Even though I’m Jewish, I attended an Anglican elementary school when my family first moved from Washington, D.C. to the West Indies. I loved the church that was next to the school, the sunstruck stained-glass windows, the whisper of silken robes, the holy Fathers chanting. I was transfixed by the serene eyes of a plaster Jesus who returned my gaze as if in benediction. One day I was given a ruby-colored rosary. For hours, I’d trail the beads through my fingers, each bead a miniature sun radiating warmth up my arms to my heart. I believed my rosary was blessed with special powers, that it would protect me from nights when my Jewish father shattered the peace of my bedroom and raped me. With the magical thinking of an abused child, I believed that bad things only happened to little Jewish girls. I avoided synagogues and believed that churches offered me safety. I prayed to be resurrected as a Christian girl with blond, blond hair.
Now that Catholic boys, betrayed by their religious Fathers, are painfully speaking out, I find myself wondering if they— parallel to me—fantasized about safety in temples? Did they wish to lice Latin prayers, and seek comfort in Hebrew? Did they imagine that a golden Star of David could protect them?
I understand why they were scared to reveal their secrets, how they were silenced by church Fathers intoning sermons, silenced by Cardinals and even the Pope, whose power was absolute. I, too, felt that the sins of my upper-middle-class Jewish father—a man who conducted important meetings to establish statehood for Alaska and Hawaii, who worked to implement home rule for the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico — were hidden by the prestige of his profession. While he stood lit by flashbulbs, his picture snapped with luminaries like President Truman and Adlai Stevenson, who saw the image of one shattered child just outside the frame?
No one. oddly, questioned my love for my rosary. No one asked why, on Ash Wednesday, I I was first in line to have my forehead anointed with a charcoal cross. Not wanting it to smear with sweat in the tropical heat, I cooled myself with a palm-frond fan. My mother never questioned why, that evening, I cried when forced to wash my face. This mute language I “spoke” was never heard, was never translated into anyone knowing the fear I felt listening to my powerful father’s footsteps walk toward me at night.
We need to hear more truths; to create a culture that explicitly teaches children—in schools and synagogues, mosques and churches—that closed societies of powerful men enable them to abuse those with no power. We need to let children know precisely to whom they can turn with their truths, that speaking out is safe and the right thing to do. Then, we can help children reclaim their own power. Only by hearing children’s voices can we redeem the world.
Sue Willam Silverman is the author of two memoirs; Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, and Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey Through Sexual Addiction.