Sunday, August 30, 2015

From the Faith of a Child to the Faith of Recovery

I have decided to use this as a forum to document the origins (and later disintegration) of my Catholic faith. This journey has taken up more than 40 years of my life and I want to share my story because it is important to me that this ordeal was not in vain and that it might possibly help someone to understand that there is hope for those who have suffered the same fate. I am also doing this so that I can fully understand the extent that that the sexual abuse perpetrated by a Catholic priest upon me had on my faith, my relationships, and ultimately on my soul. Lastly, this narrative is also about how I have been helped by therapeutic methods including counseling, my own research into the history of priest abuse in New Mexico, and a passionate pursuit of justice. I am hoping others will join with me to share their stories so that there can be power and safety in numbers. This has led to my current faith: faith in recovery.

One of my earliest memories as a child is watching my mom get a small baggie full of saltines and a small Mason jar of water prepared when we were about to leave for church on a Sunday morning. I remember feeling a bit restless because church was a place where I had to do my best to stay quiet and keep myself occupied for what seemed to be many hours. A coloring book might also be involved in this excursion, but my attention span was about 5 minutes and I would polish off the water and crackers within another few minutes of that, so the rest of the time I was probably causing some mischief for someone. When the coloring book or saltines did not work, there was always the tried and true method of a hard pinch to the arm that served to remind you that there was a higher authority…Mom.

As I became older, maybe about 6, I started to become very familiar with the various rituals that took place throughout the mass and I always looked forward to certain parts which changed the activity level from just listening to the padre speak to the part where we got to turn around and shake hands with the people around us. I felt that this was really fun and I especially looked forward to the viejitos (elderly folk) who were usually always very congenial during this communal peace offering. More and more I was becoming captivated with the church and it was not long before I noticed some kids a bit older than me helping out el sagrado padre (the sacred priest) and I wanted in on becoming part of the main “show” and not just the audience.

Keep in mind where I grew up was a rural community where ranching and farming were the mainstays and there was no little league, community swimming pool, or the YMCA to keep kids occupied. About the only extra-curricular activities available to us as children were school sports and church activities. School sports were outlawed for me because my older brothers had both broken their nose playing basketball and according to mom and dad, that fate would surely follow me if I took up basketball. That left me with the choice of becoming an altar boy, un monaguillo, who I had noticed were literally and figuratively being placed on a pedestal (the altar). During my childhood, little boys who played baseball probably looked up to Reggie Jackson or Pete Rose. My heroes were Pope Paul VI, Archbishop Robert Sanchez, and later, Pope John Paul II. At the time, I remember frequently daydreaming about being a priest, and then later an archbishop, and perhaps even the pope.

To understand my mindset, I came from a home where there were frequent affirmations to God, the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and a long litany of Saints on a daily and most likely hourly basis. “!Buenos días te de Dios, mi hijito!” would be a frequent greeting morning greeting from my Dad. “Gracias a tatita Dios, y a Jesús Cristo, y la Virgen” would be a phrase used frequently by my Mom to give thanks for anything that was considered good that had happened. “!Gracias a Dios que vino la luz!” would have been uttered in response to the electricity being restored, even though God most likely had nothing to do with it. I learned from observation and through specific teaching, that there were certain Catholic traditions and rules that were sacred and were to be respected. One of the weirdest ones I remember was when I was scolded by my father as a little boy for singing during holy week. He told me that it was disrespectful to show any type of joy during the most holy days of the Catholic tradition. During this holiest of seasons,  I remember going very frequently to church and I also remember asking someone, I believe my sister, to read to me a booklet called The Stations of the Cross,  since I had not yet learned to read. I remember the pictures were quite violent and then l remember sitting and listening intently to this most disturbing story. At the end, I found myself crying my eyes out after thinking how could anyone be so cruel as to nail someone to a cross. That was the day that I started listening and subsequently believing what was said by the priest and what was being said in the readings and in essence the inception of my faith given my understanding of God and the church. There was a mystical aspect to the church that was generated by this experience and it also created the impression that the priest was as close to Jesus as we mere mortals could get. At about the age of seven when I attended catechism, I was taught that the priest had an open line to God. In fact, in my catechism book there was a picture of the priest and a superimposition of the image of Jesus. From this, I surmised that if we got in good with the priest, we would surely be able to get to heaven. In my eyes, priests were somehow superhuman and I had even wondered naively if priests went to the bathroom!

