Jenny, I’d just like to pause here to take a deep breath. This is a lot to take in. And I’m sure this is not easy to share.
A. It’s not easy at all. But it’s an important step in my healing. If my story helps just one person realize the danger of clericalism and abuse of power, it’s worth it to me.
He used the sacrament of reconciliation to pinpoint my vulnerabilities and after continually asking me what my past wound was, he one day asked me in the confessional if I had ever had an abortion. He said that it was common and he was surprised he hadn’t found more post-abortive women in our parish. Feeling as though I could not lie in confession, I told him about my abortion. He then told me that post-abortion healing was a specialty of his. He began regularly arousing himself by talking about needing to be close to my deepest wound and I allowed him to use me. This went on for more than a year until one day, he went further than just talking about my deepest wound and said something that made it clear that it was the procedure of the abortion that aroused him. The words he said are too vile to print. I was disgusted and immediately said no. He had all his weight on me to hold me down and repeatedly shouted perverted phrases while he violated my body. I used every bit of my strength to try to push him off me as I begged him to stop. He eventually relaxed enough that I was able to get out from under him. The next day, he called to explain to me that I must understand that he only did that and said those things because of his need to be close to my deepest wound. I told myself that he would not do this again and I should just put it out of my mind and continue to trust him. He was the priest after all.
By the grace of God, a day came that I saw his phone and I saw with my own eyes that I was just one of many married women he was doing this to, and that he was also texting teenage girls in overly familiar ways. His eyes turned very dark and he said to me in a very low voice, “Well. now. you. know.” I’ll never forget those eyes as long as I live. He fled the parish in a rush of lies to the parish and his superiors.
I was terrified to report everything, for fear that I would not be believed, yet I knew that if I didn’t, he would be moved around and would continue to use the priesthood for his sexual gratification. It took all the courage I had to report him. I was immediately believed. Not only did the diocese know his true history, but I also have many handwritten letters and voicemails to verify what he did to me. My bishop acted immediately and this priest was eventually laicized. My bishop has also provided me with support, something I so rarely hear of among survivors. It’s taken me years of hard work and therapy to be able to live again and it’s something only another survivor of this kind of diabolical abuse can even begin to grasp.
Q. Jenny, I am so, so sorry that this happened to you. I believe you and I’m relieved that the diocese believed you as well. When you look over this entire experience, I wonder what has surprised you most in your journey as a survivor.
A. That sexual abuse of adult women in the Church is so much more common than I ever could have imagined. It’s been shocking to me, actually. I never thought that I had to safeguard myself or my daughters. It was drilled into our heads that priests abused boys. The sheer number of women whom I have personally met who have been abused and raped by priests is sickening. It’s diabolical and you will almost never hear about it because these women carry the cross of public humiliation, condemnation, and the common attitude, “at least this abuse is with a woman.” As if it isn’t as much of an embarrassment for the Church when the abuse is heterosexual. Women bear the scourge of victim-shaming and often the priest is simply moved after a minimal explanation to parishioners of “inappropriate behavior.”
Q. Given all that you’ve been through, how would you describe your relationship to the Catholic Church?
A. I can sum that up with John 6:68: “My Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” I love the Catholic Church and I could never leave the Eucharist, though it is incredibly painful to practice my faith. Attending Mass takes great effort. I have PTSD from what I experienced, and I need to minimize those triggers.
Q. That sounds tremendously difficult. I wonder who inspires you or gives you hope as a survivor?
A. My fellow survivors who have become my dear friends inspire me. I’m in awe of their strength and courage. Sara Larson is also someone who has greatly inspired me. She has selflessly given so much of herself to listening to and supporting survivors. Awake has given me much hope. I’m truly joyful when I can sit among other survivors and do my small part to help others know that they are not alone in this.
Q. Jenny, thank you for your courage in telling us the painful realities of your story. I wish you continued healing. As we close, is there anything else that you would like to share?
A. There was a time where I never could have imagined saying this, but I’ve come to the point in my journey where if God told me today that he would take it all away—that he would turn back time and make it so I would never meet that man and I would never know the racking pain and the depths of living hell that I have been in—I would tell him to let me keep it. I’m not at all minimizing the horror of clerical sex abuse, but I’ve also seen how God has made use of it to bring about beauty and goodness. My intense suffering has become precious to me because it has brought me to the very bosom of Christ and given me an opportunity to offer it to God as a prayer of intention for others. Having been to the depths of despair as I have, I now have a peace that no one can take from me.
—Interview by Erin O’Donnell
Note from Awake: We extend heartfelt thanks to Jennifer LaVoy 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 Jenny’s story, we encourage you to read our previous Survivor Stories, including our last story, from Mike Hoffman.
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, you can find the contact information for your diocesan victim assistance coordinator here. 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.
21 thoughts on “Survivor Story: Jennifer LaVoy”
I am so sorry for what you endured. Thank you for having the courage to share your story. I deeply admire your faith. The last few sentences “My intense suffering has become precious to me because it has brought me to the very bosom of Christ and given me an opportunity to offer it to God as a prayer of intention for others. Having been to the depths of despair as I have, I now have a peace that no one can take from me. ” gave me goosebumps. It is remarkable how God has begun to redeem these horrific traumas and how you are allowing yourself to boldly witness to that. Thank you.
