Many Rape Victims Have a Bit of Trouble with St Maria Goretti. Here’s Why

Many Rape Victims Have a Bit of Trouble with St Maria Goretti. Here’s Why July 7, 2015

Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons by Elvert Barnes
Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons by Elvert Barnes

I’ve spent a fair amount of my adult life, trying to help rape victims.

I was one of the six original founders of the YWCA Rape Crisis Center here in Oklahoma, the first such center in the state. I have passed a ton of legislation to help end the scourge of violence against women, including more than a few laws to help rape victims. I spent a number of years on the board of an organization that rescued women who were victims of sex trafficking.

I know that many women, including most rape victims, are affronted by the story of St Maria Goretti. This one story becomes for them a symbol of what they believe is the Church’s utter blindness to the reality of rape and what it means to women. The way St Maria Goretti has been presented to them is certainly why.

A few years back, I was making a speech on the subject of violence against women and I said, “This is for those who lie in the field, the lake, the dump and the shallow grave. It is for the ones whose bodies will never be found, whose names will go unrecorded; for the forgotten, unidentified, unfound women who died at the hands of their attackers.” I say that again now.

Rape is a crime of extreme violence and dehumanization. It is so ubiquitous that fear of it forces half the human race to live in constant vigilance, in a sort of war zone mentality.

St Maria Goretti disturbed rather than comforted every rape victim I have dealt with who knew about her. The reason lies in the dual impressions taken from her story that (1) The Church is teaching that is better to die than suffer rape and live, and, (2) The Church is teaching that if a woman really wants to, she can avoid being raped.

Both these ideas are cruel and misogynist to the core. Rape is a crime of extreme violence. It is committed by bigger and stronger people against physically weaker people because the weaker person cannot successfully defend themselves.

The purpose of rape is to reduce another human being to an object, to destroy their humanity and lower them to the level of meat. Gang rape also has the effect of bonding the guys together as part of their sadistic recreation.

I’ve read the blog posts of my two colleagues Michelle Arnold and Simcha Fisher. Both of their discussions of Maria Goretti’s short life and death are couched in language and a manner that reflects the fact that they understand and are sensitive to the feelings of women.

Many rape victims find St Maria Goretti, or at least the way she has been shown to them, to be a further affront to and attack on their dignity and value as human beings. This alienates them from the Church.

The crux of the problem with this saint is that misogynists have gotten control of her story. They have depicted her as girl of no real value in herself who became a saint because she chose to die rather than forfeit her hymen, and who then forgave her attacker who — get this — was so moved by her piety that he became a priest. (Actually, he became a gardener at a Franciscan friary or monetary, but that is not how the story is told to young girls.)

This manner of discussing Maria Goretti is right up there with the old story about the woman who stayed with her husband who beat her and suffered his battering prayerfully and piously right up to and including when he beat her to death. The murdering hubby was then so impressed by her piety that he — you know it’s coming — became a priest.

I’ve actually heard this latter story being told to young girls and women since I converted.

That’s sick stuff folks. It defames Christ to pin this misogyny on Him. Women’s lives matter more than any part of their anatomy. Their human dignity is real human dignity. It cannot be fluffed off with instructional tales of women who die to save their virginity and who sacrifice their lives by letting their husbands beat them to death.

This nonsense places the blame for the batterer and rapist’s behavior squarely on the shoulders of the battered and the raped. Somehow, women are, according to these stories, responsible for avoiding rape and converting their batterer by submitting to beatings.

If they fail in this, then, the implication is that they didn’t fight hard enough, resist long enough, pray hard enough, or submit piously enough. Not only that, but they are responsible for converting their rapists and batterers by how they die.

This notion of martyrdom is not martyrdom at all. It is a method and a means of enforcing and justifying social injustice against half the human race by the other half.

That is the rape victim’s perception of St Maria Goretti as she has been presented to them. That is the view of far too many women when it comes to the Church and what they can expect from it if they are themselves raped or battered.

I’ll leave the apologetics about St Goretti to Michelle and Simcha. They did a fine job.

I’m going to use my internet space to do a bit of apologetics for rape victims. Personally, my heroines are the ones who smash the guy’s nose and run for it. My heroines are the ones who crawl out of the dump where they were left for dead and rebuild themselves into productive and full human beings.

I’ve said a lot in opposition to divorce, but men who beat their families don’t deserve families. I think every battered woman should dump the dude. Every. Single. One.

