16 things Catholic girls should know about consent

How should Catholic parents teach their kids about consent?

We don’t want to give the impression that we’ll wink at sexual misbehavior, as long as our kids reach adulthood without a police record, a pregnancy, or an STD. We want more for them than that. We utterly fail our children if we teach them only about consent, without any other understanding of what sexuality is for and why they are so valuable as human beings. Reducing sexual health to mere consent is just another form of degradation

At the same time, we don’t want our kids to get a police record, an STD, or a unwed pregnancy. Or a damaged psyche, or a broken heart, or a shattered sense of self-worth. An education in consent is not enough, but we must teach them about consent.

But too often, Catholic parents dig in, just telling kids to save sex for marriage, period. Perhaps they teach their kids to avoid the occasions of sin like the saints, but they’ve never taught them how. They’ve never taught their kids what to do if they have, like billions of teenagers before them, gotten carried away by desire, or what to do if they themselves have good intentions but their boyfriends do not. They’ve never taught them how to navigate that minefield of conscience, desire, and external pressure. They send their daughters out entirely unequipped.

And so girls who want to be good are left to piece together some kind of dreadful “least bad” course of action with almost no information about what they can and should do in actual relationships. Teenage girls often put their own best interests last, in hopes of minimizing damage or offense for everyone else. 

So here is what Catholic parents should teach their daughters about consent:

  1. It’s never too late to say “no” for any reason. You’ve done that thing before, with him or with another guy? You can still say “no.” You’ve done worse things already? You can still say “no.” You’ve done lots and lots of things, but not this particular thing? You can still say “no.” You’ve talked about this thing, even agreed to do this thing? You can still say “no.” You’re right in the middle of the thing and have changed your mind? You can still say “no.” It’s a little thing that no one could possibly object to, but you just don’t want to? You can still say “no.”

If you find yourself in the habit of encouraging sexual behavior over and over and over again, and then backing out over and over and over again, then maybe you’re being a jerk, and should think about how you’re spending your time, and how you’re treating your male friend. But that’s a separate issue that you can deal with later. Even jerks can say “no.”  You can say “no” at any time for any reason, because you have no obligation to turn your body over to your boyfriend. Why would you?

 

2. Yes, he can stop. Of course he can stop. What is he, a defective robot? If he’s all worked up, it may be very difficult to stop, and he may be mad or offended or disappointed, but he has free will and he can stop. If he doesn’t stop when you tell him to stop, that is sexual assault. He. Can. Stop.

You’re not genuinely injuring a guy by stopping after one or both of you are aroused. You don’t have to sacrifice yourself on the altar of blue balls. If he’s man enough to ask for sex, he’s man enough to deal with a little disappointment. 

 

3. There’s no such thing as being tricked into consenting. If you consent, you do it on purpose, consciously. If you didn’t realize you consented, or didn’t mean to consent, then you did not consent, and whoever tricked or coerced you is assaulting you, by definition.

 

4. A hymen is just a membrane. We hear a lot about protecting virginity, but sex is about so much more than vaginal penetration. There are non-PIV acts which feel important and powerful because they are — and they belong within marriage, just as much as intercourse does. You don’t have to let yourself be used for all kinds of absurd and degrading things just to protect that precious treasure of technical virginity. A hymen is just a membrane. You, on the other hand, are made in the image of God, and should not submit to degradation from anyone who professes to care about you.

 

5. Listen to your gut. If a situation feels weird or fishy, trust that God-given instinct and get the hell out. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. A firm “No, thank you, I’d prefer to do x” or “That won’t work for me, how about we do x instead?” is all you need. And if someone throws a tantrum over your alternative plans, you can be reasonably certain your good was not at the top of their list of priorities. A good man will value your comfort as well as your consent.

 

6. There is never any good reason for a guy to mention what his previous girlfriends were willing to do. Whether it’s a compliment (“I’m glad you’re not uptight like she was”) or a complaint (“All the other girls I’ve been with had no problem with such-and-such”), this is pure manipulation, meant to put you off balance, exert pressure, and make you feel like you have something to prove. It doesn’t matter if you’re different from every other girls in the entire universe. You are you, and if he can’t appreciate that, then he can go dangle.

 

7. Love doesn’t manipulate. It’s old school manipulative when he says “If you really loved me, you’d do such-and such.” It’s also manipulative if he turns it on its head by saying, “Let me show you how much I love you,” or “Why won’t you let me show my love for you by . . . ” Love isn’t about putting pressure on people. Love lets people be.

 

8. You never owe a guy sexual favors just because he does something nice for you. If a guy wants to spend time with you and you like him, be nice to him. But a date is not a contract. You’re not chattel, to be traded, no matter what he thinks he deserves.

And if you do hold the line and say no to “big” things, don’t feel like you then ought to compensate by agreeing to smaller things that also make you uncomfortable. Your comfort isn’t up for bargaining.

 

9. An adult man who wants sex or romance with you when you’re underage is a bad man. Full stop. You may be flattered, you may feel like you’re especially mature, and you may very much want what he’s asking for; but, by definition, this is assault. There’s a reason you cannot legally consent when you’re underage. An older man only wants an underage younger girl if there is something wrong with him. He’s very likely gone after other, maybe even younger girls, and will continue to do so. You should protect them by telling someone you trust.

 

10. If you’ve had sex, you’re not automatically in a relationship; you don’t owe him anything; and you’re not fated to be together. Sex makes you feel like there is a bond, but you have the power to break it at any time. It may hurt to disrupt that sensation of being in a relationship, but it may be the smartest thing you can do — the sooner, the better.

 

11. You don’t have to get married to someone just because of your sexual past together. Even if you’re pregnant. In fact, getting married because you “have to” could be grounds for a future annulment, if you got married because of pressure and a sense of obligation, rather than as a free choice. If you did something wrong, like choosing to have consensual sex with someone who’s not right for you, you can’t somehow redeem or erase that past sin by getting married. The past is the past. God wants you to have a good future.

 

12. It’s a bad mistake to have sex outside of marriage, but it’s not somehow more Catholic to refuse to use a condom. Contraception is a sin, and so I cannot in good conscience say, “Yes, if you’re going to have sex, use a condom.” Even if your goal is to prevent the spread of disease and to prevent the conception of a potentially fatherless child, it’s not somehow less-bad to commit two mortal sins instead of one.

But some young Catholics will tell themselves that there is something noble or bracingly honest about refusing to use a condom, even as they persist in seeking out unmarried sex. This is absurd. What are you doing? If you want to avoid sin, because it hurts you and your partner and cuts you off from God, then avoid sin. Don’t play games with telling yourself, “I’m sinning, but I’m doing it the Catholic way!” There is no such thing as sinning the Catholic way.

 

13. You’re not bad for wanting to have sex! Feeling strong sexual desire doesn’t prove that you’re a bad person, a bad daughter, or different from good Catholics. God has given us this desire for a reason. Sex is good, and the desire for sex is a normal, healthy desire. Your job is to figure out how to respond to your desire in a healthy and moral way. And no, it’s not easy. You will probably fail. Try again. But . . .

14. If you find that you cannot make yourself stop seeking out sex, then there’s probably something else wrong in your life, and you need help with identifying, addressing, and healing it. It’s normal and healthy to have a strong, hard-to-control libido when you’re young, but it’s neither normal nor healthy to feel driven and compelled to seek out sex with lots and lots of people. This is self-destructive behavior, likely with deep roots. It will be difficult to talk to someone  about this, but you really do need help — psychological help, not just confession.

 

Some girls will also agree to unprotected sex as a way of accepting some kind of built-in punishment for their promiscuity, not realizing that the promiscuity itself is a symptom of psychological distress. Confession is helpful. It is likely not sufficient by itself.

15. If something bad happens, whether it was consensual or not, you’re not alone. The people who truly love you will not love you less just because you did something you shouldn’t do, and they certainly won’t love you less if something happened to you that shouldn’t have happened. If you have someone who truly loves you, that person will talk to you, or find you someone to talk to, or take you to the doctor, or take you to confession, or take you to a therapist, or do whatever you need so you can be in a better place than you are right now. Having had sex does not make you an outcast. You are young. All is not lost.

 

16. You’re not ruined, no matter what you’ve done or what others have done to you. You cannot be “damaged goods,” because you are not goods. You are a person. Even if you feel worthless right now, and even if other people say you are worthless, you do not and existentially cannot exist for the consumption of any other human being. Not your future husband, not anybody. You are a child of the living God.

 

Yes, your past will affect you. Yes, you are changed by your choices and by the choices of others. But if you have regrets, they can be forgiven. If you have wounds, they can be healed. You are not ruined. You cannot be ruined. As long as you are alive, there is hope.

 

Here’s the kicker. Much of what I’ve said above goes for married relationships, too. You can go to extremes, of course. Some men behave as if their wives can never say “no” once they are married; and some women behave as if their husbands must gain explicit permission for every thought, word, and deed. It often takes couples many years to understand each other well enough to find the right balance. Spouses can reasonably expect to have sex with each other if possible. But there is also such a thing as violating consent in a marriage. Marriage does not give one spouse the right to use the other spouse, sexually or otherwise.

 

So, Catholics, let’s get over our aversion to the word “consent.” Our kids need to know about consent in dating, and they’ll need to know it when they’re ready for marriage, too. It’s one more way to learn to love each other better. 

 

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Many thanks to my friends M.B., C.P., F.S., R.S., G.H., K.C., C.C., D.M., J.T., A.G., M.E., E.L., S.J., M.D., K.M., R.B., A.H., K.C., for helping me compile and refine this list.
Photo via Pexels (creative commons)

Fostering friendship can save us from sexual chaos

It might be difficult to remain friends with someone you’re attracted to, but I reject with disgust the idea that it’s impossible for boys and girls to be friends, or that girls are somehow defrauding boys if they enjoy their friendship without wanting romance. We can be better than this. If we want to find our way out the current sexual morass, we must be.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

Are women safe in Christendom’s bubble? Part I

Christendom College, a small, Catholic, liberal arts school in Front Royal Virginia, celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. Christendom is praised as a safe haven where young students can focus on their studies, grow in their faith, and “breathe the Catholic air.” But several former and current students say the school’s sheltered, highly structured campus culture actually facilitates sexual assault — and that the administration works harder to protect its reputation than it does to protect its students.

The Cardinal Newman Society, which publishes an authoritative annual guide to Catholic Colleges, says Christendom “makes a point to emphasize virtuous living, which translates to a faithful Catholic lifestyle and strong friendships. With this goal in mind, the College utilizes single-sex dormitories, visitation policies to promote chastity, planned weekly events as a way to proactively promote sobriety and counter any temptation toward a ‘drinking scene,’ and spiritual programs to foster students’ prayer lives and spirituality.”

Adele Smith, class of 2012, experienced some culture shock when she arrived at Christendom. Accustomed to a large, sociable, extended family, she knew Christendom would be conservative, but was bemused by the strict segregation of males and females. She describes the “open houses” that would take place in the dorms once a semester.

“The girls would get baked goods and candy, and the guys would come into the dorm and take a tour. It was very much like a museum, like an exhibit. It was the same with the guys’ open house, except they’d have TVs and video games. ‘This is how the native people on the men’s side of campus live!’ This is not how young people engage in a normal way. It felt like a human zoo.”

The school’s rigid rules governing male and female interaction weren’t just awkward, though. Smith claims they are dangerous.

Rigid student life rules drive students off campus

She says that the rules against romantic public displays of affection were so restrictive, it drove couples off campus. Because Christendom is in a rural, isolated spot with few restaurants, clubs, museums or theaters, going off campus generally means going into the woods or into a field.

“It’s just a natural human need to connect with someone you’re in a relationship with,” Smith said. “Just to hold hands, they’d go off campus for a date; and by ‘off campus,’ it could in be in the woods, or in a field down the road. There are not a lot of options if you don’t have a car. So you end up having couples potentially isolate themselves. They should be able to express themselves romantically in a public setting, which is a safer setting to learn how to navigate as a couple. Instead, you’re put into remote, isolated areas where things can get out of hand.”

That’s precisely what happened when Smith was raped by her then-boyfriend, a fellow Christendom student. The rape occurred on Friday, October 2, 2009, on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, about thirty minutes away from the college campus. We contacted the young man and he has not yet responded, so we are not using his name at this time.

“He had sex with me, and I didn’t want to.”

Smith, who was then a sophomore, says she was so naive, she didn’t even know to use the word “rape” until many months later. She told her friends, “He had sex with me, and I didn’t want to.”

Smith had hurt her back in a car accident when she was a freshman. On the day of the rape, she re-injured her back while cleaning her room for Homecoming Weekend, and so her new boyfriend suggested that they have a low-key, relaxing date.

He didn’t have a license, so, at his suggestion, they borrowed a friend’s car and she drove them up to a scenic point overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains. He told her her back might be more comfortable in the back seat, and they could put the laptop in the center console to listen to music.

“In retrospect, I can say, ‘You’re a dummy!’ But back then, I was nineteen. He was my friend, I knew him, I knew his sister, and it felt very natural sitting in the back,” Smith said.

He started kissing her. She had no objection, as they had kissed before. But when he started putting his hand inside her shirt, she told him “No,” and pushed his hand away. She said, “I’m not comfortable with that,” and he said, “Okay.”

“Then he tried it again, and I pushed his hand away, and said, ‘Please, I don’t want to do that.’ He said, ‘Okay.’ Then he tried a third time,” she said.

They were in a confined space; the young man was around six feet tall, and Smith is five feet tall.

“If it was me vs. a kitten, the kitten would win,” Smith says.

“I can’t stop him, apparently.”

She had been diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder after graduating high school, and her anxiety kicked in at this point. She said she realized she could not stop the man.

“He’s not stopping. I’ve told him three times not to. I can’t stop him, apparently,” she recalled thinking.

The young man then started unbuttoning her jeans, and she again told him “No.” He pulled her down so she was flat on the back seat.

“I had my arms pushed together, my elbows to my hands pushed together in front of my chest, trying to keep myself covered. He pushed my arms apart with his hands. My legs were tightly closed. He took his knee and pushed my legs open, pulled my shirt off, and pulled my jeans down. I felt him,” she said.

“Up until that point, I considered myself fairly knowledgeable,” she said. “But it took me a second to realize what was happening. I remember thinking, ‘Is that what I think it is? Is that what’s happening right now?'”

“Why are you making such a big deal of it?”

Smith does not remember getting dressed after the rape. She remembers standing outside the car, smoking a cigarette and shaking, and her boyfriend saying he didn’t know why she was making such a big deal out of it. So she drove them down the mountain and back to campus.

It took all of her strength not to drive off the mountain. She returned the car to her friend, went back to her dorm, sat down in the shower fully clothed, and cried.

Although Smith’s patron is Maria Goretti, the teenaged saint who was stabbed to death while resisting rape, Smith said the concept of rape was foreign to her. She didn’t want to accept that something so ugly had happened to her.

“When I tried to figure out what had happened, I would say, ‘He had sex with me, but I didn’t,’” she said.

Smith texted her boyfriend the next day, saying she didn’t want to see him again. He responded by calling her a bitch and a prude, and saying, “You know you liked it.” She blocked his number.

The victims always blame themselves.

Smith skipped many classes her sophomore year, unable to endure being in the same room with him. Her GPA slipped to 1.2.

It wasn’t until the beginning of her junior year that she heard the word “rape” applied to her ordeal. She was at a party hosted by her theology teacher, Eric Jenislawski, after a meeting of the Chester-Belloc Debate Society. Smith and her brother stayed long after midnight talking, and Jenislawski told her he knew something had happened to her. He said she noticed a change in her, and wanted her to know he was there to help her if she wanted to talk.

Smith told him what happened

“I’m so sorry you were raped,” Jenislawski said.

At first she didn’t want to allow that word, and grew defensive, blaming herself for the assault.

“When you’re Catholic you’re taught that your virginity is one of the best gifts you have, a gift you can give your husband,” Smith said. “I had been a virgin. I had been waiting for marriage. I was that fallen woman, and I didn’t want my parents to see me that way. That was not how my parents were, but sex assault is unique crime. The victims always blame themselves.”

But Jenislawski was the first one who made her feel like the rape wasn’t her fault. He encouraged her to get counseling and to tell the school administration what had happened. An RA friend, Elizabeth Foeckler, also encouraged her to go to the administration.

“I had seen already something was wrong, something had happened,” Foeckler said.

The idea of reporting her rape scared Smith. The young man was charismatic, well-known, and well-liked on campus. When she told a few of her friends that something had happened between them, he began circulating the story that she had seduced him and then regretted it.

“Hit me.”

He then began approaching and provoking her on campus. One day, she was sitting and waiting for a friend to come out of his dorm, and the young man who had assaulted her came out. He sat beside her and began to make small talk, putting his hand on her leg. She felt frozen and could not reply. After what felt like hours, he left. She fled to her dorm and went to bed.

Another day, while other students played some sort of game on campus, the young man approached her and began to insist that she slap him across the face.

“He kept saying, ‘Hit me.’ He kept grabbing my hand and trying to make me slap him,” Smith said.

Smith thinks he might have been trying to make it appear that she was the one who assaulted him. He also told some students that she pulled a knife and forced him into sexual acts.

Smith’s grades continued to slide, and her mental and physical health suffered as students and even outsiders, people she didn’t know, would approach her in the dining hall to talk about the ordeal.

The chances of going to trial are very low.

In April of 2011, Smith decided to tell the police about the rape. Front Royal Police told her it was out of their jurisdiction, since it had happened in a national park. Discouraged, Smith hesitated, then eventually called law enforcement rangers and met with them at Shenandoah National Park.

They explained to her that a prosecutor would take her case, but that the chances of going to trial, much less of the young man being prosecuted, were very low.

Smith’s father consulted with a lawyer friend, who said that the best they could realistically hope for would be that the young man’s record would include an accusation of rape. If he was accused again in the future, the record would help support that accusation.

“But the job of the press would be to make me out a liar,” Smith said, noting that rape victims often find the trial to be more traumatizing than the actual event. “The idea of being torn apart in court by someone with a law degree, and it being in the paper, was too much for me to imagine. So I pinned all my hopes for justice on my Catholic, conservative college, to uphold moral principles.”

So she went to the then-dean, Jesse Dorman, and reported the rape and subsequent harassment. The school promised to conduct a “complete and careful investigation.”

In loco parentis

Next came many months of frustration for the Smith family. In a letter dated May 16, 2011, Scott Smith, her father, wrote to Timothy O’Donnell, the president of Christendom,

“Adele’s grades plummeted that first semester of her sophomore year. She sought psychological help from Dr. Patrick Divietri. She has nightmares about the incident. She developed Crohn’s disease, a disease exacerbated by severe stress. Adele has no ‘bad girl’ reputation on campus. Her subsequent behavior is entirely consistent with that of someone who has been traumatized and assaulted. She implored [her brother] Peter to continue to live in Front Royal and to visit the campus often because she felt so unsafe.”

Scott Smith states in his letter that he left messages for nearly a week before he was able to arrange to speak to the dean, and that the telephone conference was “disquieting.”

“We clearly received the impression that Mr. Dorman wasn’t going to do anything . . . Mr. Dorman showed no apparent interest in pursuing any sort of investigation,” Scott Smith wrote.

Dorman, who no longer works for Christendom, did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Smith’s parents also drove the four hundred miles to meet with the dean, hoping to encourage him to take the charges against their daughter’s rapist seriously.

“Forgettable as most commencement addresses are, I remember yours clearly,” Scott Smith wrote to O’Donnell. “You spoke to the parents of the graduating students gathered there of the profound sense of responsibility you felt of acting in loco parentis for our children and your gratitude that we, as their parents, had entrusted our children to you . . .

“But here Christendom has done the opposite. It has sent the implicit message to women at Christendom that the such attacks ‘within the Christendom family’ will be tolerated, that the attacker will receive no punishment, that women who are attacked will have to endure the fear of retaliation, both on a physical level, and on the level of damage to their reputations.”

“So now my daughter must endure the presence of her attacker on the campus. Each day that goes by, she is reminded that nothing will happen to him. Each day she is persuaded that the college has no intention of supporting her.

A week later, in a letter dated May 23, 2011, President O’Donnell responded.

“Respectfully, I must disagree with your recollection . . . [in loco parentis] is not a phrase that I use with any frequency,” O’Donnell wrote toward the end of his letter to Scott Smith. “But more importantly, I think that you might be using the term more broadly than is appropriate in this matter. In speaking with our counsel, it is my understanding that under Virginia law, the doctrine of in loco parentis as applied to colleges and universities simply means that Christendom has a responsibility to provide a safe campus for its students. Christendom is very diligent in making sure that it provides a safe campus for the education of our students.”

Throughout the letter, O’Donnell refers to the young man by his last name, but refers to Adele Smith by her first name.

In the letter, O’Donnell tells Smith’s father that the school “understands the anguish” the Smith family is feeling as they wait for a judgment against the young man, and that the college will make “a complete and careful investigation of [Smith’s] allegations before rendering a decision that will impact both the life of the accused and the accuser.”

“After a prior incident”

Two months later, the school explained what the young man would be charged with: harassing Smith “after a prior incident.” The charges do not mention rape.

In the charge letter delivered to the young man on July 19, 2011, then-dean Jesse Dorman wrote:

“The intent of the Student Life Office is to support each student as he or she works to grow in virtue . . .

