The exact moment I realized I’d been sexually abused as a child, my family and I were waiting at an intersection in our car. We were on our way to lunch after church. I was fourteen years old.
I wasn’t trying to think about it, and no one had mentioned it. It just came to me. I remember looking out the side window, zoning in on the raindrops dribbling down the window just in front of my face. This long moment remains like a still photo in my memory. My mind scanned my memory back and forth, recognizing, confirming. That happened to me. I’ve been abused.
As the car began to move forward, I tried to come to grips with this new information. I felt nervous and overwhelmed in my seat. A huge weight seemed to press into my chest, close to my throat. I undid my seatbelt and looked around the backseat.
My parents were talking to each other in the front seats, oblivious. To say anything to them was unthinkable. My nervousness shifted to fear, to an almost guilty feeling. As the car drove on, I watched the passing houses and shops, sitting with this new truth, so suddenly and unavoidably present.
My young brain had somehow realized, comprehended, this uninvited truth. It would be a long time before I could find the proper words to describe the strange feeling of the painful memories. The closest I can come is that it felt like a shocking, overwhelming sadness. But it was more than sadness. I was unsettled, uncomfortable, and anxious, like I had done something wrong.
As the car drove on, I didn’t move in my seat, and I didn’t speak a word about it. I wouldn’t for another eight years.
Your church is not an exception.
There are victims of sexual abuse in every community and institution in society, including churches. There are certainly victims of sexual abuse in your congregation. One of the serious dilemmas of the subject of child sexual abuse is that while it is incredibly widespread, it is also shrouded in secrecy and even denial. It is often invisible in our congregations because of the silence of the victims themselves. Powerful forces can keep it so, and the shame that victims feel can perpetuate the idea that “good” families are exempt from its reach.
But the now significant body of research agrees that sexual abuse spans races, socio- economic classes, and religious and ethnic groups. Investigations clearly indicate that churches are no exception. Much media attention has focused on the Catholic Church, because of the significant number of clergy who have been found to be perpetrators. I believe we may yet see the full extent of the disclosures elsewhere.