Content Warning: This interview contains descriptions of clerical sexual abuse shared by a survivor. This content may be difficult for some readers.
I am honored to share this interview of my friend Mark Joseph Williams, LCSW, with Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D., originally published in Profiles in Catholicism. With so much focus on the political news, controversies, and dramatic events of the past several months, there is a danger that some of us have lost sight of vitally important matters that we cannot neglect—especially the crisis of sexual abuse in our Church.
Remember, it was only a little over two months ago when the McCarrick Report was released. Mark recently wrote to me and expressed concern that Catholics and others will forget about how historic the McCarrick Report was for our Church, and how Pope Francis has courageously called for transparency in the spirit of Fratelli Tutti and Let Us Dream. Mark is a survivor who has become an advocate for other survivors of sexual abuse and is an inspirational model of a wounded healer—someone who is on the lifelong pilgrimage of conversion and healing and is helping others to do the same.
We cannot allow ourselves or our Church to neglect those who are in need of healing, especially the survivors of sexual abuse. We must likewise remain vigilant in our work to root it out and prevent it from happening in the future. As we near another Lenten journey, let us continue to pray for Mark and others who work for healing, justice, and reform on behalf of all those who have suffered abuse.
Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.: You are a victim of childhood sexual abuse. Please share with our readers when it first occurred, the trauma that you experienced, and who abused you.
Mark Joseph Williams: I was 13, just over a year since my father, a nuclear veteran, had passed of acute leukemia in December 1968—when I was raped by a teacher in the community where I grew up; he was not my teacher, nor did I attend the school where he taught. It was classic grooming; he was a teacher friend of my mother; she was a young widow, and this man who was ten years her junior and fifteen years my senior would hang out at our house often, drinking with my mother. On this one day, he arranged to take care of me for the day, brought me back to his house, proceeded to get me drunk (I had never touched alcohol before) and his touching led to raping me. This relationship lasted, off and on, for a few years. When I was 15, I was then sexually abused by a Roman Catholic priest (I had worked at the rectory counting the collection on Sundays and in the summer months worked on the grounds of the church as a gardener); this relationship lasted throughout my remaining high school years.
Dr. Knight: When and with whom did you first discuss your abuse and what as their response?
Mark: I was a daily drinker for 35 years (from the night of the rape) until my 2nd DWI arrest, just prior to my 48th birthday. I had never spoken about the abuse that I had gone through in my early years until alcohol was completely out of my system; I stopped cold turkey after this arrest, which subsequently sent me into a very deep, clinical depression. I had simply buried the trauma, both consciously and unconsciously. And soon after my arrest, and a brief psychiatric hospitalization, I developed a very peculiar physical condition marked by an uncontrollable limp, a dragging of my right leg, with periodic bouts of falling down while walking. This condition was finally diagnosed by an expert psychiatrist in psychosomatic disorder as: conversion disorder, in layman’s terms its meaning being a very deep psychological wound which manifests itself physically. This therapy helped me immeasurably and contributed to my telling what happened to me for the first time to my second sponsor in AA, Charlie G., who asked me, “Mark, when was your first drink?” … the rest is history.
Dr. Knight: When you confessed this to a priest, what was his response?
Mark: When I spoke with a trusted priest friend, he was so caring, loving, supporting of me and what I endured. I will never forget what he said nearly 20 years ago, “Mark, this is your Gethsemane.”
Dr. Knight: What impact did this experience have upon your faith?
Mark: Allowing the truth to emerge had a profound effect on my faith and offered me hope, especially years later when I was able to forgive my priest abuser at his gravesite on what would have been his 100th birthday. I had to let it all go to find interior freedom, to truly experience the Paschal Mystery in my life, and the shared journey of all brothers and sisters in Christ as pilgrims of faith. I realized that my Gethsemane could be transformative or as Richard Rohr, OFM penned: “Turn you wounds into sacred gifts.”
Dr. Knight: As a forensic social worker what educational services do you provide parishes who address the childhood sexual abuse crisis?
Mark: I serve as a special advisor in the Archdiocese of Newark and have the privilege of being a trusted friend and colleague of Cardinal Joseph Tobin, and his Vicar General, Fr. John Chadwick. I offer my ear and counsel when it comes to abuse issues. As well, I speak at different parishes—as survivor—throughout the archdiocese and, as well, at the seminary on the campus of Seton Hall University: Immaculate Conception Seminary, the same place where Theodore McCarrick (The McCarrick Report, November 10, 2020) strayed a few decades ago. With more specific focus on my forensic experience, I serve too as an advisor regarding Pope Francis’ Vox Estis Lux Mundi (‘You are the Light of the World’ – 2019), his dictum regarding the investigation of bishops who might have abused and/or covered up any abuse which expands the accountability of the Dallas Charter of 2002 where prelates were not included with respect to being reported about, etc.
