Speak Up, Stand Up Against Sexual Abuse by Religious Leaders

Speak Up, Stand Up Against Sexual Abuse by Religious Leaders

Tarnished. Defiled. Unclean. Castoff. Exposed. Abhorred. And, most appalling of all: defenseless. This is what it feels like to be raped.

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I keep thinking I’ll find the perfect words to describe it. I search through a mental repository of images, resemblances, and metaphors, searching for a suitable vehicle for faithfully telling it. I arrive at nothing. For how does one say, plainly, that they were raped?

Only Ezekiel 16: 5-6 New Living Translation (NLT), the explicit description of an exposed infant, approaches any were near it: “No one had the slightest interest in you; no one pitied you or cared for you. On the day you were born, you were unwanted, dumped in a field and left to die. But I came by and saw you there, helplessly kicking about in your own blood.”

Tarnished. Defiled. Unclean. Castoff. Exposed. Abhorred. And, most appalling of all: defenceless.

This is what it feels like to be raped.

Powerless
I was 21 years old, just about five months after returning to the Christian faith. My rapist lived in the parsonage. He was a young Prophet. I’d come roaring back to the faith after a brief liaison with agnosticism. My zeal quickly secured me a position on the leadership team for the youth group, with close working conditions with the Prophet, even though I considered him to be one of my own Prophet.

Before long, I began to notice strange, unusual, questionable behaviors. Long phone calls, flirtations to the extent of jokingly requesting for my pictures, meetings in the middle of the night. At first, I thought my perception is unreliable — after all, he was a Prophet. And I? A heathen whose discernment could hardly be trusted. But as the weeks wore on, I grew more confident in my assessment.

So one evening as we drove to a meeting, I confronted him about his close relationships with two married women in our church that I noticed him developing. I pointed out all I had witnessed and brought up his confessions of regular midnight meetings with one of the women whenever her husband was away on business. His affirmations of innocence were no match for the decisiveness of my judgment, and he finally admitted that both women were “in love” with him. He promised to break off the relationships if I would keep quiet.

A week later, the Prophet showed up at my doorstep in the middle of the night, supposedly to escape the incessant phone calls of one of the married women. Before I knew it, he was in my apartment. Almost immediately after entering the house I was pushed on the couch, and all of a sudden I was completely terrified. I was dizzy and confused. He was on top of me. I said, “I don’t want to do this. I want you to leave my house.”

The minute he ignored me and kept going was the moment I knew exactly what was about to happen. Did he plan this? How did everything fall into place so quickly? All of a sudden my pants were ripped right off me and he immediately started having sex with me. I was crying “No” over and over again.

I don’t know how I did it and I don’t know how long it took me to do it, but I ended up pushing myself off the couch and rolling onto the floor. My only thought was that I needed my mom.

What just happened? Did that just happen? I was confused and I felt completely torn apart. I wished I could crawl out of my skin. I felt dirty, ashamed, embarrassed.  Why did I let him in? Why did I not fight harder? Why did I just lie there, crying like that?

Guilt started to fall on me it felt like a bucket of hot ash. I wouldn’t know what was about to happen to me until years later the neurobiology of the assault responded.

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Look at what you have made me do now. This is all your fault, you know. He said as much himself, a week later, when he called to “apologize” and to say, “You were just too much of a temptation for me.” He had claimed that sexual sins were not as substantial as other sins because sexual temptation came “from outside of him” and not from within his character.

The toughest part was not the rape, that act of revolting abuse. It was, and always has been, the dreadfulness of living in a body that has been raped. Yet as much as I believed in my mind that I was responsible for what had happened, my body knew better. In the months (and years) following the attack, I shrank in fear in the presence of any man — even my own father.

For years after, I withdrew from any touch — even the casual, familiar embrace of male close family members. Every time I entered a church, I would break out in a cold sweat, my heart trembling so rapidly I feared a heart attack.

What was happening to me?

I could not understand what was happening to me. Nonetheless, I tried to justify, to tell myself I was safe at church, safe with men I trusted, my body would not rest in the reassurances.

I was scared that I was losing my mind until I had a conversation with my counselor. “Jenny, this is so normal it has a name: post-traumatic stress disorder.” Knowing that I was not crazy gave me a groundwork upon which to get well. Great friends, too, dug deep and challenged me to name that which had happened to me. “Jenny, what happened to you was rape, and until you admit that, you will never be well.” And I really wanted to be well.

To keep choosing life

From time to time we think that the choice of life and death is at the beginning of our walk with God, but this isn’t so. The mission of the Christian life is to keep choosing life, over and over. There were times when the way to the grave seemed desirable to the severe light of truth, times when the darkness, like a storm, threatened to overcome me. But I wanted to live, so I kept choosing life, sometimes daily. Again, in Ezekiel 16, God said, “Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, ‘Live!’ ” So I did.

I would always skeptically speculated why victims of sexual assault blame themselves. But in the days following the attack, I took full responsibility for it. No longer do I wonder. It’s because the shoulds, the woulds, and the what-ifs are swaying deceptions that trick you into believing that if you’d just done it all differently, the outcome would have been different. It’s psychologically easier to bear false guilt than to bear powerless vulnerability. As long as you are responsible, you are in control.

And in my case, there was a third reason. It was easier for me to bear responsibility than it was to bear the truth: that a person of the clergy — a person I believed was entrusted by God to shepherd others — was capable of so great abuse and crime.

My story — and the stories of countless other women who have been the victims of sexual assault perpetrated by prophets — is a story of how fairy tales have failed us.

“The Brothers Grimm” taught us that good and evil are visibly discernible. Good is always beautiful, and evil (except Snow White’s Evil Queen) is always ugly; stars are flawless, while villains are deformed and incongruous. But in the real world, good and evil are not so nearly apparent as we might hope.

As Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn understood, “The line separating good and evil passes through the heart of every human being — and through all human hearts.”

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However we are reluctant to admit that monsters do not look as they do in our fairy tales and myths; they can look like us, like our prophets, the very people we believe God has trusted to guide us. The world would seem safer and more controllable if beasts were requisitioned to the Forbidden Forest, never prowling in our homes, our workplaces and our pulpits.

I wish this wasn’t my story. With it, though, I hope to make all the good I can. My interest and expertise in spiritual formation and leadership is not a coincidence, nor did it arise out of mere intellectual curiosity.

The rape was the catalyst that transformed the course of my life, and if this man had been the type of person he claimed to be, or if senior leadership had paid more attention to whom they let fill their pulpits, it never would have happened. My work is my way of fighting back, my way of beating back the darkness, now that I have strength.

The Good news is that God brought me out of that situation and is now doing a miraculous work of healing me spiritually, mentally and physically. He never gives up on us even when we give up on him!

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