“we have reports that indicate that you have violated the Code of Student Conduct by harassing another student and causing emotional harm. The reports indicate that Adele Smith indicated, after a prior incident with you, that she no longer wanted a relationship with you. Then on November 24, 2009, you sat next to her on a bench and made unwanted contact with her by placing your hand on her knee. Furthermore, it is alleged that you continued to harass her by trying to provoke her to slap you, hit you or kiss you. Another student instructed you to leave her alone but you continued. After Adele did slap you, you allegedly said, ‘If you slapped me really hard and it really hurt, I wouldn’t want to kiss you.’ It is further alleged that on other occasions you went out of your way to volunteer with groups of friends that Adele had seduced you.

“Therefore, you are being charged with violating the Code of Student Conduct.”

A disciplinary conference was scheduled for July 28 of 2011. The school determined the young man was “responsible for the violation of Harassment.”

His punishment: He could not live on campus for one semester, and he could not contact Adele Smith.

Smith and her family were floored. There was no mention of her accusation of rape, either in the charge letter or in the sanction letter. The entire passage describing his offense is as follows:

“Specifically, you admitted: to placing your hand on Adele Smith’s knee, attempting to provoke her to slap you and or to kiss you to deal with her frustrations with you, and finally for telling some students around campus that she had seduced you. You did emphasize at length with regards to the first two incidents that they were not done maliciously and you found them to be normal interactions. As I informed you at the meeting, I do not find these interactions with Adele to be acceptable, appropriate, or in keeping with our Code of Student Conduct. Therefore I found you responsible for the violation of Harassment.”

What does the handbook say?

The school apparently based its response on two facts: First, there was, in 2011, no clause in the student handbook prohibiting sexual assault. Amanda Graf, the current Director of Student Affairs at Christendom, confirms that student handbook did not include a policy against sexual assault until 2013, two years after Smith reported her rape.

Second, the rape occurred off campus; and so the school considered itself helpless to respond to it.

“[T]he alleged assault of Adele did not take place on campus. Rather, the incident apparently occurred in a national park several miles away from Christendom’s campus,” O’Donnell wrote in his letter to Scott Smith. “Moreover, both Adele and Mr. [redacted] are adults — meaning that Christendom faculty and staff have inherently limited options for enforcing standards of appropriate (or even prudent) conduct, especially when students leave the confines of campus.”

When you come back to campus, you’re still a rapist.

Students are, however, punished for coming back to campus drunk, even if the drinking took place off campus — for instance, at “The River,” a popular drinking spot where even professors are known to visit and socialize. “The River” and the drinking that occurs there is an open secret that the administration is aware of.

“I always find it interesting they always try to punish students for drinking off campus, if you come back to campus drunk,” Smith said. “I say, if you rape off campus, when you come back to campus, you’re still a rapist.”

Smith says that the administration cracked down on professors hosting off-campus parties, because they involved drinking. The message delivered was clear, according to Smith.

“We care if you drink off campus, but not if you rape off campus,” she said.

Sanctions

Although the school imposed sanctions on the young man, he was taken under the wing of one of its founders and professors, William Marshner, and he lived in Marshner’s house for the semester he was barred from living on campus. Marshner has since left Christendom.

After the sanctions were imposed, Smith and the young man still had classes together, including core classes that were required for all students.

“It was up to me to avoid him,” she said. “I would go down the road to the convenience store, and he’d be sitting outside, and I couldn’t walk in. I would go to the only cafe in town, and he’d be sitting outside. I would turn around and drive right back. All his body language was hostile and arrogant.”

Her focus and concentration were gone.  Her grades continued to be low for the rest of her junior year.

“It was my story.”

Then, one day during her senior year, her friend texted her that Marshner was talking about her in his moral theology class, using thinly veiled language.

The teacher gave the class a hypothetical example of a young man and woman who were dating and decided to go off campus to Skyline Drive. In the example, they decide to fornicate, but then the young woman regrets her choice, and decides to claim the young man attacked her.

“In what world is this okay?” Smith said. “It was my story. Everyone knew.”

Smith complained to the school, and she says they gave Marshner “a slap on the wrist.”

Smith considered leaving the college, and looked into other schools. Her parents, brother, and friends encouraged her to transfer.

“But the stubborn Irish in me determined if I left, he would win. He’s taken enough from me; he’s not gonna take this.”

But he did take it away from her, she says.

“I can’t get into grad school with my GPA. It’s hard to explain why my GPA is so poor.”

It takes a long time to change the handbook.

The young man left Christendom in Smith’s senior year. His absence helped her reclaim some of her focus. But in that year, 2012, a year after she reported her rape, the school still had not added a policy against sexual assault to their student handbook.

“There was nothing to stop this from happening again,” Smith said.

Smith says the school claimed it “takes a long time” to implement changes in school policy.

“No, it takes opening a word document and writing it up: ‘Don’t rape people.’ If there’s a single member on your board who has an issue with that, they shouldn’t be on that board,” Smith said.

Smith continued to call the school after graduation to see if they had changed the policy. In 2013, after Smith had graduated from the school, she again downloaded the student handbook and was aghast to see there was still no language forbidding sexual assault by students. It wasn’t until August of that year  that the language was added to the handbook.

The student handbook now includes a sexual assault policy.

Christendom College does not receive federal funding, and so is not subject to Title IX regulations, which would legally require it to respond to and remedy hostile educational environments. This also means there is no publicly available data about sexual assaults or other crimes taking place on campus, as is required of Title IX schools.

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This story was researched and reported by Damien and Simcha Fisher.

 This is the end of part I. Part II can be found here. Below are pdfs of the four letters referenced above.
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Image credits:
christendom sign: By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mary Statue By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
regina coeli hall By AgnosticPreachersKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49352616
student center By AgnosticPreachersKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49352611
front royal clock  Clevergrrl via FLickr
church By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
men’s dorm By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
seal By Niall ODonnell (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Are all men sitting ducks in this cultural climate?

The great 2017 Advent Calendar of Workplace Pervs continues to reveal creep after creep, day after day.

And I am astonished. Not because I had no idea such things went on in the working world, but because the story has not blown over yet. I thought there would be a flurry of high-profile accusations after Harvey Weinstein, and then the herd would get bored and move along to graze elsewhere. Instead, the story endures, as it should.

Predictably, the longer it stays in the headlines, the more I hear a growing panic among some men (and some women, too): Isn’t this going too far? It seems like a man can lose his job just because some woman makes an accusation! We all have targets on our backs now! No man is safe.

Let’s take a closer look at this fear. How rational is it?

First: If it’s recent headlines that are making you nervous, let’s recall that every single man who was fired for inappropriate sexual behavior is accused of doing something very serious. Matt Lauer didn’t get the axe for calling someone “hon.” Al Franken isn’t under fire because he had dust in his eye, but some lady thought he was winking. These men are not accused of accidents, misunderstandings, or fleeting comments made in a weak moment of poor judgment.

They are accused of committing overtly sexual acts, of repeatedly using their power to do predatory things to the bodies of women, just because they thought they could get away with it.

So let’s dispense with the idea that phalanxes of men are losing their livelihoods over trivial accusations. At least in the high profile cases we’ve been seeing, that simply isn’t what’s happening.

Second: Nobody fires a star without solid evidence he’s guilty. These guys have the best contracts money can buy. No news channel or Hollywood studio is going to risk being sued for firing their top guy for no good reason. Think about it: If they fired someone, it’s because they know they have an airtight case. They investigate the claims and find out if they are plausible, if the accuser is credible, and if there is a pattern.

So not only are these men accused of serious offenses, but the accusations must have merit. If they didn’t have merit, no corporation in its right mind would run the risk of being sued for wrongful termination. Think about it: Someone who works for NBC installed that secret door lock button for Matt Lauer. They already knew what he was up to. They fired him because they’ve had tons of evidence for years, and it suddenly became fashionable to act on it, that’s all.

Nevertheless, I have some sympathy for men. America is not known for its temperance. We do tend to overcompensate; and so, yes, from some quarters, there are calls for all men to suffer. One woman said on Twitter that she didn’t care if innocent men get unjustly accused, since so many women have suffered injustice (and one writer says a major news outlet tried to get her to argue that men do not deserve due process.). So I can understand how even a completely innocent man might feel some unease, wondering if they’ll get swept up in an undiscerning mob that started out seeking justice but ends up just looking for blood.

So how should an innocent man behave in the workplace? Is there anything he can do to remove even the possibility of being accused unjustly, without acting like an alien?

My friend Kate Cousino suggests implementing The Rock Test, in which men simply visualize women as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and then magically find themselves taking no liberties whatsoever. Ta dah!

For a more nuanced approach, I’ll turn the rest of this essay over to another friend, a man who is a finance director at a large company. Here’s what he says:

I’m a guy who manages a team which for the last three years has been composed entirely of women, so I’ve thought about harassment type issues a fair amount well before this whole blow up.

Does this mean that I refuse to mentor or be alone with women? No. 

What do I watch myself most carefully on? I don’t make comments about how people working for me are dressed. Yes, this took a little work at first. With a guy, if he comes in particularly well dressed some day, I might joke, “What, interviewing for another job?” With a woman, if I wasn’t conscious of these things, I might have been tempted to say something like, “Wow, you’re looking fancy today!” But you know what? I’m glad that I’ve trained myself out of saying that kind of thing. The women who work for me don’t need to know my opinions on their fashion, and several years in it is an important aspect of the comfort we all have with each other that there is zero sense of tension on the team. They shouldn’t be thinking about what I’ll think about what they’re wearing anyway.

If I want to lean over someone to do something on her computer, I ask her first. And that’s not awkward, because honestly, I wouldn’t get that physically close to a guy normally either.

I don’t worry about meeting alone with a woman on my team in a conference room or in an office, but like virtually any corporate office building all our rooms have windows so there’s no fear of being out of sight.

And though I’ve traveled with one or more of my female employees, it would frankly never have occurred to me to ask of them to meet me in a my room. It’s always convenient to meet in the coffee shop, lobby, or restaurant. My room is private and so is theirs.

Honestly, it’s not hard, I’m not scared, and while some of the habits I’ve formed took some deliberation at first I think that they’ve actually turned out to make it easier for us to all feel comfortable and have a very low stress team dynamic. 

Over the top precautions are not necessary, and sensible ones are actually helpful in allowing you to work with people of the opposite sex without anyone feeling uncomfortable.

Makes sense to me.

Do you notice how, once he got used to taking these precautions, it actually became easier for everyone to work together? I could actually feel my shoulders relaxing as I imagined working in an environment like this. If is truly your goal to get work done at work, then there can be no objection to adopting these guidelines. You may need to tweak them for your individual job. Hey, at least you get to tweak something.

A final note. It is true that many men are, for the first time, becoming hyper aware of the potential sexual connotations of their working relationships with women. One woman told me, with outrage and incredulity, that her male friends now felt the need to leave the door open when they were alone with a woman in a room.

