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‘I tell my story to seek forgiveness’


With a crystallized glaze on snow, the January thaw was in full swing. For Victor and Michael, so were wet, mushy snowballs. I was called to Sister Principal’s office and informed that I was to spank the boys with a rubber hose. Sister Principal proceeded to teach me how to position a sixth grade boy over a chair and then “spank them where God intends boys to be spanked.” I was obedient and whipped Michael and Victor with the three-foot section of garden hose. Within an hour the pastor, a huge man, was at the classroom door asking for Victor and Michael. Twenty-eight students and I listened in horror as the priest slammed the boy’s heads together.

At dinner that night, the seventh grade teacher reported hearing the two victims talking. It seems I spanked harder than Sister Principal spanked. All eight of us laughed. I lost a part of myself that day.

Years later, I ask myself: Had Victor and Michael received the hose from Sister Principal on other occasions? Had the pastor cracked their heads together for other mischief? Did the sisters truly enjoy the physical and psychological control they inflicted on their young students?

At the time, I was still in formation in my community. I knew in my heart that what had happened was not right but had no idea how to change the situation. If I questioned the principal I risked expulsion from the community. If I continued to physically abuse my students, I sacrificed my integrity. I didn’t know I could say no.

Nearly 40 years later I remember only three names from my first class. The other name I remember is Kathy.

Kathy didn’t pay attention in class. Kathy didn’t get her homework finished. Kathy was dying of leukemia. Sister Principal withheld this information from me. In my lack of experience, I spent nine months totally insensitive to Kathy’s needs. I didn’t know about Kathy’s illness until two months after school recessed for summer. That’s when Kathy died. Although the other sisters went to her funeral, I, as a junior professed sister, was not allowed to attend.

The year 2000 is a time to forgive and seek forgiveness. I tell my story in this millennium year to seek forgiveness and to address the denial around the abuses perpetrated by some men and women professed to be “religious.”

Victor, Michael and Kathy, I am so sorry!

Four years after Victor, Michael and Kathy, I became the principal. I spent considerable time in recruitment for the school, and I began to hear more stories of abuses of children by sisters and priests -- including verbal, physical and sexual abuse.

Before going into my own classroom, I’d been placed with a “master teacher” for three months. I saw her hit first grade children so hard that her handprint remained on their faces for hours. I believed the parents when they told me their stories. They would say, “Do you think for a minute I’d put my child through what I’ve experienced? In religion class we were taught to love our neighbor in one breath, and in the next second, Susie got slapped across the face for saying what she truly believed.”

Perhaps the greatest horror stories were shared when I worked on an Indian reservation. Adults recalled in their childhood being locked in dark closets for speaking their native language; being whipped for crying out of loneliness for family members; and of nuns and priests standing as witness as little children signed away their small land allotments to crooked land sharks and bankers. They told of trying to run away from the boarding school, only to be caught and have their hair cut in punishment. Our Indian brothers and sisters remember priests providing them alcohol to get signatures for tribal lands and for the bodies of young women. It is common knowledge on reservations that John or Mary is the child of a priest who once worked among them. Who paid child support to these mothers?

Talking to priests and sisters, I have heard stories like mine. Many priests and sisters were not much older than the children they were teaching. Most men and women sent to reservations were taught there was great merit in “converting the savages.” And they, like I, were afraid to say no for fear of the discipline that could be imposed. Many felt caught in a system over which they had no control.

However, I do believe that some of these men and women got a perverse pleasure from the violence they inflicted. From a powerless position, a sense of control over those who are vulnerable may give a person a sense of power. In a system where “blind obedience” is overtly or covertly taught, where individuals feel their lives are out of control, people will try to control the environment outside of self.

When will we make amends?

One of the sisters in the house where I spent my first year of teaching had been my Saturday catechism teacher when I was a child. She was funny, a good teacher and someone we trusted. I wanted to grow up to be just like her. Here the dream of a vocation was born. I wasn’t in the convent one month when she propositioned me. To convince me it was OK, she spoke of a fifth grade girl and what a great lover she had been. This professed religious preyed not only on the young, vulnerable women in the community, but also on small children.

What do we do for the perpetrator? There are elderly priests, brothers and sisters who live with the reality of their abusive lifestyles. When complaints surfaced, they were often moved from school to school, parish to parish, and went right on abusing.

I have forgiven myself for the abuse of Michael, Victor and Kathy, knowing I was also a victim. However, what of the other Michaels, Victors and Kathys? What is our responsibility to them? What can we, the people of God, do now, so forgiveness and healing can occur?

And how do we deal with subtle abuse?

Mindy reached out her right hand to receive Communion. Her fifth infant was on her left arm. Mindy had come to the awareness that she was abusing her children verbally and feared she might become physically abusive. Her husband, a long-haul driver, was home only a few days a month. With counsel and prayer, Mindy made the decision to have a tubal ligation. Somehow the pastor heard of her procedure and refused her Communion. He then announced his reason to the entire congregation. “Sister,” Mindy said, “can you imagine what would happen to my marriage if I said, ‘Honey, it’s the wrong time of the month’?”

Pam had been out of church for years because she’d also had a tubal ligation. With an alcoholic husband, three children and no money, she was afraid to have another child. With counseling, Pam let go of her self-condemnation and returned to the church. The first Sunday she was back, Father pounded the table of the Word and proclaimed, “People who use any form of birth control are no more than animals copulating in the barnyard.” Father seemed to have forgotten or could not accept that the new Code of Canon Law does not make procreation the primary reason for marriage, but rather “the well-being of the spouses.”

When abuse flows forth from the table of the Word, when professed celibates stand before the people of God and dictate to others how they are to practice sexual intimacy, I fear something is very wrong.

People in poor communities and in ethnically unique communities deserve quality leadership as much as people in more economically secure communities. When, because of lack of clergy, unhealthy ministers are placed in depressed areas, the problems are compounded.

When faced with the possibility of new staff members in our communities, we need to ask the hard questions, especially if the person’s past is suspect. When a teacher, principal, pastor, youth worker or any visible adult shows signs of being covertly or overtly violent or sexually abusive, let’s not be victims. One person being harmed by a wounded leader is one too many. One Pam lost to the church is one Pam too many.

I am not asking that we forget. Remembering Michael, Victor and Kathy has made me a more compassionate teacher and counselor. Remembering Sister Principal placing the three-foot garden hose in my hand still stirs anger, anger I’ve chosen to use in a positive fashion.

We are a broken people on a journey to healing. The Jubilee Year 2000 is a time to celebrate this journey. The first step is to confess to one another that we have sinned. Today I beg clergy, religious communities and all forms of parish leadership to create rituals in which all people will feel free to tell their stories and come to the healing of forgiveness.

I beg you who have been wounded by priests, brothers, sisters or other parish workers, you the Michaels, Victors, Kathys, Mindys and Pams, please take a first step on the way back to the Body of Christ. Without you, I am not whole. Without you, we are not whole. Perhaps remembering that Christ is as broken as the most broken of us, perhaps then forgiveness will come and we will all be able to rise to new life.

Benedictine Sr. Julie Wokasch is a member of St. Patrick’s Parish in Spokane, Wash. She is a chemical dependency counselor at Colonial Clinic and executive director of HOPE for COAP, an agency that works with children whose parents are addicted.

National Catholic Reporter, August 11, 2000