--Marina Cantacuzino, The Forgiveness Project
Forgiveness is often a complex and confusing aspect of any healing process, particularly for those molested by the clergy. According to my own traditional Catholic school upbringing, the act was designed to be simple. We were told to forgive and we felt obligated to do so. We merely spoke the right words and our faith transformed us. But any movement in that direction was mostly driven by guilt, fear and control. I wasn’t the only one who was left feeling empty and unfulfilled. Most of us had no understanding of either the act or the method. How could we know otherwise? When forgiveness was preached it was often more about imposing beliefs and values and less about helping others find comfort and stillness.
In my first column for “A Room With A Pew” which appeared in December, 2013, I briefly mentioned forgiving my offender, Franciscan friar, Mario Cimmarrusti, who had passed away that November. Two months later, I was compelled to publish an “In Memoriam” piece on Mario in which I discussed my relationship with him over the years, and how forgiveness helped me come to terms with his presence in my life. In both articles, I didn’t relate the details or circumstances of my decision to forgive. Instead, I chose to focus on the effects of my resolution.
In the last few months I’ve received a number of inquiries from clergy abuse survivors asking me to share more of my personal experience regarding those details and circumstances. This hasn’t surprised me. The language of forgiveness may be foreign to many survivors, but more and more men and women have begun to explore this issue in earnest. One survivor spoke of her failed attempts to convince herself. “I’m not really clear about what forgiveness means to me anymore,” she wrote. Another survivor struggled with direction. “I’d read things and figured I could do this,” he explained. “I had no idea how or where to start.” Others felt trapped or disappointed in the theological propositions of inclusion and exclusion. One survivor aptly summed it up: “My cynicism makes forgiveness impractical.”
In the beginning, my own reasons to forgive the priest who sexually molested me as a child were a chaotic jumble of confused emotions and fractured logic. My efforts to understand what I wanted and needed were more intimately private than I could ever imagine. As I’ve written before, forgiving Mario was never about Mario. It was about me. It had everything to do with my own life and very little to do with his. For years I had allowed him to occupy my world by welcoming him periodically with anger, hatred and bitterness. At one point, as my rage turned malicious, I began hurting people who cared for me. Acting and behaving in this manner became a convenient way to avoid my own sorrow and grief, and to view compassion as a weakness.
I know other survivors who find themselves facing a paradox. They claim they have no interest in forgiving their offenders and yet they’re the first to admit they could be doing more for themselves, emotionally and spiritually. They just haven’t figured out what that might be. Like all things, time has a way of influencing our decisions. As we grow older and more mindful of our affairs, the concept of forgiveness becomes less and less abstract. What works for me may not necessarily work for you. But healing is not limited to binding individual wounds. When one is restored to health many more are capable of feeling the effects. There is a great collective that attempts to mend us all.
Forgiveness, in and of itself, can be mystifying. Does it mean we must forget the wrongs we suffered? If we do, are we made stronger? Wiser? More understanding? And if we don’t, are we weak? Unworthy? Less compassionate? Is forgiveness meaningless without reconciliation? Is it possible when there’s no apology or remorse? These and other matters are challenges each of us must settle within ourselves. The answers are sometimes revealed before the questions are asked. But the suppleness of our own hearts can often astound us.
Forgiving, the actual process by which we attain relief and, in some cases, a measure of redemption, is subject to human nature and a good part of our everyday lives. Sometimes it happens immediately. Often it takes much longer. And sometimes it seems to pursue us for a lifetime. This is something we discover both by rote and intuition. We can often forgive, almost without thinking, our partners, children, friends and even strangers: the small slight, the sharp rebuke, the angry gesture, the hurt feeling. We instinctively learn to use this valuable tool to resolve emotional issues, sometimes quickly, when we sense the damage caused by holding on to feelings of resentment or, worse, by doing nothing about them.
It’s the big-ticket items, the horrors of our own world gone absolutely mad, that most of us find unforgivable. When we think of living in a civilized world, we imagine universal norms of behavior and ethics that conform to a strict belief system. Most believe that good and evil exist side by side. Others suspect there is no right or wrong, only what is. In the 1990’s, during the South African truth and reconciliation hearings and the Rwanda genocide inquiries, it was difficult for those who valued vengeance and retribution to explain and understand those who forgave their tormentors and persecutors. Was it more reasonable to expect someone to forgive a lie than it was to forgive a murder? And who could say for certain what forgiveness really meant for someone else when every act of forgiveness was private and cherished? One size did not fit all.