To this, I say . . . oh, well? It does not seem to me to be overly burdensome to expect men to think twice about the things that many women have to think of all day long.

I am not a paranoiac, and I do not feel as if I’m under constant threat of rape when I leave my home. And yet there are precautions that I take habitually, that I have taken ten thousand times since hitting puberty, just because I am a woman. I have to think about leaving my drink unattended. I have to think about looking around me when I cross a parking lot. I do not go out alone at night. I do not run alone without my cell phone. I am on high alert when I step into an elevator with a man. I am careful about what kinds of jokes I make around men, lest they get the wrong idea. I think about what I am projecting by what I wear. I will sometimes walk out of my way in the supermarket, rather than pass through a group of men whose eyes I don’t like. It’s not especially burdensome. It’s just life.

If minor precautions like this become part of the life of men for the first time in history, I say again, “Oh, well.” If women can survive thinking twice about relationships, then men can, too.

And if innocent men resent having to work so hard to protect themselves in the current cultural climate, then who should they blame?  Women who fear being preyed on? Or the predatory men who gave them reason to fear?

Jonathan Ryan/Weyer still Pastoral Associate of Evanglization at Lafayette parish

This article is the third in a series of investigative reports covering allegations of spiritual and sexual abuse by Jonathan Ryan, a.k.a. Jonathan Weyer, co-founder of Sick Pilgrim. Part I is here; Part II is here.  This series is a collaborative effort by Simcha and Damien Fisher.

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After revelations that Sick Pilgrim co-founder Jonathan Ryan has been accused of committing a series of exploitative and spiritually abusive acts against several women, St. Alphonsis Liguori Church in Zionsville, Indiana, which employs him as Associate Pastor of Evangelization Pastoral Associate of Evangelization has not responded to inquiries about his status at the parish. The Diocese of Lafayette and the Bishop’s office have also not responded to inquiries. Ryan’s name was removed from the parish website on Monday.

Donna Provencher, who recently revealed her allegations of harrowing spiritual abuse and sexual exploitation at the hands of Ryan, said on Monday afternoon that she sent emails to the HR department of the Diocese of Lafayette, but they declined to give her any information about whether Ryan will be dismissed.

“The diocese called me today and they informed me he is being investigated but still employed there,” Provencher said.

She says the HR spokesman told her there will be no way of victims or the public getting answers about his employment because “we won’t be allowed to tell you.” Provencher says the HR spokesman said that Monday morning was “the first she was hearing of [the situation].”

“I’m horrified,” said Provencher.
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“Remember that time when [the Catholic Church] buried a sex abuse crisis and shuffled perps around from diocese to diocese and we all realized that was a terrible idea and they made a whole movie about it? Maybe let’s not do that again.”
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“I’ve heard from two women now who he met in the very early days of the group who had similar experiences [of sexual and spiritual exploitation]. It’s possible it was going on at this rate all along.” The Sick Pilgrim blog was launched in 2015.
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Griffith says she believes his behavior has been escalating, “becoming sloppier and more erratic.”
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Griffith has rediscovered a post Ryan wrote for Sick Pilgrim in February of 2016, titled “Dark Devotional: The Devil Inside.” In it, Ryan says that, when he was younger, he deliberately cultivated a “man of God” persona to become more attractive to girls.

“Because, let’s face it, there is nothing more erotic to Christian girls than a guy who loves Jesus. I spoke in tongues and used my tongue,” Ryan wrote.

Ryan, who sometimes uses the name “Jonathan Weyer,” continues:

“When I reached my twenties, my thirst for spiritual recognition and power led me to becoming a Presbyterian minister (when, in my heart, I just wanted to be a history professor and writer). That was a disastrous decision that eventually blew my life apart. I got divorced and started my life over again at 41 years old. All because of choices I started making in high school: to value my reputation, to grab for power and to allow a deep-seated spiritual arrogance to rule me. I failed all three tests because I failed to remember one simple thing: when religion offers power, control and manipulation, it’s always a very, very bad thing.”

Griffith says she rolled her eyes at the time, thinking he was “trying to be some kind of sexy bad boy,” but now she considers this essay a strong clue about why he was removed from ministry. The behavior he describes as in his past is precisely the behavior he is accused of as recently as Friday.
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Provencher notes that, at the bottom of Ryan’s post is a link to the Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil.””He was actually outing himself while pretending to be repentant,
Provencher said, “and thumbing his nose at everyone while he did it.”
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Near the top of the website for the Diocese of Lafayette is this message:

“The Diocese of Lafayette and the Office of Safe Environment are pleased to announce that we have been notified by the auditing firm appointed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that we are again in full compliance with all data requirements for the 2015-2016 charter audit period.  The Office of Safe Environment has met all requirements since the inception of the Safe Environment Program and will continue to carry out all that is needed in order to protect our youth throughout the Diocese.”

Ryan was responsible for hiring and overseeing the St. Alphonsis Liguori youth ministry coordinator, according to an ad posted August 29, 2017.

Provencher says the Zionsville local newspaper has contacted her about her involvement in the story, and she hopes this will encourage the church to dismiss Ryan promptly.

 

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Image: Jonathan Ryan, detail of photo by Michelle Sterling, used with permission
 EDIT November 21, 12:34 a.m.: Ryan’s title at Alphonsis Liguori is Associate Pastor of Evangelization, and not Pastoral Associate of Evangelization.

Sick Pilgrim turmoil, Part 2: Donna Provencher’s story

The following is an account of recent events by Donna Provencher, who accuses Jonathan Ryan (a.k.a. Jonathan Weyer) of spiritual and emotional abuse. Ryan has been removed from his position at Sick Pilgrim, which he co-founded, and his upcoming book has been spiked by the publisher after numerous women, including cofounder Jessica Mesman Griffith, have come forward to accuse Ryan/Weyer of abuse and sexual assault.
This account comes from a conversation Donna Provencher and I had via a Facebook voice call on Saturday, November 18. At the end of Provencher’s story, I have included some pertinent screen shots and excerpts.
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My life mantra, cribbed from Nora Ephron is: Above all else, be the hero of your life, and not the victim.
I had been a lapsed Catholic, self-identifying as an agnostic for six or seven years when I entered Sick Pilgrim.
I grew up very, very conservative. My parents were hard-line, knee jerk, republican, homeschooling Catholic conservatives. I went to Christendom College and encountered a lot of hypocrisy, spiritual abuse, and invoking the Holy Spirit as a cover for bad behavior and mistreatment of people. I didn’t like it!
I had spoken to a friend who works for the Register earlier this year. He said, “I think you’ve been fed this very specific definition of what Catholic spirituality looks like, and you’ve rejected it on those grounds. But there’s room for Oscar Romero spirituality, and Dorothy Day.” He considered me a “rebooting Catholic,” not a fallen-away Catholic.
Then one of my friends added me to Sick Pilgrim. I thought, “These are my people.” I was living between worlds, hanging out with secular humanists, theater people, journalists, but also very conservative friends. I had lost sight of the fact there’s a happy medium.
So Sick Pilgrim was this refreshing, “coming home” experience. I finally recognized my own yearning and my own thoughts and ideas in other Catholics. They’re all about being misfits, but they’re some of the most loving people you’ll ever meet. I saw something deeply good there. It was people, not doctrine, that had turned me off the Church, so it was people, not doctrine, that brought me back. Like Thomas Merton says: “It’s the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”
I wasn’t there very long before Jonathan approached me. It was probably less than a week.
He posted a picture of himself making breakfast, and I made some kind of offhand comment about “I want bacon!” or something. He PM’d me and said “Come visit, I have bacon!” I kind of laughed it off, we started talking, and that’s how it began.
The first day we talked was September 20th. [It was about a month previous to this that Ryan allegedly sexually assaulted Jessica Mesman Griffith.] That was on Facebook chat, and we talked for many hours. He asked if he could call the next day, and we talked all night on the phone. It was Sunday the 24th that he told me he loved me. I had been opening up to him about my struggles with an eating disorder, giving him a vast array of detail I hadn’t given anyone else before. It was in the midst of that that he said it for the first time.
Jonathan is a tremendously charismatic individual His Myers–Briggs type is ENFP (which is mine, as well) tend to be very personable, extroverted people who rally a group together. They end up in leadership positions because they are very adept and intuitive about what makes people tick.

That set of traits is a double-edged sword. It’s like the Spiderman deal: With great power comes great responsibility. He had all these gifts and charisms, and he used them for evil. There’s no other way to say it. His personality was enormously compelling, but it enabled him to be a narcissistic predator who could tap into people’s deepest needs and yearning, and reprogram them. It’s so much more tragic because he’s someone who has such potential for good. It’s diabolical.

He started almost immediately talking about marriage, in the next day or so. He was talking about the chapel he wanted to get married in, and would send me pictures of it. We fought about whether or not he would wear a tux. It was signed, sealed, and delivered. He was so convinced and convincing that this was something predetermined by God.
It’s hard for me to talk about, as someone who was an agnostic for so many years. How did I not see this was predatory behavior? How did I not step back from the teeming religiosity, and thinking, “This is not how God works”?
This is because he is incredibly skilled at inserting himself into leadership spiritual roles.
I was raped a year ago. My mother is schizophrenic and homeless, wandering around Detroit somewhere. My divorce had just been finalized. He sold a very convincing story that not only was it God’s will I should come back to the Church, but it was my vocation to be with him and marry him.
 He has a preoccupation with St. Kateri Tekakwitha. He named his house “The St. Kateri House,” and he took a trip to the Shrine of the North American Martyrs. A lot of the real manipulation started when he latched onto this tidbit that my name is Katherine with a “k.” She was my patron saint growing up. I had religious images of her in my bedroom, dressed up as her for All Saint’s Day.
He told me he pulled over sobbing on the side of the road, asking God where I had come from, since I was so intelligent, and wonderful and vibrant, and had just fallen into his lap out of a clear blue sky. He said he knew it was because St. Kateri had sent me to him. This was happening simultaneously with his exploitative behavior with other girls.
Later, when out of the blue he said, “I’m done with you” (the day after he had sex with me), I was crying in my backyard. I kept praying and thinking about a passage in Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, about someone who really devastates her, and she prays God will give her His love for this man. God will give us the more perfect way. I was praying that over and over again.
But God’s love is terrible as an army with banners, sometimes. I realize now that, when someone is exhibiting a pattern of exploitative, predatory, and cruel treatment of women, the loving thing to do is call them to amend their live — and protect other women from them.
I got this idea to pray a novena to St. Kateri. But I did not pray for Jonathan to come back. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t have all the details yet. I had this sense I needed to pray “God’s will be done, no matter what that looks like.”
I had a friend who didn’t know the St. Kateri details of the story, and he was telling me how, in some cultures, specifically in Iroquois culture, sex abuse, assault, and rape are almost unheard of, because they thought of women as god-bearers. It’s kind of a prescient thing, hearkening forward to the Theotokos. They believed women had the Creator’s gift in them, and if you defiled them, heaven would rain down justice. They would bring down destructions on themselves.

