Repression, Reluctance: 

Child Sex Abuse Survivors Share the Real Repercussions

 

  By CATHY CORCORAN

 

  "I became a priest for all the wrong reasons,’’ Father Bob says.

 

  ‘‘For me, being a priest meant instant respect and instant authority, without any of the

  nitty-gritty of real human relationships. When you put a Roman collar around your

  neck, you don’t have to get close to anybody.’’

 

  Father Bob (not his real name), is a Roman Catholic priest who belongs to a religious order. He is not a diocesan priest. He was a priest for nearly 20 years before he realized he had been sexually abused as a child. Since that time, he has undergone extensive therapy himself, and now directs  an out-of-state treatment facility for sexual abuse survivors and recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. 

 

  Father Bob says his story is typical of many survivors of sexual abuse. He was unable to

  form close personal relationships, was reluctant to commit to a person or vocation, and

  became an alcoholic and drug abuser as an adult. He was a 43-year-old Navy chaplain,

  sober several years, and studying to become an alcoholism counselor, before he

  remembered what had really happened to him as a child. 

 

  ‘‘I was in a group session on family dynamics,’’ Father Bob says. ‘‘We were all talking

  about our families of origin. I was raised in an orphanage and in foster homes, I barely

  remembered my father and stepmother, but one of the counselors thought my answers

  were a little too glib. 

 

  ‘‘He asked me why I hated my stepmother.’’

 

  Father Bob pauses, his voice shaking as he recalls the moment. ‘‘It was like a light bulb

  went off in my head: ‘I hate her because she abused me!’’’ he screamed. 

 

  Father Bob started having flashbacks of his stepmother beating him and taking his pants

  down. Later, he remembered that there was a court case and he was taken away from his

  father and stepmother. That’s how he came to live in an orphanage. 

 

  ‘‘I was only 3 years old at the time,’’ Father Bob says, ‘‘but the pain and anger were still

  inside me, still incredibly intense. It felt like a complete meltdown.’’

 

  ‘‘It’s quite common for survivors of sexual abuse to repress their memories for years,’’

  says Mark Gianino of Marshfield, a therapist who specializes in treating survivors of

  sexual abuse. 

 

  ‘‘Repression protects the child from overwhelming painful experiences,’’ Gianino says.

  ‘‘If the abuser is in a position of trust - a parent or priest or teacher - then the abuse is

  even more traumatic, and more likely to be ‘forgotten’ until the person can deal with it

  as an adult.’’

 

  Gianino says that many survivors are reluctant to revisit painful experiences from the

  past, yet struggle in the present with persistent problems such as depression, trouble

  with personal relationships, and drug and alcohol abuse. 

 

  ‘‘When I heard stories of people who were abused as children, I used to think they

  should just get over it,’’ says John T. of Plymouth. ‘‘All this stuff, so long in the past,

  maybe they just imagined it.’’ (John asked that his full name not be used). 

 

  A tall, handsome man, 45-year-old John is healthy, has a good job and owns his own

  home, yet he has never been able to have a long-term relationship with a woman.

 

  ‘‘I never knew why I had so much trouble,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s not that I don’t like women - I do! - I just get so nervous, I can’t seem to let myself open up and get close to someone.’’

 

  A shy, skinny boy as a child, John’s family moved around often, and he had trouble

  making friends. ‘‘I always thought that was my problem,’’ John says, ‘‘but there was

  more to it than that.’’ 

 

  As a teenager, when he would bring dates home, John’s father would make passes at

  them. He told John about his own affairs and boasted of his sexual prowess. 

 

  ‘‘I learned early on that sex was something dirty and shameful,’’ John says. ‘‘My father

  was bragging about sex, and the priests were telling us that sex was bad, it was a sin, I was

  going to hell if I ever did it.  Between the church and my family, they really screwed my head up.’’

 

  Two years ago, John’s brother went into therapy. He told John he had been sexually

  abused as a child. ‘‘Talking to my brother, I suddenly remembered I had wet the bed

  until I was 12 years old,’’ John says. 

 

  He had a flashback of one Christmas morning when he was a young boy. He woke up,

  all excited, ready to open presents, when his mother noticed the wet sheets on his bed.

  ‘‘She got so angry, she rubbed my dirty underwear in my face,’’ John says. ‘‘How could I

  forget something like that?’’ 

 

  John has had some psychotherapy, and realizes that wetting the bed was a way of

  keeping someone away. He remembers a shadowy male figure coming into his bedroom

  at night, but that’s all he remembers now.

 

  To this day, John describes himself as a ‘‘nervous’’ person. His speech and eye

  movements are rapid, and he seems to be looking over his shoulder much of the time.

  Results of past abuse? ‘‘Possibly,’’ says therapist Gianino. 

 

  ‘‘When abuse occurs in the family home, or within a church, it creates another

  dimension of problems,’’ he says. ‘‘If you can’t be safe in your own bed, if you can’t be

  safe with a representative of God himself, then there’s no place to be safe at all.’’ 

 

  No wonder children want to forget what’s happened to them. 

 

  Mike Rogers has never forgotten what happened to him as a child. Now a successful

  photographer who lives in Provincetown, Mike grew up in Hingham, where he and his

  childhood friends used to hang out at the local gas station. The owner paid them to keep the place clean. 

 

  ‘‘This guy had a big German shepherd dog that guarded the station,’’ Mike says. ‘‘I was afraid of that dog and I knew there was something funny about the owner, but I was just a kid. I did what the adults told me.’’

 

  When his employer offered to give him a ride home one day, Mike accepted. On the

  way, they stopped off at a local church where the man was a deacon. ‘‘Before I knew it, he had my pants off and was pushing me down on the church office floor,’’ Mike says. 

