WOODLAWN, California — Angels stand watch from Dorothy Small’s doorway.

Her house is full of them: gold-gilded angels tacked on the wall of her prayer room, painted ones in a semicircle on the coffee table, pale porcelain ones perched on the kitchen counter.

In the morning she sits with the angels, threads a rosary through her fingers and reads from her leather-bound Bible. In the evening, she slips into the hot tub in her backyard, closes her eyes and listens to prayers in French on her headphones. It’s a baptism of sorts, a private ritual that has helped her navigate her shifting faith and emerge, clear-eyed, from one of the darkest and most challenging periods of her life: the aftermath of a sexual assault she endured at 60, at the hands of a priest.

Small, now 65, survived it all because she had to, she said. But to her own surprise, she’s found strength in the solitude.

Her home is her sanctuary. It used to be the church.

For years, the parishioners of her Woodland, California, congregation were family, and she relied on the collective energy of the flock for spiritual fulfillment. But Small said after she reported her relationship with the priest and he was removed from his post, she was ostracized and stripped of her position as soloist in the choir. Her world collapsed.

“I felt awful because I got Father in trouble,” she said. “I thought it was all my fault.”

Isolated and distraught, Small clung to the hope she’d be welcomed back someday. Then a conversation with a priest from a different church changed her thinking.

“He said, ‘You were assaulted, you were raped,’” Small said. “It was the first time those words were used.”

The man who upended her life had come to California from the Philippines. Small felt uncomfortable when he’d asked for her phone number, but she was an active parishioner and Bible student. A good Catholic, she knew, obeys the priest.

She came to enjoy the company of this charismatic man 16 years her junior. She told him about her broken family and childhood sexual abuse; about her unfaithful ex-husband and abusive boyfriend; about one priest who tried to prey on her children, and another who’d pursued her and, eventually, sexualized their relationship.

“Everything I fed him, he used to manipulate me,” she said.

What began as bike rides on sunny afternoons turned into forced physical contact and stalking, she said. Still, he was funny and warm and made her feel loved, and so when he bullied his way into her bedroom she froze.

“I saw him as a priest,” she said, “and I never stopped seeing him as a priest.”

The encounter caused “massive confusion” and left her reeling. Small thought she and the priest were in love: It was the only reasonable explanation for what had happened. And though she never characterized it as an assault, Small said she felt the need to tell the church what had transpired.

Small spiraled. She stayed inside, drank too much, and in the evenings, found solace in addiction support groups.

“It was hell,” she said.

It wasn’t until months later, when the priest defined what she’d experienced, that Small said she realized it wasn’t love, it was abuse.

“People think these relationships are affairs. They think the adult has the power a child doesn’t have. But that’s where they’re wrong,” she said. “A predator is a predator and vulnerable is vulnerable, whether you’re an adult or a child. They go after those who are in love with their faith, because we are the most susceptible.”

Small sued the Sacramento diocese. Earlier this year, she settled for $200,000. Over the summer, she signed on as a leader of her local chapter of a national clergy abuse advocacy group, to speak on behalf of those abused as adults.

“The healing came from standing up for myself, finally. It came from not going away,” she said.

Small doesn’t want to return to church. She’ll continue to develop her faith outside of the institution that failed to protect and support her, she said.

“I can’t go to Mass,” she said. “For me to be near a church and near a priest knowing what I know and knowing that they’ve covered up and continue to minimize and push aside the trauma that happens with adults, how could I?”

The Associated Press produced this project with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund For Women Journalists.

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