‘I’m a survivor’: Parishioner finds strength in faith even after abuse

Catholic Review - Archdiocese of Baltimore [Baltimore MD]

February 8, 2023

By George P. Matysek Jr.

Patty Ruppert was trembling so badly she wasn’t sure she would get through her talk.

Standing in front of her fellow parishioners at the conclusion of an evening Mass in December, the faith formation director at Immaculate Heart of Mary revealed a painful secret few knew about her: she is a survivor of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

“I stand here to try to help others put a face to this horrible reality of abuse,” said Ruppert, who gave the same address at all the liturgies that weekend.

The church is more than clergy, hierarchy or stone buildings, she said, and faith is not rooted in a priest, bishop or anyone else.

“My faith,” she insisted, “is in Jesus Christ.”

When the 64-year-old lector and extraordinary minister of holy Communion finished her presentation, parishioners rose to their feet for an extended ovation. Many came up to her after Mass to thank and hug her.

“The most repeated phrases said to me after the reflection were, ‘I didn’t know’ and ‘I had no idea,’” Ruppert told the Catholic Review. “That is exactly why I shared the talk.”

Ruppert, who called the experience of telling her story both “terrifying” and “cathartic,” wants Catholics everywhere to know there are many other stalwart abuse survivors just like her who have chosen to remain in the Catholic Church.

The lifelong Catholic has no judgment on those who have left after being abused, she said, nor does she want to diminish anyone else’s story. But she wants to encourage others who wish to continue in their faith journey even as they carry a pain she knows can be unbearable.

“I won’t let the abusers take away my love for Jesus Christ,” she said. “I don’t have any need to advertise my past, but I hope I can help just one other person who has a similar story to know it is okay to still be Catholic and part of a church community.”

‘No longer a victim’

Looking into the sea of faces of the middle school students she teaches at St. Joseph School in Cockeysville sometimes takes away Ruppert’s breath.

When Ruppert was their age some five decades ago, a lay teacher at a Catholic school in Baltimore started sexually abusing her.

“It began very innocently,” Ruppert said in an interview with the Catholic Review.

The eighth grader, who was struggling through the divorce of her parents and dealing with typical teen angst, was then a transfer student to the school after the closure of another Catholic school she had attended.

Her teacher, a large man who had recently married, seemed to offer a listening ear.

“We stayed after school and we talked,” Ruppert said. “Then a hug turned into something else.”

Ruppert wasn’t alone in enduring the abuse. The teacher involved another eighth grader.

“He manipulated us so that one of us would be in the cloakroom with him and the other would be sitting in the classroom to watch if anyone came in,” she said.

After Ruppert later confided to a priest that the teacher had abused her for more than a year, the clergyman promised he could “rewrite the bad tapes” of her memory. That became an excuse for him to sexually abuse her, too.

That abuse continued for about a year, and the priest left ministry in 1976.

Ruppert’s trauma didn’t end there.

In the mid-1970s, when Ruppert worked in the rectory of a Baltimore parish, an elderly priest who frequently smelled of alcohol called her to his room and sexually abused her. After that encounter, Ruppert made sure a friend was with her when she worked at the rectory so Ruppert could hide under the desk whenever the priest came around.

When Ruppert was a young adult, a priest who had previously served at her home parish in Baltimore and later became pastor of St. Patrick in Fells Point guided Ruppert through some difficult times.

The priest, who had training in pastoral counseling, knew everything about Ruppert from the time she was 12, even baptizing Ruppert’s daughter and serving as her son’s godfather.

When Ruppert was a divorced single parent in her late 20s, the well-respected priest began a sexual relationship with her. At the time, Ruppert thought it was consensual. She now realizes he had exploited all her vulnerabilities.

Counseling has helped Ruppert grapple with the barrage of abuse she suffered over her life. It’s also helped the Seton High School graduate understand that it isn’t unusual for one person to be victimized by multiple abusers. At the time of her abuse, she said, she was very vulnerable.

“I’m a person who tries to see the good in everybody,” she said, noting that all but one of her abusers is dead. “I’m very trustful. And, obviously, that’s part of the target on my forehead because it becomes very apparent that I’m trusting.”

Ruppert, who has a special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and a love for the Blessed Virgin Mary, said she never considered abandoning her faith. She earned degrees from Loyola University Maryland and St. Mary’s Seminary and University, both in Baltimore. She taught in Catholic schools for more than 20 years and is a former principal of Sisters Academy of Baltimore and two Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington. 

Rick, her husband of 30 years with whom she has given retreats for Catholic Engaged Encounter, has been encouraging and supportive, as have priest friends. She’s deeply saddened that good priests are besmirched by the actions of bad ones.

“It’s so unfair to them,” she said. “Not every man in a black shirt and white collar is evil.”

Ruppert is bracing for what will come if the Maryland Attorney General’s report on clergy sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore is released to the public. She answered the attorney general office’s questions about her own abuse and fully supports the release of the document. She anticipates that the names of her clergy abusers will be included in the report. 

“For years, I felt like I was a victim,” said Ruppert, who wears a cross and Miraculous Medal around her neck. “My whole self-image and self-esteem was affected by what I had been through. In being able to grow emotionally and spiritually, I’ve realized that I’m no longer a victim. I’m a survivor.”

Asked if she has forgiven the men who abused her, Ruppert paused before responding.

“I’m working on it,” she said.

Anyone with knowledge of child sexual abuse must report it immediately to civil authorities. If clergy or other church personnel is suspected of committing the abuse, the Archdiocese of Baltimore asks that it also be reported to the archdiocesan Office of Child and Youth Protection at 410-547-5599.