Blind Spots

I Was an Adult. I Was Also a Victim of Abuse.
Fortgens Photography via Shutterstock

In late 2015, a few months after it happened, I found myself on the phone with Kathleen McChesney, a retired FBI agent. She’d begun her career in the 1970s by helping catch the serial killer Ted Bundy, later rising to hold the third-most-senior position in the Bureau. In 2002, after news of clerical sex abuse and cover-up in Boston, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops appointed her to establish and lead its Office of Child and Youth Protection. A prominent author, consultant, and expert on clerical sex abuse, McChesney had offered to listen to my story in order to help me determine the best way of moving forward.

Admittedly, in my case, her high-profile background seemed like overkill. But I did feel I needed serious professional advice. For most of 2015, I’d been a postulant with a monastic community in Italy. My novice master, a priest in his late thirties, had psychologically abused me for months before making sexual advances on me. I was twenty-nine at the time (I’m thirty-three now). While I managed to defend myself and escape, I felt the need for an institutional response to what had happened. I’d asked to speak with McChesney in order to find out what my options were.

McChesney heard me out, listening patiently as I narrated the events leading up to the abuse, beginning with my arrival at the monastery in late December 2014 and concluding with my departure in late October 2015. At the points where I thought the most awful affronts had been committed (Can you believe he did this? And that the community did nothing?), she would slow me down, asking a series of short questions that soon became a kind of refrain: Were there children present at the monastery? Or in the guesthouse? Did you ever see your novice master interacting with them? No, I would respond, before continuing with my story.

After about an hour, McChesney gently informed me that based on what I’d said, nothing illegal had occurred. It was what investigators call “adult misconduct”—harrowing and distressing behavior, to be sure, but not against the law. “You might think about it this way,” she said. “Your former novice master ‘hit on you,’ an adult. In a terribly abusive, uncomfortable way. But his behavior doesn’t rise to the level of a crime. You could ask a canon lawyer whether he may have violated his vows, but you need to decide on the kind of resolution you want.” I thought about it briefly, and told her I simply wanted the monastic community to know the real reason why I’d left, and to ensure it never happened again.

McChesney encouraged me to mail a detailed report to several offices in Italy: the monastery itself, the local diocese, and the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL, the Vatican dicastery that governs religious orders) in Rome. That way, I would almost certainly receive a response. Furthermore, my former novice master would likely be disciplined; more importantly, he might be prevented from abusing other young men in the future. “You’ve got a great future ahead of you,” McChesney told me. “Don’t be discouraged. You’ll recover.”

The power that a religious superior wields over a young religious in formation, even today, is nearly absolute.

She was right. In fits and starts, I did begin to heal. After I sent the report (in March 2016, just after Spotlight had won the Oscar for Best Picture), two monks from my former community wrote back. They told me that they believed me, apologized, and informed me that they’d been in touch with CICLSAL. My former novice master had immediately been relieved of his duties. He would no longer be in contact with postulants, novices, or other young monks in formation. At the time, I considered this a satisfactory outcome. It meant that my story had been heard, and that I had contributed to making the monastery a safer place.

But then, last summer, revelations emerged about Theodore McCarrick, with detailed reports that the former U.S. cardinal had abused adult seminarians for decades. His priests and brother bishops had heard rumors about it (and in some instances had actual evidence of misconduct), yet mostly did nothing. That McCarrick managed to continue this pattern of abuse for as long as he did was indeed a “failure of fraternal correction,” as Fr. Boniface Ramsey, one of the primary whistleblowers in the McCarrick case, wrote in a Commonweal article last fall. Only now, with a swath of victims behind him and still no admission of guilt, has the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) finally brought McCarrick to justice. Acknowledging that his abuse of adult seminarians was a sin “against the Sixth Commandment,” the CDF also cited  “the aggravating factor of the abuse of power” in its decision to laicize him.

Of course, everyone knew that McCarrick’s behavior (exposing himself and forcing seminarians to share his bed) was wrong. Still, even after McCarrick’s conviction by the CDF, I’ve noticed that many commentators still tend to minimize the seriousness of McCarrick’s misconduct with adults. It’s an understandable reaction: men in their late teens and early-to-mid twenties aren’t children; they can defend themselves and resist abuse by simply saying no. Or so the argument goes. 

But having had direct experience of clerical abuse, I’ve learned that things aren’t always that simple. The power that a religious superior wields over a young religious in formation, even today, is nearly absolute. In monasticism, the model of the spiritual father, inherited from late antiquity, stipulates that in order to make progress in the spiritual life, novices must yield to their superior’s guidance in nearly every aspect of their lives. Not just in the way they dress, their schedule, and work assignments, but also in their diet, health care, prayer, even recreational pursuits. In a healthy setting, such relationships can be loving and productive. But the openness and vulnerability required for genuine growth always carries the risk of abuse. An unscrupulous superior, heedless of the trust placed in him by his novices or seminarians, can inflict serious harm. Cultures of abuse in religious houses are real and entrenched, and if the church wants to emerge from the current crisis, it has to address them systematically. Defrocking McCarrick is a good first step, but it won’t solve the problem.

 

I first met Antonio (not his real name) in the summer of 2012. Back then I was in the middle years of a doctoral program in Italian literature, just starting out on my dissertation on Dante and St. Francis of Assisi. Antonio was one of the younger monks at the monastery (he was about thirty-seven), recently ordained as a priest, and a part-time professor of medieval theology at one of the pontifical universities in Rome. He was leading a retreat for young people (mostly Italians), which I had learned of after I inquired about spending a few days there to pray. I was hoping for a respite between research trips and visits with friends.

And that’s just what I found. Besides the monastery’s beautiful medieval architecture and its idyllic setting in the Apennines, I was immediately impressed with Antonio’s charismatic personality. Not only was he very funny, he was also one of the most intelligent people I’d ever met, giving talks on philosophy and theology and leading tours of the community’s rare-book library. Antonio was open and friendly with everyone on the retreat, but he seemed to take a special interest in me, meeting with me privately and at length. We not only talked about my research, but discussed my vocational aspirations as well.

For a few years I’d been discerning a call to religious life (Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain had inspired me), and I found Antonio’s intuitive understanding of my spiritual journey both gratifying and encouraging. I trusted him, and soon we became friends, emailing each other every so often after I returned to school. The following summer, I returned to the monastery for another retreat, this time living in a cell, joining the community for meals, and taking part in daily spiritual direction with Antonio. Monastic life felt like a natural fit, and as I chanted the hours, worked alongside the other monks, and prayed alone in my cell, I felt at peace and at home.

I was planning to complete my thesis and graduate the following spring, so before I left, Antonio asked me to consider returning in the summer for a three-month observership. That way I could really see what monastic life was like and further discern whether God was in fact calling me to join the community. I agreed, and in June 2014 I returned to the monastery for an extended period of silence, solitude, and prayer.

Right after Christmas, I entered the monastery. I had every intention of staying for good.

I had long hours to myself. I was free to go hiking in the mountains or sit in a comfortable chair in the walled garden of my cell, where I’d read and write in my journal during the quiet afternoons. In this tranquility I learned more about myself, and more about Antonio, too. He was from an old aristocratic Italian family (there’d been princes, cardinals, and popes among his ancestors) but in his mid-twenties he had decided to give everything up to pursue a hidden life of poverty and prayer. His renunciation of power made me feel I could trust him even more.

Yet, for all of Antonio’s professions about poverty and solitude, he’d stayed in contact with what he called “his world,” and soon began bringing me into it. That July I found myself at the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence, sitting with him in the director’s office. The two were friends, having organized a major book exhibition the previous year. After I was presented as Antonio’s friend, an aide took me to the manuscript section for a rare viewing of Galileo’s hand-drawn maps of the moon. We also saw the oldest extant manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy, copied by the poet’s son. Riding back to the monastery along the River Arno, I told Antonio how grateful I was. “This is what your vocation was meant to be,” he told me. “You’ll become our rare-books librarian, you’ll teach in Rome, or France, or England. You’ll organize shows, and participate in Italian cultural life at the highest level.”

It was everything I’d always wanted, a monastic vocation and a call to scholarship. It seemed to me that Antonio was the person who could help me achieve it. So after a conversation with the prior, Don Bernardo, we decided in August that I would return for a year of postulancy, the first stage of monastic formation. Right after Christmas, on December 29, 2014, I entered the monastery. I had every intention of staying for good.   

 

A victim of clerical abuse is rarely aware in the moment that he is being “groomed.” Things just unfold, playing out gradually and cryptically over a period of weeks, months, or even years. You only realize what’s happening once it’s already too late.

Still, from the moment I arrived to begin formation, part of me sensed something was off, that things weren’t going to be the way they’d been in the summer. A few days before my arrival, Don Bernardo had sent me a long confidential email with a few “pointers” for how to behave upon entry. Most of his suggestions were straightforward and unsurprising: cut your hair a bit, keep quiet in the hallways, and listen to the relatively conservative opinions of the older monks with a grain of salt. But Bernardo warned me to maintain a “safe distance” from Antonio, and not to become too involved in his “projects.” In the few months I’d been away, Antonio had been elected novice master. As such, he’d exert enormous influence over my daily life.

There were only three of us in the novitiate, and we spent almost every hour of every day together with Antonio. It didn’t take long before his initially euphoric spirit of welcome turned into a dour, controlling, and unpredictable moodiness. He kept me constantly on edge by insisting I change my routine in ways that struck me as arbitrary and counterintuitive. With respect to my spiritual life and methods of personal prayer, I was forbidden to keep a journal or pray the Ignatian examen—because these things were too focused on me rather than God. I was also told to stop going for runs. Antonio claimed that this old habit of mine betrayed an inner anxiety I needed to overcome. He told me to be wary of close relationships with friends and family outside the community. I needed time to adjust to my decision to become a monk; the anxieties and suspicions of my parents and friends back in the United States would only confuse me. Whenever I objected to these instructions, or told him about my misgivings, Antonio would remind me that monasticism was all about learning to “let go of my ego,” to die to myself, to relinquish the well-polished “mask” I’d spent so many years cultivating and hiding behind.

But it wasn’t just Antonio’s incursions into my spiritual life and physical routine that I found so disturbing. The community itself was also in constant disarray, lurching from one crisis to the next: the buildings needed costly repairs; dwindling vocations had left many of the monks feeling demoralized and fatalistic; there were even problems with the ingredients in the natural products sold in the gift shop, one of the community’s main sources of income. There always seemed to be some new battle in the community, and Antonio invariably found himself at the center of it. He often lamented that his intellect wasn’t properly valued by his brothers; he felt overworked and underappreciated.

I tried to keep all this in mind whenever he lashed out at me, as he did with increasing frequency and ferocity in the first months of my novitiate. The pretexts for his rage were always minimal, and his reactions disproportionate. Once, during morning prayer, I’d gotten up and adjusted a staticky microphone. Antonio berated me for my presumption and “privileged” attitude: I needed to know I wasn’t special. Another time, serving Mass, I’d taken a few extra hosts to him after he’d already closed the tabernacle, so that he had to unlock and reopen it. Embarrassed in front of a few dozen guests, he shouted at me, threatening reprisals if I ever got on his “bad side” again.

I complained to Bernardo, but was brushed off. Antonio’s astrological sign was Cancer, he said, so of course he had a crabby disposition. But he was harmless, and I shouldn’t take his outbursts so personally. Antonio said the same thing: I was too sensitive, and I should learn to cultivate indifference.

But Antonio’s aggressiveness also began to express itself in physical ways. It would start playfully and innocently enough: he’d snap dish rags at me as we cleaned the refectory, or he’d shake me by the shoulders when he caught me yawning. But sometimes he came at me more forcefully, punching me in the chest, or trapping me from behind with a wrestling hold. I told Giovanni, the vice-prior and Antonio’s superior, that such behavior made me uncomfortable. He agreed that it was inappropriate and asked Antonio to stop. Incensed that I’d given Giovanni the wrong idea, Antonio refused to speak to me until, days later, I finally confronted him. I’d misinterpreted his behavior, he said. It was all a sign of his esteem and affection for me. And if I didn’t like it, or couldn’t understand it, perhaps I ought to go back home to America. Maybe the monastery wasn’t the place for me.

