Reconnecting with God after sexual abuse

The Age [Melbourne, Australia]

February 6, 2022

By Cullan Joyce

As far back as I can remember, I have been interested in spirituality. In my teenage years I spent a lot of time in various Buddhist and Christian monastic communities across Australia, practising and learning what I could.

But there was something about Jesus that struck me the most. Jesus was a compelling witness to an experience of the sacred that is deeply loving, wise and challenging; and Christians were kind, generous and well-grounded people, all the things I needed at the time.

In my early 20s I was sexually assaulted in a Christian community. My assailant had set themselves up as my spiritual mentor but was in fact grooming me. After numerous assaults, I fell into despair. My ability to trust and to form close, loving relationships was seriously compromised, as was my ability to connect to God from my heart and feelings.

These dark times included suicidal thoughts and being open to love was incredibly painful. To find peace and solace I would often retreat into my head or dissociate from my body. This brought on intense internal experiences, some good, some bad; I rarely disclosed them. Deep unexpressed feelings of hurt, fear and anger made me feel unworthy and unloved. At times I couldn’t fully relax or meditate unless I felt absolutely safe.

When I read spiritual texts or got advice, I sometimes interpreted my suffering in a spiritual manner – like my assault was a learning experience to bring me closer to God. Now I view this approach as “spiritual bypassing”: using spiritual experiences and explanations to avoid facing unresolved emotional issues and psychological wounds.

Recovering from sexual abuse has been an ongoing battle. I spent years in therapy while continuing my spiritual practices. Healing has been slow but hearing other survivors’ stories, especially from other men, has allowed me to acknowledge myself as a survivor of sexual abuse.

Recently, I was contacted by the Church community in which my abuse occurred. I received an apology and some financial compensation. Perhaps it was 20 years too late, but the recognition that wrong was done to me has helped me release some of the pain I have carried.

Today, in my early 40s, my spirituality has become more heartfelt. I am more open to love, and have a beautiful, loving partner. My current practice is more about being present to the world and being open to love for myself and others. Now, when I want to connect to the sacred, I look at the stars or the sky or listen to the wind or the trees or the magpies.

Cullan Joyce is lecturer in spirituality and philosophy at Catholic Theological College, which is at the University of Divinity.