Between the lines of the church-scandal news, Sean Strub finds the AIDS angle—and an echo of his own experience
Media reports of allegations of sexual abuse by priests have, month after month, detailed a community’s shock, the Catholic church’s arrogance and the requisite pledges of reform. But one part of the story remains untold: The media have never, to my knowledge, mentioned the likelihood that, given the high rate of HIV among priests, some survivors were directly infected by their abusers. Hidden even deeper in the silence is the fact that many more undoubtedly got HIV because of the way sexual abuse damages a child.
Suffering sexual assault dramatically increases the likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors and acquiring HIV as an adult. The research is conclusive: A 1991 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that among men who don’t use IV drugs, survivors of sexual abuse were twice as likely to be HIV positive as their untouched counterparts. Another study, by Larry Brown, MD, at Rhode Island Hospital, discovered that unsafe sex was three times as likely among adolescents who had been abused, and that a history of abuse is associated with poor impulse control and more STDs. The University of California at San Francisco’s Jay Paul, PhD, showed not only that sexually abused gay and bi men had more sex under the influence of drugs or alcohol and more one-night stands but also that they were 70 percent more likely to have HIV. And the more incidents of early assault, the more incidents later on of unprotected anal sex with a serodiscordant partner.
In his classic Soul Murder, child-abuse expert Leonard Shengold, MD, writes, “What has happened to [these people as children] dominates their unconscious fantasies, and they become subject to the compulsion to repeat the cruelty, violence, neglect, hatred, seduction and rape of their injurious past.” Sex-abusers steal from children the opportunity for healthy adult sexual relationships. Others they leave with an inability to be intimate or to ever love themselves, let alone anyone else. If one can’t love oneself, one can’t protect oneself or honor one’s body. These lonely, ashamed boys and girls are the ones I think of when I read the daily dose of new disclosures.
A 2000 investigation by the Kansas City Star into priestly AIDS deaths in 14 states found that priests had roughly six times the average HIV infection rate in their state.
How many adults who now have HIV were sexually abused as children? And how many of these were abused by priests or other church officials?
In 1995, very near death, I began to recollect fragments of my own experiences of childhood abuse. Piece by piece, often prompted by a TV talk show or magazine article, the details erupted into my consciousness. I kept coming back to conversations with students and faculty from my Jesuit high school that touched on suspicions of abuse there. I knew these recollections had some deeper meaning for me, but I couldn’t say what it was, so I kept revisiting the conversations, pondering where I had heard them, what I had been wearing, thinking, feeling—anything to get a better grasp on them.
I had felt an obscure, elusive shame all my adult life. Now, for the first time, as I lay dying, the pieces of the puzzle were fitting together.
The two men who repeatedly abused me were not priests, though both were fragrant with the blessings of the church. One was a junior-high teacher and usher at my home parish in Iowa City; the other was a senior official at the Jesuit boarding school I later attended. They were individuals I respected with that special Catholic blend of trust and fear.
Challenging them was inconceivable. I never heard my family or members of our parish criticize anyone associated with the archdiocese. These were the people we prayed for every Sunday, by name. We were taught that the pope was infallible, directly speaking the word of God. We were not taught that priests were human—and flawed.
I learned a lot from the church, especially the Jesuits. They taught me to think rigorously and rationally, to value truth and social justice, and most important, they taught me about the futility of living a life without purpose. I also learned, from the church’s anti-homosexual doctrine and the sexual abuse I suffered at the hands of its representatives, how to hate myself: how to let shame cling to my every thought, how to disrespect my body and the bodies of others, how to let anger fester deep inside my soul, the very one the church said it was so committed to saving.
And I was a good student.
Although I have resolved much of this—and am not looking for sympathy—some of the pain will never go away. It sits hidden in an emotional backroom, like an oddity at a circus freak show reeking of humiliation. My skin crawls as I recall my prepubescent body being groped and caressed, my soft 13-year-old skin against grotesque, hairy middle-aged bodies stinking of alcohol and lust.