My heroine is the woman who says you can’t treat me like that and gets the bleep out of Dodge. My heroines are the women who assert their own right to life and humanity in the face of those who would deny it.

I never want to see any young girl die for her virginity. Her virginity is not a physical thing. It’s a matter of spiritual purity, and the rapist, with his beer breath and disgustingly filthy heart, cannot touch that.

My advice to women who are confronted with the savage violence of the rapist is simple: Do what you have to do to survive. If submitting will get your out alive, submit. If you have to kill him to survive, do what you must. Fight, if you can. But if you can’t, don’t let the jerks of this world make you feel bad about it later.

Women’s lives are real lives. Their humanity is real humanity. Survival in the face of bestial behavior is not a sin. It is a virtue. It is also a God-given mandate.



Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment

40 responses to “Many Rape Victims Have a Bit of Trouble with St Maria Goretti. Here’s Why”

  1. “The reason lies in the dual impressions taken from her story that (1) The Church is teaching that is better to die than suffer rape and live, and, (2) The Church is teaching that if a woman really wants to, she can avoid being raped.”
    Well, those impressions are wrong. Absolutely wrong. The story of Maria Goretti is about maintaining chastity (she refused sex, even before the rape attempt) and she forgave her killer. End of story. The Church teaches none of those things.

  2. “The crux of the problem with this saint is that misogynists have gotten
    control of her story. They have depicted her as girl of no real value in
    herself who became a saint because she chose to die rather than forfeit
    her hymen, and who then forgave her attacker who — get this — was so
    moved by her piety that he became a priest.”

    I agree. But how does this from 2 popes square with what you’ve written? Did nameless misogynists twist the story or is it in fact what the Church has promulgated?

    She chose death when there was no other way to defend her virginal
    purity.” (Pope John Paul II, on the occasion of her 100th anniversary of
    her birth).

    “In the homily for her canonization, Pope Pius XII of venerable memory
    pointed to Maria Goretti as “the sweet little martyr of purity” (cf.
    Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, XII [1950-1951], 121), because she did not
    break God’s commandment in spite of being threatened by death.” (Same

    I have to admit that as a Catholic I have always found the story of the
    reason for her sainthood very troubling. I don’t think people have
    misunderstood the Church. I think there are apologists (not saying you are) who are now trying to re-tell the story to be more palatable to modern

  3. NOTE: Please play nice on this one. I will allow a broad range of comments, but please, stay on the issues. Don’t attack the pope or the Church. Take issue with, yes. But do not attack them. This is probably unnecessary to say, but misogynist comments and comments attacking men will be deleted.

  4. I find this article extremely troubling. Manny is correct; this is not what the Church teaches — at. all. Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of poor catechesis over the last several decades that has affected both those born into the faith and converts. Please people, learn your faith! And do not rely on internet pundits for your information. I can’t stress this strongly enough. I’m seeing too much of this lately and it’s a serious matter. I’m sorry, but these recent articles on Patheos about St. Maria Goretti are filled with error.

  5. The story of Maria Goretti is what Manny said. Maria resisted her attacker’s advances. Then, he didn’t beat her or restrain her, as happens in a lot of rape cases. He stabbed her 14 times. She forgave him before she died. That is the example, forgiveness when it was unmerited.
    I can see how it would seem hurtful but I don’t think it was intended to be. Anyone who can defend the self should. And, I’m glad you minister and offer help to rape survivors. It is a horrible assault to go through and these women deserve our support.

  6. Is it required to die in order to avoid rape? No. Does it show virtue and courage to die in order to avoid being raped? I would say so. Is it a better choice to die than to be raped? Probably not in most cases, but who is to say what God inspires a person to do in individual circumstances? One canonized saint, St. Pelagia, jumped off a cliff into certain death to avoid being raped. Note that I don’t think Maria Goretti died to avoid being raped, exactly. Rather, she was killed because she wouldn’t CONSENT to mortal sin, which is slightly different.

  7. Maybe you could reply to my earlier post about what 2 popes had to say
    about Maria. It doesn’t match up with what you are saying. Clearly they
    are not internet pundits. A pope saying she “chose death” is not what you are saying, which is that she chose to resist his advances and didn’t see the stabbing coming. Which is it?