I just broke down crying, because I hadn’t told him about St. Kateri! And he was like, “St. Kateri doesn’t put up with that shit.” That was a healing realization.

 So, I had been going to Mass again for all of four weeks when I went to Indiana to visit him. He had been beating this drum about how premarital sex isn’t really wrong because we’re getting married, you’re my soul mate, it’s just a nominal thing. He’d joke about doing the marriage ceremony in front of the neighbor’s dog, for a witness.
I didn’t think God was fine with it. But Jonathan really is damnably — and I mean that in the literal sense, like infernally — persuasive when it comes to getting what he wants out of women.
He had sex with me multiple times. He was sexting with me before that. It had been sexualized from the get-go.
I had been going back to Mass, but was terrified of confession. So after having sex with me several times, he made an appointment for me with a sympathetic priest. I went to confession for the first time in seven years, an incredibly daunting confession.
I knew he wanted to have sex afterwards. I was like, “I know I’m not a very good Catholic, but I feel there is something wrong with what you’re advocating here!” I just kind of lived in that insane amount of cognitive dissonance. I was madly in love with him. He had groomed me to be in love with him.
So he had sex with me immediately afterward, and had zero problem with going to Mass the next day. He actively defended receiving Communion, and bullying me into receiving Communion, because it would make him feel guilty if I didn’t. He was sowing the seeds of chaos.
Last night, I talked to someone who had the exact same experience. Someone who wasn’t in Sick Pilgrim, but the same experience, even unto taking Communion right after having sex. Our jaws dropped. She was my alter ego in a different state. This was several months prior to what he did to me. He’s been exhibiting this pattern of behavior for many years. It breaks my heart to think of how many other people might be out there. We’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
Spiritual abuse hinges on targeting specific types of people. Jonathan went for writers, single moms, women struggling with depression and anxiety, and some who had previous relationships with a narcissistic abuser.
And these aren’t just hearts and minds at risk. People’s lives, their sexual health, is at risk. If you’re sleeping with someone who’s been lying about their sexual history, it’s tremendously dangerous. This is protracted form of potential physical abuse.
It’s one of those moments where someone needs to stand up. This ends with me. This stops now. The next girl, who’s suicidal — and he’s had messages to that effect, and I’ve been in those shoes — next time, someone might commit suicide. It might be a girl twenty years younger, instead of eleven years younger. It would be unconscionable for someone not to stand up, once the pattern has been established.
If you Google “Catholic sexual harassment,” my name is the second one down. It’s humiliating. I did not anticipate my fifteen minutes of fame looking like this.
But Jess and I realized that we couldn’t leave it at “let’s kick him out of Sick Pilgrim.” That’s transplanting an abuser, hoping he assaults some other girl. I’m not about that. He will wound another woman the way he has wounded Jess, and other girls, and he will do that again over my bleeding, broken body. This man does not need to be in ministry, around hurting people, Catholic, protestant, or otherwise.
I was in Indiana from October 20th till the 22nd. Some of my son’s holidays have been kind of shoddy, so we went to a pumpkin patch. I carved a pumpkin with Lucy and Tumnus. He carved a pumpkin with the Sick Pilgrim logo. But he was adamant we don’t tell anyone in Sick Pilgrim I was going to see him. He wouldn’t let me post pictures of us in the group. He was very irked, and made me cry, yelling at me about how he didn’t need Sick Pilgrim people up in his business. He said they had deviated from the true faith, and said he hated them, that they were awful people. He said this was special, and just for us. Classic abuser tactics.
He introduced me to his parents and colleagues. In hindsight, I realize he always introduced me as his “friend,” even though the wedding was set. He was suggesting we should get married right away, so he could put my three-year-old on his insurance.
He had good reasons. He didn’t want his kids and ex-wife to know the details of his personal life; he didn’t want the Sick Pilgrim people to know, because they are heretics who haven’t seen the light. I trusted him. We want to believe we can trust the people we love.
The night before I left, we went on this hayride, and we had a weird conversation. We had been talking about having more kids. He even named the children: Theodore, and Eowyn Kateri. But after the hayride, we had another conversation.
He said he saw the way I looked at babies and played with kids, and he knew I desperately wanted more kids, but he didn’t want any at all. Nope, no more kids, not gonna do it.
I told him, you’re kind of a Catholic figurehead. How are you gonna manage that? He joked about getting a vasectomy. And suddenly the hammer came down: You’re young. You want more kids. I never said I wanted more kids.

He never came to bed that night. I was upstairs crying. He was downstairs watching Stranger Things. That’s my favorite show. Now I have a “Friends don’t lie” tattoo.

He dropped me off at the airport like a sack of potatoes. It was like something just shut off. the only way I can describe it was like he got body snatched. He was cold, angry, warping reality, attributing terrible motives to people.

On the plane, I wrote to him, so in earnest, so in love with him. I wrote this long letter on those airplane barf bags, wrote and wrote and wrote. I told him I loved him, and we could work through the issue about kids.

But look, I’m just now coming back to the Faith. To quote Julia Brideshead, “Probably I shall be bad again.” Like C.S. Lewis, I was the unhappiest convert in all of England. I had found that Catholicism was the worst way of living, except for all the others. I told him, I’m not going to go through all of that — divorce, rape, eating disorders, a suicide attempt at age nineteen — and then be a halfhearted Catholic, not in a Catholic marriage.

There are layers upon layers. I run the risk of someone reading this story and saying, “That girl is a bad Catholic, and disingenuous.” To that person, I say: Yes. We’re all bad Catholics. But Jonathan’s behavior was bad on a fundamental human level, fundamentally violating the social constructs we need to survive as a society. It goes beyond “I messed up.”
I’m not setting myself up as a bastion of Catholicism. I like to talk about Dorothy Day, but I’m no Dorothy Day. I get that. That’s why it’s so difficult to come forward, knowing people will think I’m complicit in my own sexual abuse. But these were massive, massive violations against women. How can it be informed consent if you’re not informed about someone who is not who they say they were?
When I got home, I sent him that letter, saying I want to have a truly Catholic marriage. And he dumped me the next day, in a Facebook message.

I had applied to a number of positions in Indiana, at his urging. I told him I had sent a résumé to a job there, and he said, “Are you sure you don’t want to go back east with your family?”

And then he said, “I’m done.”

I’ve had some bad breakups in my life. This was not a bad breakup. There’s a difference between the necessary evil of realizing a relationship isn’t meant to be, and someone who has deliberately misled you from the beginning. At this point, he was already with his new soulmate.

I was extraordinarily confused and broken. I had attempted suicide when I was nineteen, but this was hell. I didn’t know which way was up. He had gone out of his way to isolate me from the Sick Pilgrim group, saying terrible things to me about Jess from the day I joined, because he perceived her as rejecting him after he sexually assaulted her. He very intentionally engendered this profound distrust of everyone in that community. So I left.
You had this person in a position of spiritual leadership, a paragon of Catholic virtue that every girl wants to end up with, and he had positioned himself as a spiritually authoritative voice. He knew all my darkest secrets. Jess says abuse by narcissists is “soul rape.” I’ve experienced both kinds. It’s an apt analogy.
It also had a catastrophic effect on my just-burgeoning spiritual journey. That was a mine field to navigate. I had just come back. I actually did believe in one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic church. I tried not to, but I do. I had just come to that point in my life. I had left the Church over spiritual abuse and hypocrisy, and this was a horrible déjà vu. It reminded me of that passage in [C. S. Lewis’] A Grief Observed: The danger is not that we will come to believe there is no God, but that this is what God is really like: deceive yourself no further.
Jonathan was so inextricably entangled with my reversion experience, it poisoned everything. He sees himself as a Christ figure. It permeates his entire interview with you.  He says, “This is how Jesus would handle it.” Actually, Jesus wouldn’t be in this position of defending Himself from abuse allegations! Baptizing his cruel behavior in the name of Jesus. So repugnant.
I’ve been rewatching The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I feel like I got sucked into some weird Ryan cult. I will openly admit I haven’t been to Mass since I got back from Indiana. I feel terrible. I want to go. I just can’t. There’s this internal shattering.
I don’t blame God for any of this. God is not at fault when evil people do evil things. At the same time, I couldn’t figure out where my faith began and where Jonathan’s sticky fingers ended.
This is going to sound strange, but the last week has been one of the most painful weeks of my entire life, but also the most freeing and liberating. Jonathan underestimated this. He didn’t think he’d eventually target the wrong person.
When Jess messaged me last Sunday morning [after I left the Sick Pilgrim group], she said, “You don’t have to tell me anything, but Jonathan’s behavior has been erratic. Do you want to talk?” And I just cried. I just wept. She was the first person who reached out. She was so gentle and compassionate. That’s who Jessica is. I just told her everything.
I’m never going to play the Holy Spirit card again — never say He inspired some action or event. I’m a little squicky about that. But something prompted Jess, who had just walked out of Mass. We were not friends at all. We had briefly exchanged editorial messages about a thing I had written about Stranger Things. Jonathan had terrified me about her.
The first thing she said was, “I’m so sorry this has happened to you.” She let me talk about everything. She let me tell my story, and honored that, and listened to my heart, which was a mess. I don’t remember when she told me about her own experience, and others’.
So I thought, “Maybe these Sick Pilgrim people aren’t so bad after all. There’s a predator out there. It’s not Sick Pilgrim’s fault, and not the Church’s fault.” That was a huge healing.
She told me about Jonathan’s new girlfriends, and it was so freeing, like in Dawn Treader, with Eustace’s scales being pulled off: It hurt like billy-oh, but it was so good to see it come away. Life had been salvo after salvo, blast after blast, but it was so profoundly healing to be believed — and to have the community take immediate action.
A number of people, five or six people, signed off on his dismissal letter. But he didn’t respond to all of them. He wrote an intimidating, threatening, “lawyer up” email, and sent it only to the two who were his victims. It was very calculated. He sent me a text: “I hope you’re happy. You got your revenge.”
One of the admins, Matt Lafleur, wrote this beautiful post about how it’s part of the behest of Catholics to look out for broken things. He has his own physical disability, and this was very moving to me. Remember, I had been in the group six days before Jonathan came along. But they wholeheartedly embraced me. They gathered evidence and sent Jonathan a letter dismissing him by Tuesday afternoon. I posted my testimony to the group Tuesday evening.
This is how we are supposed to deal with predators in our midst. They do not represent the Church, or the Holy Spirt, or St. Kateri, but they are in fact blasphemers. Abuse against women is a sacrilege, an interpersonal sacrilege.
This week was empowering. I feel like myself again. Narcissistic abuse is like a drug addiction, and truth is your serum, your anti-drug, combatting it. The light of truth was jarring, but restorative to my faith.
I am planning to go back to Mass for the first time this weekend. I feel like I had fallen into a well, a very narrow well with a very long shaft, and I was sitting at the bottom in the muck. I was desperately suicidal, and nothing made sense. People were calling to me, and telling my life was bigger than this, but I couldn’t hear it. It sounded far away. I was locked in this echo chamber of pain.
I give immense credit to the Sick Pilgrim community, and to Jess, specifically, for pulling a front page-worthy rescue, drilling a parallel well, pulling me out of there fist over fist. I give them tremendous credit for such decisive action and such compassion. It made me able to identify Jonathan’s actions as diabolical, not God-ordained.