Thank you for being brave enough to share your story. You are an amazing testimony to how some healing is possible when the church acts quickly in the best interest of the victim and community. May your healing continue. Many blessings to you and your family.
Thank you so much for your utter honesty, your tenacity to protect others, and your beautiful faith. You wrote about the dark eyes. That so resonates with me. I have seen those. If you had not shared this, I would not have known another had seen them. So, thank you. Your last few sentences, as Esther so beautifully said, ring of Heaven’s peace and guidance. Thank you for being such a beautiful soul and bringing healing to others.
Thanks so much for your courage to share your story and to speak out about the tragedy of your abuse. I am so very sorry that this happened to you. I hope you feel surrounded by love and support as you continue to heal. So glad you found Awake! Take good care of yourself!
peace and all good,
Thank you, Jennifer, for bearing witness to the truth about clerical sexual abuse. I am so sorry for all that you experienced and admire you for sharing your story. Your courage and faith are inspirational!!
Jennifer, thank you for the courage to share your story with us. I cannot even imagine what kind of pain you have experienced through all of this. I am glad your diocese listened to you and took action. You should never have had to experience this in the first place. It makes me so happy to hear that you have found peace and healing. Prayers for your continued healing and thank you again.
I am so grateful to you for sharing your story, Jenny. It is so true what you say about how abuse of women can be minimized, and your willingness to share your experience is another step in changing that.
Not to sound like a broken record, but you’re so very brave for sharing this.
Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing and may God bless you and your family. It has been beautiful to watch my friend continue to heal, to see her growth in the Faith, and to help others, as you are doing. God bless you both.
Jenny, thank you for sharing your story. I am moved by your courage and remarkable faith. I pray for continuing healing and the movement of the Holy Spirit in your life.
Thank you Jenny for sharing your story. I’m sorry you had this awful experience and absolutely all abuse is a terrible experience no matter the age or sex of the victims.
“…an important step in my healing.” Your story is also important to all survivors’ healing. Thank you for sharing. You lived a horror you did not deserve, and I am inspired by your courage. Your own story strengthens me in my healing journey. God bless you.
May the Good Spirit of Christ continue to support and encourage you as you offer a healing presence to your sisters and brothers.
When you said “My intense suffering has become precious to me because it has brought me to the very bosom of Christ”, you gave words to an answer I know in my heart but have not been able to express whenever people ask me how I could possibly still believe. I have often been fearful of the healing journey itself….afraid of all the layers being peeled back….but I have come to trust that Jesus is right there, waiting to bring me to his bosom, no matter where this journey takes me.
Thank you for sharing your sacred story. God bless you!
Thank you Jennifer for having the courage and the grace to share your story. Doing so enables other women to feel less alone and may embolden them to share their stories as well so that less people are hurt and so this criminal behavior can be brought to the light, punished, and stopped. What a gift you are to this ministry and to our Catholic Church. All blessings to you, and may you have a hygge day : ).
You are so brave. Thank you for sharing this story. You’re completely right that Catholics are often taught to think this only happens to little boys and it’s in the past. Your story really demolishes that thinking. I’m so glad you trusted Awake to walk with you. It’s truly an honor!
Thankyou for sharing your courageous story! I am grateful for you allowing the readers to see just how difficult this journey. I am a survivor myself, God bless you.
Thank you, Jennifer, for having the courage to share your story! It is so powerful to hear your first-person account of the horrible character and awful abuse perpetrated by the priest who abused you. And to hear that he was abusing so many other women. This truth needs to be told by courageous survivors like you, and to be heard by more Catholics so that we might understand that the issue of clericalism is not just in allowing sick priests to prey on abuse victims, but that the clerical structure is keeping the extent and truth of the abuse hidden. it was affirming to hear that you were believed by diocesan staff and your bishop when you did report the abuse; as you also stated, this is not always the case.
Thank you again for your courage and dedication to sharing the truth, as painful as your experience was. May God continue to give you grace. It is gratifying to know you have received help in healing, and for you to believe that the agony you endured has allowed you to grow closer to God. May the peace you have found never leave you! And may you continue to be a wounded healer (as Henri Nouwen would say) to others.
Thank you Jennifer for sharing your story selflessly to help others. Your courage is amazing and your outlook is inspiring. I am so sorry for all that you have endured, and I pray that this step of sharing not only provides encouragement for others but that it brings you comfort on your own journey.
Jenny, thank you for so bravely sharing your story and shining a light on the ‘nearly always’ misunderstood issues involved in clergy abuse among adult women. I’m so grateful you were believed and responded to appropriately, and yet it sheds even more light on the reality that had he been removed after the first offense, you would not be dealing with the suffering you are. I’m so inspired by your walk with the Lord, your healing and your faithful love of the Church, even in spite of horrors you should never have had to endure. You have my admiration and prayers!
Thank you for sharing your story, Jennifer. It is eye-opening and a reminder to those who believe that clerical sexual abuse is a thing of the distant past. Your hope shines through — thank you for kindling hope in others.