Sundays After: Portraits of resilience after clergy abuse
They came from different towns and cities, from different ethnic and economic backgrounds. They were A-students and outcasts, people of all ages.
From their churches they sought love or guidance, a better education or a place that felt like home.
They were believers before their trust was tested, fractured or blown apart entirely by sexual abuse at the hands of a priest.
For the faithful, the Catholic Church isn’t only a place of worship but the center of social and cultural life, its doctrines and customs woven into the fabric of families and communities. And its priests and deacons are more than holy men but confidantes, teachers, father figures with unparalleled power. To many, they’re the closest thing to God on earth.
For those abused by priests, the violations are spiritual, the damage inflicted not just on the body and mind, but a system of beliefs.
“Their faith becomes a victim of the abuse,” said Marianne Sipe, a psychiatrist and former nun who works with clergy abuse survivors.
But children grow up. Some learn to cope with the horrors they experienced, some try to forget, others struggle to survive in the aftermath, and to come to terms with the harm that’s been done to them.
Sexual abuse survivors often share symptoms: nightmares, isolation, anger, problems with trust and authority. Some battle substance abuse, depression, have trouble with physical intimacy. Survivors can be triggered by sensory experiences like a familiar smell or the feel of a certain fabric on their skin. For others, stories in the newspaper conjure dark memories.
“I’ll go to my grave with them,” John Vai, 67, said of his wounds. He was abused by a priest at his Catholic school as a teenager. “They will never heal.”
With these wounds, survivors endure. They lead dynamic lives, build careers and families.
Some remain devout, steadfast in their commitment to the church. Some leave Catholicism for other denominations or abandon organized religion for personal spiritual practices. Some stop believing altogether, their old devotion to the institution replaced by a desire to tear it all down. Many grapple with what’s left of their faith.
For the project “Sundays After,” Associated Press photographer Wong Maye-E and writer Juliet Linderman traveled across the U.S. and sought out men and women who were willing to share their experiences — both how they were abused by Catholic clergy, and how they survived.
Wong captured the subjects with digital and Polaroid cameras. She soaked the instant photos, freeing the images on fragile membranes — wrinkled, torn, distressed — and pasting them on watercolor paper. The film transfers themselves, with their imperfections and rough edges, are resilient, much like the survivors they portray.