 

I told myself I just needed to hang on, and things would get better.

Still, I felt like I couldn’t just leave. Prior to entering the monastery, I’d arranged all my plans—including my finances and my academic career—around becoming a monk in Italy. I was convinced that monastic vows and priestly ordination were what God most wanted for me. It was also, I should add, what I wanted for myself. So no matter how much Antonio’s strange behavior bothered me, I was determined to persevere: my vocation, and my life’s work, were at stake. I told myself I just needed to hang on, and things would get better.

Instead, they got worse. By mid-September 2015, I was badly depressed, often unable to attend prayer, or concentrate on my reading or work. I’d begun seeing a therapist, a friend of the community with a private psychoanalytic practice in Mantua, a four-hour drive to the north. Every other week, along with Matteo (a year ahead of me in formation), I’d travel up the A1 highway for back-to-back therapy sessions. Antonio remained back at the monastery, staying in touch via cell phone.

The therapist’s methods struck me as a little unorthodox. He discontinued my medication, which I’d taken regularly since early in graduate school. He also went on and on about a psychological “labyrinth”—an inner landscape of dreams, desires, and fears that I was supposed to traverse under his guidance. As we made our way through, he warned, I would likely experience a great deal of pain. But that shouldn’t discourage or scare me. Emotional distress, he said, was a sign the process was working.

My distress did grow worse, and Antonio took advantage of it. Telling me I needed a change of atmosphere to clear my head, he proposed that we take a day trip together to Rome. He didn’t invite anyone else. We drove down and parked on the Aventine Hill, high above the city center. Antonio told me I needed to view the city through his eyes, so we toured the university where he taught, as well as the churches and piazzas where he’d spent his childhood. We also visited his favorite cafés, restaurants, and bookstores. He kept telling me how highly he thought of me, and how much he cared about me, patting my back and putting his arm around me as I expressed doubts about my intelligence and my vocation. He bought me an expensive scholarly edition of the Divine Comedy. He told me he was glad I was finally coming out of my shell, that the therapy was working. By then I’d become so depressed that I craved these affirmations.

Then, back at the monastery, the physical abuse began. It always happened in closed spaces, like my cell, or his, or the library, archive room, or empty refectory. And always when I was most emotionally vulnerable. (Homesick and doubting my worth, I was often upset.) Antonio would sit with me on my bed, or beside me on a chair, and comfort me as I cried. He would embrace me, rubbing my back and shoulders until I calmed down. He’d say that he understood what I was feeling, that he’d experienced the same thing when he’d done psychoanalysis. Though I was suffering now, I’d soon be in better control of my emotions, he assured me. I just needed to hang on, and the suffering would pass.

Antonio also became bolder in what he allowed himself to say to me. His “esteem,” he told me, had grown into something deeper. He said he loved me. He wished he could take me away to a place where he could heal me. He even proposed that we escape to one of his “palaces,” where we could be alone, away from all the chaos and conflict of the monastic community, living and praying and working in peace.

And now he wanted me to reciprocate his affections. He demanded I perform what he called un gesto spontaneo d’affetto, a spontaneous gesture of affection. First, this meant that I had to give him a hug; after a week or so, he demanded that I kiss him on the cheek or forehead, and let him do the same. At first, I tried leaving the room without doing it, but he’d always block the door (he was taller and heavier than me). Only after performing the gesture was I permitted to leave. As I wrote later in my letter to the priors and the Vatican, I did so, but only “under extreme coercion and with grave emotional disturbance.” The abuse continued this way for about ten more days.

What finally prompted my departure was a deep awareness that I wasn’t free. It wasn’t just Antonio. It was everything: my therapist’s bizarre advice, the monastery’s insular culture, the community’s infighting, even the remoteness of the secluded, forested mountains. I’d never felt more alone. I told Antonio that I wanted to go home, that I didn’t feel like myself. “So what?,” he replied. He told me I didn’t have a self. I was “niente,” nothing.