It’s really important we call things by their proper names. Sometimes we tiptoe around these terms, “spiritual abuse,” “emotional abuse,” “sexual assault,” “sexual abuse,” and “psychological gaslighting.” We call it “mistreatment.” Let’s call it for what it is. J.K. Rowling says fear of the name increases fear of the thing itself. The word isn’t scary. The thing is scary. Let’s call them out properly for committing these heinous actions.

I’m not allowed the privilege, as a Catholic, of believing anyone is beyond the reach of redemption. From the bottom of my heart, I hope that someday he will be able to acknowledge the wrong he has done and the people he has hurt. So far we’ve seen complaining, how persecuted he is, and how much other people have hurt him. He’s not expressed sincere concern for the people he has harmed.
I had this conversation with him about going to confession and then having sex. I said, “When I say the act of contrition, I say I’m not gonna do it again. But I’m gonna do it three hours later.”I told him part of repentance is amending your life. He hemmed and hawed. He said God didn’t really mean it. He fought with me about it.
I loved this man. I loved who I thought he was. I hope my speaking up (even if it means coming up in a Google search for the rest of my life), and Jess and other victims coming forward, will make him take stock of what he has done, and he will change his life.
I pray for Heaven for him. I don’t hate him. I really do hope he stops posturing as the victim. He is not the victim. We are.

 ***

[end of Donna Provencher’s story.]

The image at top is composed of three messages from Jonathan Ryan.
The first is from the Sick Pilgrim admin group. This was his first response when the admins sent him a letter terminating him from work with Sick Pilgrim. Ryan says “I fully admit what happened to Donna. I’m not proud of it.”
The second image is from the first message he posted in a secret splinter group immediately after he got kicked out of Sick Pilgrim (he apparently did not realize that Donna was a member of this group). Ryan tells his friends: “I vehemently deny anything that was said.”
The third image is a message he sent to Donna. He says: “I hope you’re happy. You got your revenge. Congrats.”

More reading of interest:
On August 28, after Ryan allegedly assaulted Jessica Mesman Griffith and before he began his relationship with Donna Provencher, Jonathan Ryan posted an essay about abusive narcissists on Sick Pilgrim. The post has since been scrubbed, because it upset so many of the readers. Here are two excerpts that have been preserved:
Trump is the Incarnation of all narcs, but we don’t even have to go that far afield. There are men who seek the utter destruction of women, not their not their flourishing. Most of them don’t look like Trump or have large, obnoxious personalities. Indeed, they are charming angels of light, with cut jaws, put together appearances and neat, orderly cars. But, these angels of light seek destruction of the light and the annihilation of the Image of God in others. They do anything they can to negate the talent, the intelligence and the beauty of the women in their lives. They don’t want ‘power,’ they want destruction by being in love with concepts of themselves and in doing so, twist things that ought to be good. Their God-given maleness becomes twisted into a prison-made shiv that plunges into the heart of every woman who comes into striking distance.

[…]

In the years since my divorce, I’ve befriended a number of women who have come out of relationships with men who are narcissists of the most heinous kind. I’m horrified at how these strong, accomplished and put-together women are often sucked of their God-given personalities and talents to the point of considering suicide. Indeed, in a few cases, the women have tried and thankfully failed. But in one particular case I know of (a friend of a friend), the man talked the woman into killing herself and is reaping the narcs ultimate dream: adulation for his bravery and the sympathy of other soon-to-be victims. It is truly diabolical. And it makes me wonder how much I may have done this to women in my own life.

 

Allegations of spiritual abuse and sexual misconduct throw Sick Pilgrim into turmoil

Books are being destroyed, and an online community is in shock following the revelations of alleged sexual and spiritual misconduct by one of the founders of Sick Pilgrim.

Sick Pilgrim, the popular blog and online community for Catholic misfits, announced Friday afternoon that it’s severing ties with its co-founder, Jonathan Ryan, a.k.a Jonathan Weyer. Sick Pilgrim, which is hosted on multi-faith blogging platform Patheos, also announced that it’s spiking the newly released spiritual memoir, Strange Journey, which Ryan/Weyer co-wrote with Sick Pilgrim’s co-founder, Jessica Mesman Griffith.

The book’s publisher, Loyola, said in an email on Friday:

“Loyola Press has ceased publication of the Work titled Strange Journey: How Two Homesick Pilgrims Stumbled Back into the Catholic Church,  and the corresponding publication rights in that Work have reverted to the authors.”

According to a statement by Griffith, all remaining copies of the book will be destroyed.

“[T]he relationships Jonathan had formed with several women he met through the blog and in the community had in fact been inappropriate, predatory and exploitative.”

Sick Pilgrim, founded in 2015, recently partnered with Notre Dame in hosting a Catholic literary conference, Trying to Say God. Sick Pilgrim won the Wilbur Award for best faith-based blog in 2017.

Griffith refers to the Sick Pilgrim online community as “a de facto support group for those recovering from spiritual abuse,” and says, “Jonathan betrayed our trust and manipulated people who were attracted to our writing and the online group for this very reason. It is for their protection that he was swiftly and decisively removed.”

Griffith counts herself among the women Ryan manipulated and exploited. Since Griffith posted her statement, more women have come forward to say that Ryan exploited them.

Griffith’s entire statement can be found at the bottom of this story. It was shared first in the closed Facebook community, and then publicly on another Patheos site.

On Thursday night, Jonathan Ryan confirmed he is no longer associated with Sick Pilgrim.

“I was kicked out, actually,” Ryan said,

Ryan, who is 43, said he was removed from the blog for allegedly using the blog and Facebook group to meet women. Ryan said he has had three consensual relationships with women he has met through Sick Pilgrim, but that he has done nothing wrong.

“This is not a Harvey Weinstein situation,” he said.

The first relationship, Ryan said, was an “emotional” relationship with a woman who contacted him about a post he wrote for the blog. Ryan says they developed a deep relationship, but says, “Nothing happened, a lot of emotions going back and forth and that’s it.”

In a phone interview on November 16, Ryan denied, with qualifiers, that the relationship was sexual.

“No sexting that I remember. At least, I don’t think we did,” he said.

In a November 14 email from Ryan to Mesman and the board of Sick Pilgrim, Ryan said,

“The only woman from [Sick Pilgrim] that I’ve met or asked for a relationship is Donna. I’ve not sought, to my knowledge, to meet anyone other than Donna.”

“Donna” refers to Donna Provencher, who made a public statement a statement alleging exploitation by Ryan.

“(I)t may not be illegal to target vulnerable women whose spiritual lives have been exposed to you, who are openly struggling with depression and anxiety, who have told you all their deepest, darkest secrets — to tell them you want to marry them, keep them a dirty little secret, sleep with them, dump them, and start dating your next soulmate before the milk in your refrigerator expires – but it’s certainly a grievous breach of ethics for even an ordinary person, let alone one literally in the business of souls and bound to uphold integrity and Catholic ethics.”

Provencher’s entire story is here.

The second relationship Ryan acknowledged, in the phone interview of November 16, involves his blog partner Griffith. Ryan claims that the two shared a kiss after a night of drinking while recording a podcast. He says they ended up at his house, and that the contact was mutually consensual.

Griffith says she had newly arrived in Indianapolis after separating from her husband. She said, in a phone interview on November 17, “Ordinarily, I do not enjoy being in the same space as him.” Ryan told her his priest was coming to his house to bless it. Griffith says she was “in severe emotional distress, and he knew it. She says she told Ryan she “needed something holy” and that it “would do her soul good” to be there for the blessing.

But when she got there, the blessing was already over. Ryan and the priest, who is his employer at Zionsville, Indiana, were sitting outside on the patio drinking whiskey.

Griffith says she was in a terrible emotional state and hadn’t eaten in three days. She accepted a glass of whiskey and then another. She says she recorded the podcast, but was not conscious of what she was saying. She says Ryan told her he later deleted it, because it was “a drunken mess.”

“This never happens,” said Griffith. “It’s not like me. I was conscious, but not aware. The last thing I remember, I was sitting on the patio. The next thing I remember is waking up on his sofa in his living room with his hand up my shirt.”

Griffith says she immediately drove home and spent the next two days crying. “I was so horrified, I didn’t say anything,” she said. She says Ryan sent her “an outrageous love letter as if we’d had some deep meaningful experience. I wrote back one line, saying I’m traumatized this happened. He became angry and sent me an abusive response, as if I had wronged him.”

“I’m not denying the fact that something happened,” Ryan said.

Ryan claimed to have emails that he and Griffin shared in the days following this incident in which they were joking. He did not provide copies of the emails.

Ryan also denied, in a phone conversation on November 17, that he trash talked Griffith behind her back in order to diminish or undermine her, as Griffith alleges in her statement. “The fact is,” he explained, “she’s just a fucking nut to work with.”

When asked to explain that statement in light of his denying he spoke badly about Griffith, Ryan said he would tell people that Griffith can be difficult to work with.

In an email dated September 5, Ryan told Griffith (who is separated but still married),

“[I]f you want [our relationship] to be something more, and feel like all of this happened for a reason (us moving to Indy, etc and so on), then I’m here for that too. This is what I feel. I think all of this did happen for a reason and its not accident . . .
“I look at the picture of us in the graveyard, with you bending around the corner of the tombstone and smiling at me, and it just feels right. Full disclosure, I even have that picture on my desktop right now.”

 

Griffith said, “I was with a colleague and a member of the clergy. I felt I was in a safe space to have a meltdown. But there was a predator there.”

The incident happened in late August. Two weeks later, Griffith says, Ryan began a relationship with Donna Provencher. Provencher has saved all the emails from her relationship with Ryan, and will be expanding on her allegations in a forthcoming article here.
Griffith says he told Donna she was an egomaniac, that she wanted full control of Sick Pilgrim, that she was a bad mother and an alcoholic.

In another conversation later Friday afternoon, Ryan said that after Griffith and the board of Sick Pilgrim they were severing ties with him, he sent a letter to Griffith and Sick Pilgrim leadership seeking reconciliation. He does not want to rejoin the blog, but he does want to come to an understanding with them.

“I’m trying to do this the way Christ would do it,” Ryan said.

Ryan blamed Griffith and the others in Sick Pilgrim fro blindsiding him with the accusations, saying he wished they had come to him first.

“I’ve really been hurt by this whole thing,” Ryan said.

Ryan wants Griffith to select a priest or spiritual director to mediate with them, rather that going through a court battle.

“That’s not how Christ would do it,” he said.

In her statement, Provencher said:

“[Ryan] sent an email to another girl in Sick Pilgrim telling her he loved her and that God had destined them to be together for all time on Sept. 4th; that he was telling me the very same thing by Sept. 23rd; and then dumped me and started dating a close friend of his within a week or so of breaking up with me Oct. 23.”

Asked about the accusations that he acted in a predatory manner in his relationship with Provencher, Ryan said it was a consensual relationship. He initially denied knowing that Provencher has mental health issues, but when pressed Ryan said that Provencher had shared her mental health diagnosis with him. He then said he initially did not think of Donna Provencher as mentally ill, nut the she had a “histrionic” personality.
“That one’s a little fuzzy for me,” Ryan said.

Ryan, who is Pastoral Associate of Evangelization at Alphonsis Liguori Catholic Church in Zionsville, Indiana, said he simply wants to move one and be at peace with Griffith and the other in Sick Pilgrim.

“I want to do what Christ wants me to do, and that’s not pious bullshit,” Ryan said.

“He’s one of these people that sees the holy spirit speaking to him daily,” Griffith said in a conversation of November 17. He would talk openly about what the Holy Spirit wanted him to do, she said, and then change his mind the next day.

Griffith said she ignored red flags about Ryan’s behavior because the entire mission of the Sick Pilgrim online community, which includes about 200 people, was to make a place for odd people.

“We’re all weirdos,” she said. “It’s our charism. That’s the danger of a group like this. You say you’re open to everyone, but it’s hard to know where to draw the line. But this was beyond tolerating weirdness. This was getting predatory.”

People used the Sick Pilgrim online group as a place to “talk about stuff they felt like they couldn’t talk about in church,” Griffith said. “Many are on the fence about leaving, and have found a way to be Catholic again by finding this community.”
The group, says Griffith, “attracts vulnerable people, abuse victims, the mentally ill. But vulnerable people attract predators.”  Griffith says that she would occasionally have to warn people to be cautious, especially about making physical contact with people you’ve met online.
Griffith said she only had to remove three people in three years for inappropriate behavior; but with Ryan, she noticed open flirtation with women in the group that would escalate quickly, then disappear, and then the woman would leave the group.
“This happened a couple of times. This woman [Donna Provencher] was talking very openly about her challenges with mental illness. I saw open flirtation [between Provencher and Ryan], and then suddenly she left the group. Immediately after, Jon posted a very dramatic narrative about being in love with another woman that the Holy Spirit told him he was in love with.”
So Griffith reached out to her to ask if there was anything she could help with. She says Provencher wrote back within thirty seconds, saying she had been “dying to talk.” When she heard Provencher’s story, she said she had to act. Griffith says that Ryan made elaborate promises to Provencher, encouraged her not to trust anyone else in the group, met with her, had sex with her, then abruptly broke off the relationship.
 
In a phone conversation, Ryan described the relationship as “completely normal.” He called his removal from the blog, and the spiking of
Strange Journey, and overreaction.

“It is overkill,” he said on Thursday. “I have proof of everything I’m saying.” 

As of Friday evening, Ryan not yet provided this proof. 

An interview with the Provencher is scheduled for Monday. (Update: Provencher’s story is here.)

Ryan expressed concern that this development could cost him his job. He said no one had ever come to him about any potential issues in the past few years over his behavior.

Before he co-founded Sick Pilgrim, Ryan converted to Catholicism. He had been a Presbyterian minister.  Griffith says Ryan, who is divorced, initially claimed the had quit that job, but then admitted he had been removed, saying it was “not a good fit.” Ryan is also the author of two paranormal thrillers.

Griffith says that after her conversation with Provencher, she immediately went to the administrative board of Sick Pilgrim. They discussed the women’s testimony, and then consulted an attorney, afraid that the woman would be subject to retaliation. In addition to Provencher, two other women came forward at that point, providing testimony and screenshots that demonstrated predatory behavior by Ryan. These women are not willing to speak on record.

It was only at the end of the summer that Griffith discovered that Sick Pilgrim, which was established over three years ago, is in Ryan’s name only, although Griffith is the one who conceived of the blog, came up with the title, vision, and image, moderated the community, and edited all the essays for over seventy contributors. When she asked Ryan whether he had been paid during that time, he said the money had gone to direct deposit and he didn’t really notice it, and would pay her later.
In a phone conversation, Ryan said he spent the money that came in on things for Sick Pilgrim, such as podcast equipment.

The blog will remain dormant.

“I don’t know what will come of it,” Griffith says. “I don’t need scorched earth. I just don’t need him in a position to hurt vulnerable women.”

Griffith says it’s incredibly painful to see the destruction of the book she worked on for years, the site she founded, and the community she fostered. But “the book makes him appear a trustworthy spiritual guide,” she says. People assumed he was reliable because she associated with him, she says.

“I hate to think he’d use that to groom someone else. I’m not going to provide a henhouse for him to raid.”

***
Correction November 18: This article originally stated that Ryan is 41 years old. This was a typo. Ryan is 43.

***

BELOW IS THE OFFICIAL STATEMENT FROM JESSICA MESMAN GRIFFITH:
This is my official statement. I wanted to share with you before posting on the blog, as it contains more information and I didn’t want it to come as a shock to anyone. You should hear it from me. You’ve become like family to me. I can only say I’m sorry I didn’t speak out sooner as maybe it would have spared others some pain. #metoo indeed.
*
On Sunday, November 12, 2017, it came to my attention that there have been relationships between Jonathan Ryan, the co-founder of the Sick Pilgrim blog, and various women in the Sick Pilgrim online community–a community that had become, over the last year, a de facto support group for those recovering from spiritual abuse, in addition to a place for artists and writers to come together to discuss what inspires us and/or troubles us about the Catholic Church. (This Facebook community is a private group–one must request to join–but it’s not a secret. We have advertised it on the blog and on Facebook multiple times and invited anyone interested to send us a request to join.)
It quickly became apparent, upon investigation of these claims, that the relationships Jonathan had formed with several women he met through the blog and in the community had in fact been inappropriate, predatory and exploitative.
By Tuesday, November 14, the Sick Pilgrim administrative staff had collected enough testimony and evidence to send Jonathan a formal letter notifying him that he had been removed from the online community and should no longer publish any work or give interviews or public lectures under the name Sick Pilgrim.
We have always been committed to making our community members safe and have removed people from the online group for less. We have had a zero tolerance policy for online harassment that has often been controversial, but I’ve always wanted to err on the side of protection of the vulnerable. I consult with the admin team, but I take full responsibility for the decisions to remove members from the group.
Our decision to dismiss Jonathan Ryan from both the group and the blog–and to publicly denounce his actions–was based on the following:
–His position in the group was not that of a peer. It was that of a co-founder, former Presbyterian pastor, and current Catholic ministry leader, a holder of public trust. For this reason, he had a responsibility to the members of this group to carry himself with self-control and safety. He did neither.
–He private messaged women in the group with romantic intent, making plans or suggesting to meet with more than one of them in person. At least one has reported that when he met her in person, they had sexual intercourse.
This woman was (1) a good deal younger than him; (2) struggling openly (as narrated in the group) with mental illness; (3) in extremely stressful life, financial, and relational transition, and thus (4) quite obviously vulnerable. The power and position dynamics were simply inexcusable and unconscionable. We have evidence that he indicated to this younger woman that she could expect marriage–going so far as to pick out the chapel where they were to be wed–and that intercourse was part of that trajectory. Even if, at the time, this intercourse was consensual, the woman in question gave her consent under false pretenses. Again, the power and trust differential was severely abused.
–We have received, from multiple people, written statements and screenshots from conversational threads in which Jonathan narrated conflicting accounts of a disturbing predatory experience that I, personally, had with him in August of 2017. None of these accounts corresponds with reality, which included him groping me after I’d had too much to drink. I also received evidence that he was maligning my character and calling into question everything from my writing to my parenting and even my adherence to church teaching, presumably to undermine my credibility in advance of me telling my story.
This is why I believe the women who have come forward. I’m one of them.
Sick Pilgrim–the blog and the group–in addition to being a place for artists and “weirdos” to talk church, was conceived and designed as “a field hospital for the spiritually wounded.” Jonathan betrayed our trust and manipulated people who were attracted to our writing and the online group for this very reason. It is for their protection that he was swiftly and decisively removed.
Jonathan also wrote a number of posts condemning the narcissism and predatory behavior of abusive men–after assaulting me–which now strike us, at best, as disingenuous and at worst, as part of a pattern of grooming women to trust him as an ally.
The Sick Pilgrim community unequivocally repudiates Jonathan’s actions. We are an informal group of artists, writers, and theology buffs–not a legal entity, not a lay apostolate of the Catholic Church, not an intentional community. But it is important–essential–that we protect the marginalized and vulnerable among us, who have come to us for spiritual companionship and support. I will do everything in my power to do so.
To that end, I have also contacted Loyola Press, publisher of the book Strange Journey, which Jonathan and I co-authored about our experiences of healing and wonder in the Catholic Church. As a result, Loyola Press has terminated our contract. All remaining copies of the book will be destroyed. I stand by that decision and applaud Loyola for their swift response.
To say that I am deeply sorry for the wounds this has caused those who trusted us as friends, companions, colleagues, spiritual leaders and Catholic writers is the understatement of my lifetime. I began Sick Pilgrim in part as a project for my own healing from spiritual and emotional abuse, and these experiences and revelations have broken my heart all over again.
If you have questions or concerns or further information regarding this story, you may contact the administrative team of Sick Pilgrim at admin@sickpilgrim.com.

How dare Roy Moore call himself “pro-life?”

Remember when Al Gore, environmentalist extraordinaire, lived in a ridiculous mansion that gobbled up twenty times the national average of electricity?

Turns out that number is a bit off. There are some mitigating factors. BUT STILL. Make all the subtle excuses you want, BUT STILL. How can such a man call himself an environmentalist, and then act that way? It’s bad optics, at the very least, to shine giant spotlights on your evergreens all night, and then hop on a jet plane to lecture people about Africans messing up the ozone with their cooking fires. At worst, it’s sheer, arrogant hypocrisy. He is the problem, but there he goes, telling us he’s going to save us from the problem. How dare he tell us he’s here to fix the very thing he’s bringing about?

But his liberal groupies just ate it up! They listened to him, and treated him like some kind of prophet or savior, even though he was doing the opposite of what he preached. They totally ignored his flagrant hypocrisy, because he said what they wanted to hear.

I know you remember this, conservatives. I remember being outraged myself, and for good cause.

So now hold onto that sense of righteous outrage, and say to yourself, “Roy Moore is a pro-life champion.”

