Shattered Faith in Two Parts

Left to right: Bertrand, an unidentified friend, Sister Benen Kent and Britten in 1967.

Left to right: Bertrand, an unidentified friend, Sister Benen Kent and Britten in 1967.

Karen Britten was 29 in 1988 when she saw her mother sitting at the kitchen table doing something she’d done faithfully for nearly 20 years: write a check to Sister Benen Kent. As the revered piano teacher at St. Juliana School in Chicago, the nun had taught piano to Karen, her older sister, a best friend and many students at the Catholic grade school for five years before being transferred in the mid-1960s. Pleading poverty, Kent asked Karen’s parents to keep supporting her. Two decades had passed, but on that day Karen told her mother what she’d remembered only a month before.

“She molested me.”

Like her parents, Karen’s sister Chris Bertrand was horrified. She couldn’t explain why the same thing hadn’t happened to her. Fourteen years later she knew the answer when the memory of a long ago piano lesson suddenly convulsed her with a sickening refrain.

“This happened to me.”

Sister Brenan Kent

Sister Benen Kent

Along with a third abuse victim, the sisters mounted a six-year battle for acknowledgement from the Sisters of St. Francis in Rochester, Minnesota, Kent’s order. A settlement was reached last fall—the Sisters of St. Francis admitted to no wrongdoing—but the resolution remained incomplete. Kent died in 2003 before her accusers were allowed to confront her. Because Karen’s recollection came more than 10 years before, her claim exceeded the Minnesota statute of limitations and was excluded from the agreement.

In the Catholic Church’s decade-long sexual abuse scandal, relatively few public accusations have been made against nuns. The women’s attorney, Jeff Anderson of St. Paul, speculates that female victims may be silenced by cultural bias about gender and sex, as well as daunted by the profusion of women’s religious orders, each separate entities within the Catholic Church.

Legislation like New York’s proposed Child Victims Act, extending the statute of limitations on sexual abuse lawsuits, could trigger more claims from women like Karen and Chris, for whom full recall took decades. Thwarted in the past by Republican leadership, the act is being fast-tracked by a new Democratic majority. Church leaders oppose the the bill, which is similar to ones passed in Delaware and California, saying it unfairly targets the Catholic Church over public institutions. The New York State Assembly is expected to vote on it in the coming weeks.

The legal damage of the scandal may yet be contained, but what happens to lifelong faith after trauma and betrayal?  For these two women, spiritual recovery diverges. One is spiritually adrift and alienated; the other finds growing purpose and even divine guidance in her steadfast belief.

Today Britten is 50 and works as a critical care hospital nurse. She lives with her husband and two teenage children in Highland Park, Illinois, where her own parish priest was removed on a sexual abuse charge several years ago. She refuses to keep a piano in her home and has stopped going to church. “My faith is in tatters,” she says.

Bertrand, 54, is a writer and photographer. She and her husband live in Sierra Madre, California. Their two sons have grown up and left home, where a grand piano graces the front room. Her pastor ministers openly to sexual abuse victims. “In my own way I want to help rebuild the Church and its reputation from the inside out,” Bertrand says.

Chris Bertrand

Chris Bertrand

The two sisters were interviewed separately for this article, and yet side-by-side, their voices harmonize in a duet of grief, hope and longing. Their stories depict both the fragility and resilience of faith and suggest how far the Church still has to go to heal its accusers and itself.

Chris: Sister Benen would separate the lessons into two parts: performance and music theory. During the performance part we would sit at the piano. During the theory part we would stand next to her and she would reach under our dresses. I was 6 years old, and I’d spend each week trying to think of questions I could ask at the piano so we wouldn’t get to theory.

Karen: Just before my wedding I was at my parents’ home going through old sheet music. I came across a theory book I’d used when studying with Sister Benen. I started getting images of her molesting me during a theory lesson.

Chris: She was a gifted music teacher and musician, and a trusted friend to our parents. When she was transferred from the school, which we later learned was part of a pattern of short-term assignments, she asked our parents for a letter of recommendation that was placed in her file and later used in her defense.

Karen: I’ve never blamed my parents. They were extremely protective, and never left us with babysitters. I can’t imagine how it felt to realize they had delivered us to a sexual predator.

Sister Benen Kent, Britten and Bertrand at a picnic in 1967.

Sister Benen Kent, Britten and Bertrand at a picnic in 1967.

Chris: My father was outraged. He was part of the Warsaw Underground and imprisoned at Auschwitz. He said finding this out was worse than Auschwitz, and by that I think he meant it was worse for him.

Karen: At first, no one else remembered, and I felt like this aberrant thing.

Chris: I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress while I was in chemotherapy for cancer, and for that reason I already had a relationship with a psychiatrist. By the time I remembered, I had a perfect storm of support: my psychiatrist, my husband, and my children. It was a perfect cosmic plan for my own healing.

Karen: I was still going to church, sitting in the front row. Everyone knew I was going through this and no one said anything. There was no acceptance.

Chris: At first, we kept asking for a face-to-face meeting with Kent because that’s what I felt I needed. I remembered her as a monster, and I wanted to see her as 80 and incapable of hurting anyone else. The Order said she wasn’t well enough, and they were going to do their own investigation. They kept giving us deadlines for when they would respond to us and then miss them time after time.

Karen: I was hanging onto my faith. My kids did the entire thing–communion, confirmation–I wasn’t going to take that away from them. And then our pastor was accused and removed.  I had to sit down that day and tell my kids. This can happen anywhere and to anyone. It happened to me.

Chris: One day I got a letter from the Order. It said, “You can’t meet with Sister Kent because she died. We had her funeral last week.” Then I was ready to sue. It was the only way to get the Order’s attention and get them to change the way they treated victims.

Karen: I have a small group of friends who have helped me through this, but the Church has treated us terribly. One day about a year ago I got dressed to go to mass and I was shaking and ready to throw up, and I couldn’t go. I haven’t been back since.

Chris: I was always an active parishioner, but I had a hard time stepping back inside once I remembered. My husband asked me to continue. Sometimes I’d go to a Lutheran church to pray and a Catholic church to cry.

Karen: Part of our settlement with the Order was for a healing mass at the motherhouse in Rochester. We were sitting in the chapel and a large man came in and sat next to us. He said he was the sheriff. They’d called him in. That’s how big a threat we were to them.

Chris: At the parish I attended when I first remembered, my pastor stonewalled us. He didn’t have the tools to deal with it. So we left and took our financial support elsewhere. That’s what a lot of people have done, whether they have left the Church or not. When they write a check, they write in the memo line: “Not to be used for abuse scandal.”

Karen: When my daughter was about 7 she asked to take piano lessons. At first, it was like, “Absolutely not.” Then I agreed, but I went to every lesson. I sat in the room for every lesson.

Chris: I studied music until I went to college. I’m a good technician, but there’s no heart in my music. I feel comfortable as an accompanist, but I rarely play alone. I’m not a soloist anymore.

Karen: I’m shopping for a religion. Philosophical answers don’t help. We all need to find solace at some time in our lives.

Chris: My faith has never been in question. Before Kent died, I wanted to see her and try to forgive her as a pedophile. I knew it was an illness like alcoholism. The Church kept putting her behind the bar serving drinks, teaching music lessons to children. In my heart, I wanted to forgive.

Karen Maezen Miller is a Zen Buddhist priest and the author of Momma Zen, Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood. (Trumpeter, 2006) and the forthcoming Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life. She blogs regularly at Cheerio Road.