Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

In a Church Full of Wolves, Abuse Victims Struggle to Stay

My friend Joseph Sciambra is a survivor of clerical sexual abuse. By God’s grace, he escaped an incredibly destructive gay lifestyle and has been a champion of sane, orthodox teaching for those with same sex attraction for decades. He has also brought his concerns again and again to the bishops who, on the whole, seem effectively indifferent to his pleading. All the while, he performed outreach ministry to those still caught up in the gay community he left behind, reminding them, above all, that God loves them. If you’re unfamiliar with Joseph’s story, see my interviews with him here and here, and this article about how his father’s devotion to the rosary saved his life. Joseph also did a show with me last year about Catholic cults within the Church.

In September, 2020, he wrote an article entitled, “Remaining in a Church that Hurt(s) Me.” It was a piece struck through with pain and anger, and it’s not hard to understand why. Here’s an excerpt:

Sometimes the only reason I remain in the Catholic Church is to ensure that no one is abused like me. Sounds noble? It isn’t. Occasionally, I take a perverse glee when uncovering the continued perversity in the Church, as if I merely stay in the Church to watch in delight as it falls. It’s the only way I can exact my revenge. But the pain has outweighed any solace that I have voyeuristically received. At a recent Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, I squirmed in my seat as some third-rate gay activist priest persuaded a group of gap-mouthed and wholly impressed Catholic religious and educators to recognize vulnerable children, befriend and gain their trust, and to then impose upon them an LGBT identity. It’s as if my abuser rose among the ranks in the Church and became the voice of reason on this issue. After the presentation, I ran to the public restroom and vomited.

Maintaining a public allegiance to the Catholic Church often feels like being complicit in their continued crimes. In an even deeper way, I wonder if I am cooperating in my own past abuse. The old doubts reemerge; I am undoing years of painful psychological exploration and healing.

On a daily basis, for practically 20 years, from almost the moment I stepped over the threshold of a Catholic Church; I have wanted to leave; but abusers frequently whisper into your ear and compel you to stay. After being molested in a parked car, still sitting in the passenger-side, my gaze almost instantly turned toward San Francisco. Where else could I go? Nowadays, I often hear a near identical retort: Where else can you go?

In the Church, the evil and the well-intentioned continue to shame and unintentionally intimidate. Those who have been abused must oftentimes make very difficult and painful decisions that affect their physical, mental, and spiritual well-being; God doesn’t want a martyr driven to self-harm or suicide. I think God will have an immense amount of mercy on them, as He did on my seemingly unrepentant libertine friends who died of AIDS – many of whom were driven to the extremes by the demons that pursued them from childhood. From Jesus Christ Himself, we already know about the harsh punishment awaiting those who “scandalize one of these little ones.” But I think another type of chastisement awaits the faithful that smugly occupy a pew every Sunday, criticize the corruption of the hierarchy on Facebook and Twitter, but reprimand those who are angry because they’ve asked for help and instead received platitudes.

The last line of the preceding paragraph is very important. I recommend reading it again.

Recently, Joseph reached a breaking point with the Catholic Church. I don’t know where his journey will take him — he’s signaled an interest in Russian Orthodoxy — but he seems unable, at this point, to stay within Catholicism any longer. As he wrote in February:

I am not looking for a “safe space” nor a perfect church; but it is impossible to exist, without suffering severe psychological damage, under a constant threat of repeated abuse. Since returning to Catholicism, I have tried to do just that for over twenty years. Solely, the stress has taken its toll on my body and mind; though my faith in Christ has remained strong. But I don’t want to die. And I don’t want to be martyr. Those who died for love of God did not do so because they had been repeatedly groomed, abused, brain-washed, gas-lighted, and driven to self-destruction and suicidality – those are the tragic pseudo-martyrs that the Church is creating today.

I already know that people feel very strongly that Joseph should not leave. I’ve seen the threads on his social media accounts, before he deleted the accounts entirely. I also know that he feels he has reached a point where it is psychologically and physiologically unsafe for him to continue staying. It is not our job to issue judgment on this, or to try to force him to change his mind, or to do anything but pray for him and his healing, and that he will be able to find and do God’s will for his life. I say this because I anticipate a comment box filling up with opinions of this nature. Don’t bother; I’ll just remove them.

My purpose here is rather to help people to better understand the very real challenges abuse-survivors are facing in the Church today, and why it is so hard, even seemingly impossible, for some of them to stay.

Yesterday, Joseph sent me his most recent article, and I recommend it for those of you who do care to better understand. It’s long, so I can’t excerpt it enough here to do it justice, but it’s powerful. As his metaphor, Joseph has chosen something rather unconventional: the 1986 James Cameron film, Aliens — the sequel to the 1979 movie Alien. Here’s some of the heart of it:

“I don’t believe this. You guys throw me to the wolves, and now you want me to go back out there? Forget it.” – Ellen Ripley

At the beginning of “Aliens,” Ellen Ripley is faced with a similar dilemma. The only survivor of a commercial starship (the Nostromo), she has been adrift in an escape shuttle for 57 years. Upon her discovery and return to Earth, she is subjected to an integration by executives of her former employer – the megalithic Weyland-Yutani Corporation: a sort of conglomerate amalgamation of a massive federal bureaucracy, big-tech, and the military industrial complex. They immediately dismiss her testimony concerning the brutal massacre of her fellow crewmates by an unknown alien creature and the eventual destruction of their vessel.

