Healed of Sexual Abuse: A Counselorís Story
After years as a Christian counselor helping clients through abuse pain, it was my turn to walk a healing path.

Brian Savelkoul, M.A., L.P.C.

Thirty years ago at the age of 16, our parish priest, who was highly admired in our small town, molested me at his park cottage after a night of fellowship with us and another altar boy my age. This emotional wound and spiritual betrayal was devastating to me at this developmental time in my life. It distorted my image of God, the clergy and myself. The process of healing has been intense and painful at times. Most of my personal healing took place about six years ago through another Catholic priest.

As a professional counselor who has now gone through a healing process from sexual and spiritual abuse by the clergy, I have gained some deeper insights that I hope will be of encouragement to those in need of overcoming some form of betrayal.

The man who molested me and other boys was in many ways a good priest. He was a compassionate, kind and supportive person. He genuinely cared for those he served. He represented Jesus in our community and was highly thought of by those who knew him.

Unfortunately he had some unhealed hurts of his own in addition to unresolved sexual issues. To be betrayed by a good person is more painful and bewildering than betrayal by an evil person. I will refer to him as Father First since he was my first spiritual “father.”

Betrayed

Waking up that morning to discover him touching me sexually shocked, confused and stunned me. I felt paralyzed. In the movie Braveheart, there is a scene where William unmasks what he thinks is an enemy only to discover it is his supposedly trustworthy friend and ally. It took his breath away. That‘s how I felt. It was hard to breathe as fear and shame seemed to choke me. It didn’t make sense. How could a man of God do this? Father First had always been like Jesus to me. He counseled and encouraged me throughout my adolescent years. We talked, laughed, prayed and ate meals together. Now he was behaving like a vile pervert. It made me physically sick.

Being young, I dealt with this traumatic event as best I knew how. I told no one about the weekend. The experience was too shameful and emotionally overwhelming. I reasoned that all people had sin in their lives and this happened to be his. I forgave as best I could and continued on with life. Later I would learn that I had used a defense mechanism called suppression to deal with the crisis. I pushed the shame, guilt, fears and confusion to the back of my mind so I wouldn’t have to deal with them.

Twenty-four years later, after years working as a Christian counselor helping clients through abuse pain, I guess it was my turn to walk a healing path. I had been content to suppress my experience, but God had a better way. Jesus began working through friends, pastors and priests to de-fang this hidden dragon that no longer seemed content to be shut up in silence.

Healing is a mystery that somehow requires our natural healing abilities, God’s Spirit and our willingness. I decided to go along with what Jesus was doing.

Piercing the Wound

I believe God had been preparing me for this journey through years of working with clients. Being a counselor is at times like being a midwife. You support, assist and encourage the work that God is doing in people. It is an unpredictable work between God’s Spirit and those in need of healing.

It began when my curiosity was aroused through a Sunday morning sermon on “loving your enemies.” I kept running into this Scripture. I shared it with other Christians as we pondered what it really meant. I felt challenged by the idea. I could not think of any real enemies. Nobody had tried to kill me that I knew of. I got along with almost everybody. How can you love an enemy if you don’t have one?

But I had one.

The first incision in my heart took place when a friend and co-leader took an opposing liberal view on homosexuality in our home fellowship group. The man, whose wife had cancer, expressed the opinion that homosexuality is not sinful. When he said that, I began to boil and strain with anger as the putrid, infected wound deep within me began pushing to the surface. I went from being very compassionate for him and his wife to being ready to attack him for what he was saying. His words acted like the lancet that pierced the infection. Suddenly, the painful secret I’d kept hidden all those years came spewing out.

Feeling the Rage

As an adult now becoming fully aware of the pain of being sexually abused, I saw for the first time a real enemy in Father First. Serving for six years in the Army, I knew what one does to true enemies. I felt rage for the first time over being molested. It was rage of the nature that any parent would feel when they discover a trusted friend has sexually abused one of their children.

I did not feel just shame and fear this time. I was in a full-blown fury that had enough power to kill and emasculate the man who did this. With my heart made raw with pain, I knew I no longer had the will or ability to ignore the poison his sin had deposited in my soul long ago.

I assigned myself the same task that I had given to many of my clients. I wrote a long honest emotional letter to my abuser sharing all the hurt, rage, shame, and confusion I was experiencing. I wrote with adult words and strength, not with the timid shyness of a child. I questioned if there was any hope to reconcile and overcome this trauma.

As I attempted to read the letter to my pastor with whom I had requested some counseling, I found it impossible to talk without erupting in tears and emotional regurgitation. The grief, anger, shame and lost feelings all seemed to trip over each other as they found their way from my heart to my lips. I was exhausted after finishing the letter. I felt a lot of relief in sharing with a spiritual leader for the first time, but I also knew there was more to do.