 

I’d been trapped, my boundaries violated, my body and soul defiled.

But God, in his mercy, had a different view, and provided an escape. It was Sunday, October 18, 2015. Mass and the midday meal had ended, and evening prayer wouldn’t begin for another few hours. The corridors along the cloister garden were empty, and Antonio was away for the afternoon. I felt anxious and homesick. So on a whim, I called my former spiritual director, a Jesuit living in New York City.

“Griffin, so good to hear from you! How are you?” “Not good,” I told him. He responded with frank concern. “When I hear a person’s miserable in religious life, it usually means God’s no longer calling them to be there.” I told him I didn’t understand what was happening. “I’ve never felt this awful before,” I said. He asked if I wouldn’t mind doing a bit of spiritual direction right then and there, over the phone.

“Sure,” I said. It had been so long since Antonio and I had done actual spiritual direction. The contrast was obvious: my former director listened for the Spirit, and pointed me to God; Antonio had only ever pointed me to himself. I told my former director what was going on with Antonio. His concern grew, and after I told him that Antonio had been forcing me to kiss him, he said without emotion: “You should not be kissing your novice master.” He was right, of course, and his blunt comment punctured the deceptions Antonio had drawn around me. I told my former director that I’d stay in touch with him over the next few days by email.

The next day, as I was returning from therapy in Mantua, I drove past the city of Bologna, where I’d studied for a year as an undergraduate almost a decade earlier. The sun was setting above the city, and it illuminated everything I felt: that I’d been trapped, my boundaries violated, my body and soul defiled. I resolved then and there to leave the monastery and return to the United States as quickly as I possibly could.

Somehow, Antonio already knew. That night at the monastery, he made one final attempt to dissuade me. But I communicated my firm decision to leave, and then tried to sleep. Early the next morning, I used my credit card to book a one-way ticket from Rome to Philadelphia. The flight was scheduled to depart the following morning.

Without informing the rest of the community, I packed my bag and prepared to leave. Antonio insisted on accompanying me, on the grounds that I wasn’t emotionally healthy enough to travel to Rome alone. Not wanting to cause a scene at the monastery, I agreed. On the train, he acted normally enough, as if my departure were a simple case of a failed vocation. That’s what he’d told the others in the novitiate, anyway. But when we finally arrived at the monastery in Rome where he’d booked two rooms in the guesthouse, he lost control.

I was unpacking my overnight bag. Antonio entered my room without knocking and advanced toward me. Then he put his arms around me, and started kissing me—trying for my lips but landing with his mouth all over my face. I pushed him away, said “no,” and he yielded. I then gave him the monastic community’s sign of peace, making it as clear as I could that he was (for a few more hours at least) my brother and my novice master, and nothing else.

I didn’t want to have to get the police involved, and focused instead on leaving without further incident. Antonio insisted on walking with me through downtown Rome, where he pointed out the advantages that I was losing. As we proceeded, I stuck to well-lit, open areas, always staying in full view of other pedestrians. Antonio couldn’t stop weeping, bemoaning the fact that he’d also “lost others” before me. He lamented that he’d have a hard time getting over me, but said that in the end he’d manage.

Back at the guest house, I locked my door, and slept fitfully. Early the next morning I took a train to the airport at Fiumicino. I checked in for the flight, collected my ticket, and cleared security. As the plane took off from the runway, I exhaled a sigh of relief. It was over.

 

Criminality seems like the wrong standard, and the church cannot content itself with “preventing crimes” against minors alone.

That doesn’t mean that once I left the monastery life became easy. Healing has taken a long time. But once I came home, I returned to relationships—personal, professional, and spiritual—that helped me recover the sense of self that Antonio had eclipsed. Connection with others helped me overcome what, in my experience, was the worst part of abuse: the feeling of loneliness and shame that it entails, the sense that it was somehow my fault.

