I Wish the Pope Would Step Up Against Priest Sexual Abuse

The first time I spoke publicly about being repeatedly raped by a priest when I was between the ages of 14 and 15 was when we announced the settlement of my case—one week before I went to join advocates filing a complaint against the pope with the International Criminal Court at The Hague. I was 21 and had barely left my small town in Minnesota, let alone the country. If you watch footage from the press conference, I disappear for a while; that was when I stepped out to throw up.

People were whispering about Fr. Joseph Jeyapaul’s inappropriate contact with youths within a month or so after his arrival from India at our church, but no one did anything about it. At the time, I was shy and got teased a lot, and I felt like an outsider. He offered to lend me a book, and I was flattered by the attention. When I went to pick it up, was the first time he raped me. Sometimes he was violent, and sometimes he told me this was the teaching of God; this was how I was getting closer to Him.

I would take the church bulletin every Sunday and look at the telephone number for the diocese victim advocate printed at the bottom. When I finally worked up the courage to make the call and tell someone what was happening, the woman on the other end told me not to make prank calls and hung up on me. Truly. It took another year for me to tell anyone, and that person was a high school counselor who was mandated to report it to the authorities. Jeyapaul had returned to India by then.

The Church had moved him back to oversee dozens of schools in the diocese of Ootacamund (Tamil Nadu), endangering countless other children. He was arrested in India after Interpol issued an alert in March 2012, and prosecutors here are now seeking to have him extradited to face criminal charges. As far as I know, he is still detained in New Delhi fighting extradition, with his bail denied because he is considered a flight risk. It’s hard to get accurate information, though: At another point we heard he’d been defrocked, but that turned out to be false. At another point we heard the extradition was imminent, but then nothing happened and I haven’t heard anything since.

Meanwhile, I went to Europe in September 2011 with people from SNAP (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and the Center for Constitutional Rights, which was filing the case with the International Criminal Court on our behalf. We charged then-Pope Benedict and other high-level Vatican officials with crimes against humanity for their roles, both supervisory and direct, in covering up and enabling widespread and systematic rape and other sexual abuse in the Church. We asked the ICC to open an investigation. Among other evidence of wrong-doing by the church, we showed that it regularly moved priests known to be predators to new locations in order to avoid scandal—putting more children at risk, just as they did with my perpetrator.

That trip to Europe was the first time I felt like what I had to say was important. The day of the filing was momentous—walking those thousands of pages of evidence over to the court was huge. It’s very hard not to have things put into perspective when you’re carrying a 10-pound box of other people’s stories. We didn’t know what to expect, but we were taken seriously at the ICC. For now, they have declined to hear the case, but they remain open to reviewing further evidence. Accountability is a long haul.

Going back to Minnesota was difficult. My home town is such a small place, and everyone knows you. I’d go to the gas station and it was on the radio. There were, and still are, supportive people there, but you can’t help but hear the angry voices. People were threatened by what I had made public, and I started getting death threats in the mail. I couldn’t even drive around because people would recognize me and flip me off. My family and I were not on speaking terms, since they didn’t agree with or support what I was doing.

I picked up and left after two weeks, moving south to Winona. It was still a small town, but it gave me the anonymity and the distance I needed. Eventually I started taking classes, made new friends and could see a life beyond where I had been stuck. This led me to New York, where I feel so grateful that I’ve been able to focus on my painting and take some time to take care of myself. Over time, I’ve gone from the one making the calls for support to the one answering the calls. I never thought I’d be able to get to that point. Because I am one of the youngest SNAP members—it’s rare for someone to be able to talk about what happened to them until many years later—younger survivors are directed to me. So that’s been my role: talking to them, listening, making them know they aren’t the only ones.

The assaults and the spiritual betrayal I carried inside had such a negative impact on my life that I was making bad choices and worse decisions—I felt like the experience had taken away who I was supposed to be. The person I am now is someone who advocates for others. That’s why I went to Geneva this January: to be there, in the room, when the Vatican was called before the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child to answer hard questions about how the church hierarchy continues to enable and cover up priest sexual abuse of children. It was historic. This is the first time an official body has called the Vatican to account for itself.

When the United Nations asked the Vatican to answer a series of questions in advance of the reporting sessions, they were a month late in their responses and refused to provide any of the requested data. Beyond that, they had the gall to claim the Vatican is only responsible for what occurs inside Vatican City and the safety of the 31 children who live there, as though they play no role in what the rest of the Church around the world does.

The UN published its conclusions recently, and they were more than I could have hoped for. They found the Vatican “has consistently placed the preservation of the reputation of the Church and the protection of the perpetrators above children’s best interests,” and that a “code of silence” has allowed both perpetrators and those who cover up sexual violence to escape the law. Among its many recommendations, the UN Committee called on the Vatican to “immediately remove all known and suspected child sexual abusers from assignment and refer the matter to the relevant law enforcement authorities for investigation and prosecution purposes.”

The UN pretty much supported everything that we’ve been saying: it’s huge to have an international body give us a voice. I’m hoping other states and countries will hear what the UN said and start holding the Church accountable and prosecuting these crimes.

I can’t say I was surprised when I read that the Vatican’s UN ambassador accused the committee of “allowing itself to be swayed by pro-gay ideologues” and “special-interest groups.” The Vatican tried to use the culture wars to deflect from the severity of the  committee’s findings. It’s frustrating that they’re playing the victim: they are not the victim.

I have to say that Pope Francis’s popularity makes this work harder than it was before. He seems like a kind person, but it’s been frustrating to sit by watching him become so beloved by the media. In fact, he hasn’t made any concrete changes to protect children and vulnerable adults in the Church, or held anyone in the hierarchy accountable for covering up these crimes. He could do so much with the stroke of a pen. I hope he will begin taking real action. He could start by defrocking my perpetrator and doing what he can to bring him back here to face justice.

Our feature in the latest issue of Ms. calls out the Catholic Church hierarchy on covering up priest sexual abuse. How to get Ms. magazine in print, digital or both formats: http://bit.ly/1cuOTb1

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Megan Peterson is an artist and co-chair of SNAP New York.