The single-most humiliating moment of my life—and there is much competition, believe me—was when one of my abusers removed my trousers and expressed amazement that I had no pubic hair. He marveled at my smooth pubic area, laughed at it, ran his finger around the base of my penis and my not-yet-descended testicles. “I can’t believe it,” he said with a slur.
I remember the eerie after-hours silence of school buildings. The click of a lock, the closing of blinds, the men’s heavy, fast breathing. The peculiar smell of KY lubricant, presented to me as a medical ointment necessary for the “examination” ahead, a ruse for penetration. I’ve always hated KY but never grasped why until I recalled this incident.
I remember the admonitions not to tell anyone. The promise that all of the “better boys” at school did the same thing. I sensed that these men favored me with their attention and kept the bullies at bay, privileges I would lose if I did not allow them to do as they pleased. I remember the fear of going to hell.
I developed an almost-pathological aversion to exercise, gyms and locker rooms; a hatred of my body, my weakness and my desire. This shame robbed me of a sense of ownership, pride and responsibility for my body: It wasn’t mine; I wasn’t it. I recall when I was 10 and 11 happily jumping in and out of the pool at the swimming club, showering with other boys, snapping towels. I was not ashamed of my body then. That started shortly after the abuse began, at age 12.
In the first issue of POZ I wrote about the power of the mind to affect the course of HIV in the body [see “S.O.S.,” April/May 1994]. I believe that same mind/body connection retarded my pubescence by several years. Somehow, my mind protected my body, slowed down its development and so stalled sexuality and all the attendant emotional complications, in reaction to the abuse—both the sexual attacks and the many messages condemning homosexuals to hell.
I have never tried so hard in my life at anything as I tried not to be homosexual. I said complete rosaries in a single sitting. I would slap myself if I fantasized about a man or pick at my body to the point of self-mutilation. I was so desperate to kill my gayness that I joined in tormenting other, more flamboyant kids. When I did tell one of my best friends I was gay, he abandoned me. I went to a therapist. I talked to a priest. It was only a phase, I was told. Focus on women. Pray.
Since I’ve recovered my health, these memories have fluttered back painfully into my consciousness, but I believe that I am stronger now for having struggled to face them and chosen to share them. I don’t doubt that thousands of POZ readers will recognize parts of their own story in mine—even if they only have a fragment of memory or a gnawing suspicion. I hope my experience helps them understand that they don’t have to carry this secret burden forever.
Others reading this won’t relate. I can’t tell you how many friends either make jokes—“Sure wish I had been seduced at that age”—or simply cannot comprehend how memories can be so long suppressed.
I’m not sure what to say in response to such skepticism. When I first recalled these memories, I wondered if my mind was playing tricks. But as time passed, the memories became more complete and were corroborated by evidence I found in conversations with former classmates and teachers.
As for my friends’ jokes—they are not funny. As a child, I had sex-play with other children that was pleasurable, healthy, normal. This has nothing to do with adults in positions of authority abusing children who desperately need responsible guidance and love.
I once contacted my abusers, to demand an explanation or force them to face the consequences of their actions. But once I spoke to each of them—one on the phone, the other in person at his retirement home—I lost the desire to confront them. My anger was replaced with a profound pity. The statistics indicate that they were likely sexually abused as children themselves—and taught the same self-hating doctrine the church passed on to me. I now think of my abusers as victims as well as perpetrators.
Since this scandal first broke, there has been a host of suggestions about how the church can reform. But none deal with the core problem—the church’s teaching that sex is immoral, except for the purpose of procreation within a church-sanctioned marriage.
POZ has often made the point that ultimately the key to conquering AIDS is not to be found in a pill or pamphlet but in talking honestly with children about healthy sexuality from the earliest grades. The same goes for the epidemic of sexual abuse. The best treatment is prevention, which works best when young people are raised with an open, informed and nonjudgmental view of sexual desire.
But as long as the Catholic church persists in its psychological torture, it will have only itself to blame for the monsters it creates.