A survivor of sexual abuse tells Chai Brady about finding healing in his Catholic Faith
Abuse survivor Denis Cairns stands on the Peace Bridge in Derry,
symbolic of his own difficult journey searching for peace.
Those who abused often hid behind the cloak of avoidance of scandal, or felt safe in the knowledge that their victim would not want to cause scandal by making the abuse public.
This spiritual abuse compounded the original offence and caused many people to lose their faith – a loss that is often acutely felt. And it was to try to redress this that the initiative ‘Towards Peace’ was born to offer spiritual support to survivors.
One man whose faith has sustained him despite his early experience of abuse is 40-year-old Derry man Denis Cairns. Ahead of this week’s Vatican summit on tackling the issue, Denis sat down with The Irish Catholic and expressed his hopes that the Church will continue to do more to heal the wounds left by abuse by priests or religious.
Denis was sexually abused by a priest when he was an extremely vulnerable 13-year-old. As he recalls it, he was given a handful of change the next morning and had to endure the spectacle of watching the same priest preside at the celebration of the Eucharist that Sunday morning. To this day the trauma of the experience of that Mass still haunts him.
I went through a period of time that I couldn’t go into a church because every time I saw the Lord Jesus and the host getting raised above the altar, it reminded me of that morning after he abused me and he was standing there - Denis recalls.
It kept Denis from the celebration of the sacraments for a time and robbed him of the spiritual sustenance that was the essence of his childhood faith.
When I started to get back going to Mass continuously again, I always kept my head down – not looking up at the altar. There would be flashback after flashback after flashback, I was only seeing him, him, him all the time.
Although with a lot of help along the way Denis now feels that he is past the worst of the trauma, he still experiences these flashbacks at times. But, he says that God has given him the strength to see Him present in the Eucharist and the Mass instead of his abuser.
“This priest has taken a lot away from me, but he was never able to take my Faith,” Denis recalls. He sees this as a grace in the midst of what he has suffered. “Because I know of hundreds of victims whose faith has been ruined because of these evil people, evil priests and bishops”.
Denis doesn’t reserve his feelings of betrayal for people who have abused. “Those who have covered it up have a lot to answer for as well,” he says.
In Denis, God has a certain friend in a world that is often deaf to the Divine, though anyone who thinks he will meekly pray, pay and obey would be sorely mistaken. “I will defend my Faith seven days a week, but I will also call out those who have covered up these horrific crimes.”
While the Vatican summit this week will tackle the key issue of accountability and responsibility, Denis is in no doubt about what should happen with bishops and religious superiors who have failed to protect children and implement proper guidelines and norms. “They should be stood down, there should be action taken, no more words, it is action that is needed, there have been a lot of cover ups,” he insists.
When people so casually disregard faith, Denis has often been asked how he can return to the Church despite what he endured. It’s deeply personal and difficult to excavate.
It’s hard to explain. People have asked me those questions before: ‘How can you even enter a church?’ It’s the Holy Spirit within me, to be honest with you. To put it bluntly, I just have severe, strong, strong Catholic Faith – that’s the only way I can explain it - Denis says.
Abuse wreaks havoc on the lives of those who have experienced being robbed of their innocence. Over the years, Denis has tried to end his life on several occasions. Fortunately, by the grace of God, each time his attempts were thwarted either through his own internal reflection or interventions by the police or a passer-by.
Denis always tried to struggle on through life, but his early experience was a constant struggle. In his career he was doing well and had earned a permanent contract working as an auxiliary nurse in the local hospital. But, his past caught up with him and his livelihood fell apart after experiencing a nervous breakdown.
Suffering intensely for four years, Denis turned to abusing alcohol as a coping mechanism. Although receiving psychological treatment, he now looks back and is frank that he “went off the rails a bit”.
Denis sees the gentle hand of God in his recovery. “I was suicidal. I tried to jump off the bridge a few times, tried to hang myself, but by the grace of God I was saved at all times from killing myself,” he recalls with gratitude.
In an earlier instance in his life, aged just 17, Denis went underneath a local bridge and began wading in to the water. But someone – a good Samaritan if you like – saw what he was doing and refused to pass by on the other side.
“It was actually a passer-by. I was actually in the water and all – I was just walking in, and in, and in. The passer-by was coming with a dog and he said ‘son what are you doing?’ and he got me out,” says Denis.
To this day, he is convinced that this stranger was, in fact, a guardian angel. Denis recalls how he immediately walked away from the stranger, but says when he looked back he couldn’t see any sign of the man.
The police were involved in another incident in which he was considering jumping off a bridge. He says: “The police were called to the bridge, but something within me as well was saying ‘don’t’. I believe that was my guardian angel.
“The hand of the Lord was upon me – and the Holy Spirit. Because I believe that He had a plan for me in the future: to tell my story which I’m telling here today, to help other victims of clergy abuse within the Church,” he believes.
Denis is now married with two children – a son and daughter – and says the impact on the family of victims and survivors is something people often don’t see and can get neglected in the healing or therapy process.
He is profoundly conscious of the effects on families. “It wasn’t easy at all for my wife. People have to realise that there are victims of child abuse in any society.
“For myself, I was the victim of child abuse from a priest. I think it’s even more difficult because they’re meant to be shepherds.” Priests and religious who have abused have “basically ruined a lot of people’s lives – I thank the Lord I’m still here to tell my story,” Denis says.
