Michael McDonnell

Perhaps someone reading this is wondering what a survivor of those abused by the clergy, religious, nuns or lay people within the Catholic church, does for Lent? The answer to that remains unclear.

I can tell you that I hear from many survivors of abuse that the public statements I have made about my own personal journey have helped them in their own. For a guy like me who has experienced failure, fault and a rock bottom, receiving these messages re-enforces my belief in God and his plan for me.

As an adolescent, an altar boy or lector as a young man, I was captivated by the Lenten season. The reverence of Ash Wednesday, stations of the cross, reconciliation and Holy Week brought great joy to me despite carrying horrific experiences. During those beautiful moments, I asked God to take my pain, my memory and shame from me, I couldn’t carry them.

As I have shared in past commentaries, I found my anesthetic in liquor starting at age 12. Even through the numbing of pain, I remained faith filled. I somehow believed, that one day, God will free me of this burden.

In later years, when I began to grasp what my underlying conditions were, I went through a period of resentment and despised the thought of Lent. The tape replayed of my once devout participation in the liturgy and spending time to watch with Christ during the Sacred Triduum. I thought to myself, “why on earth would I support such events after the harm caused to me?”

As my recovery journey progressed I gravitated back to embracing the Lenten season. I attribute this to God’s sense of humor. Directly across from our home is St. Ann’s Church in Bristol. Many of the parishioners recognize me simply because of the local media covering my story of which I shared some true feelings on how the church has handled this scandal.

Not once was a bad word thrown in my direction, no jeers or shrugs; in fact, quite the opposite. Many have offered empathy, compassion, and encouragement to hold those responsible, accountable. I look out a window of my home and see a beautiful church and I am reminded that Jesus is closer than I thought.

As a recovering Catholic there are many days that I am still devastated by the actions of trusted role models. I see why some Catholics have abandoned the pews with disgust. I encourage them to find the way home, even to sit and pray for those who cannot come back just yet. Along the way I was taught to be generous of spirit, forgive, to not judge. There are many days that this becomes difficult. And yet I remain committed to my own healing journey, to those who still suffer and to the hope of better tomorrows for survivors and the church.

Lent is the perfect opportunity for me to sacrifice, to pray more, give to those who need and remember those who gave. In a few weeks I will participate in the Stations of the Cross, held specifically to remember those who have suffered at the unworthy hands of cowardly abusers dressed as religious. My spiritual advisor, Father Jim Paradis, O.S.A., will lead this service. This will be the first time in many years that I participate once again in a service held at a Catholic church.

While last week’s ashes remind us, they also signify our belief. Ashes are not the end, but a new beginning, a new life. This holy season I am praying for many of my fellow survivors that they will one day receive the graces needed to fill their spiritual needs. It is not an easy process, trust me, I know.

Spirituality plays an important role in recovery because it gives us a sense of peace and purpose. It is an individual practice, so no one can tell us that we are doing it wrong. It also relates to developing our own belief system about the meaning of our life and our connection to others.

It has been almost one year since I met, as a survivor, with Archbishop Nelson Perez. I shared with him then how powerful his words were during his installation Mass. These words have become sort of a mantra for me: “never underestimate the power of the Spirit of God working in you, through you and despite you.”

So I end with this: let the spirit of God work through you this Lent so we can all experience his plan.


Michael McDonnell is a survivor advocate.


The archdiocese encourages anyone wishing to report an allegation of sexual abuse to contact local law enforcement agency and/or the archdiocesan Office for Investigations at 1-888-930-9010.

To report a violation of The Standards of Ministerial Behavior and Boundaries, contact the archdiocesan Office for Investigations.

Victim services are available through the Victim Assistance Office of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia at 1-888-800-8780 or philavac@archphila.org.