“[S]ometimes my relationship with the Church feels like a strained marriage… I absolutely do not want a divorce; I want healing in the most precious relationship I have.”
Emily Ransom describes herself as “a country girl from North Carolina” who now teaches English literature on the faculty of Holy Cross College, a small Catholic liberal arts college in Notre Dame, Indiana. She comes from a southern evangelical background and entered the Catholic Church during graduate school. Ransom, 40, sings in the gospel choir of a local African American Catholic parish.
Her professional research focuses on the English reformations, including early modern devotional poetry, Ignatian meditation, and the literature of persecuted English Catholics, and she is currently editing a major edition of the works of St. Robert Southwell, SJ. “Outside work I am also a published poet, a hobby artist, and a dabbler in music,” she says. “I just got a harp for my fortieth birthday!” She lives with several friends with whom she shares life and community and enjoys being able to walk to work when it is not raining.
Awake: Welcome, Emily! Thank you for being open to sharing your story with all of us. As we begin, what would you like to share about your abuse?
Emily Ransom: I was a (very experientially innocent) thirty-five years old, already a professor, and the priest was a dear friend and professional contact in another state, about fifteen years older. In this case, I do not think the friendship was initially intended on his part as grooming but I obviously don’t know for sure. He hosted me in the guest space of his religious community one weekend when I came in town for another event and offered me dinner after the long drive. He had already had quite a bit to drink before I arrived and continued to drink throughout the evening. At the restaurant things began to get weird, and then he followed me into the guest room afterwards where the sexual assault happened.
A couple points have been important to me over the past few years as I try to understand what happened. One of the most important was that according to the law (and I checked for that state), any physical contact of a sexual nature without active consent is assault, independently of anything else about his religious vows. Second, it has also been important for me to understand that an ingrained trauma reaction of freezing, which I learned that I apparently have, absolutely does not constitute consent. And third, because of my profound trust and respect for him as a priest, true consent between equals would have been impossible in the first place.
Q. Emily, I’m so sorry for all that happened to you. Thank you for sharing this and your insights about consent. Could you pinpoint what has been the most difficult about your journey as a survivor?
A. It has been incredibly challenging to find my own voice amid the flood of other voices that could potentially superimpose their own understanding on my personal story. My assault happened months after the #MeToo movement had gone viral and made the prevalence and inexcusability of adult sexual assault a prominent feature of public discourse, and also months before the revelations of the McCarrick abuse were in the news, also involving adults. Because of this timing, it often feels like telling my story puts me at risk of being pitted between contrasting political or social agendas that have a well-intended, pre-written narrative to impose upon it. Sometimes this comes from people who are resistant to calling my experience “abuse” or “assault” since I was an adult (“boundary violation” is often the term of choice). Sometimes it comes from people ostensibly trying to be sensitive to victim-survivors by urging particular punitive measures, interpreting my friend/abuser as a monster, or advising me to leave the Church.
Q. That makes sense; it must be hard to talk about this intensely personal, painful, complicated experience when people start assigning their own agendas to your story. Is there anyone who has been especially helpful in your healing and recovery process?
A. My sister, for sure, every step of the way.
Also important has been a Jesuit friend, whom I called immediately after that weekend as I was driving home. At the time I was so confused that I didn’t know if on the one hand I was making a big deal of nothing (because of that trust I had for my abuser) or if on the other hand it was my fault (again, because of that trust). I cannot imagine how differently my story might have gone if I had not been able to hear from him right away, as another priest, that what had happened was horrible and that it was absolutely not my fault. He crucially told me in that first conversation that he knew my healing would be a long journey and that I was welcome to keep reaching out to him in the process, however long that would be, and that offer proved to be a game-changer. Over the next months when I was discerning making a report to the superiors, he offered to drive with me if that would be helpful. Later when I was on the brink of suicide because of the superiors’ response, he was the one I knew I could call, and he saved my life.