 

  ‘‘I was scared out of my wits.’’

 

  Mike put up a fight, and the man released him, but he made 8-year-old Mike promise

  not to tell anyone or he’d hurt Mike’s family. ‘‘I was so scared, I just kept my mouth

  shut,’’ Mike says. 

 

  He never spoke of it for more than 30 years - until a girlfriend told Mike she had been

  sexually abused as a child. ‘‘When she started talking, I told her about the gas station

  guy,’’ Mike says. ‘‘I hadn’t told anyone else, ever.’’

 

  The more he talked, the angrier he got. ‘‘I was a quiet kid, shy, defenseless, really. 

 

  ‘‘This guy was a businessman, a church deacon, a respected man in town. I thought I

  must have done something wrong, but I was an easy mark for that bastard,’’ Mike says. 

 

  Mike searched for his abuser, and even went to the police to try to press charges, but the

  man had long since moved out of New England. ‘‘The police told me I had no hard

  evidence, and the statute of limitations had expired,’’ Mike says. ‘‘I’m appalled that

  there’s a statute of limitations on something like that. 

 

  Mike says he’s still angry at what happened, and feels the incident has haunted him all

  his life. ‘‘I’m pretty sure it contributed to my drinking too much,’’ he admits. Recently

  diagnosed with hepatitis C, Mike says he’s had to quit drinking, and he misses it. 

 

  He was briefly married, but has lived his adult life playing the field. ‘‘I have women

  friends all over the world,’’ he says. 

 

  ‘‘I like companionship, I enjoy sex, but it doesn’t have to be 24/7. I like my freedom.’’ 

 

  Mike says he used to be religious when he was a child, ‘‘but the only reason I ever go to a church now is to photograph a wedding. Every time I think of church, I think of that big important church deacon, and I’m disgusted.’’ And, although he says he gets along well with women, Mike says he ‘‘has issues’’ with men. 

 

  ‘‘I can’t get close to other men,’’ he says. ‘‘I just don’t trust them.’’

 

  Gianino says that many male sexual abuse survivors can’t develop close relationships

  with other men, some become compulsive womanizers, and some fear that they might

  be gay. Those very fears can prevent them from seeking treatment. 

 

  ‘‘Studies have shown that homosexuals are no more likely to abuse children than

  heterosexuals,’’ he says, ‘‘and being abused as a child does not lead to any particular

  sexual orientation later in life. But when children are exposed to sexual stimuli so early

  in their lives, it’s normal for them to be confused and afraid.’’

 

  Gianino advises anyone who suspects they may have been abused as a child to seek

  professional help.

 

  ‘‘There’s an unfortunate myth that all people who were abused as children grow up to

  become abusers themselves,’’ he said. ‘‘Some do, but most do not. Recovery is possible,

  and many people go on to live happy, normal lives.’’

 

  Sometimes John T. wonders if he really is normal. He says he’s amazed to learn that so

  many men were sexually abused as children, and says he’s relieved he wasn’t the only

  one. He says he’s taking some time off from therapy, but plans to go back. Some day. 

Right now, he feels he just can’t deal with it. 

 

  ‘‘My life is pretty good,’’ he says, ‘‘but I feel like I’m missing something. I’d like to have a wife and a family like other people, but when I meet a pretty lady, I just freeze up. I’m so afraid of being cut open, and thrown out there for shark bait.’’

 

  He sighs deeply. ‘‘I just want to be a normal guy,’’ he says. 

 

  Does he think he’s normal? John ponders the question, then answers. ‘‘I don’t know,’’

  he says. ‘‘I’m not sure what normal really is.’’ 

 

  Father Bob says, ‘‘The pain never really goes away completely. For years, I believed there

  was something fundamentally wrong with me that my stepmother could hurt me this

  way. But we’re like amputees who learn to walk with artificial limbs. We can get over

  the past and be happy now.’’

 

  He says that drug and alcohol addiction is often at the root of sexual abuse, and that

  abuse often continues for generations. ‘‘When you understand how rampant addiction

  is, you realize we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg with sexual abuse. 

 

  ‘‘Addiction is a spiritual sickness. An untreated addict is incapable of being a good

  husband, wife, mother or father. They don’t have the ability to connect in a normal,

  healthy way.’’

 

  Father Bob is critical of the way the Catholic Church has handled the sexual abuse

  scandal. ‘‘Therapists know that in a dysfunctional family, the rules are, ‘Don’t talk, don’t

  feel, don’t air your dirty linen in public,’’’ he says. ‘‘In many ways, the Church is like a

  big dysfunctional family, filled with secrets.’’

 

  But Father Bob is hopeful that positive change will come. He may have become a priest

  for the wrong reasons, he says, but he is a priest today for all the right reasons. 

 

  ‘‘I have found a lot of comfort in the church,’’ he says, and stresses that most priests are

  caring and committed individuals. ‘‘I talk openly about my story for the sole reason that

  it helps others to feel safe, to open up and tell their own stories.’’ It is by talking about

  the abuse of the past, he says, that healing begins. 

 

  Gianino says that the scandal in the Catholic church, though painful, brings the issue to

  light for many survivors who have lived with their repressed memories for years.

 

  ‘‘The scandal is upsetting to many people,’’ Gianino says, ‘‘but ultimately, talking about

  it is the only way we know to deal with the problem. The goal is not to dwell in the past.

 

  ‘‘The goal is to help people to recover from the past and live healthy lives in the here

  and now. Without talking and healing, the pain of sexual abuse can continue for a

  lifetime.’’