NISKAYUNA, N.Y. (CNS) – She knew something was wrong when she started to hyperventilate.
It was 1986, and Dominican Sister Carol Davis, who had a flourishing ministry in counseling and leading retreats, had been thinking about contacting her biological father.
Her parents were long divorced, and she had a different last name from her biological father's. But every time she thought about looking him up, she felt terrified and faint.
Then the flashbacks started, and Sister Carol thought she was losing her sanity: She was remembering repeated sexual abuse at his hands during her childhood.
"A flashback, for a survivor, is like being back in that war zone: reliving it in a visceral, emotional way, as if it's happening in the present," she told The Evangelist, newspaper of the Albany Diocese.
Sister Carol began seeing a therapist, joined a therapy group for abuse survivors and told close friends, family and co-workers so they would understand the days when she was struggling emotionally.
After three years of counseling, she decided she had to warn relatives with small children about what her biological father had done – to let them know that, if he had not gotten treatment, they should not leave their children alone with him.
The nun also decided to tell her biological father that she planned to talk with relatives. The resulting phone call, she said, was "nightmarish."
She thought he might deny the abuse; instead, he started talking about specific places in her childhood home where the abuse took place and threatened to ruin her mother's reputation if she told anyone her story.
As she spoke with extended family members, others confirmed what she remembered. "Every time you came back from visiting (your biological father), you were sick," said an uncle. "We thought it was bad food; your mother was upset."
Sister Carol noted that there is controversy over recovered memories of childhood trauma. Some can be real, some false. But she pointed out that what she recalled was validated by others.
"Most people don't want to say, 'I was sexually abused,'" she added. "It's not a badge of honor. If somebody really believes that something happened to them, then you work in a healing way with them."
She said she continued to struggle with the long-term effects of the abuse in therapy. Abuse, she said, "affects one's sense of self: 'Can I trust my feelings, what I think, what I know? Can I trust other people? Do I want to live?'"
She recalled raging at God during the most painful time in her recovery.
"How could you create a world where innocent children can be violated in this way?" she demanded – until, one day, she collapsed into a rocking chair in anger and felt that she had collapsed "into the arms of God."
From then on, she said, her relationship with God deepened. She felt that a divine presence was with her, recognizing and receiving her pain.
Ironically, even before Sister Carol had begun sharing her story with others, people began to approach her, spontaneously talking about their experiences of sexual abuse.
Since she was in a healing ministry, she agreed to listen and help them through their pain as best she could – and then found herself sharing her own "experience, strength and hope."
"Once I knew I would have the inner strength to do it, I had to," she said. "It's a call; I would feel like I was abandoning the survivors if I didn't do it. People need healing companionship."
At first, Sister Carol told herself she would not talk about her abuse with the retreat groups she led; then that boundary changed to talking about it, but not writing it down.
Now her story has become a large part of her ministry. She started weekend retreats for sexual abuse survivors at the Dominican Pastoral Counseling Center in Niskayuna and travels around the country leading similar retreats.
"I spend thousands of hours with survivors," she said. "I have heard some of the worst things people can do. I can do this because when I see a person claim their truth and begin to heal, I receive joy from that person."
She said sometimes she prays to God to take her patients' pain, because it's too much for her to handle.
But she perseveres in her work because "there are survivors of sexual abuse in every walk of life, and some of them never told anybody" until attending a retreat where it was safe to share their stories.
"Some people never share publicly, and why should they? But because of my journey, I think people need to know what is possible," Sister Carol said. "Somebody has to say some of this, so it can be out there. Somebody has to speak up, because how are people going to find their way?"
Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops