What if We Took a New Look at the Story of St Maria Goretti?

What if We Took a New Look at the Story of St Maria Goretti? July 8, 2015

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en
Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

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. Rebecca Hamilton

I know a simple way to turn St Maria Goretti into a saint that rape victims and battered women all over the world would turn to in gratitude and adoration.

Why don’t we look at her story from the angle that rape is a mortal sin, that it is a sin against the humanity of the individual person who has it done to them, and that it is a sin which is so ubiquitous that it keeps half the human race in fear?

How about if we approach the story of St Maria Goretti as an admonition for men to stop raping?

Yes, she appeared to her would-be rapist from beyond the grave, and yes, this moved him to remorse. But the story is not that she died “for purity.” The story is that he was a grown man who repeatedly tried to molest a child, then murdered her for resisting him, and she forgave him and appeared to him from heaven to save his sorry soul.

We might also consider her story in light of the reality of child sexual abuse. Her murderer was 20 years old. She was 12. He had been repeatedly attempting to molest this little girl before he murdered her.

I have a lot of love and tenderness toward a little girl of 12 who was murdered while fighting off her rapist. I have tremendous sympathy for a little girl who is being subjected to repeated sexual advances from her adult neighbor.

What I do not see is that she is a saint because she died rather than be raped; that the salutary tale we are to take from her story is that she died “defending her purity.” This is a view of little girls and women that has led to enormous suffering for women for millennia. In some parts of the world today, rape victims are expected to commit suicide because they have lost their “virtue.”

Let’s be clear about this: The one without honor is the rapist. The one who has no purity is the rapist. If anybody deserves death because of this crime, it is the rapist.

The truth is that the “purity” of a human being does not reside in physical virginity. It resides in a soul that rests in Christ. A woman’s “honor” is the same as a man’s honor: It is her honesty, her loyalty and her courage.

A woman’s honor has everything to do with whether or not you can rely on her word, if she will be honest in her dealings with the world and if she keeps her commitments. It has nothing to do with whether or not a rapist has destroyed her hymen.

Purity is a matter of the heart and soul, not the physical things that are done to a person. A comfort woman that the Japanese raped over and over again may very well have more honor than any of the people commenting on this blog, including me. A victim of sex trafficking may have a soul so pure that it rings like crystal when she stands before the Lord, while those who claim that she is besmirched and worthless are without honor, kindness or love.

The story of Maria Goretti is a story of child sexual abuse and attempted rape that resulted in the death of a child at the hands of her attacker. The miraculous element in it comes from Maria Goretti’s forgiveness of the man who did this. It is a forgiveness that reaches from beyond the grave.

However, even this element can be completely turned on its head if we follow the way that St Goretti’s story is currently told. Can child-murdering pedophiles be forgiven?


There is no sin we can commit that is greater than God’s mercy in Christ Jesus.

Did Maria Goretti feel concern for her attacker that led her to come to him and seek his conversion from heaven?


But that is because hell is so terrible, and because this child-murdering pedophile was so dastardly that her compassion reached out to him in love in spite of what he did to her.

Maria Goretti did not die to save her murderer. She acted in love after her death to save him. Her death is not a wondrous tale of how women are supposed to value their “purity” above their lives. It is a story of how a person who is one with Christ can forgive the unforgivable, just as Christ forgave from the cross.

It is not a story to be used to exacerbate the guilt and shame of other little girls, and indeed, of older girls, who are sexually molested by adults when they are children, or who are forcibly raped when they are older.

There is no requirement on any woman to resist her rapist to the death. Getting yourself murdered because of a misogynist notion of “purity” that says that a woman’s “honor” resides in whether or not she has had sex should never be taught as an ideal to little girls.

The way that St Maria Goretti’s story has been used harms rape victims. It adds to their shame and increases their misery. It can make recovery from this horrible crime impossible.

I have had enough in my young life of my fellow Christians turning their backs on rape victims. I once witnessed a church that actually voted on whether or not to allow a rape victim to remain a member of the church.

I have known rape victims who committed suicide over this kind of attitude toward them. I knew a woman who had been raped by 5 men who, when she encountered this kind of “why didn’t you fight harder, why were you at that concert in the first place” condemnation climbed into her bathtub, put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger.

I do not care — let me say that again — I do not care if I am the only person on this planet who speaks out against the abusive use of this saint’s story to shame and blame rape victims. I will still do it.

I do not care — I do not care — if every single person reading this blog opposes what I am saying.

Blaming and shaming rape victims is anti-Christ. Claims that He somehow or other regards half the people he made this way defame His holy name.

