abuse as youth leads Dominican to counsel other victims
NISKAYUNA, N.Y. (CNS)
– She knew something was wrong when she started to hyperventilate.
It was 1986, and Dominican Sister Carol Davis, who had a flourishing
ministry in counseling and leading retreats, had been thinking about
contacting her biological father.
Her parents were long divorced, and she had a different last name
from her biological father's. But every time she thought about looking
him up, she felt terrified and faint.
Then the flashbacks started, and Sister Carol thought she was losing
her sanity: She was remembering repeated sexual abuse at his hands
during her childhood.
"A flashback, for a survivor, is like being back in that war
zone: reliving it in a visceral, emotional way, as if it's happening
in the present," she told The Evangelist, newspaper of the
Sister Carol began seeing a therapist, joined a therapy group for
abuse survivors and told close friends, family and co-workers so
they would understand the days when she was struggling emotionally.
After three years of counseling, she decided she had to warn relatives
with small children about what her biological father had done –
to let them know that, if he had not gotten treatment, they should
not leave their children alone with him.
The nun also decided to tell her biological father that she planned
to talk with relatives. The resulting phone call, she said, was
She thought he might deny the abuse; instead, he started talking
about specific places in her childhood home where the abuse took
place and threatened to ruin her mother's reputation if she told
anyone her story.
As she spoke with extended family members, others confirmed what
she remembered. "Every time you came back from visiting (your
biological father), you were sick," said an uncle. "We
thought it was bad food; your mother was upset."
Sister Carol noted that there is controversy over recovered memories
of childhood trauma. Some can be real, some false. But she pointed
out that what she recalled was validated by others.
"Most people don't want to say, 'I was sexually abused,'"
she added. "It's not a badge of honor. If somebody really believes
that something happened to them, then you work in a healing way
She said she continued to struggle with the long-term effects of
the abuse in therapy. Abuse, she said, "affects one's sense
of self: 'Can I trust my feelings, what I think, what I know? Can
I trust other people? Do I want to live?'"
She recalled raging at God during the most painful time in her
"How could you create a world where innocent children can
be violated in this way?" she demanded – until, one day,
she collapsed into a rocking chair in anger and felt that she had
collapsed "into the arms of God."
From then on, she said, her relationship with God deepened. She
felt that a divine presence was with her, recognizing and receiving
Ironically, even before Sister Carol had begun sharing her story
with others, people began to approach her, spontaneously talking
about their experiences of sexual abuse.
Since she was in a healing ministry, she agreed to listen and help
them through their pain as best she could – and then found
herself sharing her own "experience, strength and hope."
"Once I knew I would have the inner strength to do it, I had
to," she said. "It's a call; I would feel like I was abandoning
the survivors if I didn't do it. People need healing companionship."
At first, Sister Carol told herself she would not talk about her
abuse with the retreat groups she led; then that boundary changed
to talking about it, but not writing it down.
Now her story has become a large part of her ministry. She started
weekend retreats for sexual abuse survivors at the Dominican Pastoral
Counseling Center in Niskayuna and travels around the country leading
"I spend thousands of hours with survivors," she said.
"I have heard some of the worst things people can do. I can
do this because when I see a person claim their truth and begin
to heal, I receive joy from that person."
She said sometimes she prays to God to take her patients' pain,
because it's too much for her to handle.
But she perseveres in her work because "there are survivors
of sexual abuse in every walk of life, and some of them never told
anybody" until attending a retreat where it was safe to share
"Some people never share publicly, and why should they? But
because of my journey, I think people need to know what is possible,"
Sister Carol said. "Somebody has to say some of this, so it
can be out there. Somebody has to speak up, because how are people
going to find their way?"
Copyright (c) 2006 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic