I discovered during my first conversation with adult survivors of clerical sexual abuse that the study of “prayer” in this context presents highly charged questions of language and definition. The group I was meeting with had been affiliated in the early 1990s with the Linkup, a national organization based in Chicago that offered spiritual support for survivors who were coming forward to tell their stories publicly. Many of the survivors at the first Linkup meetings were just beginning to acknowledge to themselves that they had been abused. The Linkup, which also worked with survivors’ families, was founded by two women, one whose son had been abused by a Chicago priest, the other a highly regarded director of religious education in the diocese who was permanently blacklisted for her efforts in having this priest removed from contact with children. (He was eventually convicted and imprisoned; she was unable ever to work again as a religious educator in the church.) The Linkup has since disbanded but the group has been meeting monthly for more than twenty years.

“Prayer” was not a good word to these survivors. It was associated with ecclesiastical power and authority and that I even used the word “prayer” in describing my project led, I subsequently learned, to the suspicion that there was a hidden agenda to my research. (The unspecified apprehension, I think, was that I was in some way going to be a propagandist for the church.) It was clear already from the conversation that night—and confirmed as I got to know these men and women better over time—that everyone in the group regularly did things that from an outsider’s perspective looked like praying. Most of them went to Mass, at least intermittently, and some had personal devotions. But they adamantly rejected “prayer” as the name for such practices.

One reason for this is that these survivors, who were formed in the faith as children in the middle years of the twentieth century, had deeply internalized what were once very strict Catholic norms and boundaries regarding prayer. Catholics of this generation did not improvise prayers in everyday language; to pray meant to recite the Hail Mary, for example, or the Memorare, another prayer to the Virgin Mary. As a result, later in life they discovered that it was physically and emotionally nearly impossible to pray in other ways, however much they might have consciously wanted to do so. They rejected the prayer practices of other faiths as not really prayer, addressed to gods who were not really there (this included the God of the Protestant churches). In this way, they were encountering at the most visceral level, deep in their bodies and apart from their conscious intentionality, the enduring power of the Catholic imaginary inside them. Survivors do realize this about themselves. But they do not want the church that betrayed them as children setting the terms of their engagement with God as adults. So they reject “prayer.”

Many survivors also told me they recoiled when priests or bishops said to them, “I will pray for you,” because such promises came in their judgment without acknowledgement of the church’s guilt and complicity in their abuse. These survivors felt it was a way of denying the church’s responsibility for what had happened to children in its care. Survivors know as Catholics that to pray for someone is to do something real for them. But when “praying for” is a substitute for necessary and fundamental change in the theology and practice out of which the abuse of children and young people arose in the first place, then “praying for” is drained of its authenticity and efficacy. To use the language of prayer in this case is to cooperate with moral and religious deception. Many survivors are especially disappointed that recent popes have adamantly reaffirmed the very high theology of the priesthood that elevates clergy to higher ontological levels than other humans. (See, for example, Pope Benedict XVI’s address on the “Year for Priests.”) This theology, they say, contributed to the impunity of predator priests who used their elevated status to justify their sexual violation of children as God’s will. The offer by priests and bishops to “pray for” victims reinforces this suspect and dangerous theology.

The semantic range of “prayer” in Catholicism is extensive. It includes gestures (the Sign of the Cross, for example, or trailing the beads of a rosary through one’s fingers); materials (candles, prayers cards, images, relics, and oil); and rituals (such as blessings). “Praying” comprises all of this. “Prayer” is also always imagined and experienced as simultaneously both personal and intersubjective. Catholics do not pray “alone” in the ordinary meaning of the word. (As I write this, millions of Catholics are gathering together on the beaches of Rio for Pope Francis’s Mass.) Praying “alone,” they pray as well with the church at prayer, which includes the Virgin Mary, the saints, and the beloved dead. So the problem survivors have with the word “prayer” covers a wide range of practice.

Among the members of the group of former Linkup survivors I have gotten to know is a woman now in her seventies who has never stopped attending Mass and is active today in church programs for the protection of children. This woman told me that one of her most painful moments in church occurred during the blessing of the throats on the feast day of Saint Blaise, when the crossed candles held at her throat by the priest to bless her recalled another priest’s hands around her neck as he abused her. She flinches whenever a priest approaches her in the sacraments. Her resistance to the word “praying” stretches over many occasions, and she encounters that resistance in many different ritual contexts.

How then is it possible to pray after having been abused by priests? Frank H., a former priest who was abused by priests first as an altar boy and then as a young seminarian, says that for survivors of clerical sexual abuse, to pray means to embrace the unresolved and perhaps unresolvable struggle with their anger and confusion, their awful and ineradicable memories, their resistance, their doubts and suspicion.

As was true of all survivors I spoke with, for many years Frank believed that he was the only child ever to be abused by priests. To have been sexually violated by a priest, by the alter Christus in Catholic theology, the other Christ, was so incomprehensible that he assumed this must have been the only instance of it. The consequences of this misperception for Frank and others were grave: in their isolation, survivors harbored terrible guilt that they were somehow responsible for their abusers’ sexual appetite and transgressions, that they had corrupted the priest. Then Frank heard other survivors’ stories, first on a national television show that he stumbled on by chance while channel surfing one afternoon in a hotel room, and then at Linkup meetings; and he understood at last that he was not alone.

