“None of it was your fault”
A healing encounter 42 years after being
When I was 15 and my sister 16, we joined a new “folk group” in our parish. To our amazement, we, a couple of shy young girls, found ourselves singing “cool” songs, with real musicians, including harmonies and all sorts of special parts just for us.
The group leader, a young married man with a child, was talented and creative, bringing out all sorts of new sounds and beauty in the music. We felt valuable, recognized and happy to play that role in the parish. We were the only young people in the group; the others were adults.
One of the choir members was getting married, and we went as a group to her out-of-town wedding. Some things happened there with the choir director that changed my life forever.
I think we were in a state of shock when we came home from the weekend. I was unable to speak with my sister, my parents or any friends about what had happened, but there was a constant stream of self-loathing talk within myself. Ugly images lurched into my head moments after I woke up in the morning, and stayed all day and night.
The thought about what had happened was so painful I couldn’t bear to look at it to try to sort it out; yet it never left my thoughts. I was suffused with guilt, and deeply ashamed. Before, I was reading the lives of the saints, and imagining myself as a pretty good person; now I felt I had become a completely different person, someone full of the very worst sort of evil. The pain was certainly heightened by the reactions around me.
When I saw the folk group leader afterward, he laughed and said he thought I had wanted things to happen as they did. Years later I bumped into him in town, and he happily told me how his band was doing great, getting a lot of work, as if nothing had happened.
From my parents I got the impression that whatever had happened was probably my fault.
There was nothing I could do to stop thinking about it, to make it go away, or to forgive myself. Finally, after a year, I wrote in my diary, “Wow. It’s been a year since it happened, and today is the first day that I haven’t cried.”
When the sadness faded, it was often replaced by anger, and lots of it, whenever I felt I was being slighted. I am sure that our mutual confusion about this event contributed to the many conflicts between my parents and me.
A couple of years later, I met a wonderful young man who handled my story with total peace. He seemed to believe I really did want to be a good person, to follow God, and to find the truth in my life. He never for an instant saw me as the person who had done this thing. We were married at a young age, maybe partly because I had such a need to feel loved and respected.
When I met the spirituality of unity, I was again moved to the core by a couple of things. First, I was being looked at with real love. I could feel that Jesus in the other saw the true me, the “good” me. And second, I realized that even someone as “selfish” as I was could love, because I could start with the little things. It was astonishing, and it gave me hope I had never thought possible.
Through God’s tremendous grace, and the love and support of the Focolare community, my husband and I have been married for 37 years, and we have a beautiful family, with children who love us and love God. It’s been 42 years since that weekend, and three of my own children are already married. My life is rich beyond belief. If I ever thought of what happened, it was a faint memory, one which I thought I was over.
So it was really a surprise to receive a call from my sister a few weeks ago. The scandals in the church made her remember what happened to us so many years ago. We’ve heard that the man is still part of the music ministry in the parish. I was going to visit my Mom in our hometown in a couple of weeks. My sister asked if maybe I should talk to the current pastor about our experience.
To my surprise, I realized that I did have some information to give, and maybe a responsibility to share it. My husband and I called the pastor, and he agreed to meet with us as soon as we arrived in town, before we even made it to my mother’s house.
The meeting with the pastor was profoundly healing. I was so used to feeling at fault that I was astonished when he said that yes, something truly egregious had happened, and yes, it was very serious and very important. He asked what I wanted. Did I want to him to tell the bishop to add this man to the list?
The newspapers would be all over it; his career would be ruined. I was really confused. The man has remarried and has children the same ages as my own. How would they feel when they read their father’s name on the list? I told the pastor I wasn’t sure yet; but I knew that most of all, I wanted the man to hear what this had been for me and my sister, and maybe to hear the man say he was sorry.
The pastor asked an amazing question: would I like him to arrange a meeting among the four of us? We were only going to be in town a couple of days. Gulping at the pace of events, I said yes, it could be very good if we all could meet. Father got in touch with the man and asked him to come to a meeting with “some people from out of town,” without telling him the topic.
We had just a day to think about the coming meeting, what we hoped would happen, whether to tell the story publicly. I was really trying to quiet the many voices in my head, to hear the little voice of the Holy Spirit. I wanted to live this experience as a member of the body of Christ.
We met with the pastor before the man arrived; and I told him: “You know I really don’t blame the church for what happened. It was so confusing that I didn’t even give the church a chance to respond. And now that you know, you have arranged this meeting. I am above all tremendously grateful.” It was hard to believe I was sitting there surrounded with so much support, with my husband on one side, and the pastor on the other. But I was terrified. I was sure the man would deny the seriousness of what had happened, saying I had blown it all out of proportion, or that it hadn’t happened at all.
And it was nothing like I imagined. When he saw me, his face dropped, and you could see that he knew exactly who I was and why we were there. I talked a little about what had happened, and he corroborated the facts.
He said, “I think I’ve thought about what happened almost every day for the past 42 years … I felt so terrible about it. I think in a lot of ways I was wanting this meeting to happen, too … I didn’t know what to do. I prayed for you so many times. I prayed that you would be okay, that you would have a good life. I thought maybe I should call you and see how you were — but then I knew you had gotten married, and what would I say if your husband answered the phone? … I am so sorry that I hurt you.” He also said he had not done anything like that again. He doesn’t work with youth and has been faithful to his wife.
The strongest moment was probably when I said how hard it had been to forgive myself, because I wasn’t exactly a child; I was 15 years old. He stopped me cold, looked straight in my eyes, and said my name. Then: “None of it was your fault. It was NOT your fault. What happened was completely my fault.”
He said he hoped I could forgive him. When I didn’t answer, he rushed on, “Well, not now, of course, but maybe someday.” But as we continued to talk, I began to feel that I could do it. I told him that I did forgive him.
The meeting ended with handshakes and actually even smiles. He seemed to feel he didn’t deserve such a greeting, but I gave him a warm smile, and I said: “It’s okay. It’s over. It can be over now.”
I felt that it was like South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation initiative. Only that face-to-face meeting could free me from my guilt and shame. The truth needed to come out in an atmosphere of openness and humility.
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