  8. Thanks, Manny, for being so succinct about this. It is exactly what I’ve always believed about St Maria.
    And Rebecca? I’d go down fighting tooth, nail and whatever else would do the trick. When I was much younger, I took a fabulous karate class in which the very young sensai told us that we were all women of worth, and that no one had the right to threaten or abuse us and that, if we felt that way, to do whatever it took to get out of that situation. But submission wasn’t in his vocabulary. What he DID teach us (besides the skills and empowerment) was that some women weren’t prepared —mentally or physically— to do what is necessary in those situations. We were taught what to do to protect ourselves…and I lost my natural squeamishness pretty quickly. “Don’t be afraid to take his eyes out if that will get you out of a life-threatening situation!” It was a life-changing experience for me. And we cannot know what St. Maria thought and did in her final moments under assault. We simply can’t know.

  9. Dave, being raped is NOT a mortal sin for the victim, it’s a crime against her person. There is no virtue in dying to change the crime from rape to murder.

  10. As an older woman who remembers the canonization of Maria, and the story I was told about her death in those days, it was definitely presented in a way that elevated death as preferable to rape. And being killed as more virtuous than “allowing” yourself to be raped. This was a time when many girls and women accepted this rejection of their human dignity and rights. There was no where to go for help if one was a victim. Maybe the story of Maria was meant to give some sort of support to victimes, but it fell short in serious ways. Maybe it was part of the dysfunctional and unChristlike attitude of some men toward women. It led women I knew to stay in abusive situations to “die and be like Jesus”.

    While it might have been a part of that particular time of history and our immaturity as people, it is no longer a valid premise. A women (or man, but most victims are women) who is raped is not committing a sin. The sin, the crime, belongs to the abuser. Being a victim is not virtuous. Rape is not about sex, but power over another person.

    Our God, the Father of Jesus is a giver of life who intends that we live our lives as fully as possible. I very much doubt that this God is happy when a woman dies rather than survive being sexually assaulted.

  11. Thank you for this post.

    It is a troubling story, and to those who wonder, yes it is often presented in a troubling way.

    they are responsible for converting their rapists and batterers by how they die.
    An extreme example of the strain of Christianity which makes women responsible for men’s behavior.

    My heroines are the women who assert their own right to life and humanity in the face of those who would deny it.
    There’s an interpretation– I believe I first came across it from Kathleen Norris– that what the virgin martyrs of the early church were martyred for, was precisely this. Not virginity or chastity in themselves, admirable as those qualities may be, but their right to choose them for themselves, over a man’s desires or a father’s right to arrange a daughter’s marriage. Because, as children of God, they matter in themselves, not for what was expected of them.
    Jo Walton, in her novel The Just City, interprets a Greek myth this way. The nymph Daphne has chosen to be turned into a tree rather than have sex with Apollo. Apollo is baffled, and still confused when his sister Athene attempts to explain to him the concept of “equal significance.” It had never occurred to him to consider Daphne’s wishes in the matter as different from his own, or Daphne herself as of equal importance.

    It’s a way to think about these stories. But I’d still hope that we can honor the survivors who go on insisting on their own “equal significance” just as much as the ones who died defending it.

  12. My experience, which is extensive, is that people are often surprised by how they react to sudden mortal danger, in particular to a horrifying attack from an attacker or attackers who know exactly what they are doing and who enjoy the pain they inflict, while the victim is totally surprised, unprepared and oftentimes horrified and terrified beyond rational thought.

    It is not such a good idea to be all puffed up about what you think you would do in these circumstances, as no one really knows. Also, such commentary re-victimizes victims who often have a hard enough time dealing with what happened and how they responded.

    The truth of the matter is that abject terror, surprise, and physical pain freeze a lot of people in place. There’s nothing like a broken jaw to take the fight out of a person. The horror of rape can intensify this reaction.

    That said, I’m not commenting on what St Maria Goretti did or didn’t do. I am commenting on how her story has been used to further harm people who have already been deeply harmed.

  13. Technically Maria wasn’t a tape victim, but she was murdered for refusing to have sex. Her attacked never tried to penetrate her except with his knife. So she is a martyr for purity, because she refused to have consensual sex…

    One question: does this logic apply to all the Virgin martyrs? Should we ex them from the calendar because they no longer work? I mean that’s a lot of seriously traditionally popular saints you are dismissing. I guess my real question is how do you teach these saints, if they don’t match your (key word there is “your”) image of heroism?