To become a survivor for Frank and many others was a process of recognition: he recognized himself in the stories others were telling and others recognized themselves in his stories. This mutual recognition is at the heart of the survivors’ movement. Frank’s understanding of what prayer may be among survivors arose in this context of shared recognition. Although he is no longer a priest in good standing (his bishop did not tolerate Frank’s public advocacy on behalf of survivors), Frank H. has become a spiritual advisor to many survivors, and he tells them that their doubts and their anger are their prayers, that “the questions are the prayer.”

Frank’s theology of prayer is marked by his own struggles. When he discovered that hundreds of other children and adolescents had also been abused by priests, “that’s when I had trouble with God,” Frank says. “When I saw the enormity of the thing.” How did God let this happen? Then Frank became ostracized in his diocese, adding to his anger. “Where are you in all this?” Frank recalls asking God. “That’s the spiritual struggle,” he says—this question of where God is in the contemporary campaign against child abuse in the church. God watches seemingly unmoved and disengaged as bishops protect the retirement pensions of abusers, while Frank has lost his home, his parish, and his salary. But he continues to pray.

“Is prayer easy?” Frank asked me when we were talking about another survivor who found it impossible to pray as an adult, which for her was a source of real grief. I had asked Frank what he might say to this woman. Prayer is not easy, he went on, or “not all the time. But should it be? No, I don’t think so.” There is “suffering, death, and resurrection” in the spiritual life, he said, and this dynamic of dying and coming alive again is repeated many times in a person’s life, and daily in some survivors’ lives. “This is the constant thing,” Frank believes. “I would like to live in the resurrection, but it’s not my life experience that that’s how it is.” So “when you engage God, it’s the complete package,” suffering, death, and resurrection. “It’s hard and messy.”

“The problem,” Frank continued, “is that we think we have to pray nice. We think”—here Frank affects a sweet voice—“we need to say, ‘Thank you, Jesus’ for the sunrise…”. But if you cannot “pray angry,” in Frank’s phrase, there is no point in praying. “You’re saying that I can’t voice my anger to God or something bad might happen,” as if God will punish you for being honest. Being honest with God entails holding God accountable. Frank told me a story about a Catholic woman he met in the hospital when he was still a parish priest. She needed a heart transplant and was praying that God would send her a heart. She fearfully confessed to Frank, “I don’t want [God] to be mad at me,” so she was being careful to pray in such a way as not to give God offense. But Frank said to her, “You’re sitting here waiting for a heart! What more can God do to you?” He encouraged her to pray honestly.

“Read the Psalms!” Frank says. “How angry are they? They’re some of the angriest prayers we have.” The Psalms are also, Frank added, some of the most beautiful and loving prayers. The Psalms display the full range of emotions that characterize the human relationship with God, in all its moods and trouble. “The spiritual journey,” Frank says, “is all about people who’ve got problems with God.”

While some survivors remember their childhood God as a loving one, more often Catholic adults who were raised before the 1970s say they were taught an omnipotent, angry, and punishing God. There is plenty of textual evidence, in devotional works written for children, for example, or children’s introductions to the sacraments (in particular the sacrament of Confession), to support this. Survivors were compelled to ask where this God was when they were being abused. No survivor I spoke with ever accused God of abusing them, but being abused by a priest who was—in a phrase nearly all survivors used to describe to me their feelings about their abuser—“like a god to me,” Catholic children abused by priests were one degree of separation from God. Predator priests often emphasized this by telling children that God wanted them to submit and to keep quiet. These men who had all the power to say so told the children that what was happening was their punishment or their privilege.

Frank’s theodicy of praying angry directly addresses this reality. “What more can God do to you?” he says. To have seen God at God’s worst is to be liberated from the old relationship with an omnipotent God, and this opens a way for a new relationship. Survivors are free not only to express their doubts, their sense of betrayal, and their anger with God, but also to consider the articulation of these feelings as prayer. There is a hard edge to Frank’s theodicy of prayer. Survivors have got God’s number; they meet God without illusions about God. But this does not drive them away from God, or it need not do so in Frank’s theology. Rather, it permits them to pray fearlessly and freely, to pray as they really are as persons, to open their inner lives in all their turmoil and anger to God who must take them as they are.  

“The state of omnipotence,” Jessica Benjamin argues in her study of the roots of sado-masochistic relationships, “gives birth to domination.” Omnipotence dissolves the boundaries between the one who is omnipotent and the other parties to the relationship, exposing them to violation and intrusion. The tension between the self and others as distinct beings, which is necessary for autonomy and love, breaks down.

Frank’s is one voice and one response to the dilemmas of “prayer” among survivors. To make good and healthy lives for themselves, many survivors turned away from the God they had first met as children in the church, to find gods outside Catholicism, or they rejected all gods; such decisions were not made once and for all in people’s lives either. As a spiritual adviser who is also a survivor, however, and a Catholic priest (as he continues to think of himself), Frank wants very much to hold open the possibility of relationship with God, for himself and for other survivors. But he thinks of this relationship on fundamentally different terms: Frank and many other survivors I spoke with want a God that may be trusted not to hurt them, not to dominate or violate them, not to penetrate the boundaries of their bodies and souls. So Frank invites survivors not to resolve their problems with “prayer,” but instead to see what is unresolvable as prayer itself. This refusal of closure restores the tension, in Benjamin’s sense, between persons praying and the divine other. Praying angry is the medium of this new relationship with God, its ground, and its safeguard.

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