Guest Columnists

Strengthened by Other Survivors

By Michael Gilbride

“And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32

In May, I will be 62. When I was young, I worked in my parish church where there was a young deacon who was dynamic. When I was about 13, he befriended me before he became a priest.

One night at his new rectory, I was sexually abused. As is usual in many of these circumstances, there was a relationship that was developed prior and during the abuse.

We were looking at colleges or at least that’s what he said. I had always wanted to be a teacher, so I contacted the Franciscan brother/guidance counselor at my high school, who was also the principal. We met at school so I could get information and contacts of principals of schools for my job search. I opened up to him about what had occurred with the priest, and before I knew what had happened, he too was inappropriate with me sexually.

I felt betrayed. I had opened a very serious and hurtful part of my life to this brother and he betrayed me and victimized me as well.

I tried to continue to live my life. Despite therapy sessions with my parents, trying to tell my parents was all but impossible. I did not completely abandon or give up on Christ despite what had happened to me in religious settings.

It bothered me that I could not talk to anyone about what had happened, so at the age of 15, I wrote a letter to the diocese outlining that one of its priests was pursuing me, a young person, sexually, but I never received a response.

As I continued in my journey, I wondered if there was one set of rules for clergy with regards to sexual ethics and another set of rules preached on Sunday? Not all my friends were Catholic, and they couldn’t understand why anyone would want to be Catholic if that was the case. I wondered mostly to myself; where was the “truth” in this.

I wrote to a prominent bishop from another denomination. He wrote back to me in his first letter that truth was not easy because one has to balance one good against another. We got to know one another and through 30 years of friendship, writing, and discussions we talked about many subjects.

I found a home in the Episcopal Church during that time. To this very day, I cherish and honor the Christians I worshipped with in the Episcopal Church. They are my brother Christians. It seemed I could not be reconciled to the Catholic Church at the time and the primary reason was my experience with clergy.

In 2011, I contacted the diocese once again. Though many years had passed, the diocese did respond and apologized. I felt in a sense that that letter written so long ago had been at least acknowledged when I met with Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.

I still feel “not so good” at times about how the Church responded to the “Clergy Abuse Scandal,” when “they were caught” by the press that exposed the story. While not working everything out, I can say clearly that the impulse that led me to contact the diocese was that I felt “it shouldn’t have happened that way.”

I’m writing this in the Year of Mercy, now that I have become a member of the Survivors’ Advisory Committee with the Diocese of Brooklyn. Having attended the Mass for Hope and Healing last year and planning to attend this year’s Mass, I am feeling hopeful that the scourge of sex abuse by clergy is at last being handled responsibly.

I have met other survivors and am moved by their witness, their anger and all the feelings of what they went through. I have been strengthened by the other survivors telling their stories, coming together for Mass and by meetings with Bishop DiMarzio.

Yet, I honor my own search. I have met with Bishop DiMarzio, shared with him about the bishop I knew for 30 years and asked for a blessing of a painting I had made of him. I hope the Lord never abandons the Church and equally hope He never abandons those who search for truth.