At 50, I had a flashback to a priest abusing me as a child. Then I decided to confront him

The Guardian [London, England]

April 16, 2024

By Anna Moore

Mary Dispenza spent years as a nun and working in the church before her buried memories rose to the surface. It was the start of her long journey towards justice and peace

Mary Dispenza was almost 50 when she experienced her first flashback. At the time, she was in a workshop entitled Sexual Misconduct on the Part of the Clergy, which she had been asked to attend as part of her job in pastoral support for the Roman Catholic archdiocese in Seattle. To this day, she isn’t sure what words unleashed that memory.

She recalls only how clammy her hands became and how the room suddenly started spinning as she saw her seven-year-old self being lifted on to the lap of a priest in a dark, empty auditorium. She knew in an instant who he was.

Dispenza urgently wanted to leave that workshop, but she sat through to the end. “I didn’t fall apart, I didn’t tell anyone, but it cracked me open and woke me up,” she says. “It was amazing to me that I could really bury that for so long … but that’s what we do to survive.”

Dispenza talks of using two “survival strategies”. At first, she buried the knowledge, hiding it from everyone – including herself – as she built a life at the heart of the Catholic church, even spending 15 years as a nun. She describes it as “splitting” – a dissociation so complete that, even as the horror happened, she could function and move forward without giving it any conscious thought.

After that flashback, Dispenza needed a new strategy. She confronted her abuser, joined a class-action lawsuit against him for damages and has spent decades supporting other victims and campaigning to hold the church accountable for covering up sexual abuse. It is what she calls “a truth telling”, a move into the light.

Dispenza, 84, lives in Washington state, but she grew up in east Los Angeles, where she attended a Catholic school. Her parents weren’t congregants, but they believed it offered their daughter the best education possible. To get her the place, Dispenza’s mother took a job driving the school bus and working in the adjoining rectory.

“The first flashback is a very clear memory,” says Dispenza. “I was seven years old and my mum had driven the bus to school, so I was looking for her at lunchtime. I found her in the lunchroom talking to the lunchroom ladies.” As the women talked, Dispenza grew bored and drifted towards the door, across the hallway and into a dark auditorium where a projector was whirling, emanating a tiny light.

As she made her way towards it, a tall figure in black robes stepped from the shadows – Father George Neville Rucker, the parish priest. “I knew he was a priest, so he was special,” says Dispenza. At the time, in 1947, Rucker was a young man, newly ordained and in his first post, although there were to be many more in the decades ahead, as allegations and rumours led his diocese to continually move him around.

“He motioned me to sit on his lap and I did,” says Dispenza. He then penetrated her with his fingers, “the same kind of act that I later learned was his modus operandi”.

“I believe that I ‘went away’. It was the beginning of separating my body from myself. After maybe 10 or 15 minutes, he walked me out of the auditorium and left. Imagine being a child alone, not knowing what had just happened. I had enough sense to go and wash myself in a little bathroom.”

This abuse continued, she thinks, for about two years. She has since had other flashbacks, including to Rucker’s bedroom in the rectory where her mother worked. By the time Dispenza was 12, Rucker had moved to another parish.

“People don’t really understand the impact of this on a child,” she says. “I couldn’t focus in class or take in academic information because, in a way, I wasn’t there. The only way I could be there was through activities. I excelled in sport, in school spirit, in leadership, but I couldn’t perform academically.

“The split kept me from being intimate with my friends. I had friends, but I just couldn’t connect in the ways they did, sharing stories about everything. Intimacy and being able to connect with someone in a long, meaningful relationship has been a long-term journey for me. For many years, I never thought I’d have that in my life.”

Secrecy and shame lodged in her “like squatters”, she says, although she didn’t know why. “The truth is that I was so disconnected from what happened that I didn’t know what those feelings were. But they were always somehow in the way, taking up space.”

God and religion became a salvation. “We’d been taught that God knew our secret thoughts, words and deeds and loved us anyway,” she says. “So God was my rock and I never let go. I guess it’s fair to say that, for me, that was a positive outcome.”

When she finished school, her decision to join a convent shocked her parents. When she told her dad in the car, he was so upset that he jumped a red light, then reversed back, crashing into the car behind him. “For my dad, it was a waste of a perfectly good life. For my mum, it was the end of her dream of marriage and grandchildren,” she says. “But I really loved God and I loved the nuns. Now, I lead a support group for people abused by nuns, but I can say that all the nuns in my life were good. I admired them. They served people, they prayed and, for me, they were safe.”

In the years ahead, the splitting continued. She had relationships with men and with another nun. “I’m not proud of stepping outside my vows – maybe it was very human of me,” she says. “I’m always so grateful no one found out. Being a nun fitted for a while, but then I felt restless, fragmented. It took time and courage to leave.” When she did, at 33, Dispenza continued working within the church, eventually being appointed the director of pastoral life services in Seattle, where she was asked to attend that workshop on sexual misconduct by clergy.

When she got home that evening, she called the sister who had run the workshop and told her what she had remembered. (“She said that she would have to report him. I said: ‘Fine.’”) Her diocese helped Dispenza to access therapy. “A good therapist can help you recover your truth,” she says. “It allowed me to find my voice and power. It also allowed me to confront my abuser.”