Over the years, I became more and more involved in the church, first as an altar server and then as a lector. The experiences that I had with priests up until the time that I was raped were mostly very good and very positive. The first priest I served with was pretty old and a bit grumpy. He had an elaborate intercom system set up in his church residence that in retrospect was a bit odd, but apparently did not arise any suspicions at the time that I knew of. I have subsequently found out that this priest had a female assistant who was also most likely his girlfriend, which might explain why he was a bit paranoid. Another priest I served with was from Mexico, and looked a lot like and older Austin Powers. He had an infectious laugh that was reminiscent of Santa Claus and he spoke very little English. He restored many of the traditions that had been lost in our church, like Las Posadas and Las Mañanitas a la Virgen. He was also pretty lax in enforcing some of the Catholic rules he did not agree with. For example, he did not comply with the Catholic directive of refusing communion to divorced Catholics and even encouraged them to participate in communion openly. He would also call into service random people from the congregation to serve as Eucharistic ministers without any training, which made for an entertaining communion session, especially when someone new would drop a consecrated host and I as altar boy had to scurry about on my hands and knees trying to find it. He loved to socialize and that socialization often involved drinking a bit with his “flock.” He had a ratty old car that someone had donated to him and I would often be his designated driver as we went from house to house visiting his parishioners. He was not shy about asking the “church ladies” to cook for him and asking them to share whatever cheap wine they might have left over from a previous celebration. He always insisted that they join him in “una copita,” (a little cup) as he would say. The discussions he had with his congregants were very positive and I enjoyed listening to him promote his view of the world which was could be summed up into encouraging people to celebrate life, interact with each other, and not take life so seriously. This is what people loved about him. His message was simple and easy to understand. I have come to find out that the people of Northern New Mexico, my people, like things to be simple, including their Catholicism, and his brand was exactly that: simple. He was habitually late, so one Sunday when he had not shown for about an hour, people were still waiting for him. Finally, one of the viejitas started reciting the rosary and we all left after she was done without a mass being held. We all wondered what could have happend to el padrecito, but there was no answer at his church residence. No official word ever came about his whereabouts, but the gossip going around indicated that it was due to his use of his status as a priest to bring over undocumented relatives from Mexico, which was never confirmed. I never saw him again.

The next priest that came to our parish came from back east somewhere and was a big tall “gringo” who wanted to remove all the altars from the churches and do away with the saints. He said it was improper for the priest to be on a pedestal and that the way Northern New Mexicans revered the saints was for all practical purposes idolatry. This did not sit well with the majority of the tradition-oriented parishioners and he his initiatives were quickly thwarted. This was about the time when I was starting high school and there was much personal drama taking place in my family, and therefore the majority of my parent’s attention was going to other family members who were in most need. I was pretty much self-sufficient and my grades were such that I could choose to attend any school in the state and I had settled on the University of New Mexico. I continued to be a church lector and “altar teen,” as needed, but kept my vocational aspirations of priesthood pretty much to myself. This was because after mentioning this idea to my parents, they were not supportive of this grand idea. I did not quite understand why they were opposed and their reasoning centered around the cryptic statement that “un hombre necesita una mujer” (a man needs a woman) and they pretty much left it at that. Since they were devout Catholics, I would have thought that this would have made them orgullosos (proud) that they might have a son become a priest, but I was mistaken and I kept my priestly aspirations to myself, for the time being.

The summer before I attended UNM, I went for an extended freshman orientation and immediately searched for a church that I could call my home when I moved to Albuquerque. I was familiar with a priest who was assigned to Las Vegas in my childhood and would have his Spanish mass broadcast on the radio every Sunday. Even after attending church in person, we would sit around the breakfast table and listen to mass again because the priest’s homilies were always quite inspirational. I found out that he was currently assigned to Queen of Heaven and I had a pre-ordained admiration of him because of his preaching that I had heard probably a hundred times before on the radio. To me, this was a divine coincidence and I knew that I had found my church away from home.That summer, I attended mass many times and late that summer introduced myself to this priest who I held in high esteem and who I almost felt I knew from before because of the times I had spent listening to him on the radio. What I did not know then about this priest, that was known to the powers at be in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, was that I had sought out a church with a priest that had already been accused of impropriety with children. Had this fact been communicated at his previous parish, I would have known that this “man” was no one to admire and much less to seek out. In fact, it would have been unlikely that the parishioners at Queen of Heaven would have tolerated being assigned a priest that could present a danger to their children. If someone from the Archdiocese of Santa Fe would have taken the courageous step of publicly acknowledging and warning its parishioners about this “man,” my abuse and likely the abuse of many others could have been avoided. I have no doubt that the blind faith in the Catholic Church and their priests that was indoctrinated in me over my entire childhood resulted in a predilection to blindly trust the entire Catholic institution. This institution included a multitude of predatory priests who abused this preexisting trust in ways that the lay people of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe have yet to learn. I have no doubt that what caused even more harm to me than the rape of my body was the rape of my spirit and my soul. Wounds to the body will eventually heal and even fade given enough time. Wounds to the spirit and the soul will fundamentally change an individual and what I have come to terms with is that I will likely never completely heal, but I still have faith: faith in recovery.

If you want more information on finding help, you can email me at