'From Hurt to Healing'
Woman Molested by Priests Tells Her Story to Help Other Victims and the Catholic Church

By Bruce Nolan
New Orleans Times-Picayune [Louisiana]
September 4, 2004

As with many other victims of sexual abuse, Mona Villarrubia's psychic damage lay buried and ticking away for years, long after the acts stopped during her childhood in England.

It emerged with a fury in the late 1980s when Villarrubia, a young mother and a Catholic high school religion teacher, found herself raging inexplicably at her two bewildered sons, then careening into black depression she was powerless to check.

Years of grueling therapy followed. A serious flirtation with suicide. Two hospitalizations for reasons left unclear to unsuspecting co-workers, first at Mount Carmel and then St. Mary's Dominican high schools.

But in a major coming-out that she hopes will help both the Catholic Church and other victims, Villarrubia tells much of the story in a new book, "From Hurt to Healing."

It is a memoir that recounts her sexual abuse at the hands of two trusted priests and the ways it distorted all her roles as an adult: as a mother, friend, sister, wife and lover.

"Hurt" relies heavily on years of journals Villarrubia kept during therapy, supplemented by narratives, short poems and stark lists of injuries she came to understand flowed from her abuse.

Some examples: olfactory hallucinations, jealous anger at her own children's happy normalcy, a confusion about touch so deep she was sometimes hesitant to shake hands, and long bouts of bathroom weeping after moments of marital intimacy.

"I didn't want to pretty it up," Villarrubia said. That would be a disservice partly to the Catholic community of bishops, priests and victims advocates she hopes to educate -- but, more important, to other sex-abuse victims still suffering in silence.

"In a sense, this is their story, too," she said.

Painful process

Villarrubia compares therapy to the agony of cutting away burn victims' dead tissue. There's the painful stripping off of a scab, the exposure of the raw wound beneath, slow healing and then attention to the next scab.

There are many such scabs.

Still, "in many ways, I'm a much healthier person than I've ever been," she said.

"That said, I can still be pushed into a spiral" -- by which she means weeks of anxiety or depression. The most recent one occurred in the spring, triggered by disturbing news from England related to her own sexual abuse.

Villarrubia's story is slightly unusual in one way. Her struggle flows from more than childhood sexual abuse.

She is unsparing in describing her upbringing in a dysfunctional family headed by an overworked, defeated mother and an emotionally distant, volatile father whose moods, she said, whipsawed the children between arctic loneliness and fear at his towering rages.

One telling sign of those times: Villarrubia as a child came to believe that God had neglected to give her a guardian angel.

Years of abuse

Yet, in another way, her story is like that of many others that emerged during the sexual-abuse scandals that swept the church in 2002: One of her molesters was a treasured friend of the family, a trusted priest who regularly brought small gifts on his visits.

Twice a month for years -- from when Villarrubia was about 4 to about 11 -- her mother went off to make tea while the priest hoisted the child onto his lap and fondled her inside her clothes, she said.

As a teenager, she said, she encountered a second priest who manipulated her school-girl crush in ways that led to more fondling.

Years later, Villarrubia learned that three of her siblings also were secretly molested by priests or religious brothers.

And then a major revelation: Her mother explained her father's difficult ways with the disclosure that, as a child, he had been raped by a priest in Ireland, she said.

Faith and frustration

Yet unlike most other victims, Villarrubia remains in the church -- not only as a believer, but as a student and lover of its faith and intellectual heritage.

She sees her Catholicism as part of her identity. "It's so much of who I am and what defines me," she said.

But she is angry at the church, too. And her anger runs on many levels.

Indeed, the book emerged in part from the contradictory tensions she felt in the past two years as she reached out in solidarity to other emerging victims of clerical sexual abuse.

On the one hand, she was one of them, wanted to stand with them and confront the church with them, she said. And, on the other, she wanted to retain her relationship to the church as a teacher of its traditions in a Catholic school.

"I couldn't continue working for the church if I was somehow enabling the secrecy, including my own secrecy. In a way, it was like sleeping with the enemy," she said.

"I couldn't continue teaching religion if I hadn't written it."

'It was risky'

To be sure, Villarrubia consulted with her employers at St. Mary's Dominican. Last spring, she asked President Cynthia Thomas to sign off on the book before offering Villarrubia a new teaching contract for the current school year.

"It was risky, but I trust the people I work with," she said. "They are women of great integrity. Their theology is sophisticated. Their understanding of the church and human nature is nuanced."

Thomas read the book; she and Villarrubia also shared it with Archbishop Alfred Hughes, who asked that several key aides read it, including Sister Carmelita Centanni, the archdiocese's sex-abuse victims advocate, and the Rev. William Maestri, a theologian and Hughes' point man with the public on the sexual-abuse issue. Maestri has since become superintendent of Catholic schools.

In a short appendix after her personal story, Villarrubia argues that the safety of children demands that Catholic theology "demythologize" the priesthood in ways not consistent with the current theology of the priesthood.

The essay was once much tougher. It contained strong pleas for a noncelibate priesthood and women priests, Villarrubia said.

After meetings with Maestri, she agreed to strike 1 pages of text on those topics. "It was more important that the book be published than I be some sort of avant-garde theologian -- as if," she said, laughing, "as if . . . Has anybody not said this before?"

Villarrubia was offered a new teaching contract, and the book emerged in the Barnes & Noble online catalog. It is published by a small "print-on-demand" publisher. Villarrubia gets royalties, but marketing is left up to her.

Role on review board

And there has been one more consequence: Hughes asked Villarrubia to join the lay-dominated review board that hears initial allegations of sexual abuse against priests and advises Hughes on their estimate of the credibility.

She will become the first abuse victim to join the social workers, psychologists, lawyers and ordinary parents on the board.

She hopes the book will have a wider effect -- that it will become a resource for bishops and other church leaders, "so they understand the issues beyond lawsuits and settlements."

"And my hope is that it may become a source for healing by other victims."


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