It was 1963 and I had just turned twelve.
Adolescence is a confusing and vulnerable time
I’d gotten my period a year before and was developing faster than most girls in my class. Where they were still short, rosy-cheeked, and flat-chested, I was six inches taller, getting acne, and growing into a B-cup. It was an awkward, confusing time for me.
Sadly, my mother was preoccupied with her newest baby and my other eight siblings. Dad was mostly at work trying to make enough money to keep us all in parochial schools. I often felt alone and—like most kids that age–unable to share my feelings with my parents. Thank God for Celestine, our full-time housekeeper who was a sweet, second mother to me. She’d watched us outside playing and heard some of the neighborhood kids making comments. She promptly dragged me down to the five-and-dime to buy me my first bra.
Confusion also carries shame
“We don’t need those nasty boys looking down your blouse,” I remember Celestine saying. I know she was trying to protect me, but I missed the part about my body being good and having dignity. Somehow, I got the message that there was something shameful about me in the word ‘nasty’ and the fact that I even had breasts.
Nonetheless, I knew I was “becoming a woman” and it was (for vague reasons) something special that should be celebrated, and something precious that should be safeguarded. I just wished I’d had an older sister or someone to help me with the confusion.
Especially when I had to wear a bathing suit.
Childhood should be safe
That summer Mom would often gather us all into the family van and drive us to the Cameron Park country club where Dad worked in the sales office. We had special privileges at the clubhouse pool and would spend all day there, swimming and eating fresh-grilled burgers, and drinking milkshakes from the snack stand. I can still feel the sunshine, smell the chlorine, and hear splashing water and laughing children.
On a particular Saturday, we had guests with us: Father Hugh, our associate pastor, and one of his priest friends whose name I don’t recall. I’ll call him Father No-name. After the day at the pool, they were coming to our home for dinner. This was a typical event in our home. From as early as I could recall, Mom and dad had a vibrant Catholic faith and active parish life. Priests would come for cocktails and dinner, some of them even smoked a cigar with Dad in the living room. They would tease us kids, tell us bible stories and jokes, hold the babies, and tousle our hair with affectionate hugs. Our house was blessed with a warm and loving Catholic environment.
No one mentioned playground predators
That day, while we swam, Mom and the priests sat in the shade chatting, laughing, and watching us. When Mom called us out to dry off, I toweled and quickly slipped on my flip-flops, and a short cotton top. I was always embarrassed by my twelve-year-old body and didn’t want to be the object of criticism or ridicule.
As everyone stood around the patio tables gathering their things, Father No-name smiled and called me over.
“Come over here, Rosie . . . ”
When safe, trusted adults beckon you, you don’t think twice. Even though Father was a stranger, he was a friend of Father Hugh, my parents . . . and a beloved Catholic priest.
I smiled, walked, over and he reached his arm out to pull me in close to him as he sat. As I stood next to him, his arm slipped under my top and his hand reached up and cupped my left breast. I was shocked. My face got red and flushed and I pulled away quickly, pretending nothing had happened. He just kept smiling and acting as if nothing had happened.
Abuse will change you forever
I was sick to my stomach and in shock for an hour or so as we all rode home. Mom had me set the table for dinner. My heart was racing with emotions. I felt ashamed, guilty, and angry . . . but how could I be angry at a priest? The doubt and confusion were overwhelming; priests are supposed to be trustworthy, like dads and doctors and policemen. We didn’t have little school lectures about people touching our private parts back then, but I knew what Father had done was not right. I just didn’t know how to feel or what to do.
Thank God I have been blessed with a temperament that has often served me well: Once I know for sure something is wrong, I push past the fear to stand up and speak up. I decided to tell my Dad.
The table was set, everyone was taking their place, and Mom was placing down platters of round steak, scalloped potatoes, and green peas. I recall thinking it would not be right to sit together at a table in that intimate sharing of a family meal what had happened. Something had to be said! So I decided to tell my father.
“Dad . . . I need to tell you something.”
My father came to the rescue
I led Dad around the corner and told him what happened. In shock, I don’t really remember what he said, but it was something reassuring and to the effect of Honey, go sit down I will take care of it.
I helped the baby into his high chair and saw Dad motion the two priests into the living room. Just a minute or two later, Dad came back, sat down, and said, “Let’s say grace.”
“Where’s Father Hugh?” my little five-year-old brother asked, looking at the two empty chairs.
“The priests had to go home,” was all Dad said.
His short tone told us no one needed to ask why. Then he continued, “Bless us, Oh Lord, and these thy gifts . . .”
And that was it.
Life goes on, and so does love
There was never a mention of it again. I know my parents didn’t know what else to say to me, so they just said nothing. That’s how those in authority back then dealt with these things. I was sad to see Father Hugh leave but happy the other was gone. And happy, too, that Dad had protected and stood up for me.
Some forty years later, before he died, I asked my elderly father if he recalled the incident. He did. I asked him if he remembered what he’d said to the priest.
“I sure do. I told him to get the hell out of my house and never come back.”
Dad never let the incident make him become bitter toward the Church or her clergy. He remained close and loving friends with many of them over the years. In his local parish, he always befriended and helped the pastor and donated his services and money.
Dad taught us to love God and love his Church and his faith grew more deeply over the years. He modeled for me how to see the bigger picture and not let one violation close the door to the other goodness God has for us in his Church.
Lust is never loving
My experience may not be as shocking as some that have come out in recent years but for me, it was deeply humiliating, debasing, and confusing, I know now that it was a violation of my worth, dignity, and personhood. The first touch of my breasts that should have been one of husbandly love was one of emotionally adolescent lust; a betrayal from one who should have been most trusted. No matter the perpetrator’s sex, age, or vocation, all such acts—and worse—stem from a stunted, pubescent sexuality that is inordinately self-focused and completely and grossly dismissive of “other.”
It was the sixties and I admit that I later suffered being the object of teen-aged boys’ lust and learned that if I wanted love I had to let them do what they wanted. From being used to using others, I fell into the sinful sexual mire. What a mess we all are in.
But we have hope. God never stopped pursuing me with a fierce and tender Fatherly love and eventually helped to heal my sinful heart and wounded past. I only hope and pray that Father No-name, who himself I am sure had been sexually used and wounded, found the Truth of God’s love and healing.
There are millions of good, holy priests in the world
PLEASE PRAY for our clergy. They are under such ferocious attack. Their Heavenly Father loves them too and we share a mother in Mary, Most Holy. If you have been hurt, violated, used, or abused in any way by clergy, free yourself from any poison bitterness and forgive them. Bring it out of the shadows and into the Light. Your Father will take care of it. Remember:
- We all need a Savior, and we have him in Christ.
- Everyone needs hope, and Our Lord promises we can trust him.
We also need the grown-ups in our Church to tell those other sexually stunted and selfish priests, bishops, and cardinals . . . and anyone else who is violating us in our families . . . to get the hell out of the house and never come back.