Religion and Abuse
Roughly eighty percent of people in the United States self-identifies as Christian. About 15 to 20% of people identify as non-religious and the remaining 4 to 5% of people consist of those who identified with other world religions (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc.). These stats are off the top of my head but you can Google for specifics.
I’ve spent a lot of time writing on abuse and equality. Mainly abuse and for good reason. The UN says 1 in 3 women will experience violence in her lifetime and the NY Times reports 1 in 5 women will be raped, and again this information is available on a quick Google search. Those are horrific numbers for a nation that touts its Christian morals while simultaneously opposing Planned Parenthood and equality for the LGBTQ+ community on the basis of those same morals.
During the course of my activism, the responses I get are typical but infuriating nonetheless. They usually go something like this:
- You sound angry. You need to tone it down. Be quiet.
- You sound like a woman who’s trying to get revenge.
- You sound like a victim.
- What about men?
- Not all men.
- Whatever happened to you must have happened for a reason.
- You need to move on.
- What did you do to cause this?
Now, the last few sound like victim blaming and they are and yes, I get these responses because some of my readers do know me on a personal level and realize that though I’ve kept my private life private from my activism at least publicly, I am in fact, a victim. However, being a victim of abuse does not mean I don’t also have an obligation to speak out, at least, that’s how I feel (nor should my activism be considered biased or suspect). Not all responses were like those above. I also received emails from victims of rape and violence worldwide and I began to notice a trend among the majority of the victims with whom I spoke. Most were from religious backgrounds whose abusers were practicing Christians. These women (and some men) oftentimes did not see the link between their abuse and the religious beliefs that made that abuse okay. That was something I felt needed to be addressed.
That said, I’m going to do something I hadn’t planned on doing, at least not in this way. I’m going to tell you my story because I think it’s time for the Christians in this country to step up and address the role they have played in not only the creation of perpetrators who commit crimes against women and children but also in the legal protection they have provided these criminals.
I was a young child when my abuser began grooming me. By age ten, I was being sexually molested on a regular basis. I remained silent first out of ignorance (being a child) and later out of fear. I didn’t speak out until I turned fifteen. During the summer prior to my sophomore year of high school, I told several church friends about the sexual abuse. The physical abuse had been spotted by numerous schoolmates some three years prior, but I had urged them to remain silent. Again, out of fear. Another of my abusers had told me that if I wanted to report them I could, but that I would be sent to a place where I would experience something far worse (the foster program). This tactic worked. I felt the abuse I endured up to this point was at least physically survivable.
It took me years to realize that the abuse would not end and that it would only worsen. The last day I was sexually abused, I had been sound asleep. A sharp pain in my vagina woke me from my dreams and without time to wake or assess the situation, I struck out at the source of pain and hit my abuser who fled from the room. It was at this point that I realized I could soon be raped. Pregnancy was not even a fear as I hadn’t begun menstruating. Truthfully, I knew very little about sex. Sex education had been withheld as it was ungodly (note that withholding this education made grooming and abuse possible).
One of those children I told of my abuse that summer day, demanded we tell her parents. After some coaxing, I did. Rather than contact police, the girl’s parents advised we report it to a trusted relative who could then handle the situation from there. I didn’t realize at the time that these parents were counselors or that one of them had a father who was a psychologist.
I reported the abuse to the trusted family member as directed. The family met and confronted the abuser after which, I was forced to face my abuser and tell him what I had told other family members. Naturally, he lied. He said it only happened twice, in all of those years, twice. I didn’t care. He would never touch me again.
Or so I thought.
Naively, I assumed all would be well. I couldn’t have been more wrong. My abuser was a leader of our church. As was custom for this particular brand of Christianity, private sins could be forgiven in private prayer with God, but sins of a public nature required the sinner to publicly repent his sins and ask the congregation to pray on his behalf. This was because God could not hear the prayers of a sinner. The Christian is not required to name their sin but may simply say they have “fallen short of the glory of God and wish to be restored to His presence” or something similar. I have sinned. I’m sorry. Take me back. And just like that, the sin is forgiven and forgotten by God. As a result, fellow Christians are urged to forget the sin and never mention it again. Everyone moves on. Life is rainbows.