  14. I agree with almost all you’ve posted, Rebecca. I can only speak to my own experience and my own reaction when faced with a stranger late at night on a lonely train platform. I believe that the reinforcement that I received from that young sensai saved my life.
    If I sounded “puffed up” about my reaction, believe me, that was not my intention. What I posted was to describe what I was trained to do in a situation…and was able to do because of such training. I’m not saying that anyone else would do the same because “anyone else” mightn’t have had my training or the psychological indoctrination (for lack of a better phrase) I had. My experiences are what brought me to this point in life and what helped shape my own daughter’s rearing. I don’t wish in any way, shape or form to belittle any woman who has not had those same benefits…or even if they have.
    As for St Goretti’s story being used to injure victims in any manner, I believe every word you wrote and find it deplorable that this has happened. My point is that I never viewed it as such because, once again: we cannot know what happened right before her demise, and it never occurred to me that she would have been as passive as a sheep in the face of the violence that befell her. I guess, boiled down, it’s this: I grew up with that story and I never thought of Maria that way.

  15. Re Ja, I’m just relating the way I read the biography. There is another 19th century saint, another young girl, who did something similar and her heroic virtue of forgiveness also brought her attacker to repentance. I just don’t remember who she is.
    I don’t have to defend the two popes you are criticizing. The Church is quite capable of explaining herself.
    I’m saying I see their stories as examples of forgiveness of the unforgivable.
    Also, sometimes I find such technicalities as subjunctive and conditional tense and the fact that these statements are in translation using formal language confuse modern people with limited reading comprehension and abstract reasoning skills

  16. I understand what you are saying about emergency situations. You are right. It is hard to practice and very hard to know what you will do in a situation. Not everyone can do it. I tend to get tunnel vision, not always good.
    Also, St Maria was a little girl. She was 11, according to reports. She was from a very poor, almost destitute family that had to share lodging with another family in a very poor country. Her attacker was a son from that family.
    Her attacker, after his prison sentence was over became a lay brother in a religious community, not a priest.

  17. Well, yes, it is quite obvious that being raped is not a sin at all. But St. Maria Goretti’s assaulter did not rape her. He asked her to consent to a sexual act, and when she refused, he stabbed her multiple times.

  18. I said nothing about taking St Goretti off the calendar. In fact, I said nothing that challenged her worthiness to be a saint at all.

    I recommended two blog posts that speak very favorably of her. If I hadn’t wanted to do that, you can take it to the bank that I would not have done it.

    What I said is that the way her story has been depicted is a problem for a lot of rape victims. That is the truth.

    The real question might be, how do you not wound people who’ve been deeply wounded. If the way you do your “teaching” comes across to wounded people as if you are shaming and blaming them for what has been done to them, then maybe you should take a look at how you express yourself.

    I’m no great theologian, but the women I’m talking about are Christ crucified, standing in front of you. Consider that.

  19. “It is not such a good idea to be all puffed up about what you think you would do in these circumstances”

    Yep, but wouldn’t you agree that it is better to actually be able to pull off what we think we could do, than to fall short of what we thought we could do? If so, then you are agreeing that there are some reactions that are better than others (including inaction).

    Quoting from Mother Teresa:“God does not require that we be successful only that we be faithful。”

    Men are told that they ought to be loyal and protective of God, family and country. Some men die when in the line of such duties and we honour them as heroes. Is this misandry? If not, then honouring St. Goretti as patron saint of purity and chastity shouldn’t be mislabeled misogyny either.

  20. The Media has it out for the Saint of Chastity. This is the Third article I am seeing today attacking her.

  21. You are certainly free to put any spin on the story that you need to. I was merely quoting 2 popes and drawing your attention to it so you would know what the official Church position was at her canonization.

  22. For me, no matter how you look at it, I can’t get behind her sainthood. It is pure hagiographic revisionism to ignore the way her “martyrdom” was characterized by bishops and popes (then and now): as about death being better than losing chastity. Read the original records: much was made at the time of the fact she wasn’t penetrated–that her chastity was literally intact mattered a great deal to the Church (which means claims that theologically she would have retained her virginity if it was rape are completely beside the point). The revisionism also ignores centuries of civil and church law that held proof of active resistance had to be present to establish rape. Additionally, the logic that she was trying–at knife point–to protect her attacker from the mortal sin of rape or fornication is bizarre. Better he should commit the mortal sin of murder than rape? How does that make theological sense, unless we’re buying into some arcane notion of a female’s purity being her highest value (how many male saints known primarily as Virgin can you name?)? People can attempt to rehabilitate the grounds on which she was canonized, but rewriting the historical record isn’t a legitimate means of doing so.

  23. Your apology is unnecessary but accepted, of course. I don’t often share about this because it still tends to make me angry. At any rate, it’s obvious that we’re both passionate about the victimization of women. We may simply be viewing this from different angles. Keep fighting the good fight.

