Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
An abuse victim speaks out:
‘If it hadn’t been for Bishop Skylstad ...
I don’t think I’d be alive today’
by Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor, Inland Register
(From the Dec. 2, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)
"I’m in a very, very good place – a better place than I have been in 30 years. In all honesty, if it hadn’t been for Bishop Skylstad, even if he hadn’t offered the counseling — if it hadn’t been for him just sitting and listening to me, I don’t think I’d be alive today.”
Those are the words of Marjorie Garza (pictured, left). She came to the Inland Register. She wanted to tell her story – the story of her personal experience with the Diocese of Spokane.
Everyone’s story is unique. Her story has a number of defining characteristics. She is a victim of sexual abuse by a woman Religious.
She says the abuse happened during her years in Religious formation, while living in the Spokane Diocese. Female; abused by another woman, a woman in Religious life, rather than in diocesan ministry.
Garza is adamant: The help the diocese has given her, as she attempts to deal with the trauma of her past, has saved her life.
The Spokane Diocese has been reaching out to victims of sexual abuse for some time now, offering counseling and assistance with medications. Some alleged victims dismiss that assistance as nearly irrelevant or unimportant, Garza said. For her, that counseling, that assistance with medication, was deeply symbolic, as well as a literal act of kindness and compassion.
Garza says she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder some 25 years after the abuse took place. Since leaving Religious life, she fought with depression, despair, a sense of hopelessness born of the false belief that she had somehow betrayed God, betrayed her vocation.
“You have to understand, these aren’t easy times,” she said during an interview in Spokane last month. “When I talked to Bishop Skylstad, it’s not like we’re just getting together and having a chat. You go in there with such a heavy heart and such despair, when you’re in the depths, you’re really reaching up to have somebody hear you, and when somebody does reach down and helps pull you up, that’s incredible. I don’t say that lightly.”
Garza, now a Community Corrections Officer 2 for the Washington State Department of Corrections, describes the difficulties she has had in dealing with her past.
She grew up poor in Montana, the second youngest of six. She and one of her sisters slept in the living room. Her private space consisted of a drawer in her brother’s room. The whole family worked in the fields as laborers.
She was 11 the summer she begged her mother to give her one day off from working in the fields – “begged her, to let me go to Sunday school for one day. The Sisters who were running it came out and talked her into it. That’s the best day I had.”
It was around that time she began to discern a call to Religious life. She finished high school and entered vocational school in Bozeman, studying to be a physical therapy aide. She met Sisters from the community she eventually would join.
Formation was another world.
“I grew up, Hispanic, we had nothing,” Garza said, “a very sheltered world.” Her family was not particularly supportive of her decision to enter Religious life.
“Then I came into this white community, and my voice was heard as well as everyone else’s. It was a big deal.”
She wanted to serve God.
She believes she was groomed by the woman who abused her. “I was the focus,” of the individual’s attention, Garza said. “I was, wow – someone’s paying attention to me…. She was the person everyone liked. I wanted to be like her.”
In time, when she realized what was happening, what had happened, like many victims of sexual abuse, she blamed herself.
“I’ve never lost faith in God,” said Garza. “I thought I had betrayed God. My betrayal was so huge. It’s like, when you die, you believe that, as a Christian, you believe that God is there after you die. And for how many years have I thought, why would God be there for me when I had betrayed him so horribly? I would be afraid of dying because I had nowhere to go. I had nowhere to go now: I had betrayed the nuns, betrayed my vocation to serve God. That was pretty awful.”
She felt she had no one to talk to within the community; there was no comfort outside the community.
In despair, bereft of anywhere to belong, within the Church or outside it, she left Religious life and wandered. Unemployed, without focus, without a sense of community or support, she went from place to place. She stood in soup lines; she lined up at Christmas bureaus. Eventually, she recovered enough to work as a city bus driver. “I drove for 17 years, not thinking, not doing anything.”
In time, she gave birth to a son. And in time, she realized what had happened to her.
One of the triggers for her journey toward wholeness has been the secular media’s coverage of the Spokane Diocese’s efforts to heal the abuse crisis.
“It’s been horrible seeing them talking about Bishop Skylstad, making it sound like he’s a conspirator,” said Garza.
What victims want – what she wanted – is to be heard. “I wanted to be heard,” she repeated. “But I hadn’t been. When I went to the bishop he sat there, and he heard me. I told him everything, and he listened. He listened to me. He didn’t dismiss me. He’s been there every time I’ve called him. He reached into his own pocket and gave me money,” to help her through a rough economic period.
Bishop Skylstad also connected Garza with Mary Butler, the diocese’s Victims Assistance Coordinator. “Mary’s been just fantastic,” Garza said.
When she read about the diocese’s offer of counseling for any victim of sexual abuse by church personnel, no matter where the abuse took place, she called Father Steve Dublinski, the diocese’s Vicar General. “I asked if I was eligible. He said yes, I was. That’s dramatic in and of itself. Because the diocese did not have to take responsibility for me. He could have just said no. But he didn’t.”
“It’s been my privilege to be available to Marjorie and to see her healing in action,” said Butler. “I often wish that there were more of our wounded who would allow themselves to be part of our healing services.”
Garza is not entirely healed. She knows that. She knows that the process has begun, and the diocese has played a huge role in helping her begin that healing.
The Religious community to which she once belonged paid her a settlement and paid for “six or 10” counseling sessions. She knew she needed more – another reason she approached the diocese. But that wasn’t without some reservation.
“I was afraid the counseling and help were going to stop at some point,” said Garza. “And Mary Butler said, no. It’s not going to stop. And the bishop has told me this, too. They have both always said, we want you to heal. That’s all they’ve said. We want to make sure you’re healed.
“What I’d like to say is, I think the people in the diocese have to be reassured that they have a good leader.”
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