Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Spokane woman hopes her story of abuse helps others to heal
Story and photo by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Regsiter staff
(From the Dec. 4, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)
Bernadine Van Thiel of Spokane (photo, right) is a woman with a purpose. She wants people who have been sexually abused by priests who think they are “scarred for life,” to know they can find “God’s grace” to heal what happened to them.
How does she know? She speaks from experience. She grew up in Kenosha, Wis., and as a small girl in the 1920s, was an abuse victim herself, abused, she says, by a priest who was her father’s cousin. When she told her parents, they punished her severely for saying that “such a holy man” could do such a thing.
“Not only was I abused,” she said, “I was abandoned by those who were supposed to love and protect me.” The denial that her parents expressed about what a priest had done is not uncommon, VanThiel said. “Some deny it today.”
A letter to an editor in a publication started Van Thiel thinking that her story could help others. The letter writer stated that sexual abuse “‘scarred victims for life.’ That’s not true,” Van Thiel said. “There can be healing.
“I thought if I came forth (with my story), it would take away the shame and embarrassment people feel and give them hope,” she said.
Van Thiel has already gone to a meeting of the Voice of the Faithful and plans to attend “at least one” meeting of SNAP (Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests).
After her abuse, Van Thiel said she lived her life on two levels. “It was really hard.” She married and raised a family. She and her husband worked for the church. “I buried the pain and put on a nice facade,” she said, “continually striving to please and excel. I could recognize my many blessings, and was happy on the surface, but always there was a deep pain, grief ... and feelings of worthless and guilt.”
There were signs, though, of what she had buried so deeply. Van Thiel said she was “uncomfortable around priests,” and didn’t know why. She had adamantly refused to allow her abuser to officiate at her wedding, even though her parents wanted her to ask him. She knew only that she didn’t like him.
“I think it was the first time I stood up to my parents,” she said. “Ours was a very authoritarian household. Obedience, responsibility” were important characteristics for many families of that generation.
Van Thiel’s healing was a process that took place “over perhaps five years.” A Religious Sister in Texas helped bring the abuse to the surface. Then Van Thiel attended several healing services given by Father Ralph DiOrio of Worcester, Mass. The priest has an extensive healing ministry. Since she helped with the services he gave in Spokane, she decided she wanted to attend one as a guest. So she and her husband, Bob, went to Boise, where Father DiOrio had been scheduled.
This marked an important moment for Van Thiel. “He asked everyone to be very quiet and very still. Then he said God was calling those who had been sexually abused to come forth for healing. My heart was pounding as I thought: ‘Oh my gosh, I’m one of those people.’ But I wanted to be healed so I went down front...”
Her final healing took place at a mission at St. Thomas More Church in Spokane.
“Gradually I came to understand the causes so deeply buried. My healing continued through various situations and persons, through the power of prayer for inner healing and the wondrous grace of God,” she said.
What Van Thiel wants to tell victims is that healing comes through forgiveness. “The biggest block to any healing is holding unforgiveness and refusing to let go and let God work at healing the victim and bringing justice to the accuser. Forgiveness is a choice I make with my free will, regardless of whether I feel forgiving. It does not deny the horrific trauma of what has happened; it brings freedom.”
Van Thiel is also aware that to forgive does not mean everything is once again fine. “We need to continue to work for change and to speak our truth, for all of us are the church, the Body of Christ,” she said.
Today Van Thiel is a member of Assumption Parish in Spokane. She has been involved with the Charismatic Renewal, Marriage Encounter, and Parish Renewal.
“If they peeled back my skin,” she laughed, “I think they’d find the word ‘Catholic’ etched all through me. In spite of it all, I continue to love my church with all her warts and wrinkles!”