As for God, his ways are perfect;
the word of the Lord, purest gold.
He indeed is the shield
of all who make him their refuge.
How the Clerical Abuse Scandal Affects Me
No one knows the pain of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church better than a victim staunchly refusing to abandon the truth of the Catholic Faith. It takes an extraordinary amount of perseverance, courage, and yes, forgiveness, to keep from forsaking the Church that holds both saints and sinners within every level of herself. I should know; I am one such victim. For those of you who don’t know me, my family and my faith are my life. The atrocities that I suffered at the hands of a so-called “shepherd” while I was but a child have put extreme strains on both relationships. While I suffered sexual abuse from a member of the Church I love, I refuse to abandon the Truth, Beauty, and Good that continually flow through it by the Grace of God.
The revelations of an 88-year-old Cardinal of the Catholic Church abusing boys shortly after he was ordained to the priesthood and throughout his time as Bishop, coupled with ongoing news about abuse and coverup in Dioceses around the world, have compelled me to share my story. I am writing out of a desire that other clerical sexual abuse victims can begin their road to healing without abandoning their faith, that my story may give Priests and Bishops a better understanding of what abuse survivors go through, and that our Church will heal from this immense wound.
When I was 12 years old, my family and I met a friendly and seemingly normal priest. Fr. Andy Willemsen wormed his way into my family’s trust and my parents had no suspicions as he began grooming me. He took advantage of a young boy, psychologically manipulating and perverting me into believing we were in a “God-sanctioned relationship”, “simply helping me explore my sexuality”. In my case, grooming involved my abuser building trust, and then exploiting it to compel me to willingly engage in an abusive relationship without viewing it as such. I never felt intimidated or threatened, rather I was gently led into a very abusive relationship. The relationship continued even after I stopped the physical aspects of it. It was only much later in my life that I recognized my relationship with Fr. Andy as abusive. It was then that I felt stupid and recognized the reality that he abused me. The abusive relationship caused me to cheapen my own dignity as a person and that affected many aspects of my life without me knowing it. Father Andrew J. Willemsen was a Vincentian priest originally from Holland. He taught in 3 seminaries in the US, including a stint of 16 years at St. Mary’s seminary in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. In 1981 he was incardated into the Diocese of Austin and served at a rural parish in Bremond Texas for 7 years. He had many other victims, he told me about them, I hope and pray that the others have begun the process of healing too.
Me, A Victim?
I attended a Catholic High School, had a fairly normal adolescence, made good grades, got into some trouble and dated a few young ladies. In my senior year of high school, I was blessed to meet my future spouse. She came from a devout Catholic family and was deeply committed to her faith. We both went to college, graduated, and began working. I quickly moved up in my career, and we never missed a Sunday mass; I even joined the church choir. To all outward appearances, I was just like everyone else. It was a long time before I recognized my relationship with Fr. Andy as abuse, which prevented me from telling my wife until 7 years into our marriage. Largely, this failure to share my story was because I was still living under the lies my abuser had told me as a child. I had considered the abuse a relationship, as he had convinced me it was. Only after a friend of mine unknowingly opened my eyes did I realize the horrifying truth of my past.
As my wife and I began to get more involved in our parish community, we held gatherings at our home in which we invited couples from our parish to watch videos about living our Catholic faith in a more profound way. At one of these events, we were visiting with a couple and I casually mentioned that I took a couple of trips to Europe with a priest when I was in middle school. I had no idea that this was odd, but the guy I was visiting with made some comment about how lucky I was that the priest wasn’t one of those bad ones who abused young boys.
I Was Blind, But Now I Can See
At that point, I saw my whole life in a new light. I was about 28 years old, and it had been 14 years since I had last been abused. A few years after realizing that I was one of the many victims, I decided to visit the Bishop of Austin, John McCarthy, simply wanting to tell someone that personally knew Fr. Andy about my abuse. At our meeting, the look on the Bishop’s face at the mention of Fr. Andy’s name told me that he already knew about him. McCarthy quickly informed me that another young man made a report to the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston in the late 80’s, after which he immediately told Fr. Andy to get out of his Diocese and go back to Holland. McCarthy expressed his deep sorrow for what had happened to me at the hands of someone I should have been able to trust. While his sympathy was very comforting to me at that time, the fact remains that this Bishop had simply relocated a credibly accused predator rather than seeking true justice and protecting other children.
In the wake of the 2002 Boston clerical sexual abuse scandal, I met with a second Bishop, Gregory Aymond, desiring to know what punishment my abuser received for sexually abusing me and other boys. He did some research and informed me that Fr. Andy was still in active ministry, but that he would contact the Bishop in Holland and ensure that Fr. Andy was removed from ministry.
“What else will happen to him?” I asked. “Nothing” was the reply.
Bishop Aymond informed me that due to the statute of limitations, his hands were tied. The most helpful result that came from that meeting was that I was offered counseling courtesy of the Diocese. Counseling helped me recognize that I had been blaming myself for the abuse.
In 2018, the wound would require more attention. Clerical abuse was once again in the headlines. It became clear that the problem was much, much bigger than anyone had previously thought. The biggest challenge I faced was listening to everyone talk about clerical sexual abuse, without them knowing that I was one of the many victims. The revelations that Bishops around the world had been covering up abuse for decades is hard to take. But even this is not as painful as the thought of thousands of survivors who may never have received any healing, in many cases have left the Church, lost their faith in God, turned to alcohol and drugs, have been unable to maintain intimate relationships, and sadly some have even taken their own lives. In our Church, we need to root out this evil, actively seek out and offer healing to victims and we need to do it now.
I am one of the fortunate ones. I found healing and peace that the world could not offer in the teachings of the Church — especially through the Theology of the Body (Thanks, Christopher West!). I have been married to a faithful, loving, patient woman for 28 years and have been blessed with 9 children.
The Pearl of Great Price
Fortunately, I fell in love with Jesus Christ and His Church before I fully understood what I suffered from one of Her Priests. I found the pearl of great price and would do anything to possess it. I view the gross negligence and evil actions of some Bishops and the sinful and criminal activity of individual priests as the devil’s tactics to make me, and others, give up this great gift of faith. There is no way that I will surrender to that temptation. Scandal has always been present in the Church, beginning with Judas and continuing throughout the history of the Church with bad Priests, Bishops, and even Popes. My faith is not in any of these men, but in the Lord Jesus Christ. His authentic teachings miraculously persevere despite the many flawed men who have led the church for over 2,000 years.
My story, unfortunately one of many, has much left to be shared. I will be writing more about my experience of being sexually abused by a Catholic priest not just to raise awareness, but to also provide practical advice on how we can help the wounded and heal our Church at Abuse of Trust. If you are a survivor of clerical abuse and wish to help others, contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 409-1098). I am writing a book to bring healing to other survivors, their families, and the Church. The fight has just begun. We must remember that the leaders of our Church will need our help and encouragement to make the difficult decisions that lie ahead, and fight the evil that has corrupted and harmed far too many minds and bodies.
You saved me from my furious foes.
You set me above my assailants.
You saved me from violent men,
so I will praise you, Lord, among the nations:
I will sing a psalm to your name.