OPINION

Survivor of clergy abuse: I trust Pope Francis, but I still doubt he understands our pain

404145 05: A statue of Cardinal James Gibbons, former Archbishop of Baltimore, stands outside the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary April 18, 2002 in Baltimore, MD. The basilica is the seat of the Diocese of Baltimore overseen by Cardinal William Keeler who travels to the Vatican April 21, 2002 to discuss the church''s pedophilia scandal. (Photo by Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images)

404145 05: A statue of Cardinal James Gibbons, former Archbishop of Baltimore, stands outside the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary April 18, 2002 in Baltimore, MD. The basilica is the seat of the Diocese of Baltimore overseen by Cardinal William Keeler who travels to the Vatican April 21, 2002 to discuss the church''s pedophilia scandal. (Photo by Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images)

When I heard that the pope was coming to the United States, and specifically, to the New York area, I felt anxious. I am a survivor of clergy abuse. A priest and deacon at our neighborhood church abused me and other youths when I was just 9 years old — until I was 16.

I felt confused about my mixed feelings about Pope Francis.

I liked his humble ways, I felt his sincerity toward those who were abused by clergy, but I still couldn't trust completely. Is he true to his heart and words? Is he a man of God who really cares about children abused by priests, and does he really want to put a stop to it?

I think, I hope, yes.

I feel confident and trusting about Pope Francis because never once did he ignore this issue of sexual abuse by priests in parishes around the world.

I will be praying for you.

- Johnny Vega

Some of his statements, to be sure, fall a little short of the truth when he speaks of bishops having "courage" for confronting this issue and selling church property to settle lawsuits to bring closure to victims — that is so far from the truth.

My only wish is to one day meet Pope Francis myself, and to have a candid conversation about what I went through in detail.

I want him to truly feel my pain, my hurt, my everyday struggles – even to this day, at 51 years old – to forget even though I have forgiven.

I want Pope Francis to feel and see me as that child who went through so much pain, so much anxiety that every time I went to church I would recoil in fear, wondering "Am I going to be left alone, or am I going to be forced to have sex with the priest again? And if I don't, would he kill my family as I was reminded of my the abusers every time.

I need the pope to feel my heart hurt, see the fear on my face even now as an adult.

To have met with those survivors of sexual abuse by clergy was a great thing for Pope Francis to choose to do. I can imagine how scared they must have been, and how much they no doubt wanted to believe his words, his assurances.

He said, rightly, that when clergy abuse the innocent, the children, "God weeps." But I also weep because, even though Pope Francis did a commendable thing by  meeting with the survivors and addressing the shameful issue before the world that watched his visit, I still doubt that Pope Francis really understands our pain and suffering.

He needs to hear it from survivors in a way that is not rushed, not part of a high-profile historical event, as his visit here was.

Only after the pope has this kind of conversation with survivors can he, and others after him, truly begin to understand the damage and horror that took place.

I am still a believer of God. I confess my sins to God, never to a priest, because my sins could never compare to what a priest and a deacon did to me as a child.

My wife Lidyana has seen me fight in my sleep, wake up screaming and, at one point, never leave our apartment because we lived blocks away from the church where I was sexually abused for years with the fear that those who sexually abused me would be waiting outside for me to do more harm.

Pope Francis truly needs to understand what a survivor of sexual abuse by clergy feels so he can feel that same hurt and take immediate action toward those who fail our children and punish all those who fail to report sexual abuse to the proper authorities first and then report it to those in charge of the Dioceses.

I pray for Pope Francis, that he may continue to listen with his heart the hurt we feel.

I truly hope he tries his best to protect all of God's children by taking forceful action, not just talk about what he would like to do.

I truly hope that Pope Francis goes back to Rome safely and thinks about what God and Jesus would do if they could walk on this earth and face the priests and ask "Why hurt our children, why take away the innocence of a child and destroy a life?"

If clergy are pro-life – adamant about saving a child from death before it is born – how then do those who preach against hurting a fetus so easily take away a child's life after it is born?

I was the founder of the first Latino chapter of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), which was based in Paterson, N.J. I am no longer a member but many survivors still reach out to me and I still continue to guide those who need help by a certified therapist. SNAP is a self-help support group for survivors and can be reached at www.snapnetwork.org  

I am a survivor, a man who despite being hurt by the church leaders my family and so many others in our parish looked up to, and blindly, unquestioningly believed in, still believes in God — and now in you, Pope Francis. 

I will be praying for you.

Johnny Vega was the founder of the first Latino chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) based in Paterson, N.J.

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