These women are Christ crucified, standing right in front of you. If you don’t get that, then you really are missing the whole point of Christ’s passion.

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment

39 responses to “What if We Took a New Look at the Story of St Maria Goretti?”

  1. “How about if we approach the story of St Maria Goretti as an admonition for men to stop raping?”
    You mean a 25 year sentence in a max security prison is not a stern enough admonition? 🙂 They should stop raping period.

  2. I’m sorry, but I have never heard of anyone using St Maria Goretti’s story to shame any victim of rape – which is just as well, because I doubt I would be able to keep from pushing such an individual’s teeth to the back of their throat.

    To be honest, I didn’t think that Goretti’s story was that well known – it is only recently that I have heard her story achieve anything like “mainstream” status.

  3. I’m a relatively new Catholic, had not heard of St. Maria Goretti before. If her story has been used to shame/blame sexual assault victims, that is definitely wrong. But I had a strong reaction to your line “How about if we approach the story of St Maria Goretti as an admonition for men to stop raping?” Would you consider changing it to “for rapists to stop raping?” Not all men rape, and those who rape are not all men.

  4. I think a good place to start the change is in the Mass prayers for her feast day, 6 July. I had already read the blog posts from Simcha Fisher and Michelle Arnold when I got to my “Word Among Us” magazine and saw this Entrance Antiphon “Behold, now she follows the Lamb who was crucified for us, powerful in virginity, modesty her offering, a sacrifice on the altar of chastity.” Seriously, I think this prayer could use some revision. The Collect also refers to chastity. Then this was posted by a bible scholar I well-respect “Tomb of St. Maria Goretti, who died for purity. St. Maria, pray for us and for purity in our world today.” I think there is a lot to be said (and you have done a good bit) to more fully understand St Maria Goretti. I have no clue what was the stated basis of her cause for sainthood–but surely the forgiveness of her rapist murderer is compelling and worthy of being the focus. A woman who is being raped has one imperative–to try and survive.

  5. I’ve never known St. Maria Goretti’s story to be misused, so this is news to me. I always saw her as a murder victim who forgave her murderer, not as a means to shame other victims.

  6. Hit it out of the park, Ma’am. I think too often female saints are held up to girls as examples and the emphasis is on their virginity (I recall my sister, in high school, huffing, “all the female saints are saints because they’re virgins or somebody’s mother.” She chose St. Joan of Arc for her confirmation saint.) No one stops to make the distinction between purity and virginity for girls at that critical pre-teen age, when those impressions are forming. It’s only as an adult that I’ve been able to research the vast array of beautiful female saints out there and admire their courage and wide variety of virtues.

  7. Thank you.

    You and I have disagreed often enough, but this time I don’t want to argue with a word you say.

  8. “Blaming and shaming rape victims is anti-Christ.”
    Indeed it is. It is therefore a serious accusation to levy.

    Is it not possible to maintain that St. Goretti did die while defending her purity without blaming/shaming rape victims? Does the former have to bring about the latter? I don’t accept your insistence that it needs to be so.

    When we recognize the heroic martyrdom of iraqi christians, we don’t shame those who managed to escape and survive. When we recognize the heroic sacrifice of fallen soldiers, we don’t blame those who return alive, even if they may have failed some missions or lost some battles through no fault of their own. The iraqi christians most likely didn’t plan to die for Christ, but they did nevertheless. The fallen soldiers may not have intended to be bombed, but did die for the country nevertheless. Likewise, though St. Goretti didn’t consciously decide to be stabbed, she nevertheless did die while defending her purity. The iraqi christian could have apostasized or paid the jizya; the soldier could have deserted or prematurely surrendered; St. Goretti could have accomodated Alessandro, but they didn’t! And that is deserving of honour, NOT our second-guessing of their motivations! It doesn’t matter if the solder was a conscript or a volunteer. It doesn’t matter if the soldier was thinking of country, his comrades or his sweetheart, he died defending his country! Likewise, it doesn’t matter that St. Goretti also thought of Alessandro’s soul, she died defending her purity!

    You say that“purity is a matter of the heart and soul, not the physical things that are done to a person.”

    I agree 100%, which is why St. Goretti would be a saint regardless of whether Alessandra succeeded in raping her. However, it did matter that she resisted with her heart and soul, and no doubt expressed through her body, however unsuccessfully. If Maria Goretti had obliged to Alessandro’s request before it got violent, would she still be canonized?

    “How about if we approach the story of St Maria Goretti as an admonition for men to stop raping?”