Q. His response sounds like just what you needed at multiple points in this process. I’m so glad that you’ve had this remarkable support. Is there anything else that has been useful in helping you heal?
A. Being connected to the friends I can trust has been crucial for the social wound, and receiving regular therapy has been crucial for the psychological wound which has included PTSD. For the spiritual wound, Ignatian spirituality with its emphasis on both discernment of the spirits and discernment of God’s will has been a game-changer. It helped reconnect me to the Christ who suffers with me and considers me his precious daughter, along with helping to identify and refute the internal voices that threatened my awareness of that love. Furthermore, with the aid of a trained spiritual director, I was able to discern between many potentially good paths to responding to my abuse, and I ultimately found one that gave me the greatest hope for the power of the Gospel. I later wrote an article about my experience of personally confronting my abuser as a brother in Christ, and the memory of the experience continues to give me hope in the concrete redemption of the Gospel even after the particularities of the situation later went badly.
Q. Given these experiences, how do you describe your current relationship to the Catholic Church?
A. Because of the response to my story from specific ecclesial authorities, sometimes my relationship with the Church feels like a strained marriage. Sometimes going to Mass can feel like being forced to go to bed with a spouse who has hurt me and refuses to talk about the wound but demands my presence in bed. In my relationship with the Church, I absolutely do not want a divorce; I want healing in the most precious relationship I have (though perhaps sleeping in the guest room might make sense for a while). I often wish there was a way to receive marriage counseling with the Church. In those times, I can even become angry with Christ for teaching us to pray that his kingdom come and his will be done “on earth as it is in heaven” when my attempts to work for the coming of that kingdom on earth seemed to be so badly thwarted by leaders in the very Church he gave me. In the meantime, it has been important to remember that my friends who have accompanied me, and even I myself, are also the Church every bit as much as any particular leader.
Q. Emily, thank you for sharing this powerful analogy, and for giving us the honor of hearing your story. I so appreciate the chance to learn from you! As we close, could you share what gives you hope as a survivor?
A. I have had opportunities to be part of some developing conversations about the potential wisdom that restorative justice approaches can offer the Church in finding healing from abuse. These conversations have included other victim-survivors, advocates, scholars, priests, lawyers, psychologists, and even bishops, seeking victim-centered approaches rooted in healing wounds and restoring right relationships. That is a larger topic for another time (one of my collaborators described it in this recent article), but having an opportunity to work for healing in the broader Church when my own individual story seemed to go so badly has been a tremendous source of hope. It reminds me of the Gospel’s promise that “death is swallowed in victory”; when my own suffering became worse, I have been able to work toward a greater victory large enough to encompass it.
—Interview by Erin O’Donnell
Note from Awake: We extend heartfelt thanks to Emily Ransom 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 Emily’s story, we encourage you to read our previous Survivor Stories, including our last story, from Valentino “Val” Borrelli.
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.
18 thoughts on “Survivor Story: Emily Ransom”
Thank you so much for your deep faith, resilience, truth, and courage in sharing all that happened. And I am deeply sorry that it happened to you. Much resonated in what you said. Thank you for persisting, pushing your voice through all the other voices that emerged around you. I can relate greatly. Thank you. You surely helped me today in healing forward, and I am sure many others. Enjoy that harp :)! Sounds wonderful.
I admire your courage and perseverance, Emily. Thank you for sharing your story and your heart.
Emily, thank you for your courage in sharing your story. So many of the things you said and experienced rang true to me because of my own abuse at the hands of my spiritual director in high school and college seminary. In particular, blaming and finally forgiving myself was a key part of the process of my own recovery, as well as confronting my abuser! Your comments about entering into death and resurrection vis a vis the Church, parallel some thoughts I have had that our common experience of abuse actually allows us to enter into the Paschal Mystery more deeply and intimately with Jesus who suffered do unjustly!
I am so sorry this happened to you and that you were further traumatized by the response from leadership. Your courage in reporting and your faith filled path to healing are truly inspiring. Thank you for sharing.