Some readers may be wondering why I didn’t leave sooner. I often wondered that myself, after it was over. Why had it been so hard at the time for me to grasp what looked so clear and obvious in hindsight? Soon after I left the monastery, I began working with a therapist who helped me understand what had happened. We assessed the blind spots that had made me particularly vulnerable to Antonio’s manipulations. I had refused to allow myself to think that Antonio was anything other than the great monk and priest I’d initially understood him to be—no matter what my senses told me. The first step toward recovery, then, was learning to attend to what I actually see and feel.

After three and a half years, I’ve come a long way. I sometimes have flashbacks, but I’m no longer angry, and I’ve come to realize that what happened was not my fault. The anger was helpful at first: my indignation motivated me to do something concrete about the situation, to set the mechanism of reporting in motion. But then it became a kind of trap, preventing me from moving forward with my life. I knew that I had finally relinquished my hatred of Antonio when I found myself able to pray for him. As far as I know, he is still a monk, and remains a priest in active ministry.

The church knows what happened. The detailed letters I sent to the monastery priors, the local bishop, and the Vatican made three charges: that Antonio had abused me emotionally, had interfered with my therapeutic treatment, and had subjected me to prolonged sexual harassment. The priors accepted and acknowledged all three. In March 2016, I wrote separately to Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, the prefect of CICLSAL, to express my sadness and disappointment at having been so badly mistreated. I have a receipt acknowledging that my letter was delivered, but I never heard back from Braz de Aviz.

Just as I had blind spots that had be corrected, so too does the church. As I learned during my time in the monastery, one of the key factors that contributes to abuse is the closed environment of most seminaries and formation houses. Under these conditions, abuse is difficult to prevent and easy to conceal. Had more people had their eyes on Antonio, had they been given a fuller picture of his actions, perhaps the worst of the abuse might not have happened. Formal ways of reporting Antonio’s behavior, rather than isolated, ad hoc conversations with his superiors, would also have helped. I draw a simple lesson from my experience: for the church to begin solving the problem of adult abuse, first it needs to admit, openly and without flinching, that it has one. 

Some wonder whether the abuse of adults really deserves that definition, since unlike children, adult victims are capable of withholding consent. The distinction is important, and that’s why the abuse of children is treated as a crime. But as clerical abuse survivor and former member of the pontifical commission on sexual abuse Marie Collins argued in a recent Commonweal interview, adult abuse is still abuse. The church, she said, must expand its definition of whom it considers vulnerable—not just those with impaired mental faculties, but any adult in a position of relative powerlessness with respect to an abuser. (Pope Francis’s new motu proprio, Vos estis lux mundi, does just that, stipulating that “vulnerable persons” now include those whose “deprivation of personal liberty” impedes their ability to “resist the offense”—in other words, seminarians, novices, and religious in formation.) Criminality seems like the wrong standard, and the church cannot content itself with “preventing crimes” against minors alone. Christ invests it with the keys of heaven and hell, the power to loosen and bind sins, including sins that are not crimes. It needs to take this responsibility seriously.

In a way, I was lucky. I was twenty-nine, not a child or a teenager. I was also well educated and well connected, with loving parents, friends, and mentors who supported me as I got back on my feet. I had access to sound legal advice and the resources to pay for an excellent therapist. I finally extricated myself from the monastery because I had the option to do so. And I recovered because I had a robust support system waiting for me. Many victims have none of this.

For years, the laity have been looking for a sign that the church’s leaders finally understand the full extent of the abuse crisis, and that they will act in a manner commensurate with the pain inflicted by decades of inaction. I used to look for that sign, too. That’s what I wanted from Rome—some sweeping, apocalyptic gesture to make everything all right.

But such a sign will never come. Nothing the pope can say, nothing the bishops can decide, no amount of protocols and best practices or promises of transparency can ever make up for the horror of the injustices done to each and every victim. We must therefore alter our expectations. Not because the hierarchy tell us to, and not because reform isn’t necessary (it is), but because even the most radical reforms won’t change the past. Old wounds will remain. Only repentance and mercy can heal them, and only once the truth has been told. We are members of a broken institution, but we’re also a beloved people, accompanied by a provident God, who heals all wounds and wipes away our every sin.

Published in the June 1, 2019 issue: 

Griffin Oleynick is an assistant editor at Commonweal.

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