A Sex-Abuse Story Catholics Need to Hear

COMMENTARY: Healing the crippling wounds abused people suffer.

By Sue Ellen Browder, August 16, 2019

I met my beloved husband, Walter, in 1966 at the University of Missouri, where he was studying to be a chemical engineer and I was enrolled in the School of Journalism, hoping to earn a living as a magazine writer. Almost from the moment we met, Walter and I were fast friends.

After our marriage, he left engineering to become a struggling novelist, and we both freelanced from home, working, playing and raising our children side by side.   

Yet for all our intimacy, Walter contained within his heart a dark secret he didn’t share even with me. As a little boy growing up on a farm in Missouri, he’d been sexually abused by his sadistic older brother Bob, who frequently threatened to kill him. Only after we converted to Catholicism did this unspeakable secret from his tortured past at last come to light.

Walter first began to reveal the truth about his childhood horrors one Monday morning after Mass. It was about three years after we became Catholics. Approaching our pastor, Father Bruce, Walter said, “There’s something I’ve never told you.”

Seeing Walter’s sober face, Father Bruce took him immediately into the rectory. I stood alone in the church parking lot and waited, as Walter revealed secrets to Father Bruce that even I had never heard.

After 45 minutes, the two finally emerged from the rectory, and Father Bruce said to me: “Sue, here’s what I want you to do: I want you to ask Walter to tell you what happened when he was 7 years old. He may not want to talk about it. If he doesn’t volunteer to talk about it every two or three days, I want you to ask him about it. Just listen. Get all the details. But don’t get all emotional. Remember Joe Friday on Dragnet? I want you to be like that: ‘Just the facts, Ma’am.’”

For the next month, as we sat side by side sipping our morning coffee, we talked daily about what happened when Walter was 7. Bob held loaded guns to Walter’s head and giggled as he toyed with the trigger. He sat on the bank of a pond laughing as little Walt, who couldn’t swim, almost drowned. But the worst was that he repeatedly raped Walter in the barn and in the root cellar and threatened to kill him if he told anyone. Walter had every reason to believe Bob would carry through on this threat. The abuse was so severe that for most of Walter’s life, unknown to me, he had been suffering five or six flashbacks a day.

After 38 years of marriage, I was at last able to understand the strange anxieties and explosive anger attacks I’d witnessed, which seemed to come out of nowhere and which I’d found inexplicable in a man who was otherwise so deeply loving and sweet.

Father Bruce counseled Walter to forgive Bob (who had died years earlier) and even to pray for his immortal soul. Many non-Catholics might find such advice an outrage, as if forgiveness somehow means letting an evildoer off the hook. But trusting God, Walter listened. And in the process of praying for Bob, Walter himself was transformed: No longer a helpless victim, he became an ennobled intercessor.

On Jan. 13, 2006, Walter wrote in his personal journal: “Sue and I had a lovely talk this morning. We talked about the problems I had with Bob. But this time we didn’t talk about just what happened. We talked about how it has affected me now. I said I was still angry with God, because Bob may have had the free will to do all that to me, but God should have stopped him somehow. No matter what, that should not have been allowed to happen. God is able to bring good things out of bad, but the bad still happened. I began thinking about that, and I decided I was still angry with God, angry enough that I would not become creative. That’s what I was doing. I was sabotaging my creativity. Every time I would get creative with my writing or my art, I would ruin it. That’s how mad I was at God. What can I do to get rid of this permanently? I don’t know. But this realization, coupled with the understanding Father Bruce gave me that I was still obeying Bob by not wanting to talk about what he did to me, has been a big relief. I now feel like I’ve had a harness taken off of me.

After this entry in his journal, I don’t know exactly when it happened, but Walter was no longer angry at God — nor at Bob. Christ had healed him. Brimming with gratitude and joy, he announced to me the violent flashbacks that had tormented him for nearly 60 years were suddenly gone.

When Christ, the timeless One, enters into time, he makes “all things new.” It is to the Father through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit that we receive the peace that passes all understanding.

It is certainly necessary to expose sex scandals in the Church. Evil flourishes in darkness and must be exposed to the light. But the continual mainstream media emphasis only on sex-abuse problems within the Church tends to obscure the reality that, within her sacred walls, the Church simultaneously contains the power of God to solve those problems and to heal the crippling wounds sexually abused people like Walter suffer.

Faced with horrifying sex-abuse scandals, many Catholics understandably ask, “Where is our Lord Jesus Christ in all this?” The answer is this: He’s hidden at the center of it all, taking our suffering into himself on the cross, recreating the world, and transfiguring all our pain into joy.