A psalm for survivors

I scanned the rows of baby food jars on the shelf, grabbed several in a clattering handful, and tossed them into my cart. The store assistant smiled as she rang me up.

“How old is your little one?” she asked.

I blushed. “It’s for a friend’s child,” I murmured quickly, fishing through my purse for money.

Back in the car, I burst into tears. The baby food I’d bought wasn’t for an infant. It was for me.

I wasn’t on a crash diet, nor did I have any quirky cravings for mashed pears. I was eating like an infant because I couldn’t swallow regular food.

And I couldn’t swallow regular food because all day long — and even through the night — my throat kept closing from panic attacks.

Gina Christian is senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com. She is a guest columnist for Catholic News Service. (CNS photo/courtesy Brendan Reichwein)

A few weeks earlier, I had confronted my family about the years of childhood sexual abuse I had endured at the hands of a loved one. The revelation stunned and outraged them; the perpetrator himself denounced me as a “lying beast.”

Despite the relief of having broken my long and crippling silence, I felt as if I had single-handedly destroyed my family. Anxiety washed over me — at work, on the highway, in the store, even in my little apartment.

Only one relative was still speaking to me. After my disclosure, she and I would meet at a diner, where — between visits from the waitress — we both tried to come to terms with the abuse. As I carefully nibbled on toast — often stopping to rub my aching throat so I could swallow — I felt that I was choking on more than bread.

“You don’t understand,” my relative would say, her phrases tumbling out in a torrent. “He loves you; he would never have done this to you. You’ve been reading those self-help books, haven’t you? They can create false memories. You didn’t tell a therapist about this, did you? It’s a family matter; we’re private people and the world doesn’t need to know what we do. I guess you think I’m a bad person, too. Why are you bringing this up after all these years? You just want to blame everyone else for your problems. How can you call yourself a Catholic? Jesus tells us to forgive and forget. I can’t believe you’re being this selfish and inconsiderate.”

I would explain that I was only trying to face the abuse so that I could heal from it — so that our family could heal from it.

But she never listened. When I would share with her my memories and my pain, she only repeated her words of disbelief and defense.

After a few months, I stopped meeting her at the diner. I didn’t have anything more to say to her — nothing that she was willing to hear.

The road from that diner to where I now stand has been an excruciating one, and only by God’s grace and mercy have I walked it. And as we face yet another round of clerical abuse scandals, one psalm has become even more relevant to me as a sexual abuse survivor — and, I believe, to our church — because it speaks to one of the greatest dangers we face in addressing this evil: the “re-silencing” of its victims.

With its relentless expression of agony and anger, Psalm 88 has been called “the black sheep of the Psalter.” Unlike its counterparts, this psalm doesn’t end on a hopeful note. In line after line, the psalmist laments his agony, which has utterly isolated him. In the final verse, the psalmist places the blame for his misery on God: “Because of you friend and neighbor shun me; my only friend is darkness” (Ps 88:19).

And what does God do?

Nothing — and everything.

He listens.

The Lord doesn’t try to correct the psalmist, as he does in his four-chapter rebuke to Job (Jb 38-41). He doesn’t tell him to take heart and flip forward in the Scriptures to read the happy ending.

He doesn’t plead with him to stay strong in his faith and keep going to church, because the flawed leaders aren’t the Lord we actually worship. He doesn’t produce a list of protocols vetted by legal counsel to prevent future disasters.

He doesn’t use the psalmist’s anguish as a starting point for debates about culture wars, political power, doctrinal differences or church hierarchy.

Instead, he listens with compassion, knowing that the psalmist has a divinely given right to fully express his misery. God will indeed provide healing and justice, but not without first allowing the psalmist his say.

At the heart of this latest sexual abuse crisis are deeply wounded men and women who each deserve the same. Even if statutes of limitations will not permit formal trials, we must allow their voices to resound, without muting them through our reactions, our rhetoric, even our well-meaning reassurances.

The Lord God, who catches every tear in his flask (Ps 56:9), listens to these victims. And if we do likewise, we will hear not only their voices, but the cry of Christ himself.

Gina Christian is the senior content producer for CatholicPhilly.com, the digital newspaper of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.

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Catholic News Service is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' news and information service.

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