Real AF is a candid series delving into the profound experiences of African women, covering real topics that shape their lives. Because in truth, we all have stories to tell.
TW: predatory relationships, suicide.
Grooming, according to the Cambridge dictionary, is a criminal activity which involves the process of an adult becoming friends with a child in order to try to persuade the child to have a sexual relationship. In this Real AF interview, a young woman shares how she was groomed by a priest in high school and her journey to finding healing from the trauma.
Can You Walk Me Through Your Relationship With This Priest? How Old Were You When He First Came Into Your Life?
Well, he wasn’t actually a priest when I first met him, he was still in training and was yet to be ordained. I went to a Catholic high school and he was a teacher there. Although, he never taught me specifically, he took an interest in me after reading one of my essays. He liked my writing and encouraged me to keep working at it. I was in SS2 and was 15 at the time.
Hm. How Did Your Relationship With Him Develop After This? At What Point Did It Go From Normal To Inappropriate?
We started meeting regularly to work on my writing. I would write and he would help me look over my work. He told me that he liked literature and he was once a writer himself. He showed me some of his work and we talked about books and poetry we liked. Because students didn’t have that much access to computers or the Internet, he let me use his computer to do my research and I would use his printer as well.
I was struggling with my faith at the time because I was conflicted about my belief in God. I didn’t think God was worth believing in because I felt that religion was a colonial relic that symbolized sexism and oppression. I used to talk with him about this because he assured me that I could talk to him about anything without judgement. He described himself as a feminist, and he told me he understood where I was coming from.
In retrospect, I can now understand how inappropriate some of his behaviour was. At the time I didn’t quite grasp this because I had my guard down. Because he was a religious, I didn’t think he was capable of being harmful or dangerous to me. Once when he did me a favour, I thanked him and he responded that he helped me because he “loved me.” If some other man had told me this, I would have immediately felt alarmed. However, I didn’t read into what he said because I saw him as a saint.
He used to tell me personal things about himself and I think that’s how he lured me in. He told me he had a difficult upbringing and his father wasn’t around a lot. When he was younger, he struggled with depression and attempted suicide. The things he told me made me pity him and brought us closer. Because he confided in me, I felt I could confide in him as well.
Things took a more inappropriate turn when he showed up shirtless for one of our meetings. He started to talk to me about his sexual experiences before he started his priestly training. He told me to share my sexual experiences as well so he could “guide” me properly into adulthood. He kept insisting that I shouldn’t feel uncomfortable because many women are sexually repressed and I shouldn’t let myself be caged. It sounded very feminist to me then but now I realize he was mansplaining to get what he wanted from me. He told me to see him as my best friend that I could explore with. That’s how things between us evolved into a romantic relationship.
Wow. How Did Things Change After You Graduated From High School?
After I graduated, he said he wanted to keep in touch so he asked me for my email and my phone number. At this time I was 16 going on 17. We would talk on the phone and send messages back and forth, and then one day, he sent me his nudes. The conversation had already been heading in a sexual direction so I wasn’t very shocked but still I couldn’t believe what had just happened. At the time, I was pretty excited because I liked the attention but about a week later, I started to feel off about it. He had already told me he loved me and I thought I had feelings for him as well, but I still felt uneasy about everything: from the age gap to the fact that he was religious. I tried to explain to him how I felt about us and his reaction was so explosive. He tried to guilt trip me by accusing me of leading him on because I entertained his actions.
What A Manipulator.
Exactly. I wanted to break off the relationship, but I felt guilty about doing that because he had confided in me that everyone in his life always leaves him. So instead of breaking up with him, I just told him that everything sexual had to go. We were in touch for about a year until I started uni. At uni, I was always so busy so I barely had time for him, and he would complain about this often. He kept asking me why I was pulling away and eventually, I became sick of him. Whenever he called, I would look for any excuse to cut it short, I stopped responding to his messages and when he told me he loved me, I wouldn’t say anything back. He even told me he wanted to get a tattoo of my name and I freaked out.
I started to ask myself questions like, “why does this grown man want to be with me?” “why do I have this sort of attachment to an older man?” “is this grooming? or is this different because it wasn’t planned?” I didn’t feel hurt or anything then, I just felt very confused. I would read about predatory relationships and grooming and I realized that my relationship ticked all the boxes, but I wasn’t yet ready to admit it to myself. I used to talk to him about my personal issues like my rocky relationship with God, how I hated myself sometimes and how I felt like I wanted to die. He always gave me advice and helped me out of many depressive episodes so I couldn’t reconcile how someone who was this good to me could be a predator.
What Were Things Like For You Following Your Break Up With Him?
I feel like I went down a rabbit-hole of hypersexuality. I constantly craved male attention, which was entirely different to how I was in high school. I would give my number to any guy that asked for it. I just really wanted to feel some kind of connection that was different and made me feel more in control. In my freshman year, I was getting with juniors and seniors and we would make out at their apartments but if they wanted to have penetrative sex I would wildly panic. I bought a lot of sex toys just to try them out and discover my sexuality on my own terms. It felt liberating. I think I realized that I had a lot of unresolved issues for the first time when the pandemic hit. I began to unpack my relationship with the priest and I blamed myself a lot for letting him into my life like that.
I called him one day and asked him why he thought it was okay for him to ask me to marry him when I was 17. He lost it. He followed the classic predator script: ‘you’re making me feel bad by telling me what I did to hurt you.’ It was a long phone call and he refused to take accountability for anything he did, he was so defensive because he didn’t want to accept that he was a predator. After that, he went ghost mode. He didn’t reply any of my messages or pick up my phone calls and I got really scared that I pushed him too hard and he had done something to hurt himself. Eventually, I moved on and then after a month, he came back. He told me he had been reflecting and he was now done with his reflection. I was livid. I couldn’t believe that he would prioritize his own feelings and wellbeing over mine; when I was the person he hurt. So I blocked him everywhere.
I tried therapy because everything still bothered me and I felt like I needed closure. My therapist tried to make me understand that he was actually a predator and what happened between us was statutory harassment. I couldn’t accept it at first but she explained that our relationship crossed all sorts of formal boundaries especially adult-child boundaries. My therapist and a close friend were the only people I confided in. Therapy didn’t really work for me because I find one-on-one therapy very annoying. There’s just something about seeing someone and being expected to talk that puts me off.
I tried other things. I searched for the priest’s email and set him a long angry email. I called him every name in the book, all the insults I could think of, just everything to convey my anger. I felt like he was just living his life while I was stuck with all the pain. I wrote and wrote until I was tired and I sent it. It didn’t really accomplish much for me but I felt a lot better knowing that he was going to have to live with that inside of him for the rest of his life. Right now, I’ve decided to try celibacy and I’m just working on my mind and my body. The thought of sex right now makes me cringe.
Sometimes, I do wish I had done better for myself. I saw signs, clear signs that this man wasn’t okay and not really spiritually genuine, but I just thought he was a cool religious and it made me accommodating of his behaviour. I wish I had reported it at the first, second or even third sign. I feel like it’s too late for me to report him now because so much time has passed. I know people will believe me but I think behind my back they might blame me.
I’m So Sorry You Went Through That. Most of All, You Can’t Blame Yourself. Do You Have Any Advice For Women Who Might Be Going Through What You Experienced?
I think mainly to not let your guard down. Men in positions of authority, regardless of their religiousness, their sexuality are still men, and they are capable of anything. If you spot any predatory signs, report it as early as you can. Nobody should force you to report it and you won’t be at fault if you don’t, but it can help your healing process, so it’s worth considering.