My efforts to forgive the priest who abused me sexually and repeatedly were never easy for me to undertake. Sometimes I could be inexplicably cruel to myself and to others. In the beginning, when I was incapable of realizing that forgiveness was an enduring practice, I was merely setting traps for myself. Time and time again, when one trigger after another reanimated bad feelings about my abuse, I felt I had failed to forgive and, likewise, failed myself. When I entered therapy in 1992, I specifically informed my therapist that my goal was to learn to forgive the man who had been haunting my dreams for most of my life. But it wasn’t until 2003, more than ten years later, that I found myself finally and confidently moving in that direction. And in a strange twist of fate, I owed much of that movement to my own father whom I hadn’t seen in forty years.
In the Name of the Father
In October of 1965, as I and other boys were being sexually assaulted by Mario during our freshman year at Saint Anthony’s Seminary, in Santa Barbara, my parents separated after 21 years of marriage. There were certain signs of trouble over the years, but with eleven children and another on the way, no one ever dreamed that Frank and Josephine would part company. Since I was the only one of her children away from home, my mother was naturally concerned about how the news might affect me. She wrote to Mario (he was the seminary’s prefect of discipline) and asked for his advice: "What would be the proper way to tell my son?" Mario wrote back and informed my mother that it would be best if I didn’t know. According to him, I would likely suffer “unnecessary anguish” at the news of their breakup. “Paul is very sensitive,” he wrote. “Disturbing news may cause him to abandon his vocation prematurely in favor of being with his family.” He suggested it would be prudent to wait until I arrived home for Christmas vacation.
My mother, of course, had no idea that the trusted priest she was seeking guidance from was molesting her son and had his own reasons for not wanting me to know. As a result, and in agreement with Mario’s counsel, I didn’t learn of my parents’ separation (and eventual divorce) until after I returned home to San Francisco in mid-December for Christmas break.
For my father’s part, he never hid the fact that he didn’t approve of me going off to become a priest. But he didn’t try to discourage me, either. He used to say he was “wise” to the Catholic Church, which always angered my mother. When he was a boy growing up in Boston, he secretly witnessed the severe beating of a friend by a parish priest in the church sacristy. He never forgot it. He went to mass every Sunday to please my mother, but he didn’t believe a word of what was being preached from the pulpit.
In November of 1965, one month after my parents separated, my father made an unexpected trip to Santa Barbara. He didn’t agree with my mother (and Mario) that I should not be told, but he went along with her wishes. I was puzzled as to why he would make the 350 mile trip alone. But my father, who drove a truck for a living, explained that he was delivering a load of goods to Los Angeles and wanted to stop off and see me (though I learned later he had traveled south with a female companion).
Our visit was strained and awkward. Both of us were hiding dark secrets from one another and this made honest communication impossible. When my siblings and I were growing up, the image we had of our father was that of a giant. He was an imposing figure. His massive six-foot frame towered over us and his rugged good looks charmed both women and men alike. That afternoon, as we stood against a stone wall that overlooked a canyon behind the school, I watched him rub his large, calloused hands as if he didn’t know what to do with them. For a brief moment I thought about telling him what was happening to me, even though I didn’t understand myself what that was. But I couldn’t. I was ashamed, humiliated and confused.
To pass the time, he talked about baseball and the Giants, knowing, at least, that we still had that much in common. I spoke about my vocation as if I were justifying my presence at the seminary. Ironically, my father brought me a gift that day: a new bible. “For when you become a priest,” he told me.
Our encounter would turn out to be one of the last we would have for many years. It was also the beginning of a long and painful estrangement that would stretch into four decades. To be sure, my dad was no deadbeat. He faithfully paid his share of alimony and child support for many years. But his parental responsibilities would mostly end there. For reasons that some family members still debate today, his involvement in the world of his children grew less and less each year. Finally, in the late-seventies, my father moved to the east coast, three thousand miles from his family, and all but vanished from our lives.
For many years the two of us went our separate ways without a word from one another. Then, one day early in 2002, one of my sisters informed me that she had made contact with our father and that he had asked about me. I was shocked. I still thought of my dad from time to time, but mostly as a ghost and always in a way that made me feel angry with him and bad about myself. I found it strange that he would be asking about me at this particular time. After several years removed from therapy, I had recently resumed sessions. Personal difficulties, particularly with anger issues, had started to seep into areas of my life that I once thought were safe. I had abandoned any efforts to forgive Mario due to my own stubborn ideas. I had been comfortable and secure in my loathing, and it took very little effort to feel justifiably smug and self-righteous. Feelings of scorn and contempt were easy to succumb to. Now, although I was still doubtful about what I could accomplish, I felt an urge to get some of it right.