Roy Moore, who, as of this morning, is credibly accused by eight women of unwanted sexual aggression when they were teenagers and he was a powerful man twice their age. Tell yourself this is the man you must make your senator, because he is so pro-life.

How dare he tell us he’s here to fix the very thing he’s bringing about?

Maybe you are asking yourself, “Okay, maybe he’s a little sleazy, but what does that have to do with being pro-life? Even a horn dog can care about babies. We’re not looking for a saint, here; we’re just looking for someone who isn’t actively in favor of infanticide.”

Well, if you’re familiar at all with the birds and the bees, you’ll recall that women cannot conceive babies all by themselves. They do need a male participant.  Babies don’t come out of nowhere.

And neither does abortion.

Women seek out abortions for many reasons, and looming large among those reasons are: No one would help me take care of this baby. No one would believe me when I told them I was raped. No one would help me pay for the hospital bills. No one treated me like a person. He wouldn’t even admit he knew me. He saw me as an object for his pleasure. He told me no one would believe me. I was alone. I had no other choice. I was young and felt completely powerless. I didn’t even tell anyone. I knew they’d never believe me. I knew they would say it was my fault, so what other choice do I have? 

How dare Roy Moore tell us he’s here to fix the very thing he’s bringing about?

No one, as far as I know, is accusing Moore of raping and impregnating them. But neither are any of his supporters acknowledging the basic fact that women seek abortion because they have been let down by men who act exactly as Moore is accused of acting.

Instead, pundits and politicians who call themselves “pro-life” are saying, “Well, it was a long time ago . . . well, even Mary was only fourteen . . . well, it was just a misdemeanor . . . .well, at least he’s not as bad as that other guy.” That other guy, who isn’t pro-life, like Roy Moore.

Listen. I believe it’s important to work for pro-life laws. I believe the phenomenon of abortion is a hydra with countless heads, and it’s perfectly legitimate to pursue legal avenues against it. But that cannot be our only strategy. Abortion will never decrease until we understand why it exists in the first place.

Or at very least, stop calling ourselves pro-life while ardently tending the gardens where abortion takes root. At very least, stop making excuses for predators. At very least, stop reminding women and girls in crisis that no one cares about the trivial little misdemeanors they were born to endure at the hands of men.

How dare he tell us he’s here to fix the very thing he’s bringing about? How dare we let him?

 

If she was sexually assaulted, why didn’t she say something sooner?

“Me too” has passed, but in its wake, more and more women are publicly accusing powerful men of sexual assault.

2017 being what it is, there are no good guys, left or right. We elected an open sexual predator to lead our country in the paths of goodness and grace, and now republican hero Roy Moore is (please God) on his way out; but Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis CK are beloved of the left, and they too are guilty as hell.  Vox, ABC news and NPR are yielding up their pigs. The Atlantic has suddenly noticed that Bill Clinton is super guilty, and so is everyone who made excuses for him.

So, that’s new. We can no longer pretend that it’s only the deviant left or the hypocritical right who harbor sex predators. It’s everywhere. It’s everyone. And that makes it harder to cling to the old binary political fairytales of good us vs. evil them.

One thing hasn’t changed, though. When a woman comes forward and says she’s been assaulted, we can still come together as a country and tell her it’s all her fault. I wrote this essay back in 2014, at the height of the Bill Cosby scandal, and was discouraged, if not surprised, to see how few edits were necessary to make it relevant today.

Here is what I have learned about sexual assault:

  • If you tell the police you’ve been sexually assaulted, it’s because you’re looking for attention. You should file a civil suit, instead.
  • If you file a civil suit, it’s because you’re looking for money, and are not telling the truth.
  • If you don’t file a civil suit, that shows you don’t have a case, and are not telling the truth.
  • If you tell someone right away, that shows suspicious presence of mind, and proves that you engineered the whole thing to embarrass the alleged perpetrator.
  • If you don’t tell anyone right away, that shows a suspicious lack of urgency, and proves that you are making up the story for no reason other than to embarrass the alleged perpetrator.
  • If you don’t file a civil suit, it shows that you don’t need the money and are just doing it for attention, because people love the kind of fabulous attention they get when they accuse someone of sexual assault, especially if that person is popular or powerful.
  • If you do file a civil suit, it shows that you’re such a gold digger, you don’t mind getting all the horrible attention that no victim in her right mind would want to get, especially if the alleged perpetrator is popular or powerful.
  • If you’re the only one who accuses someone of sexual assault, it shows that your story is unbelievable.
  • If lots of other people make similar accusations, that is suspiciously orchestrated, and shows that your story is unbelievable.
  • If you were in the same room with the person who sexually assaulted you, that shows that you are just as guilty as he is, because you’re in the same room with a sexual predator, and who would do that?
  • If the person you’re accusing of sexual assault is rich, famous, or powerful, then that shows that you’re just looking for attention, and it never happened.
  • If the person you’re accusing of sexual assault is rich, famous, and powerful, that shows that you should have known he is a sexual predator, and you wanted it to happen.
  • If you tell someone right away, they will assume you’re lying.
  • If you don’t tell anyone right away, they will assume you’re lying, because you didn’t tell anyone right away.

If you tell, that’s a count against you. If you don’t tell, that’s a count against you. If you speak alone, that’s a count against you. If you speak as one of a crowd, that’s a count against you. If you sue, that’s a count against you. If you don’t sue, that’s a count against you.

If you tell someone that you’ve been sexually assaulted, it probably didn’t actually happen the way you said, and even if it did, it was your fault in some way, and you should have realized that it would happen, and there is no particular reason anyone should believe you, and if you think the rape itself was painful and humiliating, just wait till you see what you’ve got coming next, when you try to tell someone.

So why didn’t you tell someone sooner?

Clearly, because it didn’t happen. There can be no other explanation.

Here’s a recent tweet from Dinesh D’Souza:

And he’s answered his own question. If she was really sexually assaulted, why didn’t she come forward sooner?

This is why. What he said. When a victim does come forward, she is assaulted all over again.

This is what I’ve learned. If you’ve been sexually assaulted, your only real recourse is not to have been sexually assaulted. Anything and everything you do from that moment forward is evidence against you. The deck is stacked against you as a victim because you are a victim. They very moment you even breathe the phrase “sexual assault,” that’s evidence in the minds of many  that no such thing happened, and anyway it was your fault.

So tell me. What is a victim of sexual assault supposed to do, in order to be believed? What? You tell me.

Your recourse if you have been raped

My friend R. was raped many years ago. It was not a story with any gray areas. She was walking home from work when a large man grabbed her, beat and choked her, tied her up with duct tape, locked her up, and raped her dozens of times over the course of days. She eventually escaped and reported what happened as soon as she was able. The man was caught, convicted, and sent to prison.

She kept it a secret when it happened. She didn’t say anything until the day her story came up much later in the news, and she heard some women discussing  . . . her.

Not the rapist. Not the rape. They were discussing her — what she had been wearing, what her sexual history was, what she had been wearing, why she had been in that neighborhood, what she had been wearing, whether she had fought hard enough to get away, and why she hadn’t gone to the police sooner. Why had it happened in the first place? What should she have done differently? What had she been wearing?

And how do we know she’s even telling the truth?

I knew this woman. A gentle, generous, self-effacing human being, a lover of babies and kittens, honest to a fault. The women who wanted to talk about her skirt length didn’t know any this, because they didn’t know her. All they knew was that she had been raped.

And that in itself was a reason not to believe that she had been really raped. It must be her fault somehow. How do we know? Well, she says she was raped, and we know what kind of woman says a thing like that.

Bill Cosby’s attorney knows full well this is how people think, and he’s banking his entire defense argument on it.

Cosby is accused of drugging and sexually violating Andrea Constand. Constand is the only alleged victim in this case, but she is one of over sixty women who have publicly accused Cosby of sexual assault. As the accusations have filtered in over the course of decades, literally every circumstance surrounding the accusation is used against the alleged victim.

Last time Cosby was in the news in 2014, I compiled a list of arguments I heard over and over again — arguments that made me wonder if there was anything a raped woman could say, any way she could respond, any action she could take, that would make people believe her, or even give her the benefit of the doubt.

Here’s what I learned:

  • If you tell the police you’ve been raped, it’s because you’re looking for attention. You should file a civil suit, instead.
  • If you file a civil suit, it’s because you’re looking for money, and are not telling the truth.
  • If you don’t file a civil suit, that shows you don’t have a case, and are not telling the truth.
  • If you tell someone right away, that shows suspicious presence of mind, and proves that you engineered the whole thing to embarrass the alleged perpetrator.
  • If you don’t tell anyone right away, that shows a suspicious lack of urgency, and proves that you are making up the story for no reason other than to embarrass the alleged perpetrator.
  • If you don’t file a civil suit, it shows that you don’t need the money and are just doing it for attention, because people love the kind of fabulous attention they get when they accuse someone of rape, especially if that person is popular or powerful.
  • If you do file a civil suit, it shows that you want the money so badly that you don’t mind getting all the horrible attention that no victim in her right mind would want to get, especially if the alleged perpetrator is popular or powerful.
  • If you’re the only one who accuses someone of rape, it shows that your story is unbelievable.
  • If lots of other people make similar accusations, that is suspiciously orchestrated, and shows that your story is unbelieveable.
  • If you were in the same room with the person who raped you, that shows that you are just as guilty as he is, because you’re in the same room with a rapist, and who would do that?
  • If the person you’re accusing of rape is rich, famous, or powerful, then that shows that you’re just looking for attention, and it never happened.
  • If the person you’re accusing of rape is rich, famous, and powerful, that shows that you should have known he is a rapist, and you wanted it to happen.
  • If you tell someone right away, they will assume you’re lying.
  • If you don’t tell anyone right away, they will assume you’re lying, because you didn’t tell anyone right away.

If you tell, that’s a count against you. If you don’t tell, that’s a count against you. If you speak alone, that’s a count against you. If you speak as one of a crowd, that’s a count against you. If you sue, that’s a count against you. If you don’t sue, that’s a count against you.

If you tell someone that you’ve been raped, it probably didn’t actually happen the way you said, and even if it did, it was your fault in some way, and you should have realized that it would happen, and there is no particular reason anyone should believe you, and if you think the rape itself was painful and humiliating, just wait till you see what you’ve got coming next, when you try to tell someone.

So why didn’t you tell someone sooner?

Clearly, because it didn’t happen. There can be no other explanation.

What I’ve learned is that if you’ve been raped, your only real recourse is not to have been raped. Because anything and everything you do from that moment forward is evidence against you. The deck is stacked against you as a victim because you are a victim. They very moment you even breathe the word “rape,” that’s evidence in the minds of many that no such thing happened, and anyway it was your fault.

Your only real recourse is not to have been raped.

***

Photo by dilettant:nikki via Flickr (Creative Commons)

A portion of this post originally ran at the National Catholic Register in 2014.