    So… how about if we approach the story of St. Stephen as an admonition for people to stop stoning (ignore the part about courageously presenting the gospel)? How about we approach the story of the iraqi christians as an admonition to not join ISIS (ignore the part about not apostasizing)? That’s it? Just don’t kill and rape? Isn’t this setting the bar pretty low and really missing the point about emulating the saints? Frankly, readers of your blog most likely do NOT blame/shame rape victims and we don’t need to re-narrate or re-approach the story of St. Goretti to prove it so.

    If there are victims who ‘feel’ that St. Goretti’s story makes them feel guilty, then it is they who misunderstand the point of the story. I’m not blaming them for misunderstanding, I’m just stating what is. I don’t know what is the best approach to make people not misunderstand, but re-narrating the story by removing mention of purity is definitely the wrong approach.

  9. Well, I can certainly remember St Maria Goretti being first and foremost a martyr for purity. It’s only in more recent decades that emphasis has become less emphatic. Here are Pope Pius XII’s remarks at her canonization in 1950 (Google Translate – with lots of errors, but you can still get the gist – from the Italian original on the Vatican website):

    “For a loving plan of God’s providence the supreme exaltation of a humble daughter of the people was celebrated in this evening light with a solemnity unparalleled fit and so far unique in the annals of the Church: in the vastness and majesty of this place of mystery , made sacred temple, which is the firmament once singing the glories of the Most High; you so longed for, before that we arranged; with a competition of very numerous faithful, who never saw equal other canonizations; and especially so nearly it sets dall’abbagliante splendor and the heady fragrance of this lily, clad in purple, with deep joy that just now we have ascribed the roll of saints: the small and sweet martyr of purity: Maria Goretti.

    Because, dear children, you are noticed in so immense number of its glorification? Why, hearing or reading the story of his short life, so like a clear Gospel narrative for simplicity of lines, color environment, for the same lightning violent death, there are softened to tears? Why Maria Goretti won so quickly your hearts, until it becomes the darling, darling? Thus, there is in this world, apparently overwhelmed and immersed in hedonism, not just a tiny group of elected thirsty sky and clean air, but the crowd, but immense multitudes, on which the supernatural scent of Christian purity exerts an irresistible charm and promising promising and reassuring.

    While in the martyrdom of Maria Goretti shined above all purity, they triumphed in it and with it also the other Christian virtues. Purity was the most basic and significant affirmation of the perfect domain of the soul over matter; supreme heroism, that is not improvised, was the tender love and docile, obedient and active towards the parents; sacrifice in hard daily work; poverty evangelically happy and supported by confidence in divine Providence; religion tenaciously embraced and wanted to know more each day, treasured life and nurtured by the flame of prayer; the ardent desire of Jesus in the Eucharist, and finally, the crown of charity, the heroic forgiveness granted all’uccisore: rustic wreath, but so dear to God, of wild flowers which adorned the white veil of his first Communion, and shortly after his martyrdom.

    So this sacred rite takes place spontaneously in a gathering popular for purity. If the light of every martyrdom is always bitter contrast the stain of wickedness, behind that of Maria Goretti is a scandal, that the beginning of this century seemed unheard. After almost fifty years, between the often inadequate response of the good, the conspiracy of malpractice, making use of books, illustrations, performances, auditions, fashions, of beaches, of associations, try to unseat in society and to the families, to the detriment mainly of childhood even tender, those who were the principals of natural virtues.

    Young men, dear boys and girls, pupils of the eyes of Jesus and Our, – you say – you are very determined to resist firmly, with the help of divine grace, to any other attack that should dare to make your purity?

    And you, fathers and mothers, the presence of this assembly, before the image of this virgin teenager, with his fearless candor has kidnapped your hearts, in the presence of her mother, who, educatala martyrdom, not regretted death , while living in the torture, and now bows moved to call upon her, – you say – are you ready to take on the solemn commitment to ensure, as far as you, for your children, on your daughters, akin to preserve and defend against many dangers that surround them, and keep them away from places of training to ungodliness and moral perversion?

    And now, all you who are listening to us, up your hearts! Above the unhealthy marshes and mud of the world lies a vast sky of beauty. It is the sky that fascinated little Maria; the sky that she would ascend to the only road that leads to it: religion, love of Christ, the heroic observance of his commandments.

    Hail, gentle and amiable Santa! Martyr on earth and angel in heaven, from your glory turn your gaze upon this people, who loves you, who you worship, that glorifies you, that excites you. On your forehead you bring light and shining the name of victorious Christ. (Apoc. 3, 12); on your virginal face is the power of love, the constancy of fidelity to the divine Spouse; you are the Bride of blood, to portray yourself in the image of God. To you, powerful at the Lamb of God, we entrust these our sons and daughters here present and all those others are spiritually united to us. They admire your heroism, but also want to be your imitators in the fervor of faith and incorruptible purity of customs. To you fathers and mothers occur, so that you assist them in their educational mission. Our hands on you to find refuge childhood and youth all, for it to be protected from any contamination and can pace for the journey of life in serenity and joy of the pure in heart. So be it.”