With the help of her therapist, Judy, Dispenza wrote to Rucker, setting out in detail the harm he had caused her. She got a brief reply from his solicitor and after several exchanges (including Dispenza threatening to go to the media), Rucker agreed to meet her.

Judy and a nun were there to support her. “I felt nervous,” she says. “He wanted to shake my hands, but I had enough presence not to.” In that meeting, Dispenza was able to tell Rucker what he had taken from her – although his response was disappointing. He claimed that the abuse had happened only once and he said it was because he had been taking hormones. Dispenza, he said, was “in the wrong place at the wrong time”. He even offered to bless her and suggested that it must have happened for her “sanctification”.

“He was totally in denial and probably a very sick man,” says Dispenza. “I didn’t get the answers I wanted, or the missing pieces, but I was proud of myself. I really believe that little Mary got to speak that day.”

Life continued towards the light. “I was facing difficult truths – and once you start, you don’t want to stop,” she says. Initially, during therapy, Dispenza had refused to talk about her sexuality. “One day, Judy said: ‘Mary, if you don’t talk about it, you’ll never know intimacy – and that’s the one thing we all want.’ I went home and thought about it. I knew in my heart that I was comfortable with women. That was where love could be.”

Dispenza didn’t come out quietly. She read books, enrolled in university classes on lesbian and gay studies and signed up for a coming out celebration event, at which she stood on stage and announced: “I’m Mary Dispenza and I’m a lesbian.” “They clapped,” she says. “I always remember that as a beautiful, affirming moment.”

She also gave an interview to the Seattle Times headlined “Ex-Nun Comes Out Of The Closet”. Shortly after, she was fired by her archbishop for “breaking allegiance” with the church. “I was devastated; I’d lost the framework of my life,” she says. “But I did face that courageously. No one was going to stop me from telling the truth.”

A decade later, in 2002, Dispenza learned that Rucker had been removed from duty and was under police investigation, initially for charges involving 16 girls. The police found insufficient evidence; Rucker was moved to a retirement facility and stripped of all assignments. The earliest case that was reported contemporaneously dated to 1967, when he was accused of molesting two nine-year-old girls.

It is now believed there were more than 30 victimsThe files on Rucker released by the archdiocese of Los Angeles make for extremely grim reading. One victim remembers that when Rucker appeared in the playground, children would scream: “It’s Father Rucker, run for your life!” The report states: “The children had turned this awful situation into a game to avoid dealing with the emotional horror of being chased like a school of fish by a shark, all the time wondering who was going to be the next victim.”

Although statute of limitation laws meant that there was no criminal trial, a civil case was brought against Rucker and the church in 2006. The hearing took place in the ballroom of the Los Angeles Sheraton. Dispenza attended. Rucker was 86.

“He walked in, surrounded by attorneys, who were being paid hundreds of dollars an hour by the Catholic church,” says Dispenza. “He looked small, to tell you the truth. He’d lost all his power, in my mind.” Rucker declined to answer questions throughout, asserting his “right to remain silent”. Months later, the case was settled. The Los Angeles archdiocese agreed to pay $60m to 44 victims. Rucker died in 2014.

It led Dispenza to become an active member of Snap (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests). “It’s about supporting survivors, protecting children and holding abusers accountable,” she says. “If there was a priest that needed to be outed, we’d stand outside their church with posters, we’d insist on archdioceses releasing the records.”

She is involved in a campaign to break the “seal of confession”, which can prevent a priest from reporting abuse disclosed during confession. Dispenza also runs a Snap support group for survivors of abuse by nuns. Members meet via video call from all over the world. “It has helped me, too, because there is nothing so healing as hearing somebody’s story,” she says. “In each one, we see bravery, courage and how they were able to go through this and come out. Every story I’ve listened to has given me something.”

She never returned to Catholicism. “It made no sense,” she says. “First, there was no room for me as a lesbian. After all those years, it broke my heart not to be wanted. The other reason is the way they were handling, or not handling, clergy abuse.” God is still very much in her life, though. “I talk to God; God is my lifelong companion and friend,” she says. “That’s different to ‘religion’, ‘church’ and all the rest.”

Dispenza is happily married to Mary Ann, whom she met at a retreat not long after coming out. “We’ve known each other 31 years and been married for 11, since the law changed in Washington,” she says. “We had a great wedding. All our friends came. Mary Ann’s grandchildren and my grandniece and grandnephew carried baskets of flowers. Our entrance song was That’s Amore.” The couple live on the shore of Lake Washington. “I walk, I dance, I paint, I have a wonderful spouse and companion and meaningful work with Snap,” she says.

There are no regrets about her years of silence, or time wasted. “All the pieces of my life have led me here, like pieces of a puzzle,” she says. “I like who I am. I like where I am, how I love, what I do in the world. I buried it until I was able to deal with it – and I love where life has brought me.”

 In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111 and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453. In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Bravehearts on 1800 272 831. Adult survivors can contact Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International