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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 12, 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 50
SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Author and activist Mary Dispenza talks about her memoir Split and her life's journey
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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Author and activist Mary Dispenza talks about her memoir Split and her life's journey

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

'It is my time to give hope, love, and support to those on their journey of healing from childhood abuse to health and wholeness,' Mary Dispenza writes in her new book, Split. 'The call inspires me and gives my life renewed meaning and purpose.'

'I hope your readers will buy the book,' Dispenza tells SGN, 'and pass it along if they find it worthy.'

Dispenza, a former nun, teacher, artist, and veteran LGBT rights activist, began the book four years ago when she was asked to become Northwest district director of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests).

The title, Split, refers both to her shattered relationship with her Catholic faith, and to the separation between 'Little Mary,' her name for her childhood self, and the adult Mary Dispenza grappling with memories of rape by her priest, Father George Rucker.

It all began, she says, in 1989 when she was appointed director of Pastoral Life Services in Seattle by then-Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen. As an official of the archdiocese, Dispenza was required to attend a workshop titled 'The Sexual Misconduct of Clergy.'

'As I sat there listening,' she tells SGN, 'I suddenly realized, 'Oh my gosh! They're talking about me!'

'Then the memories and the flashbacks came...'

Dispenza realized she had been suppressing memories of a time when she was seven years old and was raped by Father Rucker during the showing of a movie in her Catholic school auditorium. Told by the workshop facilitators that those who know about abuse by priests have a duty to report it, Dispenza informed Church officials about the incident, and initiated contact with Rucker more than 40 years after the rape.

'I finally confronted my abuser in 1991,' she explains. The occasion was a church-sponsored therapy session for survivors of abuse by priests.

'I wanted two things out of it,' Dispenza remembers, 'recompense and reconciliation.

'But the priest didn't tell the truth. He said I was the only one he'd ever raped. But I was one of 40 little girls. He was a serial pedophile. I was told later by [Los Angeles police] Detective James Brown that they'd been on his trail for years.'

At that point Dispenza's other big secret also came out. Shortly after confronting Rucker, she told co-workers she is a Lesbian. She was then featured in a Seattle Times story, 'Ex-Nun Comes Out of the Closet.' Seattle Archbishop Thomas Murphy promptly fired her.

'After I left [the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, her order of nuns] I tried so hard to be heterosexual,' Dispenza grins. 'As a child I always had a close girlfriend, but all girls do. In the convent, I had affection for one sister, but I filed these incidents away.'

Finally, convinced that healing from sexual abuse also required her to acknowledge her sexual orientation, she decided she had to come out.

Never one to do things halfway, Dispenza threw herself into LGBT activism, volunteering with Lambert House, and joining Hands Off Washington to beat back two anti-Gay ballot initiatives.

Dispenza also got into a noteworthy confrontation with the powerful Cardinal Roger Mahony, who, as Archbishop of Los Angeles, was Father Rucker's superior.

In LA as one of the plaintiffs in a civil suit leveled against Rucker and the Catholic Archdiocese, Dispenza met with Mahony as part of a pre-arranged session with survivors of abuse. In the course of their conversation, Dispenza informed the Cardinal that she is a Lesbian. Mahony replied that the U.S. bishops had just issued new guidelines on 'pastoral care of homosexuals.'

That was too much for her, Dispenza remembers.

'I thought to myself, 'This man just does not get it!' So I told him everything that was on my mind.

'I don't want to be ministered to!' I said. 'I want full participation! I want to be a leader in the church! I want my partner welcomed into the church, I want the same attention and resources other couples get!'

Mahony, whose archdiocese had one of the worst records of child abuse by priests, was subsequently forced by the Vatican to retire. He now lives in a parish house in North Hollywood where he was born 78 years ago.

Dispenza, on the other hand, found her spirituality evolving away from the Catholic Church. 'It's taken me many years to say - and to be comfortable saying - I'm not a Catholic,' she explains. 'My spirituality has moved from trying to be like Jesus to trying to live Gospel values - healing, forgiveness, service.

'I tried to recreate these values in my life, and these are values I found in my work in the Gay community.

'Most Catholics see themselves in respect to their parish community. I don't think they want to look at all the stumbling blocks.

'An intelligent Catholic - well, maybe it's not fair to say 'intelligent,' but one who analyzes things - how can they accept what the Church leaders have done? Regular parishioners are not forced to think about things that way.'

While Dispenza sees Pope Francis as 'a breath of fresh air' in the Church, she is still waiting to see the results.

'He is saying the words we want to hear,' she tells SGN, 'but I don't see the actions.'

While Dispenza's life story is undoubtedly a story of loss, it is also a story of gain, and one of the greatest gains, she says, is her wife Mary Ann.

The two met 20 years ago at a retreat for women, and married 'after a very long engagement' on February 10, 2013. It is a pairing Dispenza calls 'The Great Experiment.'

'I fell in love instantly,' Dispenza says, recalling meeting her future wife at the retreat. 'But she's not a risk taker.' It was only after buying their first home together that Dispenza felt 'I passed,' she recalls.

Another gain, she says, was the opportunity to live out her spiritual principles.

'My spirituality is not just about words,' she says. 'It's always been about action. If I believe all people are equal, I need to do something about it.

'I loved my last round, working for marriage equality. All the young people - so smart, so committed, so strategic!

'I have to do these things because they come out of my soul and my heart!'

Asked what else she would like SGN readers to know about her life, Dispenza answers quickly 'I'd like them to know how grateful I am to the LGBT community who have loved and supported me all these years.

'And I'd like them to keep believing that people working together can bring about great change.'

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