Navigating Christmas as a sexual assault survivor brought up in the Catholic church
My body was meant to be “pure”, and I understood that it was my responsibility to keep it, even if I had no control over what was done to me
by Tracey Onyenacho
This essay discusses sexual violence, including molestation.
Growing up in a Black and immigrant household, Catholicism has always reigned supreme. Forced assimilation into a country that is not your own makes holding onto Christian traditions feel like a blanket of safety in a new environment. Religious traditions and practices in my house were a time for unity amongst the family like all other integrated Christian holidays. But Christmas was more than just holiday cheer. It was about celebrating survival in a new world that continues to bring us down by surrounding ourselves with what makes us feel at home.
Christmas was the best way to show that we had made it through the year safe, well, and seen. Although I saw how important Catholicism was for my parents, Christmas was the only time I really connected with the religion, mostly due to the spirit of gift giving and receiving as a form of loving kindness and expression of joy.
I didn’t really understand the inapplicability of most scriptures, didn’t enjoy the structure of the Catholic Church’s masses, and constantly tormented myself to be the perfect Catholic girl for the sake of going to a place I’d only heard of. This instillation of fear made every place feel unsafe as I estimated that God was watching my every move and punishing me for the things I did not want to do even if they were the “right thing.”
To save face, I would start the punishment early by chastising myself for little mistakes and emotionally harming myself as a way to train myself into submission. This same method of self-regulating came aboard when I began processing my sexual assault and the harm it had caused me. I blamed myself for the violation of my body, for the lack of ownership of my space, and for the loss of safety that I felt.
Seeing as my body was meant to be “pure”, I understood that it was my responsibility to keep it so, even if I had no control over what someone else had done to me. I refused to forgive myself for “putting myself in that position” and refused to forgive God for placing such torture on me, as I saw my sexual assault as punishment for my sins. I tried to process what happened while symptoms of PTSD arose. They hit me whenever someone came too close to my body or grabbed my hand for prayer without my consent.
As #MeToo and #ChurchToo became amplified, so did my PTSD symptoms. When the news covered a sexual assault or a survivor shared their story, I let it resonate before the symptoms came back and I had to withdraw from it all. That’s what kept me from breaking down every moment of the day and helped push back triggering flashbacks that disturbed my peace of mind. I wanted to withdraw from the church too, but how could I withdraw from something that my family taught me was a place of community in the face of struggle?
The Catholic Church has been known to be a breeding ground of sexual violence for many years now. Recently, when the Catholic Church was compelled to bring forward the list of sexual assault cases in Philadelphia, my body went back into retraumatization. I waited for my church’s response to the cases, hoping that I could find safety in knowing there was a sense of accountability and a community I could lean on for support as I wrestled through my symptoms.
But each priest made the same comments: “This is what happens when people venture off the path of prayer” and “When we don’t listen to God and give into the flesh of men, these things happen.” Every explanation for sexual assault from the Catholic Church claimed that “thoughts and prayers” were enough to stop sexual predators from sexually assaulting kids.
Their neglect of the problem meant they didn’t have to deal with the situation or deliver justice. Only God could save them. There is no comfort for the survivor within the Catholic Church. There is only redemption for the accused.
Without a sense of safety and visibility, my PTSD symptoms have forced me to finally distance myself from the Catholic Church. I disconnected from the routine of Catholic mass and prayer, but I’m not ready to remove myself from the warm acknowledgement that I am part of something bigger than myself. Living in a Christian dominated and capitalistic society, the church is no longer needed in the celebration of Christmas. But I still can’t shake the feeling that I am participating in a system that contributes to my erasure and my silence by celebrating the holiday.
To most, Christmas isn’t “the right time” to talk about sexual assault in the Catholic Church, or anywhere. It’s a time for minimization of all problems so as not to ruin the fun. We forget that while everyone is cheering and singing Christmas carols, some survivors like myself are still healing and managing PTSD symptoms that Christian holidays like Christmas bring up for us.
If the Catholic Church cannot offer a space for discussion and make room for survivors, then I will reclaim my power by redefining Christmas for myself, as a time to choose messy and slow healing over concealed and muffled expressions of pain. There will always be a place for survivors even if we have to create it ourselves.