Except, it wasn’t. My abuser went forward and repented for sinning. He resigned from his position of leadership (the highest he could attain in this religion). Afterward, he spoke to the families of the girls with whom I had discussed my abuse. I never learned what was said at those secret meetings. I think I have a good idea as later I was warned that if I didn’t keep my mouth shut people would be told what really happened and I could only guess, through conversations with others, that that meant people would be told I had seduced my abuser. His other victim had been nine at the time her abuse began. I didn’t think I knew many people who would believe that a nine or ten-year-old girl could seduce a fifty-some-odd-year-old man, but the threat worked, and in any case, it seemed most people did believe this. At the time, I had to tell myself that they had been lied to otherwise I had to accept the fact that adults with children willingly looked the other way and kept a sexual predator in their midst (which is exactly what they did). I kept my mouth shut. I was afraid of my abusers and they still had power over me in more ways than just the psychological.
After my abuser went forward to repent for his transgressions, I was forced to go forward and repent along with his other victim. What was our sin? Gossip. We had gossiped when we told our friends what our abuser did. We gossipped like ladies in a knitting circle. Did you hear what so and so about such and such? The church’s response to my request for help in stopping sexual abuse was to force me to repent for gossiping. In addition, the father of one of those parents that I had trusted for help was brought in to counsel me, and I use that term loosely. These godly Christians decided that for thirteen years of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, a single counseling session would suffice for me and the other victim. This counseling lasted no more than thirty minutes, perhaps ten to fifteen at the most. During that counseling session, I was told the following:
- Watch what you wear (I wasn’t allowed to wear a bathing suit, shorts, tight pants, or even sleeveless shirts).
- Don’t hug men too tight as it may send the wrong message if your breasts press against their chest. I weighed 70 lbs my senior year. At the time the abuse began, I was maybe 45 lbs. and only ten years old. I had no breasts to speak of and at age fifteen wore a training bra because they didn’t make bras in the negative range. TMI, I know, but important because my abuser was a pedophile (something the counselor would have been well aware of) and also important because it highlights the type of assistance many in the church are offered when they do come forward about abuse. For me, that assistance was a thirty-minute victim blaming session.
- Forgive and forget. God doesn’t remember the sin so I shouldn’t either.
That was it. That was all the counseling I received. No one reported the abuse to police. No one called CPS. No one said a word. No one removed me or the other victim from the presence of our abuser. He had daily access to us for an additional three years. Everyone looked the other way. Even those church members with children of their own (and later these children were allowed to visit the abuser’s home for a youth devotional even after the abuse was made public).
Everything changed after I spoke out on the molestation. I began receiving odd looks from men at church. Some men looked at me with expressions of confusion like they were trying to figure something out. In my mind, a child’s mind, I wondered if they thought I was a liar. Or maybe they thought I was ugly. Some men smiled at me or stared at me in suggestive ways. My friends shunned me. Most church goers ignored me. I began using pot and smoking cigarettes. At one point, a church member commented on my smoking. I looked at her open-mouthed. Her husband was part of a group of men using smokeless tobacco in the parking lot between Bible class and the main service and here she was lecturing me on cigarettes while worshipping with a known child molester. I was dumbfounded. Years later, one church member said they had believed me. One person in a congregation of over three hundred had believed me. That hit me hard. And yet, that one person had done nothing to help me (to my knowledge). Had said nothing. Had not even tried to make a difference. Worse, I had stayed in the religion (cult) and in the very same church(es) that had overlooked the abuse determined to prove that I was a good person.
When I turned eighteen, someone did report the abuse to police just after Georgia had passed a law dissolving the statute of limitations on sex crimes. The person who reported my abuse was not a member of any church in that town. After making a statement, I was informed by an officer of the court that police intended to arrest me for falsifying information, intent to destroy by reputation, slander, contempt, corruption, and some other charges, nine total if memory serves. At age eighteen, in a backwoods southern town eroded by racism and white privilege where good ole’ boys run the show, I knew I didn’t stand a chance. I fled rather than be incarcerated for crimes I didn’t commit and left to rot in a cell forgotten by everyone, or worse, dead. I was a nobody and didn’t have the money or connections my abusers had. I couldn’t afford justice. The other victim, when it came time to speak with detectives, refused to speak (and I never blamed her for that). Her tuition was paid to a private school and she was sent to live with a well-to-do family. That new Georgia law made my life a living hell. I was watched closely by the family of the abuser who had apparently gone to great lengths to avoid prosecution. I was intimidated time and again.
Later, the abuse I suffered as a child was used against me in a court hearing wherein I fought an abusive ex-husband for custody of our two daughters. Had I received appropriate counseling in my youth, I may have fled this town and never returned. I may have never married an abuser, one I had thought to be a good, Christian man. After six years of marital abuse, I found myself at odds with church leaders once again, church leaders who disapproved of my decision to leave an abusive marriage. They begged me to ignore my RO so my abuser could come to church. I refused. They wanted to offer me counseling. I accepted. At one meeting I was told that if I left the marriage, I would place my husband in danger of eternal damnation because he would undoubtedly remarry (this would be considered adultery). I would be in danger of hellfire as well since one could only divorce and remarry in cases of adultery (and the leader informed me that I was a beautiful woman and as such would be incapable of remaining single). In my final meeting with these church leaders, one sighed and said, “Have you ever seen The Burning Bed?” This was the last meeting I attended.