  10. Me too. I was surprised when Rebecca brought this up the other day, but I have now seen it in more than one place.

  11. I recoiled at that line too, but I don’t think Rebecca meant it as it came out. I know she didn’t. I turned her wording into a little joke, if you see my comment.

  12. Actually, there are other modern “martyrs of purity” who have more offensive stories that Maria Goretti. The latest is Albertina Berkenbrock, who was beatified in 2007, Unlike Maria Goretti, there isn’t any story of radical forgiveness with Albertina Berkenbrock; the only reason why Albertina Berkenbrock was beatified is because she resisted a rapist to her death. The write up for Albertina Berkenbrock on the Vatican website even helpfully mentions that after her death a midwife did a chastity exam on the body to make sure she died a virgin.

    This isn’t just conservative American Catholics misusing the horrific murders of little girls to make certain sexist points about female “purity;” it is an example of the sexism at the highest levels of the Church. Benedict XVI thought it was appropriate in 2007 to declare Albertina Berkenbrock a “martyr.” I read yesterday that Maria Goretti’s body will be “touring” America just ahead of and during Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. and in conjunction with the Year of Mercy, which doesn’t seem very “merciful” to rape victims for the reasons outlined above. The continued clueless actions by the Vatican toward women and disregard for us as anything other than mothers and virgins remains remarkable.

  13. I’m going to allow this, with reservations. Let’s focus on rape victims and how we can help them.

  14. Maria Goretti was a child. Her attacker was a grown man who had been attempting to molest her for some time, and who ultimately murdered her.

    Is every child who is successfully molested a failure because they did not resist the adult enough and “defend their purity?”

    You are putting the responsibility for resisting pedophiles on the child.

    As for rape victims, I don’t think they are misunderstanding the way St Maria Goretti is presented to them at all. I think that this courageous child is being used in exactly the way I have described, to imply that it is better for a girl or woman to be murdered than for her to be raped, and that rape is always the victim’s fault since, if she fought hard enough, she could have stopped it. Both of these things are lies. To link them with Jesus Christ is horrible.

    It’s no longer popular to blame the child who is molested and raped, although occasionally some old sot will come out with it, anyway. We still do more that a little of the old “she asked for it” with rape victims, however.

    In both instances — and what happened to Maria Goretti and how her story is being used today applies to both our attitudes toward victims of child abuse and rape victims — this story is used to re-victimiize people who have had their humanity thrown in the trash by their attackers.

  15. What Amaryllis said, Rebecca. We may disagree now and then, but this message needs to be said again and again and again until we stop blaming rape victims for something that wasn’t their fault.

  16. “Why don’t we look at her story from the angle that rape is a mortal sin, that it is a sin against the humanity of the individual person who has it done to them, and that it is a sin which is so ubiquitous that it keeps half the human race in fear?”

    Funny, I always took it as that. It might have helped that when my mother told me this story as a child, it was slightly different than the reality: She did not die defending her purity, she died later as a direct result of the attempted rape.

    I have been accused of insensitive comments about rape. But that is because I see the sin as a disease, a mental illness in and of itself. The half of the human race that lives in fear of rape should not be the only ones living in fear- the rapists should as well. It is THEIR disease, their mental illness, that causes this.

    The more we learn about the physiology behind sex, the more I see heterosexual lifelong monogamy (including in widowhood) as the ONLY reasonable solution to all of our sexual hangups. A lifetime is not too much to devote to a single person; and the devoted husband may be tempted, but will not rape.

  17. “You mean a 25 year sentence in a max security prison is not a stern enough admonition?”

    It most certainly is not. It does not even begin to give justice to women or respect an authentic human ecology.

  18. How is death better than “giving up ones virginity” ? Does a woman who is raped have a choice? Violence is used in many rapes and dying happens sometimes when the victim doesn’t resist. Hope that the teachings change and St. Maria G. Goretti’s story is used as you suggest, Rebecca.

  19. That may be how the story is being used today, but if you read what Pius XII said, “Finally, the crown of Charity, the heroic forgiveness granted to the murderer,” I think you will realize that the crowning glory of what she did was to forgive. That’s the point that was driven home to me as a child: She was so full of forgiveness for her murderer that she appeared to him from heaven to save his soul.
    Yes, in a time of massive unchastity she’s used as an example of purity, but if he had forced himself on her she couldn’t have prevented him from raping her any more than she was able to prevent him from killing her.

