Denise Buchanan was 17 when she was raped by a seminarian who continued to abuse her when he became a priest in her native Jamaica. The Catholic Church, she says, has offered her nothing but their “prayers”.
“I got pregnant and he arranged a clandestine abortion,” Buchanan, still shaking and close to tears 40 years after the ordeal, told AFP.
Today aged 57, the academic is a leading member of a new international organisation, Ending Clerical Abuse (ECA), which is bringing together victims in Rome this week to pressure Pope Francis to take a tougher line on child abuse by clerics.
She has struggled in vain for years for the Church to officially recognise her as a victim — even writing to the pope himself — while the priest who abused her has escaped justice.
Buchanan’s struggle underscores the sense of isolation felt by many victims who see the institution as still in denial, particularly in poorer countries where the Church remains politically and socially influential.
She was living in Kingston when her sister introduced her and her family to the future priest, then known as Brother Paul, a theology student and a member of the Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ.
“Brother Paul would talk at length with my father, and my mother would invite him to stay for dinner,” she said.
“He told me he was very attracted to me. I felt awkward. He said that they (the Church) made rules that he didn’t agree with, and he did what he needed to do to do the work of the Church,” Buchanan said.
She claimed that Brother Paul forced himself on her, saying: “He pressed his lips on my lips, inserted his tongue… His hands were touching my legs and breasts. I pulled away and told him to take me home.”
Buchanan said she felt so ashamed that she decided not tell her parents, fearing their reaction.
– Years of depression –
Over the following weeks, the clergyman called several times at her parents’ home to take her to Sunday mass or to the rectory.
One day he invited Denise into the rectory and “showed (her) to his bedroom” where he sexually assaulted her, she said.
A few days after, he raped her after making her drink some wine, she said. “I felt something died inside me that day,” she whispered.
Several weeks afterwards, she discovered she was pregnant after fainting in a shop, leading Brother Paul to organise an illegal abortion for her. “All I could think of was the disgrace I was to my family,” she said.
Later he was ordained as a priest, but still came by her university residence at least once a week for sex.
“He told me he loved me and I was his girl,” she said, adding that she accepted seeing him because she felt worthless and alone.
“I obeyed like a robot. I didn’t care much about anything at this point,” she said.
At 21, she got pregnant again, and had another backroom abortion, Buchanan said, adding with a broken voice that she has been unable to have children since.
She managed to move to Canada at age 25 for her studies, and then to Los Angeles, where she now teaches at a university and works as a psychiatric neurologist.
She married in Canada, but divorced two years later.
“I did not resolve the anger and fear I had of the relationship with Father Paul,” she said.
“I have carried this guilt and shame all my life and I have had many decades of therapy for depression,” she added.
– Pope’s ‘prayers’ –
Seeking to overcome her mental anguish, she wrote a book about her experience, “Sins of the Fathers”, in 2013 and sent a copy to the pope “every month for a year and a half”.
In June 2016, she finally received a letter from the Los Angeles archdiocese saying the pope regularly prayed for “victims of abuse” and that he would pray for her.
But to see the priest defrocked she would have to “gather proof” of the abuse, she was told.
“I was furious when I got the letter as it seemed all I was being offered from the pope were prayers with no help to resolve the issue,” she said.
In November 2017, she returned with a lawyer to Jamaica for a meeting with the local archbishop and Father Paul.
“At the meeting the priest confessed to having sex with me (not rape), he confessed that he got me pregnant but he did not admit to arranging the abortion,” she said.
Buchanan fears the priest abused other victims over the years. “They moved him around from parish to parish because, from what I heard, he is a troublemaker”.
Following the meeting with her, the priest went missing from his parish and “no one seems to know where he is,” she added.
“I work at ECA so that what happened to me does not happen to any other child,” Buchanan whispered.