Though my abuse had been well-documented and there was a conviction for DV (he was even arrested by a fellow church member), I lost custody of my children to my abuser. I’ve not seen them since 2009. Members of the family of the man who had sexually abused me testified or were subpoenaed to testify on my ex-husband’s behalf during our custody hearing, which at one point centered on the sexual abuse I had suffered as a child. My case against my childhood abuser had never been closed nor had it ever really been investigated (which to me should have been grounds to bar testimony from these individuals). No charges had ever been filed against my childhood abuser (whose brother had been married at one time to the sheriff’s daughter). The entire system was corrupt.
I paid a heavy price for speaking out against abuse in the Bible Belt in a town full of devout, Christian people. I took on the church in that town twice and lost both times. I’m still paying the price for daring to speak out about my abuse. Prior to my childhood abuser’s recent death, he resumed his leadership position in a church where many knew he had admitted to molesting two girls.
In her book, Predators, Pedophiles, Rapists, and other Sex Offenders, clinical psychologist Anna Salter discusses numerous studies, one of those being the Abel Harlow Child Molestation Prevention Study, which found that pedophilia molesters average 12 child victims and 71 acts of molestation. An earlier study by Dr. Abel found that out of 561 sexual offenders there were over 291,000 incidents totaling over 195,000 victims. This same study found that only 3% of these sexual offenders have a chance of getting caught. – (Startling Statistics: Child sexual abuse and what the church can begin doing about it.) Remember this.
Years after my abuse had been reported to police, I asked the detective handling my case why an arrest had never been made. She told me that the church had been unwilling to cooperate with the investigation and church members refused to speak to authorities. This all sounds like a V. C. Andrews novel or a Lifetime mini-series, I know. The horrible truth is that my story is not at all unusual. It’s the norm for women and men across the nation (and worldwide).
And that’s why I’ve singled out all of you Christians, a group comprising about 80% of our nation’s population. You have a duty to your children, to each other, to your churches, to your communities, and to your nation to STOP covering up abuse and violence. Women are being counseled by church leaders to submit to their husbands even in cases of known abuse. Husbands are told they are to love and discipline their wives and children lest they lose these souls to Satan and thereby suffer eternal damnation.
There was a time when ignorance was winked at but that time is no more. Abusive acts should not be viewed as acts of dominance that are sanctioned by God or as acts of discipline that might prevent one’s soul from being damned. It’s time for Christianity to evaluate how it handles abuse within their walls. It’s time for Christians to stop silencing and shaming victims. It’s time to stop telling victims that God has a plan for the abuse they suffered and they just need to be patient for that plan to unfold. It’s time to stop protecting abusers and covering up their crimes out of fear of legal retaliation and lawsuits or out of concern that a diminished church membership will mean diminished collection plate earnings (that’s probably the more legitimate fear, am I right? And when most divorces impoverish a family it’s not hard to see that a divorce will hit the collection plate too. Bad for profit, eh?).
It’s time to stop plying victims with empty prayers, counseling, and platitudes and take responsibility for the environment of control and violence and submissiveness that tells men that they are entitled to sex and have dominion over others. It’s time to give victims of sexual and/or violent crimes the help they so desperately need. What they don’t need is a dress code or to be forgiven for gossip or to be made responsible for the immortal souls of their abusers.
People who profess to be members of a loving and peaceful religion must stop harboring violent men and sexual predators in their congregations. It’s time for Christians to stop hiding behind forgive and forget and to start reporting abuse. Church leaders and counselors have got to start offering actual help and resources to victims. Understand, Christians, that the majority of your numbers have been abused or touched by abuse in some way, and many of these people have been suffering in silence.
I leave you with the knowledge that I am only one of two victims who reported my abuser’s crimes. How many victims did that leave in his lifetime? How likely is it that he became a pedophile at age 50? How many victims might he have had in the churches where he was allowed to hold office as both Elder and Deacon? How many victims might he have had in the community where he was a well-known business owner? How many were victimized after I came forward, if any? How many victims were there before me?
My guess is that no one knows the answers to these questions or if they do they’ve remained silent. Remember from above that the Abel Harlow Child Molestation Prevention Study tells us that pedophilia molesters average 12 child victims and 71 acts of molestation so it’s not likely that I was only one victim of two.