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Finding God After Sexual Abuse: A Personal Life Story

My journey towards finding God after sexual abuse has been a key catalyst in my life. I am grateful for all of the recent media attention shedding light on one of the darkest of topics: sexual predators. This focus has caused me to look deep within to continue to find a way for myself that goes beyond forgiveness towards prayer for the predator as well as those who suffer at their hands.

As a victim of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest as a young teenager and later of rape by a health practitioner, I feel a kinship with all who have been terrified, molested or raped by anyone in a position of authority or trust: a coach, a teacher, a minister, a doctor, a counselor, a family friend, or a relative.

A Complicated Question

There’s a question that people commonly ask each other when they meet at yoga classes, spiritual conferences or at similar events. I’ve been pursuing this kind of thing since I was a teenager. I’ve been asked the question quite a bit: “How did you find a spiritual path?” That’s a complicated question. And one I did not answer with complete honesty for several decades. There’s a good reason for that.

As a child, I was already reading everything I could find about the supernatural. However, there was a distinct turning point when I began to look for alternative approaches to God. I’ll give you some background: I was raised Catholic. My family made a generous practice of involving the local nuns and priests in our lives. We had them over for dinner regularly, invited them for weekend activities, and even had a nun go with us on a family vacation one year.

In addition, my father was in the military, and we moved repeatedly. When I was fourteen, we moved once again. Per our usual custom, the local priest, Father Pat, became a regular part of our lives. We played tennis with him several times a week, joined the church softball team, attended weekly catechism, went to Mass without fail and participated in the youth group, performed community service and went on out-of-town field trips.

Choosing to Survive

Sometimes my siblings and I went to watch sports at Father Pat’s house or he took us to our extracurricular activities. In fact, he took me and one of my sisters on a weekend vacation with him. He was a second father, a confessor, and a friend. All of us trusted him absolutely and completely.

You can probably figure out where this is going. The next summer we moved again, but I went back for a vacation before school started to see Father Pat as well as a couple of other friends. One day I was sitting on his couch and suddenly he began to kiss me aggressively. My shock cannot be overstated.

I had never been kissed before and didn’t even know exactly what was happening. He was trying to push me me further constantly. I was devastated. My world would never be the same. And I knew that I had to survive through almost two more weeks on this vacation now turned unthinkable nightmare.

Kathleen Karlsen Finding God After Abuse

Turning to God

In my shock and confusion, all I could think of was that I would go to Mass the next morning. You may ask, “Why didn’t I tell someone or end the vacation early?” All I can say is that what he was doing was unspeakable. Literally. It was impossible that he was wrong. I had somehow brought this on myself. I had been taught to solve my own problems. Besides, no one would believe me. I would be blamed. It couldn’t possibly be his fault! He was a priest! I was alone.

I was very religious. My only thought was that I would pray to God and everything would be alright. Accordingly, I showed up at 6am Mass the following morning, forgetting in my extreme distress that this was a very small parish. Father Pat was the only priest. Somehow I expected that someone else had taken his place. In my numb and shocked brain, I thought he could not still be saying Mass.

But there he was! Father Pat was on the altar. One elderly man was in a row towards the back on the other side of the church. I was terrified. I was a thousand miles from the safety of my family. A man I loved and trusted as a representative of God had turned into something extraordinarily menacing. I was on my knees, begging God to tell me why this was happening. 

The Voice from Hell

In seeming response to my frantic plea, I heard a voice. The voice was so real that I turned around to see who had spoken. It could not possibly be the old man at the back of the church. Father Pat was droning on at the front, raising the host and performing all of his perfunctory duties. There was no one else around.

The voice said quite clearly, “I made him a man first.” As far as I could tell in that instant, God was siding with Father Pat, excusing him, and even defending him. If I was going to become an atheist or hate God for the rest of my life, that was the moment to begin. God had abandoned me in my darkest hour. I was alone in all of the cosmos. It was like a crack had appeared in the sky and the universe had been torn asunder. God Himself had turned against me.

Many years later, a psychologist with a strong spiritual background put forth the idea that the voice was not God at all, but a voice from the astral plane, a demon, or a voice of darkness from hell trying to take advantage of my extreme vulnerability. Now I think that she was right, or at least closer to the truth, but in that moment long ag, I knew nothing of such things. There was no safety left. Anywhere.

To save my sanity, I seemed to identify the voice that I had heard as the voice of the God of the Catholic church. This wasn’t rational or thought out. It wasn’t a process of coming to grips with things. It was instinctive and spontaneous. I had to manage to believe that must be another God who was loving and supportive. Otherwise, I could not live. I clung desperately to the hope that I would find another God and another relationship with God somewhere, somehow, someday.

Surviving in Hell

I managed to survive the next couple of weeks, fending off Father Pat’s repeated advances with everything I had: crying and attempting to appeal to his compassion, reasoning when I could, and keeping him at arm’s length whenever I could. He didn’t seem to be inclined to completely force himself on me without supposed acquiescence. I wouldn’t give it to him. Ever.

Perhaps he wanted to create the illusion for himself that this was a consensual relationship. Maybe he had to tell himself that this was something I wanted, too, to justify his actions, so he backed off and stopped when I kept pushing him away. And then he would start again. And again. I didn’t want him to touch me or come near me, but I was trapped, at his mercy and nearly paralyzed with fear.

The Path Towards Abuse

Many years later, I studied the topic of sexual abuse in depth. I could see that he had spent nearly a year grooming me. In other words, he made an ongoing, conscious effort to encourage my absolute trust. Then he began to move the margin of acceptable behavior.

At youth groups, we would sit in a circle and hold hands to pray. I was always next to him. Then if the group went out to a movie together, he would hold my hand in the car. I noticed that he would let go if we stopped at a traffic light. Why was it okay to hold my hand in prayer and in the dark, but he would let go if anyone could see what he was doing?

Then there were kisses on my cheek or on my neck if he was behind me. This was my spiritual father, Would my biological father do that? Was this okay? I was confused. He loved to watch TV together and cuddle. At least one of my siblings would be there as well to make everything seem legitimate. And there were endless personal phone calls talking about life. He was gaining my confidence as a trusted elder and mentor.

He told me that someday he was going to take me to meet his family in Ireland. This was actually quite predatory. As a young, idealistic girl considering dedicating myself to a religious life, to be that important to a priest was a great honor. He was normalizing what was becoming an increasingly strange circumstance. Did priests usually bring 14- or 15-year-old girls home to meet their families?

Healing the Soul

Since I kept fighting him off on that ill-fated vacation, the physical sexual abuse was not severe–but it is not what happens to the body that hurts in the deepest way. It is the betrayal of innocence and love and trust. It is the sense of helplessness and the fear that came from being at his mercy with my family far, far away.

In those days there was no awareness of priest abuse. I thought I was the only one in the world that this had ever happened to. Therefore there must be something wrong with me! It must be my fault. He had turned into someone who was crazy, insane and dangerous. Somehow I had caused this horrendous transformation. Clearly he didn’t do this with anyone else. Or so I thought.

I felt that the God of the Catholic church had betrayed me and even attacked me. My despair was serious. Suicide flashed through my mind for the only time in my entire life. I thought of the agony that my parents would experience and put the thought away. Hearing that voice in the church that desperate morning was a turning point in my life.

Years later I was raped by an acquaintance and health care practitioner. Although the physical component was far harsher, the impact of that event could not even be compared to the impact of this earlier sexual molestation. The molestation was a catalyst of the most significant kind: a battle to mend the fabric of my being.

Expanding the Pursuit of God

My interest in things outside of my Catholic upbringing became a passionate, purposeful quest. I already had some exposure to other ideas and religions. For example, my parents both believed in reincarnation despite their sincere dedication to the Catholic church.

In addition, my mother was practicing yoga decades before that became mainstream. Not knowing about my experience, my father insisted that I continue to attend the Catholic church, but my parents also supported me as I began to go far afield from the mainstream in my inner spiritual search.

Over the course of the next decade there were other serious crises in my life. But if I was going to say exactly when my spiritual path accelerated and there was no turning back, it was that moment in that church when a voice from hell made me believe that the God of my childhood had turned against me.

If there are forces of darkness that plan the demise of innocent souls, then the plan seriously backfired. Instead of turning against God, my pursuit of God expanded and evolved algorithmically.

Never Turning Back

No matter what I faced from that point in life and no matter how much my faith was shaken in later years, I had already made the decision to find the God, the Love, and the Source that I knew had to exist. If I did not turn back from God in that terrible moment, I would never turn back.

It was decades before I knew that Father Pat was a serial sexual offender. He was never defrocked but was finally removed from active duties. I went public with my story, formally filed a complaint with the Catholic church and even spoke on the phone with another of his victims.

I look back now and can admire the fact that as a terrified, inexperienced girl, I could have fought him off repeatedly. Not all his victims were that fortunate. And I can be grateful for the fervor of my resulting spiritual quest that eventually brought me the greatest experiences of my life.

Prayer for a Predator

I believe in the power of prayer. According to both tradition and scientific study, prayer literally sends energy and love and blessings to someone else. This has been a quandary for me. Is it advisable or even spiritually lawful to send positive energy to a criminal who may misuse that energy and continue to victimize others?

How do I pray for someone who shattered my universe and stole my innocence and childhood faith? How do I pray for someone who was supposed to help me heal and only caused me further trauma?

I want to pray and love freely and inclusively, yet I want to avoid praying in a way that might send energy that could inadvertently boost the horrendous behavior of predators or that would imply acceptance or approval of their criminal acts. And now, decades after the trauma that I experienced, I think I have found a way to pray for the predators as well as their victims.

There is a universal way of compassion and peace that seems to necessitate that we include all of life in our practice of prayer and forgiveness. One approach is a Sanskrit prayer: Lokah Samastah Sukino Bhavantu.

The meaning of this something like, “May all beings everywhere be happy and free”. Wow. Am I really to pray for ALL beings? Does this include those who are unrepentant and continuing to harm others? How do I do this while still maintaining safe boundaries for myself and others?

Compassion for the Soul

I can pray for the souls for those who commit crimes against children as well as for the children. I will not pray for the human personalities of those who choose to harm or for the identities they have created that are capable of both covert and flagrant crimes, but only for their souls. That may sound ridiculously archaic and legalistic, but this approach gives me great joy and comfort.

If the soul is the part of us at the core of our being that is still pure and good and honorable, I can pray for that. If there is a seed of God that still exists within such a person, I can pray for that.

I can pray for the part of a predator that is salvageable. I can pray for the pearl that may yet exist under suffocating layers of misuse and abuse and selfishness. I can honestly say with my whole heart and spirit: “May God bless your soul!”

I can feel deep love and compassion for the soul. Ultimately, the soul of a predator is also a victim of the predator’s acts. I can feel mercy for the soul. And in my prayer for the soul distinct from the person of a predator, I am free.

Author Kathleen Karlsen

Kathleen Karlsen is a musician, artist, writer and speaker. She is the author of two books (Flower Symbols and Vocal Medicine) and over 200 articles. Kathleen, her husband Andrew and their five children live in Bozeman, Montana. More about Kathleen Karlsen.

Kathleen Karlsen Sacred Mantras & Symbolic Art

Kathleen’s Books

Vocal Medicine reveals Kathleen Karlsen’s personal journey and years of research into mantras, chanting and kirtan. Learn more about using mantras and singing to invigorate your life! Explore the chakras and the impact of sound in every area of your life. 

Flower Symbols by Kathleen Karlsen features fascinating information about the folklore of the world’s most beloved flowers. Flowers accompany us in nearly every major event in life. This book is a perfect gift for every flower lover in your life! 

Other Resources On This Site

Other resources on the web: Vibrational Frequencies of Life.

FINDING GOD AFTER ABUSE ARTICLE SUMMARY

This article is Kathleen Karlsen’s story of her spiritual search after sexual abuse by a priest as a young teen. This journey of finding God after abuse has been a key catalyst in her life. The article includes a video of this personal story.

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