His wife has been a saving grace:
My wife found me at times banging, literally banging my head off floors and walls – all because the pain of the abuse. People have to realise it’s not just the victim that suffers, the family suffers, but through no fault of the victim.
For Denis as with all victims and survivors, realising that he was not at fault for what happened to him is vital. “For a long time I would have blamed myself. I still do on days, but that’s what they put on you, these paedophiles, and that’s what they are quite plainly.
“They make you feel like the guilty person,” he says.
“A perfect wife – one can find one?” the writer of the Book of Proverbs ponders, only to delight in the knowledge that “she is far beyond the price of pearls” (Proverbs 31:10).
These are words that resonate easily with Denis, he describes his wife as his “rock”. The teenage sweethearts have been together since 1995 and in addition to his own internal struggles the couple were from different religious backgrounds – a particular challenge in a divided society.
Denis hails from a staunch republican neighbourhood while his wife comes from a loyalist area. Despite the conflict quietening down at that time due to the ceasefires, it was still difficult for a Catholic and a Protestant to be together, he says. “A lot of people doubted us at the time, but we’re still here,” Denis says with pride.
The couple were civilly married in Derry in 2001 because of the religious differences, but he says he always wanted to get married before God and make the union sacramental. Many years later, this became a reality.
On August 10, 2017 the couple celebrated the Sacrament of Marriage and just a year later, on the same day, his wife was received into the Catholic Church which Denis describes as a “brilliant blessing”.
It wasn’t just his wife who has helped him through the worst of his trauma, and Denis is acutely aware of the fact that a mother’s love really is a blessing. He says the women who brought him into the world has given him “great support”.
“My mother suffered too because of what happened. She managed to keep her faith and still does to this day – she could have so easily walked away as well but she didn’t,” he says.
Many of his family members did walk away from the Church after what Denis suffered, but – perhaps ironically – it was he who “coaxed” them back, to use his own word.
He gets frustrated when people say they have stopped going to Mass because of the scandals. These terrible crimes aren’t “an excuse” not to go to Mass, he insists.
“As a victim myself that just doesn’t stand with me,” he says.
The love that Denis has for his Faith and for the Church impel him to want a Church that is reformed, purified and more able to witness to the Gospel which it preached.
Evil priests who have abused children need to be laicised, defrocked, 100%. I’m very strong on that point: I have a great Catholic faith, but it’s the only way we’re [the Church] going to move forward - he insists.And it doesn’t just go for abusers. He sees a wider need for atonement within the Church. “It doesn’t matter who needs to fall here: cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests – whoever.”
Without this, he says, the Church will be facing more scandals in 10 or 20 years’ time. He is clear that:
victims need to be heard and listened to. In times past we believed priests and the victims were pushed aside, and I believe this is happening to this day – that attitude has to change.
Often the most difficult journey for those who have been abused is the road to forgiveness. Some – understandably – can never reach this. After all, forgiveness is a gift that cannot be forced. Prayer brought Denis this blessing. “I prayed for five years before the Blessed Sacrament every single Thursday and Friday, and I actually have prayed for my abuser. The Lord knows I have,” Denis said.
“You’ll not have peace without forgiveness,” he says.
Denis first reached out in 1997, five years after he was abused, and reported what happened to him to the police. At the same time he sought support from the Church. It was not a happy experience. He felt that he was treated without consideration, describing it as a “nightmare”.
He says he “wasn’t contacted once to see how my spiritual life was, to see how my mental health was…they didn’t know that I was still practising my Faith, but quietly. No follow up, no nothing.”
The years went on, and Denis continued his internal struggle without the assistance of the Church when he stopped going to Mass for a few years. But, there was never a time when faith was not part of his life even if only “one foot in one foot out”.
“But then I seriously got into my faith then about 11 years ago now and I haven’t looked back,” he says with relief.
He is critical of some of the media coverage of abuse in the Church. He believes that many of the priests and bishops doing good work are side-lined and unappreciated for what they do in the community.
Despite his earlier negative experiences with Church authorities, he has since found a ready ear in local bishop Dr Donal McKeown. He made contact with the diocesan safeguarding officer and just a few days later was told that Bishop Donal wanted to meet him.
The two men met in February last year and Bishop McKeown listened to his story.
Mentioning two other members of the clergy who have been hugely supportive, Fr Seán O’Donnell and Fr Paddy McCafferty, he insists that:
these people need to be recognised too – these people who are helping victims, not just all these evil priests, these good priests. They’re doing good work in the background.
Fr Seán was the first priest Denis told about the abuse he suffered and now he is appealing for other people who have suffered to speak to someone about what they have experienced. He thinks this can be harder for men.
Mostly, as we know, men find it more difficult to speak out. I would urge please tell someone. If it’s not your partner or wife or husband – because ladies have been abused as well, it’s not just men here – tell someone…tell someone you can trust, it could be your local parish priest, please because they can’t suffer this for the rest of their life. Their stories need to be told, and heard and action taken. It’s not an easy fix - he says.Prayer really helped Denis and he is convinced that it can also help other survivors. “I would ask them – if they can – to come back to practising their Faith. Don’t let these people destroy it, don’t let them destroy your faith, because there are a lot of good bishops out there, a lot of good priests, more than the evil ones and that’s a fact.
Different things work for different people. Psychological treatment informed me about the pain I was going through; my childhood and whatever – but I really believe it was the Faith that keeps me going. That’s the key: it’s the Faith, it’s not the doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors, psychotherapists, it’s the Faith that has helped me most - he insists.