Monica Barrett: “If You Tell Anybody, Your Parents Will Burn in Hell”

Monica Barrett says that she was raped by her parish priest when she was just 8 years old. “It just pulled my entire foundation out from under me,” she told FRONTLINE. In 1993 Barrett filed suit against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. “I retained an attorney, and they used me as an example,” she says. “They used legal tactics to intimidate me and to beat me down.” This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 15, 2013.

Go back to the early days when you were a little girl. Tell me how important the Catholic faith was to you and your family.

They were very much a part of our lives. I went to Catholic grade school as a child, and we went to Mass five days a week. We went on weekends. We had priests to our home, Communion, baptisms, confirmation. The Catholic Church was a big part of our family.

Tell me about that terrible experience that changed everything for you.

It was a Saturday, and I was 8 years old. A parish priest was visiting in another parish out in Lake Geneva, [Wis.] My mother was — I think she was going to school that day. She wasn’t home for whatever reason, and my older siblings were off to work. My father took my younger sister and I, and we drove out to Lake Geneva to visit with this priest, William Effinger. Through the day, my dad and this priest spent time drinking together, and my little sister and I played as best we could with limited things there were to play with.

At one point in the day, Father Effinger said he needed help in the church with candles, and my father said, “Go help him.” And I said, “I don’t want to go.” I was a very shy, obedient child, so it was rather unlike me to deny him anything. And he said, “No, you just go and help him.”

I remember as we walked to the walkway from the rectory over to the church, thinking, there’s no masses on Saturday, why do we have to go worry about the candles now? Don’t they have church ladies to do these things? It didn’t make sense to me, and I knew then that there was something wrong. And we went into the church where he assaulted me for a period of time, and ultimately ended up raping me.

When it was over, how did he treat you? …

The entire time while he was assaulting me, he kept saying: “You’re no good. You’re not listening. Stop crying.” He kept yelling at me because I was crying. And I remember while he was raping me, I didn’t understand what was happening, I just knew there was this incredible pain, and I could hardly breathe. I kept praying that God would just let me die.

And when he finished he stood up and he looked at me and he said: “If you tell anybody what you did, they won’t believe you. And if you tell anybody, your parents will burn in hell.” And then he gave me penance to do, and he turned and looked at me, and he smoothed his hair back with both of his hands, and he walked down the aisle of the church. I remember hearing the door close, and I just sat there because I didn’t know what I should do. I didn’t know if I should get up or if I should just stay there.

“When he finished he stood up and he looked at me and he said: ‘If you tell anybody what you did, they won’t believe you. And if you tell anybody, your parents will burn in hell.'”

Eventually I just — I left. I got up, and I realized that there was blood on my legs, and there was blood on the new purple shorts that my grandma had given to me for my birthday. When I got to the end of the aisle I wiped the blood off with some of the holy water, and I went and sat outside under this big tree, and I was just crying because I was in pain and I didn’t understand what had happened to me, and I was scared.

My little sister — she was two years younger than me — she came out, and she asked me what was wrong, and I couldn’t answer her. She said, “Tell me what’s wrong.” We were so close as children; we told each other everything. But I didn’t even have the words to articulate what had happened to me. I didn’t understand. I just knew I was in pain and I had done something terrible, because of the penance that I had been given by Father Effinger. She sat with me outside under that tree, and she just hugged me, and we rocked and waited until my dad finally took us home.

Sexual abuse of a small child by an adult is dreadful enough. What makes abuse by a priest so much worse?

I think that when you’re abused by a priest, they have such power and authority over you, it shakes the very foundation that your life has been built on, the belief system that adults will take care of you and that adults are authority figures that should be obeyed, and that if you follow the directions, you follow the rules, that everything will be fine.

In addition, as a child who went to Catholic school, we were taught that the priest is basically the closest you’ll ever get to God, so priests were people that should be respected, and they were odd, and they were on some loftier plain than the rest of us mere mortal beings.

For me, when I was raped by that priest, it just pulled my entire foundation out from under me, because everything my parents had taught me about adults and authority and obedience no longer made any sense. Everything that I had been taught by the Catholic school and in church about respect and about priests and God and us being his children and that he loved us all, and if we followed those Ten Commandments that no harm would come to us — everything was just taken away on that day.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you had to go through in trying to get some compensation for this?

When I came forward with my abuse back in 1991, I went and spoke to Archbishop [Rembert] Weakland and Bishop [Richard] Sklba — and there were a couple of other people present — because I really believed they would want to know what happened to me. I thought that they wanted to help, that they would be as appalled by this as I was pained by telling it. So I went to them, and in that meeting I realized that they didn’t care about what had happened to me other than how it would affect them. But the child that had been left behind, they didn’t care about her at all.

How did that become clear to you?