  24. Hey a side note on Maria Goretti that you and your readers might be iterested in. St. Maria Goretti’s body has beeen traveling or will be traveling in the US. My parish was selected as the only one in NYC other that St. Patrick’s Cathedral to present it to the public. There’s supposed to be a website up shortly on the travel schedule, but if you’re in NYC on September 30th come to St. Rita’s Church on Staten Island. it’s a one day event. I don’t know how or why but we are so proud to have been selected. Perhaps they’ll be a parish near you on the travel schedule. Keep an eye open for it. Here’s the only link I could find that currently speaks to her traveling in the US. It’s a bit outdated:
    Perhaps the planned dates in the link never happened. All I know is she will be at my parish on Sept 30th. When I get more infomation I will post it.

  25. That’s right. I should have realized that myself. She was never raped. How does rape even get into the story? She was murdered for refusing sexual advances.

  26. How about if we took the portrayal of St Maria Goretti around and used it as a condemnation of rape and a call for men to stop raping?

  27. “…how do you not wound people who have been deeply wounded.”

    I’m starting to think this is impossible.

  28. I didn’t say anything about not healing the wounded. Never. I agree with you on that, I just find it very difficult to believe that Maria Goretti is a problem.

  29. Went back and read the whole thing, including her mother’s account of the attack that led to her death. I understand that some people might misunderstand what was said and that some would use the situation of her death, twisting it to blame the victim if she is raped and even say that the woman should prefer death.
    I do not see that in the statements I have read and see it as a misinterpretation.
    I see St Maria Goretti as an example of forgiveness.

  30. I guess my problem with this is rather than, you know, combat the actual bad understandings people have, the first instinct of so many Catholics is to run from the truth that yes, Maria Goretti did die as a result of actions taken to protect her purity and virginity.

    That is the job of Catholic writers afterall, to explain the lives of the saints. Yes, Maria Goretti can be a tough sell sometimes based on how she’s presented. But present it better, and still tell the whole story. Tell the story from St. John Paul II and what he taught about virginal integrity and what it means to defend purity, read from the sermons of Pope Pius XII on her canonization, etc.

    almost all of the problems with the bloggers you mentioned is they didn’t take a starting point the Popes and the teaching of the Church, but their own ideas and interpretations which rely on a ton of verbiage, but not actual Church teaching.

    I’ll really take Aquinas, St. John Paul II and Pope Pius XII over bloggers.

  31. With hopes to promote clarity I say this: St. Maria Goretti didn’t die for her own purity. She died in loving attempt to prevent her attacker from sinning. She died selflessly to protect his soul and purity.

    That being said, her case was specific. Her actions aren’t a guide for other cases of rape. It’s simply encouraging because it’s an example of how we should love others as ourselves and strive to protect other’s purity just as much as we protect our own.

  32. I am a male victim of sexual assault. I am disabled and was raped on a hospital unit. There is no way I could have gotten out of it. He told me that if I told anyone, or didn’t comply I would be killed. Like many trauma survivors,my brain shut down. The fight or flight instincts take over, the brain literally rewires itself in response to trauma. I have MRI scans of my brain from before the trauma, and then after trauma, and they have marked differences,my neurologist said very typical of PTSD. As a Catholic I have trouble with the St. Maria Goretti story. I get that she died to protect her chastity and all that, but it is not like I wanted any of this to happen to me. I didn’t want him to walk into my room, I didn’t want to be sodomized, I didn’t want any of it to happen and I had no reason to believe that he wasn’t going to kill me like he said he would if I didn’t comply, I tried to resist in some ways and after a point just gave up, shut down, and dissociated from the whole experience. As for “forgiving” yes, this is part of the journey but most trauma survivors cannot go from 0 to “forgiven” immediately like St. Maria Goretti did. It is a whole process….and when you have PTSD life is constantly reminding you of the deep wound you carry, and when I am reminded of the trauma I constantly have to forgive again and again. Forgiveness hasnt been a one shot thing, it is a continual process. But most people who haven’t experienced this type of trauma just gloss over the experience of the victim and talk about forgiveness. That, to me, is not really addressing the gravity of the offense.

  33. As a victim of child rape I have to disagree. I resisted not just to defend my purity but to resist evil. You shouldn`t cooperate with evil or being violated in order to live. It is understandable that many people do but is holy to be martyred so as to resist an evil act. Virginity is not just physical but you help to preserve by refusing to cooperate with sexual immorality. These stories really help me even though I failed to resist.