‘When I told the pastor I’d been abused as a child and was struggling to forgive, he said, “It was a long time ago; can’t you forget about it?”
‘I said, “I’ve only just started remembering,” and he said, “Pray to Jesus. And visit your parents but don’t talk about it.”
‘When I’d told my mother at 14 that my great-uncle was molesting me, she’d said, “He doesn’t mean any harm; don’t upset the family.” Now I felt I was getting the same message from the church family: “Don’t make a fuss; don’t upset us.”’
This is one woman’s experience but many survivors of childhood sexual abuse have similar accounts of asking for help from the church, and many more have never attempted it. Some feel that because it’s a dirty topic they’ll be seen as a dirty person for talking about it. But keeping silent protects neither the abused nor the abusers.
Church leaders often don’t know the abuse survivors within their own congregation, but they are in every church: UK statistics show 1 in 10 men were abused before the age of 18, and 1 in 4 women, mostly by known and trusted adults. Figures rise to 1 in 6 men and 1 in 2 women when random assaults are included, and even this doesn’t include children used in pornography.
Sexual abusers are not a ‘type’ but are from every background, education and income group.
Sandra says, ‘We were a “nice” family, well-off, public school educated - but totally dysfunctional. My elder sister and I were abused by my father; my brother was sexually abused by my mother, and he abused my younger brother.
‘My mother would call my father names and he would come upstairs to me; I felt it was my role to take his pain away. That kind of skewed thinking is part of abusive families.’
Paul recalls that his father only ever smiled, called him ‘good boy’ or gave him sweets, for not crying out while being raped by him. Even as an adult Christian he never told his church. ‘Why would I? I believed it was my fault and no more than I deserved. It
was only when I heard teaching about the father-heart of God that I realised my father was sadistic - but I still felt I was in the wrong.’
The onset of abuse is an encounter with evil that spells the end of childhood.
Marie, molested by a neighbour at the age of 5, says, ‘Afterwards, the world was a very dark place,’ and Roy, raped by his scoutmaster at 12, comments, ‘His flat was only round the corner - but it seemed such a long way home.’
Confused and ashamed, neither child told anyone till they were adult – and this was after one isolated incident.
For Sandra, when her father first abused her, ‘the world stopped - everything changed. I felt shocked, sick in my stomach, and at the same time I thought, “He must really love me,” because it was the first time I’d heard the words, “I love you,” from either of my parents.’
For children routinely abused, the worst damage doesn’t occur at the time but sets in as they grow, learning about normal relationships and comparing their own experience.
Children whose abuser was ‘kind’ may suffer more guilt in later life than those who were intimidated and threatened.
Wanda enjoyed her father’s attention and learned to enjoy the physical sensations. She didn’t know the damage the abuse had caused till she married and found herself unable to respond to her husband; it felt like being unfaithful, committing adultery. Both she and her husband were devastated.
For Paul, ‘My childhood and young adulthood were stolen from me, and things I should have learned through correct role models took much longer. As a man I have felt a complete failure, lost in confusion and hurt and living with the silent screams of a child locked inside my heart and soul.’
Memories of being abused can stay buried for years, typically till something triggers them: having children, hearing others’ histories or being in a ‘family’ setting – such as church. Once triggered, a whole flood of memories, flashbacks and nightmares can be unleashed in quick succession and relived in vivid reality.
Clare recalls, ‘I was walking through the shopping centre when suddenly my great-uncle (who is dead) was standing in front of me, yelling into my face. My heart was pounding, I was shaking – and I had to try and remember where I’d parked the car. On the drive home I wanted to put my foot down and crash the car, to make it all go away.
‘People who say, “Forget it, it’s in the past,” don’t know what they’re saying. When flashbacks happen, it’s in the present; you have to deal with it along with the ‘real’ present reality. I’m not surprised some people develop mental illness, turn to drugs, cut or kill themselves. A crime was committed against you and you’re forced to go on living in the crime scene. You don’t want to be in your own flesh - or in your own family.’
Frequently, abused children continue to be abused. In adult relationships too they may be given the message that sex is expected in return for any affection - or they may believe that love isn’t real unless sex accompanies it.
It’s no wonder if survivors’ behaviour is sometimes ‘inappropriate’; they are unlikely to get the boundaries right all the time.
Sandra says, ‘It was only after I came to Jesus that I looked back and thought, “How could I have slept with so many men?”
‘It’s like the prodigal son - he came to his senses. You can’t reason with someone - or spout scripture at them - while their thinking is so screwed up. You can only accept them and love them. It sounds a cliché but only Jesus can take someone into new life, renewing their mind. I thank God for medication and psychiatry but only Jesus truly transforms lives. It’s hard enough for people within the church to believe that, so what must it be like for professionals who are not Christians?’
Abuse survivors’ inability to believe that love could be unconditional is something the church can help to heal, but only by genuinely accompanying them in their two-steps-forward-one-step-back progress towards wholeness.
People tend to revert to familiar coping mechanisms in times of anxiety.
Paul says, ‘In church there’s often little understanding that sin such as drink, rebellion or intimate relations can be signs of inner pain due to sin inflicted on you. Christians and leaders can take it so personally when someone continues to run to alternative coping methods that they give up on you.’
Sandra, now a minister, comments, ‘Ministers expect too much of themselves; if they can’t be a cure-all they tend to pass the person on to some specialist - especially if mental health issues are involved.’
Abuse survivor Margaret Kennedy, who started the charity CSSA (Christian Survivors of Sexual Abuse) and now runs MACSAS (Ministry to Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors), says, ‘On the whole, the Church (a) doesn’t know how to deal with survivors and (b) doesn’t want to; its priority is self-protection and they expect the NHS to deal with the fall-out. But abuse recovery is a spiritual issue that needs pastoral care. Survivors want to know, “Where is God in this? Did he mean it to happen? Does he blame me? Does he forgive my abuser?”
‘There’s a suspicion that abuse survivors only want compensation, or to cause trouble - especially when the abuser was a church leader. But what they want is dialogue.
‘There’s a need for a forum to be set up, to foster understanding between survivors and those who minister to them. Even where churches set up support groups, non-survivors tend to take over.’
Telling survivors to forgive their abuser may impose an intolerable burden on them; the church can seem to be reinforcing the message that the abuse wasn’t that important or the child or young adult was responsible.
A CSSA group leader said, ‘It’s the wrong emphasis. Survivors need to forgive themselves. Forgiving the abuser may – or may not – come later.’
Paul says, ‘I was taught I must forgive or I couldn’t be healed, but the church needs to help people open up and receive help, or folk can leave church feeling guiltier than when they went in.’
Sandra’s priority is, ‘If you’re really serious about seeing people get well, pray and fast for them.
‘My healing came through a mixture of long-term discipling - people who persevered in loving me when I was awful to them - and deliverance, which had an immediate effect, to release me from insecurity, unforgiveness, lust and bitterness.
‘But there’s no set formula; you have to pray for God’s guidance for every individual. And even after all that help, I still needed psychiatric hospitalization. Only after I accepted it was okay to be Christian and be mentally ill did I get healed from the illness.’
Churches can play a key role in reversing the messages typically given to abused youngsters: ‘Don’t cry, don’t tell, don’t feel’; ‘It’s your fault’; ‘Protect the family’ or, ‘You’re worthless,’ and can substitute the love of Jesus who suffered for us while we were still messed up.
But conveying Jesus’ message convincingly means losing the fear of people behaving in a volatile or inappropriate manner, exposing others to raw anguish that’s uncomfortable to witness and hard to soothe.
Anger is a common after-effect of abuse but for someone who assumed their abuse was no more than they deserved, or God’s punishment, getting angry may be a sign of recovery rather than a sign of losing control.
Where Christians and church leaders distance themselves or unintentionally reinforce the abuser’s messages, they may not be shutting out other people’s unreasonable or unrecognized needs so much as shutting off their own inner pain.
‘Being open should start with ministers daring to tell each other their own deepest hurts,’ Sandra suggests, ‘or how can others be open with us?’
For Clare, at the beginning of this article, warned by her pastor not to mention her abuse, there was a happier ending.
‘I got a second opinion, from a priest who said, “He has a problem! Talk to whoever you need to; you’re only telling the truth.”
‘So I told my mother that I remembered everything, that I knew she’d been afraid I would, and that I’d been very angry with her but I didn’t hate her. And it cleared the air for a better, more honest relationship.
‘My father and some family members didn’t want to know, but I found I didn’t rely on their approval as much as I thought I did, so that was still a positive outcome.’