That became very clear to me at that initial meeting when Archbishop Weakland looked at me and said: “Very well then. Don’t speak to anybody else about this. We’ll take care of it.” I knew in that one moment, I had that same sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that I did when I was walking down that walkway with Effinger that something terrible was about to happen, and it was that very same feeling I had when Weakland said those words to me. This time I listened, and I got up, and I left as quickly as I could.

As the sexual abuse cases became more numerous, it was very clear the archdiocese was not going to deal with survivors in a fair or honest or decent manner. I retained an attorney, and they used me as an example. They used legal tactics to intimidate me and to beat me down. …

We filmed you two days ago in that group which included three priests. Can you tell me the importance to you of three priests coming to you, talking to you, hearing your experiences? What does that mean to you? …

It’s the only support that I personally have ever felt from the Catholic Church throughout this entire abuse fiasco. It is incredibly important to me, and it’s also very healing to me.

I was always under the assumption that all the priests knew about [it] … and agreed with fighting with the victims, that all the priests were behind the actions of the Archdiocese in Milwaukee. It wasn’t until I took a chance myself and sat down with these priests and listened and for the first time felt compassion from a member of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and felt listened to, and felt that my abuse, my experience mattered.

It was incredibly healing for me. It was as if a light went on when I realized that they don’t condone the actions of this archdiocese and they don’t agree with these abusive legal tactics, and that many times these priests are left in the dark or asked to do things that they don’t agree with.

What would you really like the church to do?

I would want the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to release all the files on all the priests, whether they were diocesan priests or religious-order priests, that they have regarding the sex abuse cases. I would like for them to quit fighting with the survivors in the bankruptcy court, and I would like for them to try to reach within themselves and find some place of compassion and give a heartfelt, sincere apology to the survivors and the survivors’ families and the survivors’ children. We’ve all had to deal with this.

Are you still a practicing Catholic?

No, I am not. I find it very difficult to attend any kind of service in a Catholic church. Generally, the only services I do attend are funerals of close friends or relatives. Because of the relationship that I’ve had with this archdiocese and the Catholic Church, it’s almost like an abusive relationship, and I can’t go there. I find no comfort there. I find discomfort there. I have a hard time believing anything they say, because they have treated me and others with such disrespect and such a lack of compassion and empathy that for them to stand at a podium and preach one thing and to do another is just hypocrisy. …

You’ve said a very strong thing — even the mention of God’s name makes you tremble almost. Can you explain why the name of God has become so powerful and so negative for you?

As a child at that time in Catholic school, we went to Mass five days a week, and obviously my parents would take me on Sundays. My abuser was at that school, so after I was abused, he was there. I would have to kneel down in front of him for Communion. I would have to listen to his voice preach the Gospel or give homilies, and whenever I hear the word “God” I know that I emotionally turn away as well as almost physically, because it’s just so painful. I can hear him saying that word, and it’s not that I don’t believe in a creator or a higher being, but to call him God is just very painful for me, and I can’t. I turn away; I can’t listen.

What I find so extraordinary is the way he made you feel guilty for what happened.

Most of these abusers, whether they were rapists or pedophiles or both, or just sexual abusers, they were very smart, manipulative, calculating men. They knew exactly what they were doing. They went for quiet, shy, obedient children. They didn’t go for outspoken, problematic children who might tell on them. When he gave me that penance to do, in my mind is a little 8-year-old girl who had been raised to respect priests and to understand the sacrament of confession. That penance signified to me that this entire event that was beyond my comprehension, that was so physically and emotionally painful for me, was of my doing, that I had somehow been responsible for this.

“All children that survive sexual abuse walk with guilt and shame until they’re able to heal past it and put that guilt and shame where it belongs.”

As such, all children that survive sexual abuse walk with guilt and shame until they’re able to heal past it and put that guilt and shame where it belongs. But on that day when he abused me, one little girl went into that church, a little 8-year-old girl that had trust and faith and curiosity and love and was open, and that changed. That little girl died on that day, and the little girl that came out, she lost her childhood; she lost her innocence; she lost her faith; she lost her trust in other human beings. Her whole belief system was shattered. The little girl Monica that went into that church died that day, and the one that came out was a very different person, and part of that was the guilt and the shame that I walked with for so many decades.

We have a new pope. Do you feel that now, at last, we’re going to see real change?

I don’t know why, but I really feel that Pope Francis might be different. He’s done several things which trigger that perhaps this is a different kind of pope. It’s my hope that he would sit down and talk with survivors and listen to our stories, and that he would take control of not just this archdiocese but other archdioceses throughout the United States and say: “We’re no longer going to treat victims like this. We’re not going to re-abuse them. This is a new day, a new era, and we’re going to treat these people with the respect and dignity that they deserve.”

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