It seems so obvious now, but until I walked back into therapy the thought had never occurred to me that everything I was feeling about Mario was pretty much what I was feeling about my father. It was also how I felt about me. The huge difference was that I still sensed a deep longing for the only man in my life who had any right to be called “father.” As much as I tried, I couldn’t deny it. I had hidden it away in some forlorn and neglected part of me and it was now rattling around in my bones.
With support from my therapist, I wrote to my father who was now living in South Carolina. It was a carefully worded letter that was guarded but honest. And it revealed enough of myself to indicate I was curious about the twists and turns our lives had taken after all these years apart. I was 51 at the time, and my father was 78. The gap in our age didn’t seem anywhere near as vast as it appeared when I was 14 and he was 41. To my surprise, he responded almost immediately, writing back in his once-familiar longhand script. To this day, his letter remains the single most important document in my own recovery.
In it, he expressed the joy of reconnecting with me and of the many mistakes he made that impacted so many lives. His admissions of sorrow and remorse were sincere and startling. And though he never asked for forgiveness, it was clear to me that he was struggling to forgive himself. He ended his letter by adding how sorry he was for allowing so much time to pass without telling me--and all his children--how much he loved us. This finally broke me down. While I secretly hoped I would someday hear these words again from my dad, I honestly believed it was never going to happen.
My father was a proud and independent man with simple, basic needs. Growing up, he had always been a social person, willing to pitch in and help anyone who needed a hand. Being a long-suffering Red Sox fan, he was forever rooting for the underdog. He loved to hear a good joke. But he loved to tell one even more just to hear you laugh. He was a courageous man, a World War II navy veteran and gunnery mate who nearly lost his life in 1945 in the battle of Okinawa. As his first letter to me evolved into several more, they revealed something new and different about a man I had once remembered and loved. It soon became obvious to me how singular and great his suffering had been. My father was human. What a concept, I thought. For me, this was a sobering revelation that allowed me to step out of my comfort zone and away from all judgment.
In June of 2002, I flew to South Carolina, and spent two weeks with my father. He was no longer the imposing colossus I had remembered. He was an old man now, a bit frail and gaunt with slightly stooped shoulders. But he still had a full head of hair, a thick, brown mop which he assured me had never once been dyed. He was also still a heavy smoker, a habit he started when he was twelve years old. During our time together we crammed years into days, listening to each other’s stories, swimming in a sea of emotions and clinging to our past like a lifeline tied to the present. I had brought with me a cassette recorder and was able to capture hours of our conversations on tape. My father was honest about his life. Related with a sense of urgency and need, he recounted stories about his childhood, his marriage to my mother, and his years away from family that were sad and scary, funny and heartbreaking.
One night, after we had been together for about a week, we sat around his kitchen table enjoying a meal of homemade pasta fagioli, Italian sweet bread and red wine. It was then that I decided to tell him about my abuse. What he heard that evening made him cry, and it made me cry, too. We were experiencing a lot of “firsts” together and this one would shoot to the top of the list. I think he must have apologized half-a-dozen times for failing to protect me. “If I had known,” he said, “I would have strangled that priest with my bare hands.”
My father listened intently as I spoke of my ordeal at the seminary and all the issues I had been confronting and hiding from ever since. I told him about my failed attempts to forgive Mario and how I struggled with fairness and justice and the absence of any explanation or punishment. When I was finished, he lit another cigarette and thought awhile in silence. Then he said something so simple that it jolted me on the spot. “You were always a kind boy,” he said.
“You should be kind to yourself now.”
I was stunned. It was a unique perspective that only he, my father, could offer to me, his son. It was an illuminating burst of insight that I had never seriously considered before or dared to remember. This was my father’s true memory of me. And if I was willing to be honest with myself it was also my true memory of me. Here was a door to forgiveness that I could choose to open and my father was handing me a key.
A Dream of Ordinary Men
When I returned to San Francisco, I immediately plunged into therapy with renewed hope and energy. I had learned I could forgive my father whom I once believed I was incapable of forgiving. I began to understand the significance of offering this gift to oneself. Those we choose to forgive are the indirect beneficiaries of our act. But our decision to forgive has a direct affect on relieving our own suffering. For all my concerns, forgiving Mario had suddenly become less about what he had done to me and more about who I was. The process was still tricky, but the task appeared less daunting and forbidding. To claim that a great weight was being lifted from my shoulders sounded trite. But that’s exactly how it felt. Within the first few months of my return, the deeper psychological work I was engaged in had enabled me to free myself at last from Mario’s grip.
