Content Warning: This post contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to some survivors.
“The Faith Component,” Ben Huelskamp
This isn’t the first time I’ve said it, written about it, discussed it openly with others, yet each time I spend days processing my emotions to get to the point that I can write the words: when I was sixteen years old I was sexually assaulted by a Roman Catholic priest.
To understand this trauma from my eyes you have to know that I am a person of faith. Raised in a Catholic parish and in thirteen years of Catholic education, I was an altar server, choir member, read in church, and led campus ministry. I was that guy and I thought I was called to be a priest. What do you do as a boy who wants to be a priest? You go on retreats at seminaries and with religious communities. It was at one of these retreats—an intentional space for spirituality and discernment—that I met and had my only interaction with the man who assaulted me.
I went with a group of boys and two priests. Built more than a century before, the local seminary had plenty of small rooms to accommodate each boy for the weekend. A bed, a desk, a chair, a closet, and a single light overhead. I don’t know why I had gone back to my room, but I realized that the light was burnt out. The only person I could find was an impeccably dressed younger priest. He smiled, found a new bulb, and replaced the light himself. He said something about rolling up your sleeves and doing work. He touched my shoulder, slid his hand down my side. I stepped back. He reminded me that good Catholics do what priests say to do. I looked at the ceiling. He finished, patted me on the shoulder again; left without another word.
Whenever I tell this story I have to pause here. It would take me nine years to remember and begin to address what happened that night. I buried the trauma, unconsciously forced myself to forget. There it sat, a slowly leaking vat of psychological toxin polluting my sense of vocation and my engagement with faith. I couldn’t express why, but after the assault I stopped looking at seminary, even at Catholic colleges.
Finishing high school I attended an Episcopal college, I came out as a gay man, I left the Roman Catholic church, and I struggled to make sense of all my new experiences. Only once did the assault ever flash in my memory: a mentor, noticing that I was unusually withdrawn during my sophomore year of college, looked me in the eye and said: “I think you either were sexually assaulted or you think you’re gay.” For a moment I wanted to answer “yes” to both. Wholly unconsciously I denied being assaulted and for the first time came out to someone.
Sometimes I wonder if coming out at that particular time in my life—and not before or after—was not a psychological defense to the burgeoning memories of trauma that were trying to expose themselves.
Near the end of my first year of graduate school at the University of Vermont (UVM) we were strongly encouraged to attend the Dismantling Rape Culture Conference (DRCC) held each year at UVM. I strongly resisted attending DRCC 2012. Interpreting my resistance as male privilege I decided to at least give it a chance (I also found out that “strongly encouraged” really meant “required”). At the opening session and subsequently at the workshops waves of memories and emotions nearly incapacitated me. I wandered through the day eventually ending up at a workshop led by the keynote speaker Marta L. Sanchez. During an activity we were able to select and keep a small copy of one of her paintings. That piece has stayed with me since the workshop. I’m looking at it as I write.
I knew I needed help and knew I couldn’t process these memories alone. Ever since the assault I found it difficult to interact with most older men, particularly older men in positions of authority. My relationships with male faculty members were particularly rocky as were relationships with male supervisors. However, it was in all male communities that I would find the greatest level of support and the space I needed to make sense of what had happened. I was fortunate to encounter two excellent male counselors who worked with me to confront and begin to recover traumatic memories from the assault. One helped me work through the faith component and the other walked with me as I addressed the maleness of being assaulted by another man. However, it was in an all-male space with other men that I was able to begin healing.
In addition to my other identities, I am a fraternity man and a member of Phi Mu Delta Fraternity. I joined Phi Mu Delta as a graduate student around the same time that I began to remember and address the assault. I never meant or even wanted my fraternity membership to get caught up in the messiness of trauma. However, I felt the safest with other Phi Mu Delta men. My biological family had to wrestle with their own emotions—often quite strong—regarding what had happened to me and what they felt they had “allowed” to happen. Many of my close friends who I might have otherwise turned to are themselves clergy of multiple denominations or people of great faith who too dealt with significant doubts when they learned that a friend had been assaulted by a Catholic clergyman. It was in my fraternity with other men that I transitioned from victim to survivor.
I took a break from religion and God-worship. For approximately four-and-a-half years I drifted between calling myself an Unitarian, Humanist, or Atheist. Never blaming God, I simply couldn’t identify with religions. How could a person call themselves a follower of an all-loving entity yet perpetrate sexual assault against another human. I couldn’t accept that ordination either granted one unquestionable power or immunity from grievous fault. With the help of several friends I identified the priest who assaulted me and learned that he is now the pastor of a large congregation that touts its youth ministry.
I wrote to his bishop and reported the assault. Though the statute of limitations had not expired, I knew that my at best fragmented memory was not nearly enough to sustain a criminal proceeding. The bishop’s office insisted that none of my information was correct and that even if it was the priest could not have assaulted me. Adding insult to injury they requested that I apologize in writing to the priest for putting him through so much suffering. In no uncertain terms I refused.
I will never be thankful to be a survivor, but I love myself. I love the person I have become. Choosing to forgive the man who assaulted me is not about him and it will never be about him. My act of forgiving frees me to be in community with others, frees me to welcome every man as my brother. Now thirteen years after the assault in a very different place that I have ever been before I know that honest doubt, not certainty, is the cornerstone of faith. I awoke one day in a church community of faithful doubters where love is bold and welcome is always extended. I could call myself a believer and a Christian again. As a friend and pastor tweeted to me on Easter this year: #ReclaimChristian. Assault ended my association with one community. Authentic love brought me home to many new communities. May it be so.
About the art:
So Ben sent us this story ALLLLL the way back in July! And since we didn't have space for it then, we saved it for Sexual Assault Awareness month because this is rightfully where the story should have landed.
I'm very thankful that Ben shared this story with us because it reiterates an issue with the Catholic church that permeated through Boston, MA and was showcased in the film, Spotlight. Ben's story is not unfamiliar in the grand scheme of the controversy that surrounds the Catholic church, but it's a story of courage for Ben to reclaim his faith amid the trauma he experienced.
Making this piece was a long time coming, as I said before, so I wanted to make sure it was something special and something Ben could be proud to hang in his home or office or wherever. So I wanted the message to be powerful for him and endearing. I pulled both quotes on this piece from the last sentence of his piece in order to capture the essence of survival in his story.
Ben told me he likes blue, so I made sure to use as much blue as possible without over doing it. And you might notice the black in the background - that comes from Katy having attempted to make a piece with this canvas last week, and I repurposed the canvas for Ben's piece and I think it adds a very cool aesthetic to the painting. Throwing in the white streaks and splatter give it the universal flair that I like to attach to many of my pieces.
Thanks for sharing this story, Ben! It's not an easy one to share, and I'm glad you were patient with us for holding onto this story for so long. Be well.