I’m an only child. I was 12 years old when my mother died. My father was devastated. A Catholic priest told him that I would be better off living in an Italian orphanage where I would have a good Christian education. The father believed him because he was a priest. He was a missionary sent to Kenya for a year and he visited our home when my mother was sick. He prayed over her and when she died, he officiated at the funeral service. He told my father that he didn’t have to worry about me. He promised that I would be well taken care of by the nuns who ran the orphanage.
So, after we buried my mother and saying a tearful goodbye to my father, I went with Father Bernardo to a strange country whose language I didn’t know. I was scared but Father Bernardo assured me that everything was going to be all right. All I had to do was trust him. and if I had any problems or concerns, I could always talk to him about them. It wasn’t until we got to the orphanage that I found out that he lived in one of the units on the grounds.
When we got to the orphanage, I was put to work as a domestic hand as well as care for the younger children in the orphanage even though I didn’t understand a word of Italian. I was also chosen to clean Father Bernardo’s unit. He offered to teach me Italian after I finished my cleaning but things changed. After I finished cleaning his unit, I had to sit on his lap, and while he taught me Italian, he played with my breasts.
I knew what was happening was wrong and I felt guilty because of my religious upbringing. Father Bernardo knew it was wrong too but he didn’t stop. Instead, he made me go to confession and pray to God for forgiveness for my sins because I was making him do what he did. And he threatened me that if I ever resisted his abuse, he would refuse to give me communion the next time I went to Mass.
As I got older, the abuse got worse. He started to have sex with me. While I was cleaning, he would get undressed and climb into the bed and wait for me to join him. I couldn’t refuse because I knew that he would make good on his threat not to give me Communion. So, I would let him do what he wanted to me, praying that one day it would end. It was no use telling anyone about it. Once when I told one of the nuns that I was bleeding down there, she thought I meant that I had my period and she gave me pads. And Father Bernardo told me that no one would believe me if I told them about us. They would accuse me of lying and beat me.
I got pregnant three times and all three times I was forced to have an abortion because he refused to use condoms or contraceptives. I hated him because he was forcing me to commit murder. As far as I was concerned abortion was murder. Each time I had one, I cried bitterly in my room and begged God to forgive me.
I wanted to write my father and tell him what was happening to me but Father Bernardo wouldn’t let me to write or call without his permission. He made sure that somehow he got a hold of my mail and if there was something in it that he didn’t approve of it was confiscated and discarded. And I wasn’t permitted to leave the grounds of the orphanage or talk to any of the local boys or even the gardener. He got jealous and spiteful when I did. I not only feared him but I began to hate him. I wanted to run away from him and this horrible place.
One night I opened my Bible to the Psalms and found Psalm 37. I read it. These words jumped out at me, “Be still in the presence of the LORD and wait patiently for Him to act.” I decided to do just that. I had prayed to Him to rescue me from this private Hell and I know He heard my prayer. Now, I will wait for Him to do something.
I didn’t have long to wait. While Father Bernardo was in Rome, I left the orphanage and went to live in a house where I worked as a servant. I was 18. The couple with whom I lived were paid an allowance for having me and they had me accompany them on trips as nanny to their children. Fortunately for me they spoke English, although by then, I knew some Italian. I was happy living with them. They treated me very well and I was very fond of their children.
Several times, Father Bernardo stopped by to persuade me to return to the orphanage but I refused. He was taken aback and after his threats failed, he begged me to go back with him and promised that he would use condoms so that I wouldn’t have to have any more abortions but I told him to leave me alone. He eventually went away and I never saw him again but he made the mistake of writing me a long letter in which he went off on a tirade.
In it he wrote that no man would want to marry me when he found out that I had been an older man’s lover and had three abortions. He said that he wasn’t an evil man and that it was my fault that he did the things he did. He said I bewitched him. He ended the letter, promising that if I resumed our relationship, he would consider leaving the priesthood and marrying me. I felt sick to my stomach.
I wanted to tear the letter to pieces and flush them down the toilet but I was impressed to show the letter to the couple whom I was working for. Shocked and appalled, the man made several copies of the letter. He mailed one copy to the orphanage, to the church where Father Bernardo did Mass, the Vatican and to the local bishop. No response was forthcoming but the last I heard of Father Bernardo, he was no longer at the orphanage or at the church. My employer said that they probably just reassigned him to another church instead of removing him from the priesthood.
I don’t hate him anymore but I trust in the Word of God which says, “For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality.”
I’m 28 years old now and happily married with two children–a boy and a girl. My husband, Stefano was the younger brother of the woman whom I was working for. We met when he drove from Florence to visit the family. He was very charming and it didn’t take long for him to win my heart. I wrote to my father about him and he was able to come to the wedding.
It was wonderful seeing my father again. He looked much older than I remember. My mother’s death really hit him hard but he has managed to pick up the pieces. He stayed for a couple of weeks in Florence before flying back to Nairobi. Next year summer, Stefano, the kids and I will visit him.
I still haven’t told my father about my abuse. Stefano told me to wait until I feel like I’m ready to do it but I’m not sure I ever will. Especially not after he said to me as we danced at my wedding, “I’m thankful that Father Bernardo convinced me to let you come to Italy or you wouldn’t have met your young man.” I don’t want my father to blame himself for what Father Bernardo did to me.
I’m still haunted by the memories and after leaving the orphanage, I have never set foot in a Catholic church. I have an aversion for priests. I left the Catholic faith and am now a member of Stefano’s church which is non-denominational. Stefano had left his faith years ago because of the sex scandals.
There are times when I feel ashamed of what happened and wished that I had done something–anything to prevent it but Stefano told me to stop blaming myself. Who would have believed me anyway? It was my word against a priest’s. With God’s help, I am working through the lingering guilt and the self-recrimination one day at a time. I still think about the abortions I had and will always regret having them.
This story is fiction but is inspired by true stories of women who were abused by priests as young girls. One woman was abused for 13 years beginning when she was 15 years old. There are so many stories of victims suffering at the hands of those who are in positions of trust and millions of people want to know, “what new steps will the bishops take to clean up — or clean out — the church after years of sex abuse scandals?” The pastoral practice of transferring priest from parish to parish (priest shuffling) has to stop.
Priests suspected of abuse should be removed from their duties/their parishes until there is an investigation into the allegations and once it is proven that they are guilty, they need to be arrested and serve time for their crimes against the innocent. The Church as a whole has to be held accountable and put policies in place to protect the victims. Victims should not be treated as if they have done something wrong or be accused of lying.
Anne Barrett Doyle of the research group, Bishop Accountability said that what Pope Francis should do to protect children, is to order the Vatican to release the names of all priests who have been convicted under canon law of abusing minors. Pennsylvania Attorney-General Josh Shapiro urged local church officials to “cease their denials and deflections” and accept the grand jury recommendations, which include allowing victims to sue the church for abuse that otherwise would fall outside the statute of limitations. According to Pope Francis, church leaders need to be more concerned about the safety of the children than their own reputations.
No more talk. No more cover-up. It’s time for the church to take action and root out priestly sex abuse.