I was eighteen years old, so I suppose we can't call it abuse.

But it must have been something. A 36-year-old priest takes a socially awkward 18-year-old college freshman, participates in getting her drunk, lets everyone else leave the gathering, seduces her, and then spends the next year entangling her in a relationship of dependency and need and rationalization and, dare we say it, sin.

Because I was 18, the semantically picky wouldn't define it as abuse. Exploitation was the word I eventually settled on.

But even though it wasn't abuse, legally speaking, abuse is the reason I'm writing about it today.

A year ago, revelations started pouring out of Boston and almost every other Roman Catholic diocese in the country. They were revelations about sexual abuse, about clergy abusers being protected by their bishops, about bishops mandating attorneys to treat victims like criminals.

Through it all, most Catholics have been rightly outraged. But here and there, dissenting voices have been raised. The dissent is mostly about the money. The settlements. People wonder: Why are these victims so greedy? How can money repair pain?

It is certainly true that money can't heal, and there's not a victim on earth who expects it to. But here is what money can do: it can help fix the collateral damage.

Those who question the role of financial settlements don't understand the impact of abuse in a victim's life.

My exploitation continued for about a year. Of course, to the perpetrator it was no such thing. It was all about "friendship" and "caring." He gave me books to read, like "The Sexual Celibate." In his view, the book explained why it was in bounds for him to bring me down to the rectory, to the floor beneath the meeting rooms and offices where I was so active in the campus ministry seeking Jesus--seeking real love --and do what he did.

It continued until the fall of my sophomore year, when two things happened, by grace: the sickness of it all finally got to me, and I understood that my being "chosen" for this wasn't a sign of anything good and was nothing but evil, burrowing into my life and damaging me on countless levels.

The second thing that happened was that a new associate pastor came into the parish, one whom I instinctively felt I could trust. Over twenty years later, I can still remember the night I poured my heart out to him. He sat there, mouth slightly open. He was newly ordained, newly arrived, and clearly wondered what he had come into.

And I still remember what he said to me:

Get out. Get out now. You want to rescue this guy (who was, among other things, an alcoholic), but you can't. No one can. You are being exploited and used. Say no. Get out.

So I did.

I was, of course, quickly replaced--by a fellow student that year, and by a woman struggling in her marriage the next.

But even though I got out, the damage remained. The most severe result was my ability to relate to males and my needs in relation to them. To make a long story short, this propelled me into a relationship with a man whom I did not really like but who liked me, he said, quite a bit. I was almost embarrassed to be around others in his company. I couldn't think of three things about him that I genuinely liked. He was, on the outside, kindly, and he seemed to offer the respect I craved. But I remember vividly seeing him walking down a mall passageway to meet me and feeling a shudder that was almost revulsion.

He said he liked me, and I needed to hear that so badly. Six weeks into our relationship, we had sex, and I had an orgasm for the first time. After a while I got pregnant. And married.

And the priest who married us was that priest, because he was the pastor of the parish, and I was still the queen of the parish, and it just wouldn't have looked right not to have him. Even though the father of my baby knew about what had happened, he was all for that priest marrying us, and had no problem with it. He cracked jokes with the priest.

And that priest reached over and squeezed my ass as he stood next to me for the wedding photograph.

I kept going down this path, not seeing anything, because I felt I didn't deserve to be happy. I had done such bad things. I had made my own bed, so I needed to lie in it.

Which I did for ten years. Until a spiritual director, in her kindly, gentle way, suggested to me what I had never considered: that it wasn't my fault. That it was abuse. That I had been exploited and the consequences still haunted me.

Until, a few months later my husband and I returned from a miserable tenth-anniversary trip, capped by a vicious fight in the Orlando airport, and I got back, looked at the mail and saw an anniversary card from that priest.

I burst into hysterical tears, my guts wrenching inside me, and made my way to bed. My husband said nothing-he turned away and faced the wall.

That was eleven years ago. I divorced a year after that night, taking the three children from that marriage with me. Thank God I am now remarried to a wonderful, compassionate man. We have a toddler.

I still feel that I don't deserve to be happy, though. I can't shake it.

I am not setting out to be reductive here and say that A caused B, and that this smart yet socially inept college freshman would have found perfect happiness from the beginning if it just weren't for what the priest did. But I am saying that there is no doubt in my mind what the exploitation at his hands cost. I have been paying for years. My children have paid. Because actions affect others in untold ways, my family and my friends have paid.

It would be perfectly just if the perpetrator of this exploitation and those in his religious order who knew about his pattern of behavior were made to pay in the only way they really can, which is with cash. Cash that can be used for therapy, not just for the victim, but for his or her family as well. Cash that can be used to compensate for a career derailed by damaging behavior traceable to the abuse.

I am not interested in reliving that episode from my freshman year, so I myself will pass on a lawsuit. But I am in full support of victims demanding anything and everything they can from those who have harmed them, directly and indirectly.

No, you can't put a price on the lingering harm reaped from abuse and exploitation. But you can certainly try.

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