the Hope of Survivors

All Shall Be Well: One Woman Survivor’s Story of Clergy Sexual Abuse by Mary Isabel Steele
I was sexually abused by a Catholic priest when I was forty years old. How did it happen? The priest was drunk. My mother had been a devout Irish Catholic who was very proud of the clergy in her family, especially her uncle, the archbishop, who had presided at her wedding and my baptism. She was also an alcoholic; so I had grown up knowing the games alcoholics play. My mother’s chronic drunkenness had resulted in my being raised essentially by my father, who had taught me a lot about keeping secrets and dependence on authority figures. I had been set up.

The spring of 1984 was quite a tumultuous time for me. I had just returned to faith after a thirteen year dark night of the soul during which I had not known whether or not there was a god. My adolescent dream of becoming a Carmelite nun had returned. Childhood abuse issues were resurfacing. I was still grieving the loss of two people I loved dearly. My father became ill and died. I returned to therapy and I reached out to an assistant pastor who had been kind to me in the confessional. For my fortieth birthday I asked Father Mike to celebrate a mass in my home for thirty friends and relatives. When for the fourth time in four months I asked to sit in his office to sort out my feelings about all that was going on in my life, he interrupted my narrative about growing up in an alcoholic home with the words, “I’d really like to go to bed with you, but I think it would destroy us both.” I was lonely and vulnerable. I trusted this priest, who had taken a vow of celibacy, whom I called, “Father.” He betrayed my trust.

I was surprised by his words. I had not been thinking of having sex with him. I felt guilty: What had I said or done that a priest would speak to me like that? I felt I could not talk about what had happened. He had told me he was an alcoholic. I somehow confused protecting his anonymity with keeping a bad secret. From the beginning, most professionals I turned to, most Catholics, did not know what to say when I did tell. The counselor I had just started to see said, “How cute! You and Father Mike are in love!” (I did have the good sense to find another counselor.) When I tried to report Father Mike to his superior, the priest stood up, said to me, “Mary, I have to put the vegetables in the soup,” and walked off leaving me sitting at his desk! The superior was not drunk. That he or Father Mike might be held accountable did not cross his mind. Father Mike later told me he never mentioned my disclosure to him! His breech of fiduciary duty, to use legal terms, harmed me more than Father Mike’s words.

Because his superior did not send Father Mike to treatment as he should have, and because Father Mike continued to drink, he propositioned me again a year and a half later. I had tried avoiding him. I had tried making peace with him. His behavior toward me had been very strange, smiling and hugging me one day then ignoring me the next time he saw me. No other parish had Eucharist five times a day and Morning Prayer; I could not leave this parish where I was so active. The Sunday after Christmas, I served as Eucharistic Minister. Father Mike did not wish me a Merry Christmas, even though we stood in the same room for ten minutes. I called him later and asked, “Is silence really what you need from me? It seems dishonest to not even say ‘Hello.’ I just want a spiritual friendship with you.” He responded, “Sometimes I think we could be friends if only we went to bed together. You know. You could say, ‘I’ll be home this afternoon at 2:00,’ and I could come on over.”

Did I have sex with the priest? No, but I realize now it was because my father had never physically incested me. He had been inappropriately emotionally intimate, but I had intact physical sexual boundaries. And, I had spent years wanting to devote my life to praying for priests. I was emotionally enmeshed with this man, but he was my confessor. He had an indelible mark of priesthood on his soul! I saw him as a father figure, not an equal, not a lover.

For nine months I tried to forget Father Mike’s words. One day a man I knew named what had happened: “He propositioned you.” It was as if someone had flipped open the blinds! I saw clearly what had happened and knew the only way to stop the abuse was to tell the secret. I walked up to Father Mike’s new superior and told him. “Healing takes a long time,” was all he said before walking away. I walked over to my pastor. “Well, that is all behind you now” was his response as he tossed his head over his shoulder. I did not feel I had been heard. I tried for months to speak to the archbishop. I did tell the chancellor. “But nothing happened, Dear,” was his response. Finally I found the archbishop at a feast day celebration of a nearby parish. I told him which parish I belonged to and what had happened, “Oh, you mean Father Mike A_____. Do you want me to speak to him about it?” was his response!!! Certainly not. I was still protecting Father Mike! Was I the first or only woman Father Mike ever propositioned? For years I wanted to believe so. I wanted to be special. But as I look back on the archbishop’s words to me, I’m sure I was only one of many Father Mike had come on to sexually.

With no one responding appropriately to my disclosures, did I then walk away from my parish? No. I did learn to meditate. I filled many journals. I studied forgiveness and struggled for years to get things right with Father Mike. During the summer of 1988 I wrote three short stories about my abuse in an effort to heal. I made fifty copies and mailed one to each person on my Christmas card list and one to the archbishop. No more secrets!

Eventually Father Mike got sober. He asked my forgiveness for “all the ways I have hurt you.” During the summer of 1989 I took a writing course. I wrote several poems about my feelings for Father Mike. Months later he was transferred out of state. We said good-bye. I had not intended to continue our relationship, but Father Mike wrote me, and I found myself once again emotionally centered in him. He sent me birthday cards, Easter cards, a Valentine, letters. He kept telling me he loved me. I took vows, but I was not able to end our relationship. He was the “professional,” but neither was he.

I was in therapy. I meditated two hours a day. I struggled with my enmeshment with this priest. I read an article that explained why dual relationships are harmful. I made a copy and sent it to Father Mike. I called him and discussed it. He agreed that because we had met in a counseling relationship, we could not be friends. We said good-bye again. But my story does not end here. My abuse was far from over. I contacted Father Mike’s community and pointed out to them that they should not have “ignored” me when I reported his abuse. I asked for an apology from them. That started World War III!

Instead of receiving an apology, I was stonewalled, blamed, lied to, and lied about. I was told to go home and keep quiet, that God uses things like what had happened to me for our spiritual growth! I called Father Mike and asked him what he was doing to get me an apology so this could be all over. He replied, “We cannot apologize to you. You will sue us for six million dollars and put us out of business.” The statute of limitations had expired, and I did not want to sue. I only wanted an apology. But he was right. I just was coming from such a different mind set his words made no sense to me at the time.

Eventually I went to one lawyer who told me to walk away from the situation. Another told me, “You should have sued years ago, but of course no one would have believed you then.” A third saw no money for himself in my case and dismissed me. A fourth lawyer, a woman, wrote the archbishop that he should pay for my counseling as he was doing for many other survivors of clergy sexual abuse in this archdiocese. After months of my feeling suicidal, the archbishop gave me a Christmas present, a check that just happened to be for one half of the amount I had paid one of my counselors. I used it to spend a month in Hawaii on retreat and to start my own business!

Nearly twenty years later, is it over? I no longer have illusions that Mike loved me. I no longer have any respect for the Catholic Church. At last I understand that much of Mike’s behavior toward me that made no sense to me at the time was about his realizing he had been so inappropriate with me I might sue him. When stories of abusing priests first made the news, I cried. Now I smirk and snigger and smile at the thought of all the billions the church has paid to survivors and all the priests who are in prison. I look forward to the day New Mexico rescinds its statute of limitations on sex crimes. I still have all the correspondence from Mike and my box of journals in a very safe place!

For years when I tried to tell my story, I always sobbed. Now the book I have written about my abuse has it’s own domain on the web for all the world to read!
All Shall be Well: One Woman Survivors Story of Clergy Sexual Abuse, complete with photos, a bibliography, and book reviews, can be found at http://www.asbw.us.

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If you are a survivor of pastoral abuse, we would love to hear your story and possibly make it available on this web site for others to read and renew their hope. You can use a pseudonym if you choose and rest assured that all personal information will be kept private and strictly confidential. Please contact us.

Please note: We do not necessarily agree with or endorse all the information contained in the survivor’s stories. We do, however, feel they have some valuable information that could be useful to you in your recovery. It helps to know you’re not alone, that others have shared your pain and have healed, by the grace of God, in their own time and way.

The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart...Psalms 34:18