  20. It would be nice if rapists stopped raping.

    It would be even better if people– mostly men, according to statistics, but sometimes women– could be taught better before they become rapists, is the way I took that line.

    This is probably not the place to discuss the contentious concept of “rape culture,” but something’s got to change in the way we think about men and women and rape.

  21. Thank you for writing this. As someone who knows a victim of child molestation Maria Goretti has in fact been a hard saint to grasp for me. As you say, the way Maria Goretti has been honored seemed to imply that children should be blamed when they don’t defend their purity. No rape victim should be held responsible for the acts of the rapist, much less kids that are too young to understand, or that simply have not yet been told about sexual acts. As to forgiveness, it can be a whole lot harder and more heroic to live the consequences of rape during a long life, to keep forgiving the rapist in spite of all the issues that arise from his act at various times in one’s life, than to die the day following the rape. I can somehow see the heroism in Maria Goretti’s forgiveness, but she only had to forgive once.

  22. Yes, but that’s not necessarily about rape. It’s about chastity until marriage….what a way to misread something.

  23. Chastity was her calling, just as the priesthood is a calling, or religious life. It was her calling. She died for her calling. I fail to see how this is hard to understand.

  24. She was eleven years old. Who knows what her “calling” might have been? And how is her death better than her being allowed to live to find out?

  25. The beauty of this article is that it rightfully speaks for the suffering of the children and women who have been raped. These victims are more often disrespected, accused of “wanting” or “consenting” rape, and left alone without any support. I for one, was assaulted by the RN in charge of my care. The police told the prosecutor “it could have been consensual.” He was free to practice without any punishment, while I suffered the pain. Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.

  26. Isn’t there virtue and merit in the fact that Maria Goretti strenuously resisted her attacker, regardless of whether or not he succeeded in raping her? Isn’t that a large part of the reason that we honor her? And couldn’t we honor that heroic resistance even if the attacker had ultimately been successful in raping her?

    Even if it would have been morally acceptable for Maria Goretti to give a bit less resistance, isn’t it praiseworthy that she resisted as strongly as she did? I have never understood Maria Goretti’s story to mean that all potential rape victims must fight to the death. It just means that we honor what she did, not that we obligate everyone else to do exactly the same.

    Consider a pregnant mother who is told that she has cancer, but that she has a good chance of survival if she receives chemotherapy right away. She could choose to have the chemotherapy, and this choice would be morally acceptable, even though it might lead to the (unintended) death of her unborn child. Or she could choose to wait until the child is born, and then have the chemotherapy, in order to give her child the best chance at life — even though she might die from the cancer because of waiting too long. If this mother does make the choice to wait, I believe that we can honor her for making a heroic choice to save her child, without implying that every mother in that situation is obligated to make that same choice.

    Likewise, there are probably some saints that we honor as martyrs who could have found a morally acceptable way to avoid martyrdom, such as keeping their faith largely hidden in a time and place where persecution of Christians was common, rather than boldly and publicly proclaiming the gospel. But they chose to proclaim Christ and were martyred, and we honor them for that choice.

    These are not perfect analogies to St. Maria Goretti’s story, but I think that the same point can be made with all of these stories: We can honor a person for his or her heroic response to a situation, without implying that every Christian is morally obligated to make that same response when confronted with a similar situation.

  27. I fail to see how this is hard to understand.

    The problem is what glorifying her teaches young girls today. Such glorification teaches young girls two things.

    First, praising Maria Goretti teaches young girls that their best choice, in fact their only good choice — is to resist sexual assault even to the point of serious injury or death. Would you prefer your daughter to believe she must resist so hard that she gets gutted or that she submit to unavoidable* sexual assault and survive?

    Fighting to save someone’s life or fighting for one’s country — these can be fighting worth risking death for. Fighting for a flap of skin is not worth risking death for.

    Second, praising Maria Goretti teaches young girls that if their virginity is gone — regardless of the reason — they are no longer of any value, that they are unworthy of love or respect. Elizabeth Smart did not escape from her captors because she believed this. Many girls, after a single sexual experience, do not return to chastity because they have been taught that once their virginity is gone, they are dirt, they are worse than dead — because they should have chosen death over sex.

    I fail to see how you find this so hard to understand. This may not be the effect you intend. But this is the effect that you get.

    * Obviously, you also teach her ways to stay safe and avoid danger, and to report bad behavior to trusted adults, but sometimes danger comes nonetheless.