Isolated by his order since 1992, after the first allegations of abuse were lodged against him, Mario had been living a life governed by rules and restrictions at San Damiano, a Franciscan retreat center in the hills of Danville, California. He was the province’s most notorious sex offender and was no longer permitted to participate in public ministry of any kind. For the most part, he was confined to the retreat grounds with scheduled supervised visits into town. Although he was being evaluated on a regular basis, he was no longer in therapy at the time of our first meeting due to his resistance to the clinical process. His deteriorating psychological state reflected this. Despite numerous personal accounts to the contrary, he adamantly denied he had ever molested anyone. He spent most of his days gardening and taking care of the needs of a few elderly friars.
On a bright autumn day in 2003, I drove to San Damiano and met Mario in the main garden there. I had written him two weeks before, asking to see him without anyone else present, and he agreed. We had been communicating in letters for a couple of years, but this was the first time we would see each other since 1966. When I first caught a glimpse of him that day, he was standing in the middle of a flower patch surrounded by dozens of pink and orange cosmos. Time and age had transformed us both. I was a thin, underweight writer with chronic headaches and a sleep disorder. He was a balding, overweight friar suffering from severe depression and psychological detachment. We made quite a pair.
At first, as we sat next to each other on a garden bench, he did a lot of staring at his hands, rubbing them as he talked. He either wouldn’t or couldn’t look directly into my eyes. But after awhile he faced me. I tried not to interpret or second guess him. I had purposely set my expectations low and was prepared to reject specific outlooks that kept me from being present with him. As we sat there for nearly two hours talking about the past, I gradually felt all my muscles relax and my heart open. There was no Mario, no me, no garden. I had the sensation of being near and far away at the same time, like a dream of ordinary men who had nothing and everything in common.
I never mentioned forgiveness that day and Mario never apologized for the harm he had caused. None of it was needed or required. But before we parted he told me he wanted to offer a blessing and proceeded to recite the “Lord’s Prayer.” After uttering the words, “and forgive us our trespasses,” he paused for what seemed like an unusually long time as if he was trying to remember the rest of the words. When he finally finished, we shook hands, embraced and walked away. In the years that followed, and before he passed away in 2013, Mario and I would meet and talk again several more times.
As for my father, living in the middle of tobacco country had a severe toll on his failing health. After a lifetime of smoking unfiltered cigarettes, the dreaded diagnosis was emphysema and congestive heart failure. It took about a year, but I eventually convinced him to leave the south and settle in Ashland, Oregon, where, in the summer of 2003, he took a small apartment in town. Shortly afterwards he began seeking out the rest of his children who lived in the surrounding area, many of whom he had never gotten to know at all. The crisp mountain air reinvigorated him and within a week of his arrival he quit smoking for good. He would live only two more years, passing away in October, 2005, but his quality of life, both physically and emotionally, was greatly enhanced during his final days.
Because of his determined spirit, my father seized the opportunity to reconcile with my mother and all of his children. He glossed over nothing and left very little unsaid. As a result of these efforts, his family responded in kind and helped clear the way for him to re-enter their lives. I believe it was the greatest act of courage and compassion he and his children ever performed. The night before he died he phoned me to say goodbye. He knew death was near and he even joked about it: “I’m not afraid of dying,” he said. “I’m just afraid I won’t be able to breathe.”
I hesitated at first. But it was such an absurdly funny line that I had to laugh. He laughed too,
and seemed pleased with himself. “I’d been saving that one for weeks,” he said.
Acts of true forgiveness spring from our profoundly personal experiences. They are conscious and willing choices that reject superficially enforced convictions. A life changing encounter, a shift in consciousness and a resilient human spirit are all guides that foster hope. Forgiveness may not always be considered a requirement for finding and sustaining inner peace, but the process is often a spiritual revelation that liberates and deepens it.
For survivors and secondary survivors of clergy sexual abuse seeking information and/or assistance from the Franciscans and/or the Catholic Church, the following resources are recommended:
In the Franciscan Province of St. Barbara:
The Franciscan Office of Pastoral Outreach
1 800 770-8013
In the Catholic Dioceses of the United States:
Victims Assistance Coordinators
For those interested in general information, research and education, and/or exploring issues of forgiveness, the following resources may be useful. Please Note: Sources presented here are for individual discernment and are not necessarily an endorsement by the author:
Secular and Non-Denominational:
The Forgiveness Project
Trauma Recovery Associates
A Campaign for Forgiveness Research
The Fetzer Institute
The Power of Forgiveness
The Unbreakable Child by Kim Michelle Richardson
America Magazine: An Interview with Dawn Eden
The Maria Goretti Network
Documentation and Database: