Weeds Among the Wheat- When a Pastor Both Helps and Abuses

“While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat,
and then went off. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well.”
Matthew 13:25-26


   The hardest part of realizing that my spiritual director had sexually taken advantage of me was the
fact that he had also given me actual help, help that I had based much of my life on.


I first met Fr. Nick at St. Gregory’s University in Oklahoma, where he was the college chaplain and I
was an undergrad student. I had known him for a couple years when I started to see him regularly.
I had just gotten engaged, and was going through severe anxiety about my vocation. I kept thinking that
I should actually be discerning a call to religious life to the point that I told my fiance I thought we should
postpone the wedding. I went to Fr. Nick for help, and he took the time to patiently listen to my concerns.
It was only with this priest’s guidance and recognition that my thought processes were a symptom
of my OCD, not actually a call from God, that I went forward with my engagement. I started seeing him
weekly for the sacrament of Reconciliation and spiritual direction to help me cope with the anxiety.

He took the time to listen, even when I kept coming to him with the same thing.
For someone who struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, finding someone patient
enough to listen to the same worries time and time again is a real blessing. I knew from previous
experience that listening to my repetitive, never ending struggles became a burden even to those closest
to me. The fact that I found someone who not only patiently listened, but also went so far as to research
how best to help me was a huge blessing. I was so grateful.


I remember once or twice, I confessed struggling with sexual thoughts. He wanted details- what exactly
had I imagined? There wasn’t much to describe, I was very sexually inexperienced and naive at the
time, but it always made me deeply uncomfortable that I was asked to go into explicit detail. I never
thought that his motives for asking were in question though-- after all, isn’t spiritual growth and being
held accountable supposed to be uncomfortable?

There were other things that seemed odd. At one point group of college women I was a part of were
trying to form a Catholic sorority on campus, modeled after the Franciscan household system.
Our sorority leader invited him over to bless her new apartment before one of our sleepovers.
He blessed the apartment, and then didn't leave. He was standing in that tiny living room, still in his alb,
surrounded by girls sprawled out on couches, the floor, and chairs in little more than pajamas, acting
like they were the only ones in the room. I was so embarrassed. And I couldn’t figure out why he just
kept standing there watching and didn't leave.

One day, only a couple weeks before I graduated college, I went into the confessional for one last
session of spiritual direction. While we were alone in the confessional, he wanted a hug. It seemed a
little strange, but I was about to graduate. I’d been going to him for confession for years, surely I owed
him that much. I let him hug me for a moment, then tried to step away.  He didn’t release me. He held
on tighter and sighed. And I thought I felt something rise up against my leg.

Though it made me uncomfortable, and made me very glad that I was graduating soon, I tried to
rationalize it. He'd helped me so much; maybe he had gotten attached to me. It was weird, but maybe
it wasn't totally unexpected. And surely I'd imagined that feeling on my leg. It must have been
something in his pocket, or in my imagination. It was unthinkable that it was anything else.
I pushed it from my mind.


I didn’t realize what had actually happened until nearly four years later when a couple of my classmates
brought forward a lawsuit against the university for failing to remove him. They had also been seeing him
regularly for spiritual direction. He would ask them for explicit details of their sexual sins, then give long
unsolicited hugs and press an erection up against them.  The women recognized this as sexually
abusive behavior and complained to the university. The university did nothing. A local newspaper
covered the lawsuit, and I read the descriptions of the behavior these other women were claiming.
And I realized that I recognized it.

Suddenly the image I had of him as a mentor, as a trustworthy priest I had thanked God for bringing into
my life, was shattered. I suddenly gained another perspective on those years, one that tainted my entire
relationship with him and made me want to go bathe in bleach.


Fr. Nick did evil things. Committing sacrilege by taking advantage of the trust and vulnerability afforded in
the confessional in order to make a sexual advance on someone, even if you’re subtle about it, is evil.
There is no other word for it.


But I gradually came to understand that the fact that he committed evil does not completely destroy the
good that he did. Don’t misunderstand me, I believe that this man should be removed from ministry,
and I hope and pray he’s getting the psychological help that he needs. I grieve the relationship I thought
I had with him. I think in some ways, I’ve only begun to understand how deep this particular wound goes. For example, I know that I'll never again be able to walk into a confessional or a spiritual direction with a priest
without being constantly on guard. I think of the other women he harmed, and it’s devastating. I've
reached out to one of the women bringing forth the lawsuit, and she's since left the church partially
because of his behavior.

But the good that God brings about with even a broken instrument remains His good.
 Even when the instrument turns out to be deeply, deeply flawed. I made major life decisions in
part because of this man’s guidance. Decisions that have led me to where I am today, and I believe,
where I’m supposed to be. He gave advice that managed to help bring me to where I am now; happily
married to a good man with two beautiful children. I’m in a place where I can grow in holiness, and
where I’ve been given the responsibility and the privilege of helping others to become holy as well.


I wonder how many cases of clergy abuse go unreported because the abuser also gave the victim help
or support. They say that the longest lasting lie is one that contains an element of truth.
The same seems to be true of clerical abusers. The ones who get away with it the longest are the ones
who have genuine talent for ministry. They have people to whom they’ve given genuine help and who
trust them.

But those gifts do not mean that they should be blindly trusted, or that if accusations are made against
them, that they should not be fully investigated. Just because a person does great good does not mean
that they are not also capable of great evil. Such is human nature and free will. Spiritual gifts are just
like any other talent or ability-- a free gift of God, unearned by any human effort or merit. There are
sometimes weeds mixed in with the wheat.


If accusations are brought up even against apparently ‘holy’ people, they need to be fully investigated.
Even if the person has helped hundreds of people.

Even if the person has helped you.

Comments

  1. Author here:

    I have reported this to the diocese where it occurred, and I encourage others who may have experienced to do this as well, in addition to reporting it to the police.

    For those in the state of Texas, sexual congress between a clergy member and a member of his congregation is illegal, even if consensual. If you are the victim of sexual abuse by a clergy member, you have legal recourse even if you 'agreed' to (or did not protest) the sexual contact (this applies to both Catholic and Protestant congregations).

    ReplyDelete

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