I am in awe of the fact that you have every reason to leave the church, but don’t. I am grateful that another priest was able to put emotional and spiritual salve on your wound immediately. Lastly, I am intrigued on the idea of “marriage counseling ” between the hurt and the church. Not just for victims, but all those in the church with strained relationships with it. God bless you with continued healing.
Emily, I deeply admire your courage to come forward with this difficult journey. It sounds like your sister and a Jesuit priest friend have literally saved your life. Reaching out to others is such a ginormous, vulnerable, bold move towards healing and hope but can seem terribly risky. You held it all and continue to hold it all AND with support.
I am so grateful you shared your story with us. You are an inspiration to me personally and I imagine to all of us in the Awake community.
Emily, your story and reflections are so moving. Your intelligence and thoughtfulness really come through in this interview. I really appreciate the way you express what you’ve been through and all the different wounds it has created. I especially find the analogy of wanting to have “marriage counseling with the church” to be so apt, as it puts into words something I believe many of us feel. Thank you for highlighting the tension that a lot of Catholics have between NOT wanting to leave the church but DEFINITELY wanting change, healing, and accountability. I am so sorry this has all happened to you. I am grateful that you’ve had help from a good priest through this and other positive people helping you. Praying for you and your ongoing healing!
Emily, I’m so sorry for the painful journey you’ve experienced. I’m also grateful for the courage and wisdom evident in your response to that pain, and for your generous sharing of your story and your hard-earned wisdom. Your linked 2020 article was brilliant—it gives a whole new model for considering issues of abuse and a new way of imagining a path to redemption in the Church. (Your literary references also gave me a couple new vocabulary words! 🙂 Peace to you.
You do not walk alone, Emily. Thanks you for your continued courage even after the church leadership dishonored you in their response.
Thank you for sharing your story. I pray you experience continued healing and want you to know of my prayers and support. Your concern that your telling of your story puts you at risk of being pitted on a side of political or ideological debate is of great concern to me too, and I’m sorry that it adds to your burden. I also found your comparison of your relationship to the Church to a bad marriage compelling.
I read your recent article and the initiative you are part of as well as your story here. Thank you for your courage and your words, many of which ring true for me. Restoration, redemption, and the gift of forgiveness received is something I sought myself. Your words are gift. Thank you Emily.
Thank you for sharing your story Emily. I appreciate the complicated emotions of being sexually abused by a priest who we think we can trust.
Thank you Emily. Your words are powerful and you are brave. I pray for your continued healing.
Thank you for sharing your story Emily. I am sorry that you endured abuse at the hands of a priest who you respected and trusted.
I join with all the members of the Awake group in pledging our prayers and support for your continued healing.
Yes, Jesus is our model. We do learn from him that our sacrifice of praise brings us closer to him. Your poetry, and now your harps music are and will be a worthy offering to Jesus. God loves you so.
Emily such resilience I get it the church does sometimes seemed liked a strained marriage you show how IGNATIUS spirituality and spiritual direction has helped you it has helped me too along with catholic individual catholic counseling and spiritual support group and advocating for survivors thru my diocese and with individuals education in understanding abuse has helped me too I have a masters in mental health counseling and play therapy certificate and currently attending Avila institute spiritual direction program to become a spiritual director for survivors. I think the abuse changes us and seeing that God makes something good out of it is even better. Thank you for sharing your story.
Thank you for sharing your story. The immediate response of your Jesuit friend was such an important event!. What a wonderful difference this has made for you! So many (myself included) have received a vastly different response. In my case, the response from those appointed as church representatives – two bishops, two lawyers, and the “designated” priest – ultimately robbed me of my faith.
Rosemary, I am so sorry you had such a difficult experience making your report. Sadly, I hear the same thing from many people. Thank you for speaking up nonetheless – and for connecting here.
You have amazing courage and perseverance! God bless you on this healing journey you are on…stay strong!