Reckoning and Reconciliation

Talking with my pastor was a big step, but I wanted to talk to a priest in person. My pastor referred me to a priest in Colorado Springs. I asked the priest, Father Paul, if he would meet with me for a private session. I specifically requested that he meet me in his priestly black robe and white collar. I wanted to meet with a priest who resembled the Father First of my past. Father Paul later shared he was quite anxious about our meeting. Would this be a move towards reconciliation and healing or retaliation at the priesthood? He came in faith as I did, hoping God would do something. We were not disappointed.

I shared with Father Paul my story and desire to move beyond simple emotional awareness to a deeper sense of healing and resolution. In my mind was the Lord’s command to love our enemies and to bless those who hurt us. As a Christian counselor I was also familiar with 1 Peter 3:9-10 that encourages us to not repay evil for evil but with blessing. How weird, it seemed, to bless an abuser, especially a spiritual leader who had misused his power and position in such a sick and pathetic way. God’s word can sometimes go against our most basic instincts about justice, right and wrong.

An Encounter With the Living Christ

Father Paul led the session by asking me to sit quietly, close my eyes and go wherever Jesus led me. He knew I was visually oriented since I had requested him to dress up in full priestly garments. Prayers for Jesus’ help were said. Within seconds I went in my mind to the Catholic church I grew up in North Dakota. I saw myself at Father First’s funeral. He was in the casket in the center aisle of the church and I was trying to give a eulogy that would bless him like you are supposed to do at funerals. The church was dark. Jesus was dead on a crucifix behind me. Nothing was really happening except my struggle to say the right words.

Father Paul suggested I invite the “Living Christ” into the scene. What happened next was and remains incredibly awesome to me.

Jesus appeared in full white dress with His quiet gentle power. He touched me on the arm as if to say, stop. No words are needed. I knew He was taking over. It was time for me to be quiet and follow the Master.

He asked me if I loved Him, to which I replied, “Yes.” Jesus then led me from behind the pulpit toward the coffin. We stopped a few feet in front of the casket. Without a pause He reached toward the casket, opened it and touched the dead man, Father First. To my amazement, Father First sat up in the coffin. His hair was messed up, like when one wakes up from a long night of restless sleep. He looked about my age and was dressed in casual clothes. This was not the fatherly priest of my youth. This was just a normal guy, somewhat dazed looking, wondering what was about to happen. He looked weak and needy.

Talk about a therapeutic moment! I was looking at an enemy, a friend, a priest and a common guy. Now what? Shove him back in the coffin? Condemn him? Reach out and forgive him again? Do nothing?

Healed

One of my prayers was that Jesus would take away Father First’s sin and restore the relationship we had prior to the abuse. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, so here was an opportunity to see a tangible removal of a sin. I saw myself react like Joseph did when he saw his brothers for the first time after they sold him into slavery. All I could do was cry. Then I put my arms around him and pulled him out of the casket. We both wept. We hugged. We did not have to say anything. We were both being cleansed of our respective pain. His guilt and my hurt were somehow being washed, and hearts were healing through the tears and grace given to us in that moment.

When we had grieved for a while, Jesus stepped between us, taking hold of us by our hands. He then began a slow movement to the right that evolved into some kind of Hebrew dance. As we danced we all felt joy and peace that was incredibly beautiful. The lights brightened in the sanctuary and other people from the church began to join us in the dance. Could these be the others that were hurt? All things will be made new, His Word says. We were seeing the redemptive work of Christ taking place in us.

As all this was happening, I was sharing it with Father Paul who was praying for me during the session. We were both overwhelmed with what happened. We have talked about it many times since.

Lessons Learned

I share my story to encourage others. I’ve gained a few insights going through this. Hopefully others may find hope in what I’ve learned both as a counselor, but more importantly as one who has been helped by the Wonderful Counselor.

First, Jesus is completely Sovereign. I did nothing to bring about what happened to me. I did nothing to bring about my healing. I cooperated like a baby cooperates during birth. Healing comes when the time is right. Some things cannot be overcome until adulthood. As in the birthing process, when its time, the truth will emerge.

Second, those through whom you are wounded might also be the ones through whom God chooses to heal. Maybe, not the specific person, but the group. In my case, God chose to minister to me through a Catholic priest with no direct relation to the priest who abused me.

Third, reconciliation, not retaliation, is the way God would have us deal with the bad things that happen to us. Reconciliation is indeed possible with Jesus who really does take away sins. I believe in Heaven we will not be able to see our sins or anybody else’s.

Finally, love is the seed and fruit of real healing. To love an enemy is impossible by simple human willpower, but through Christ, for Whom all things are possible, it can become a sweet fruit on the tree of our faith.


Brian Savelkoul is a licensed professional counselor who lives in Colorado Spring, Colo. He and his wife Cindy have two sons, aged 17 and 22.

:: back ::