Excerpt: A Letter to the Pope: The Keeper of the Nest
According to the World Health Organization, sexual abuse is a serious global health problem that impacts children around the world. Although the Catholic Church is currently under intense scrutiny for how it has handled reports of clergy sexual abuse in the past, this is not just a Catholic issue. The sexual abuse of children occurs in schools, day care centers, religious institutions and other locations where predators have access to children. Nearly 90% of children who are sexually victimized know their abuser, tragically, 30% are abused by family members.
In the fall of 1993, my family sadly discovered that our parish priest sexually abused both of my brothers when they were young boys. Learning about my brothers’ abuse and the events that followed the reporting of these crimes destroyed my family.
I ultimately forgave the church and sent a letter to Pope Francis about my journey of forgiveness. I was invited to meet with him in December of 2016. When I returned home from my visit, I sent a letter of thanks and a plea for his help….
Most Holy Father,
I wish to thank you for the opportunity to meet you and receive your blessing during my visit to Rome this past December 28th.
I have several treasured photos from my meeting with you, including the one enclosed. I have shared the photos and news of my joyous experience with my colleagues, friends, and family. You should know that in my daily travels, people comment to me that you are making a true difference in the world. One colleague of mine, who is of the Jewish faith, said: “I love this Pope. I’m not Catholic, but I feel as though he is my Pope.” You inspire us to be better people, your Holiness, and you have truly enlightened many to the blessing of Mercy.
As I shared in my last letter to you, I desire to help others discover the grace of Mercy and the blessings of forgiveness that is the legacy of our Lord Jesus Christ. I believe it is my duty to share the peace and joy I experienced through committing my heart and soul to His service. I am writing to ask you a favor, but first I wish to share another piece of my journey with you to provide the context for my request.
When I was 15 years old, my mother and stepfather and I took a summer outing to Disneyland. My stepfather suffered a massive heart attack at the park, and he passed that afternoon. He was just 40 years old. His passing devastated my mother, and she was inconsolable for several months. Her health suffered, and it was difficult for her to work and to make ends meet. So, I went to work as a nurse aid at a local hospital, and I took on many of the responsibilities of caring for the family.
My brother Patrick was 13 years old at the time, and following our stepfather’s passing, he became quite angry with the world. He had several run-ins with the law, and he was failing in school. I didn’t understand why he was so angry.
I took it upon myself to find a solution to the havoc my brother was creating for my mother. I reached out to Father Howard for help. He was the priest I spoke of in my last letter. I hoped that he would be able to assist me with my brother and provide relief for my mother, as he had been so close to my family during his time serving our parish.
As you know, it was many years later that I learned of Patrick’s abuse at the hands of this priest
Father Howard was serving as a pastor in a parish in Texas when I called him. I explained what was happening, and he invited Patrick to come to stay with him at the rectory for the summer. As the time neared for Patrick to depart, he begged us not to send him. I’ll never forget him screaming, “Please don’t make me go; please, Jenny, I promise I’ll be good.” I did not know that Father Howard had molested my brothers during his time in our parish, so I ignored his pleas, hoping against hope that Father would work a miracle and help Patrick through his grief.
When Patrick returned home a few months later, he was very depressed. He internalized his rage and became withdrawn. He turned to drugs to ease his suffering. He has struggled with the shame of his childhood abuse since that time, and last year he lost his marriage as a result.
Patrick works two jobs to provide for his family. He is honest and kind to others. He has a good soul. He believes in God, and he is an honorable man.
I have long carried a great deal of guilt for failing Patrick during his time of need. Although I was just a young girl at the time, trying to help my mother, my actions in sending him to live with the priest changed his life forever. While I have forgiven the priest, and the church, it was much harder for me to forgive myself.
I wish to find a way to help Patrick and others like him to find peace. I have prayed on the matter for many months, and I believe the Holy Spirit has answered my prayers in providing me with a vision to create a special day for healing for those who have suffered abuse as children.
You have publicly acknowledged the Church’s past transgressions, and you have taken great measures to protect children from harm. I am aware that the Church has funded counseling and supportive services to help children and their families recover. However, there are still places in the world where children are abused, trafficked, sold into slavery, and used in the vilest of manners. These transgressions in our society must be stopped. I wish with all my heart for your support to raise awareness and funding to help those who are suffering.
Patrick’s birthday is April 8th. It would be a great honor to Patrick, and those like him who are suffering, if you would dedicate a special Mass and declare April 8, each year, from this year forward, a Day of Justice and Healing for victims of sexual abuse.
On this day, I would ask people of all faiths, from all nations, to pray for the children who have been victimized by those entrusted to care for them. I would begin a petition to governments the world over to take action to end child marriages, prevent the trafficking of children, and to help end violence against them. Finally, I would ask for all the priests in our church to pray that the Holy Spirit touches the hearts of these victims, so that they may forgive those who have transgressed against them, and finally, find peace.
I am sending you 60 beautiful handcrafted ribbons for those in your service who wish to wear them on April 8th, in honor of my request. The blue ribbon is often used as a symbol to raise awareness of child abuse. The white ribbon shall serve as a beacon of His mercy. Together, these ribbons shall serve as a covenant against child abuse that will inspire action and bring a measure of solace to victims and their families.
I am most grateful for your consideration of my request. You are always in my thoughts and prayers, your Holiness.
Your most humble servant,
Jennifer cried as she finished her letter. The years of pain and grief washed over her as she recalled her own actions that had so impacted her brother’s life. She closed her eyes for a moment to pray, and then she printed the letter and shut off the laptop, confident that her letter was complete and ready to send the Pope.
As she walked out of the Federal Express building, she felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders. It had been a very long journey to forgiveness, for herself and the Church.
Excerepted from A Letter to the Pope: The Keeper of the Nest by Jennifer Wortham.
This excerpt was featured in the March 3rd edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.