Q: I am the youngest in a large family. Many of my siblings suffered physical or verbal abuse from our father when we were growing up. Although he has abused our mother verbally and continues to do so, she has stayed with him all these years. They are now in their 80s.
If my father’s physical abuse had happened in the 1980s or ’90s, I think he would have been arrested for child abuse. I think this abuse has contributed to alcoholism and other addictions suffered by my siblings. I was more neglected than physically abused. My mother does not remember the beatings with a belt that my one sister endured. I suspect my father doesn’t either.
On the outside, we appear to be a happy, Catholic family. My father always wears a scapular and says that this will get him into heaven. I know that he cannot ask forgiveness for things that he doesn’t remember.
Can he go to heaven without seeking forgiveness for what he has done to my siblings? How can heaven be promised to someone who simply wears a scapular?
A: I consulted a friend with firsthand knowledge of abuse within a family. He responds: “God is our only judge! All of us will come to this awareness—some only just before we face God. In the case of your father, he has done wrong to you and to your family. Whether he wears a scapular or not, the question is really: What has he learned from his mistake?”
People who have been abused sometimes wonder if they are somehow at fault. They aren’t; you, your mother, and your siblings weren’t. According to the Book of Genesis, one of the first consequences of sin was a flight from responsibility. If your father cannot or will not accept responsibility for his actions, no one else can step in and do that for him.
Wearing a scapular or a certain medal or reciting certain prayers—these are all fine as long as they lead us deeper into being disciples of Jesus. None of these can put God “over a barrel,” so to speak. God’s grace touches every part of our lives that we open up to that grace. Conversion opens up new areas to God’s grace. Your father may die in denial about the abuse that he has inflicted on your family. Or he may come to admit his responsibility.
None of these facts changes the past that you have so painfully experienced. Unfortunately, you cannot guarantee how your mother or your siblings choose to deal with the verbal or physical abuse that they have received. You can encourage them to tell the truth—at least to themselves.
You have options, too. Which ones have you tried? With what results? What keeps you from trying other options? Would some of them be less painful than what you are experiencing now? Is there a way to forgive for your own peace of mind?
Your mother and your siblings can seek counseling to deal with issues that they may not yet recognize as linked to the abuse that they experienced. Support groups near you may offer help in dealing with family abuse.
No one can change his or her past. But we all have some power to decide how that past will (or will not) affect our present and our future. May the Lord be your strength and your guide as you deal with this very real abuse.