Dr. Knight: What commendations would you give the Vatican in more effectively addressing the childhood sexual abuse crisis?
Mark: On the eve of Pope Francis’ landmark global summit in Rome, February 2019, on the abuse scandal, I wrote an Op-Ed, published in The New York Times, which implored the church to listen to the voices of victims/survivors. My piece was read worldwide and from this recognition I have developed a trusted friendship and collaboration with Pope Francis’s point person on the sexual abuse crisis across the global church: Father Hans Zollner, S.J. Fr. Hans is President, Centre for Child Protection, Gregorian University, Rome and a founding member of Francis’ Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. My message to Hans and the church is to keep doing what the McCarrick Report has just done: speak the truth and there will be more healing; clericalism must be removed from the culture of the Church, that it is so contradictory to Christ and the Beatitudes … that we must all be humble to serve one another and carry each other’s Cross along the human path. The Vatican must break down the walls, stop the silence and live the good news in all its wonder … that the truth does set us all free. This is the #MeToo historic moment in the church; it is a call to action time like no other in my lifetime as a Catholic survivor.
Dr. Knight: You wrote an article entitled: I forgave my abuser. But I will never forget his abuse. Can you tell us what this means to you?
Mark: Forgiveness is not exoneration. One can never forget how he/she has been sexually violated, exploited. We remain scarred forever but in forgiving, one can embrace what it means to feel free, to touch interior peace. If I continued to hold onto my resentment, all my anger, my piercing shame, I would never have found the fruits of happiness that I deeply feel now. Forgiveness is at the essence of our faith. But I can’t forget what happened and sobriety has offered immeasurable freedom from the secrets that paralyzed me emotionally for decades.
Dr. Knight: Have you forgiven the priest who abused you? If so, how difficult was it?
Mark: As mentioned already, I have forgiven my priest abuser. It was difficult but essential for both me and him, even though he had passed when I forgave him at his grave. I simply told him that I was ok, that to be fully free and alive in grace—I just had to forgive him; I still pray for him each and every day.
Dr. Knight: How helpful has it been in your healing to connect with and meet other survivors of clerical abuse?
Mark: Extraordinarily helpful. There is nothing like the connection of identifying with another human being who has experienced what you experienced. While the stories and circumstances might be different, and in most cases they are, there is simply powerful renewal in the fact that survivors can identify with one another. It is very much like the fellowship of AA. We say identify, don’t compare. This principle is spot on when it comes to survivors of sexual abuse.
Dr. Knight: Can a person be healed from clerical abuse or is it a continuous process?
Mark: Yes, a person can be healed from clerical abuse but it is life long process. I compare it to staying sober. One must work at sobriety one day at a time for the rest of their life if they have the courage to hold onto the gift of what it means to become sober. The same is true with respect to transforming trauma into a serenity of the mind, heart, body, and soul. The journey never ends and only with constant prayer, meditation and service to others does one heal from clerical abuse.
Dr. Knight: What are your hopes for the future Church in regard to the treatment of those harmed by sexual abuse of a priest?
Mark: My fervent prayer for victims/survivors of clerical sexual abuse is that the eucharistic meal can come to all again, and that the Church does all it can to welcome back those so affected by abuse and the cover-up—for so many have left the Church, the pain too great, the anger so raw. I hope that the countless abused across the world, in every diocese on earth can somehow find it back to the pews and experience the healing grace of a welcoming faith community, to grow, heal, and embrace Christ, divine and human who suffered for us and truly knows the suffering of those who have been violated in our Church. The message of St. Paul is a message I yearn for all victims/survivors to absorb through the hurt and crushing wounds: “In him we were also chosen, destined in accord with the purpose of the One who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will, so that we might exist for the praise of his glory, we who first hoped in Christ.”
Dr. Knight: Thank you for this powerful and insightful interview that I know will help many other victims recover from their pain and how their faith can be so helpful.
Mark: My pleasure. Thank you the opportunity to share a bit of my experience, strength and hope as a sexual abuse survivor including clerical abuse. Letting Go and Letting God takes time, but it is worth it to heal.
This interview was originally published in Profiles in Catholicism (LINK). Re-posted with permission from Mark Joseph Williams.
Image: By Robert Walter Weir – This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58727516