During her recuperation at a hospital space-station, and following her post-recovery release, she is repeatedly tormented by nightmares. She wakes up screaming and clutching her chest, haunted by the most graphic scene from the past – when the gestating alien bursts forth from the stomach of an unsuspecting crewman. Then, a representative (Burke) of the Weyland Corporation contacts Ripley and offers her a job as an advisor on a mission back to the planet LV-426: the moon where the alien possibly originated. She refuses. As an incentive, he offers Ripley reinstalment as a flight officer. Punished for disobedience to her corporate overlords, Ripley can only find work as dock loader. The nightmares continue. In a moment of desperation, she contacts Burke and says: “Just tell me one thing, Burke. You’re going out there to destroy them, right? Not to study, not to bring back, but to wipe them out.” She agrees to join the mission.

Ripley is a space-age “Jane Eyre;” a survivor of abuse who finds herself back in the company of her abusers.


In “Aliens,” in order to regain her former profession, Ripley is willing to somewhat represent, at least for a while, the concerns of the Weyland Corporation – most evidently, when she warns the rather clueless Gorman that his lack of knowledge concerning the Weyland colony on LV-426 could result in catastrophic damage to the facilities. Later, when Burke revictimizes her in the most horrific way imaginable, setting her up as a host for an alien, Ripley would gladly burn the whole thing down; prompting the famous line: “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit.”

But, at one time, she volunteered to work within the corporate system. Her motives were two-fold: to restore her livelihood and position, and to selflessly help others; at the beginning of the film, during the crucial meeting with the Weyland executives, Ripley learns that several families were sent to LV-426 as colonists. Her response – in a script that is filled with expletives, is the only time she utters the name of Our Lord.

Once on LV-426, Ripley sees the aftereffects of the colonists being slaughtered by the aliens, and following Burke’s treachery, she drops any pretense of speaking out for the interests of the Corporation. But the process of this realization happens somewhat gradually. In a movie overflowing with great lines, this is one of the most powerful: “These people are dead, Burke! Don’t you have any idea what you’ve done here?! Well, I’m gonna make sure that they nail you right to the wall for this! You’re not gonna sleaze your way out of this one! Right to the wall!” Here, she still holds onto the belief that justice can be merited within a corrupt system. Following their confrontation, along with the lone survivor of the colony, a little girl nicknamed Newt, Burke locks Ripley in a room with the parasitoid form of the alien species. This betrayal from someone she trusted is something many survivors of abuse have similarly experienced in the Catholic Church. It marks the end of her belief in justice within an unjust institution.

A little further down, Joseph delivers this kick to the head:

After watching the film, I have sometimes wondered: Why did the Weyland Corporation want her to go back to LV-426? They didn’t need her. She told them everything she knew. And they were confident in the skills and firepower of the Colonial Marines. But the presence of Ripley lends credibility to the endeavor; although they publicly dismissed her story – they know she is telling the truth. Therefore, the cooperation of a survivor somehow negates their culpability. In the Catholic Church, there is a persistent false meme: If the victim of priest sex abuse can stay in the Catholic Church, that substantiates the claim that Roman Catholicism in the one true Church.

I never thought of it that way, but in the minds of some at least, he may be right. I tend to think of it as the inverse, and as a means of further spiritual abuse, ie., “The claim that Roman Catholicism in the one true Church means that the victim of priest sex abuse has to stay in the Catholic Church, no matter how much damage that does to them.”

In other words, it’s like the abusive spouse who hits, then screams, “You don’t like it? Well that’s too bad! You can’t leave! You’re nothing without me. You can’t survive on your own. You can’t provide for yourself. You’ll be out on the street. You NEED me!”

I don’t know what to do about that, because as sick as the sentiment expressed above makes me feel, we do believe that the Church is essential for salvation. We do believe the corrupt, earthly institution isn’t the entire thing. But somehow that is exactly the believe that is used as leverage by abusers within the Church. It’s like that line from the Eagles’ song, Hotel California: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave…

Several years ago, I was upset by something Pope Francis said to a woman named Marie Kane, an Irish survivor of clerical sexual abuse, because it struck me as a sentiment totally alien to the dogma of “Outside the Church There is No Salvation.” Kane recounted a meeting she had with the pope, and what he told her, back in 2014:

“I think I’ve been angry my whole life at the Catholic Church. I, you know, I could never sit in a Mass without feeling anger…”

“I prayed for change, change in the Church. Um, maybe that’s very naïve of me, I don’t know. But when you’re sitting there and in a very small chapel and the homily was written in English so you could read what he was saying, because [the pope] speaks Spanish, so, it was very moving for me personally, and, yeah, change. That’s…you know, just, do more. Get these guys out of power that shouldn’t be there. That are guilty of coverup. And who covered up in my case as well. And they know who they are, like, you know? So yeah. Change. Change. 

I’ll never get my faith back. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the church. And actually the pope, I said that to him. And he said, ‘You know you don’t need, you don’t need to be in the Church, you are part of the Church, you don’t physically need to be in it, inside it you know to be part of God’s family like.’ So, little messages like that were really nice, you know. He put thought into what he said to me today. It wasn’t just answers off the cuff. So a very positive experience, for me.”

Obviously, there are problems with this — not least of which is the fact that Pope Francis himself is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to covering up abuse, as I documented earlier this week.

But more to the point, how can a pope tell someone that they’re basically still Catholic even if they don’t ever come to Mass?

On the other hand, how can someone ignore the fact that the PTSD of an abuse victim may very well be triggered every time they set foot inside of a Catholic church? I don’t think I really understood this until the most recent round of sex abuse allegations started coming out, and the theme emerged of priests violating their victims inside of churches, or while using sacred images, religious language, and so on.

What do you do when you’re someone who has experienced this, and because of it, every time you go inside a church you feel sick? How do you look at a man in a Roman collar without feeling revulsion if you’ve been victimized by a man wearing one — or sometime more than one such man? The symbolism of our faith, which is to so many of us a consolation, can become a source in these circumstances of extreme distress. We can say that the victim has an obligation to make distinctions, but is that really a realistic expectation?

I don’t know what the right answer is here, but I know that for a long time, I was not sufficiently inclined to make the attempt to understand it. And now that I have, I feel less certain and absolutely less strident than I would have in the past.

Joseph Sciambra was somehow able to go back to church for 20 years, despite what he suffered at the hands of priests. But when he constantly tried to address the problems of ongoing predation, of the Church turning confused youth with same sex attraction to active gay lifestyles, of bishops looking the other way when people living those lifestyles were put in charge of programs where they could influence the vulnerable, or openly flaunt Church teaching, he hit a different wall.

“In the end,” he writes, “Ripley finally realizes that coopering with a corrupt institution is both morally and psychologically impossible because it requires one to overlook the abuse of others as well as resubmitting yourself for further repeated traumatization. An institution which literally allowed monsters to run wild is impossible to restore from the inside.”

As before, that last line bears re-reading.

“In the Church,” Joseph continues

I’ve seen priests whose programming has malfunctioned and they suffer unbearably; some stay and try to initiate reforms from within; others, who have tried that, simply walk away. And, while some lay Catholics, especially on the conservative side, appear well-intentioned when they urge survivors to stay, what they are essentially offering is LV-426. The promise of eternal glory provides little comfort when you are affixed to a wall and waiting to explode.

Since returning to the Catholic Church, I have gone through the full spectrum. At first, like Ripley, due to past abuse, I was unwilling to go back to the site of my former torment. But they held something over me – I had to go back, or somehow, I wouldn’t be complete. Like the Colonial Marines, those who sometimes accompanied me on my journey were braggadocios and overly-confident, but they were good people; like Hicks, Gorman, and Vasquez, they were self-sacrificing, and in the end – willing to pay the ultimate price. But in the Catholic Church, I feel like I have been battling the same monsters for over two decades. All they need is another human host. The Church provides them. I’ve watched it happen, and been powerless to stop the carnage. Like Ripley, in my favorite scene from the film, her meeting with the Weyland executives, she stands-up, her hands full of Corporation documents, throws the papers in the air, and says:

“…if one of those things gets down here then that will be all! Then all this – this bullshit that you think is so important, you can just kiss all that goodbye!”

I feel like I have said almost the same thing at least 100 times in front of various bishops. And I get the same quizzical and dismayed look back that Ripley received. But a monster remains in the belly of the Church. It has burst forth multiple times, and proceeds to devour those around it. I suppose that Ripley got a certain satisfaction in nuking the alien hive on LV-426, and blasting the stowaway “queen” out of the airlock, but for most victims of the Catholic Church, there is no such commiseration; no resolution. Like a bad set of movie sequels, of which the later “Alien” franchise was not immune, we are locked in a hideous cycle of abuse.

It seems easy, sometimes, to just focus on being doctrinally pure. To isolate out the abuse and the abusers as an anomaly in the Church, and to hold in our heads the Church as a “perfect society,” as Pope Leo XIII described her in Immortale Dei. 

But reality is often more complex than that, and if the last 8 years are not entirely a surprise for students of the last century (or more), they represent an acceleration into a kind of near-total crisis state that is a stumbling block to many. It can be very hard to find Christ through all the corruption. And the more attuned one is to that reality, the more deeply one tends to see the permeation of the rot. I do not necessarily suggest that this is a parallax error – I think perhaps the rot really is deeper than most of us, trying to maintain a healthy disposition, are willing to admit.

All of us know that clerical abuse victims need justice. We want the rotten clergy and the bishops who covered for them rooted out. But I’m not sure we always consider how extensive the damage is, how many prelates generally conceived of as “solid” are the very same who have rebuffed or ignored victims’ and advocates’ concerns, or what kinds of obstacles victims face, being torn between their own trauma and the Church’s claims on exclusivity.

I’m inclined to cut them some slack, and like Joseph, I hope that “God will have an immense amount of mercy on them” too.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...