St Maria Goretti is often seen as a patron saint both for those who have been abused and for those who are guilty of abuse.
Paddy McCafferty recounts the short life of St Maria Goretti and sees her as a patron saint both for those who have been abused and for those who are guilty of abuse. He also draws some important lessons on how abusers are to be treated.
In the early afternoon on July 5, 1902, an 11-year-old girl, Maria Goretti, was repeatedly stabbed by a 20-year-old man in the course of a frenzied, sexually motivated attack. On June 24, 1950, Pope Pius XII canonised her in the presence of her mother, Assunta, and of the man who murdered her, Alessandro Serenelli. In reading the accounts of Maria’s life, her personality and spirituality, one cannot fail to be vividly reminded of the similarities with St Bernadette of Lourdes, before and after the apparitions.
Comparison with Bernadette
Both children lived in grinding poverty. Many years after her death, it was said of St Maria Goretti by a Cardinal Salotti, preaching at her shrine in Nettuno, that she would have been a saint even if she had not been a martyr, “because she had the gift of making her ordinary, everyday life, the holy ground of God’s presence.”
Maria’s family had been forced to move in as lodgers with the widower, Giovanni Serenelli, and his two sons. Her father, Luigi, had to give up their small farm in Corinaldo because it was impossible to eke out any kind of existence there for his wife and children. The Serenellis invited him to come onto their farm as a partner. He had little option but to accept.
Giovanni Serenelli was a boorish man. He often got drunk and became abusive. He and his two sons were as different to the deeply devout Goretti family as chalk is to cheese. The Serenellis, for example, were much given to reading the lurid accounts of “true sex crimes.” Indecent pictures were pasted on the walls of the house they now shared with the Gorettis.
Assunta and Luigi tried to protect their children as best they could in such an atmosphere. Assunta later said: “We tried to bring them up in the faith, to be good Christians, teaching them to pray and to see God in his creation.” Every evening Luigi would lead his wife and children in the rosary.
Life was grim for the Gorettis. Already awful circumstances became even worse when Luigi fell ill and died at the end of March, 1901. The grief-stricken Assunta was forced to take on her husband’s work in the fields. But she was shown no compassion whatsoever by Giovanni Serenelli.
Eleven-year-old Maria had to assume the domestic chores of her mother – cooking, cleaning, mending, fetching, carrying and caring for the younger children. She was a docile and gentle child, deeply prayerful. She tried to console her mother as best she could: “Don’t worry, Mama. The good Lord will always look after us. Soon we will all be grown up and we will be able to take care of you.”
At this time, Alessandro began to pester Maria and to make indecent advances towards her. The child firmly resisted but was horrified and frightened. As is the case with so many other victims of child sexual abuse, she told no one of her plight. The cramped living conditions in which the Goretti family lived with the Serenellis made it impossible for Maria to avoid Alessandro. However, she did her best to ensure she was never alone with him.
On July 5, 1902, Alessandro caught her in the house by herself, and tried to force her into having sexual intercourse. He was much stronger than the child and could easily have overpowered her, but he wanted her to comply willingly with his demands. Maria utterly refused: “No, Alessandro, God does not want this. If you do this, you will go to hell.”
Alessandro, in a madness of passion and fury, lost his temper and stabbed her repeatedly. Her baby sister, Teresa, began to cry with all the disturbance, and this alerted Assunta who was working in the fields. Maria was found bleeding profusely. The local doctor could do nothing, so she was rushed to hospital in nearby Nettuno.
The journey was only eight miles but it took four hours, during which the dying girl suffered agonies because of the jolting of the ambulance on the rough country roads. She was examined upon arrival, and the doctors discovered that all her vital organs, including her heart, had been damaged.
Maria was dehydrated from blood loss and the heat. She pleaded for water but, because the doctors had decided to operate, was not allowed anything to drink. Her mother later testified that the thought of Jesus’ thirst on the cross helped her to bear her own.
Fourteen major wounds
Maria had suffered 14 major wounds and two contusions. The operation lasted two hours. Afterwards, she was in agony with nothing to relieve the pain. She worried about her mother, brothers and sisters but, most of all, about her abuser and attacker: “Poor Alessandro. He’s going to go to hell.”
The parish priest came to see her. Before giving her Holy Communion, he spoke to her of Jesus’ death and how he forgave his murderers. He asked her: “Do you forgive Alessandro?” She seemed tremendously relieved and said that she forgave him with all her heart. Before her death, Maria became delirious and relived the trauma of the attack. She died at 15.45 pm on July 6, 1902.
When Maria was canonised on June 24, 1950, half a million people were in attendance in St Peter’s Square. Her mother was present, aged 85. It was the first time in history that a mother had been present for her child’s canonisation. Also present with her and Maria’s family was Alessandro Serenelli.
The story of this amazing child of courage and faith needs to be heard again by the people of God in these difficult times. Nowadays, we are extremely conscious of the immense damage and prolonged suffering that can be inflicted on those who fall prey to sexual predators. In St Maria Goretti, we have a friend in God’s presence who commends to God’s loving care all who, like her, have been victimised in this way.
In these times, when the church has been ravaged by scandals involving the sexual abuse of children and minors, St Maria Goretti must now be allowed to come into her own. In her we have an advocate for everyone who has suffered sexual abuse – no matter who the perpetrator, no matter what the circumstances.
We know of many cases where paedophiles molested their victims and then murdered them. St Maria Goretti was mortally wounded with 14 stab wounds. The majority of victims of paedophilia, however, are lacerated within. They are condemned to a slow death – a long haemorrhaging of the spirit – by the interior disfigurement caused by the abuse.
The victim is disfigured in his/her own eyes. Others might look and see a beautiful, gifted person; but the person who is abused views him/herself with intense and often violent self-loathing. The spirit weeps and the soul bleeds. This can go on for many, many years.
St Maria fought back against her attacker. He demanded her complicity and she refused. Later, after his conversion, Alessandro Serenelli testified for the cause of her beatification: “I knew I was breaking God’s law. I killed her because she refused. She had never encouraged me in any way – not by a word or a deed.”
Lies of the abuser
Many abused children did not have the strength, or the ability, to resist an abuser. That is no reflection on them whatsoever; but the important thing to remember is that now that they are older and stronger, they can fight back against the abuse. They can close their ears to the terrible lies that the abuser told them about themselves. They can begin to look at themselves as they truly are – the very beloved of God.
The prayers of an 11-year-old child who is now in heaven can help abused people withstand and face down the monsters of fear that haunt and intimidate them, making of their lives a living hell. Yes, Maria is very much a saint for these times. To her we could well ascribe the words once spoken to Queen Esther: “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to the throne for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)
There can be no doubt about it. Maria, before the throne of God, pleads for the many victims of child sexual abuse in our country and throughout the world. She is a saint for the church in these painful and troubled times. Yet again, as always, God has raised up a little one to confound the powerful. (1 Cor 1:28)
Scripture says: “And a little child shall lead them.” (Is 11:6). Maria, at the head of an army of innocents and little ones, goes before God’s church to call us back to “being like little children” (Mt 18:3). The church had become, in too many ways, arrogant and abusive of God’s people. Now, the church must become little again so as to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 18:4).
Saint for the guilty
St Maria Goretti is also a saint for those who are guilty of abuse. Alessandro Serenelli, like many abusers when they are caught, was in total denial of his actions. He had been caught with the blood of this child on his hands and clothes. He was, for a long time, hard-hearted and unrepentant. He was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment in Sardinia.
For eight of those years he was defiant and contemptuous. Then one night he had a dream about Maria in which the child made a gentle gesture of forgiveness towards him. His life changed. He became a great penitent. He was released, with Assunta’s agreement, after 26 years because he was such a model prisoner. Upon release, he laboured for nine years as a builder. It took him this long to save up enough money to return to Italy.
The first thing he did was to go see Assunta at Corinaldo. He pleaded for forgiveness, and Assunta readily forgave him. Assunta took him with her to Midnight Mass at Christmas 1937. They received Holy Communion together. After he received the Eucharist, there was a bit of commotion among the congregation, so he turned around to them and said: “I am guilty of a terrible sin. Please forgive me.”
He was with the family at the beatification and canonisation of his victim. He eventually went to work as a gardener in an isolated monastery. He stayed hidden there until his death in 1969, aged 82. His last words: “I’m going to be with Maria.”
Human beings in need of help
Society rightly has a horror of those who would subject children to sexual abuse. The temptation is to demonise paedophiles, and a lynch-mob mentality often comes into play. St Maria Goretti would remind us that those who have this serious and dangerous disorder are human beings too. They are in need of specialised help. Alessandro Serenelli came from a very disturbed background. This is no excuse for what he inflicted on Maria but we must leave the matter of judgement where it rightfully belongs – with God.
For our part, it is vitally important that we ensure that it becomes as difficult as humanly possible for anyone to hurt or abuse children. Paedophiles need to be prevented from carrying out their life-destroying actions. Under no circumstances must sexual offenders against children ever be allowed to have access to children. They are not, however, beyond the mercy and love of God. St Maria Goretti teaches and reminds us of this truth by her own example towards Alessandro.
God’s own work
In the midst of a most distressing and painful time for the church, we need to look again at the gentle, little girl from Nettuno. She would have lived and died in obscurity. She would probably have lived the same kind of life as her mother – poverty-stricken and hard-working, yet full of faith and of love in action. The horrific circumstances of her death gradually brought her to the attention of the universal church. This is the Lord’s own work and it is wonderful to see (Ps 118:23)The Lord found his discarded little one and lifted her up before the whole world. May her prayers help all those who are suffering the deep wounds of childhood abuse and trauma.
This article first appeared in Reality (October, 2002), a publication of the Irish Redemptorists.