Sexualized violence and abuse is often covered up due to shame, embarrassment, or just plain ignorance in how to handle the problem. One contributing story on Our Stories Untold describes how a woman’s Mennonite family purposefully hid her abuse from the rest of the family so it wouldn’t need to be dealt with. Another woman describes her exerience at a Mennonite college and how the school intentionally isolated her from the abuse situation. This is an issue the Mennonite Church must work towards addressing.
Angela and Christopher (pseudonyms) are an exception to the tendency to cover up sexualized abuse when it occurs. Parents of four daughters, they decided to come forth when one of their daughters was repeatedly abused by a youth pastor of their church. Here is their story:
Angela and Christopher had a close, happy family of well adjusted, bright kids but after the youngest went away to college, she called home saying, “Please help me.” She was ready to reveal how a youth pastor, who had shown her much attention over a period of years, sexually abused her during her senior year of high school. It was only as she got away that she felt empowered to tell her parents, even though they wondered why she had become more distant. Eventually she would face her abuser in court.
Angela and Christopher share their story in order to benefit other families, churches, schools and organizations who deal with children in any way. We hope it is widely shared in order to educate, advocate and protect.
Our Daughter Was Sexually Abused – Part 1
ANGELA: Experts estimate that one of every three to four girls and one of every five or six boys are sexually abused by the time they’re 18 years old.
BURTON: Today on Shaping Families, you’ll hear from Angela and Christopher in a sad and disturbing interview. They are from a small Midwestern town. I’m Burton Buller.
MELODIE: And I’m Melodie Davis. Christopher and his wife Angela are using pseudonyms. They will tell us what happened to their daughter at the hands of an area youth pastor. Their story impacts all of us because we all live in communities where, unfortunately, statistics tell us, sexual abuse of children happens all too often.
BURTON: Stewards of Children—a national organization working to increase knowledge, improve attitudes and change child-protective behaviors—says that “Child sexual abuse is frequent enough in our culture to suggest that it’s being passively accepted and in some cases deliberately overlooked.”
This is the first in a two-part series. In today’s program, we’ll hear this family’s painful story, and next week we’ll look at how churches, families and communities can respond to this reality.
MELODIE: Angela begins by telling us a little about their family, especially their youngest daughter.
ANGELA: We are a strong, close-knit family. My husband and I have been happily married for well over 30 years. We have lovingly raised four adult daughters. We chose to live in a small town in the mid-West, to be close to our extended families. We also liked that it had the support of many Mennonite churches in the area. We believed that a small community would be safer for our girls, thinking that everyone who would be involved with them would have a positive impact on their childhood, and that they would protect all the children. We had both been raised in Christian homes and we have always been very involved in our churches that we’ve attended, and so that was a guiding factor in moving to the area. Being close to family too is very important.
BURTON: Their youngest daughter was always a delightful, personable child.
ANGELA: She excelled in school and she was consistently on the honor roll. She was popular with other children, involved in athletics. She auditioned for and filled leading roles in theater and musicals from a young age. She was active in church groups and was president of her MYF. She was a delight to be around. She was always quick with a smile and an encouraging word. She never gave us any reason to doubt her word. We are very close as mother and daughter. We share the same birthday and we frequently call each other or text each other at the very same time. We are very much in tune with each other. During her senior year, I sensed a change in her behavior and in her communication patterns. She became moody, distant, and there was a tension in our relationship that had not been there before.
BURTON: Angela attributed the moodiness to teenage angst and pulling away.
ANGELA: Later that year she began her first year of college at a school three hours from home. While we were getting her settled, her father and I commented to each other that we had never seen her so sad in all of our lives. We also went home with sad hearts, not knowing why she was so sad.
CHRISTOPHER: That next Sunday afternoon, our daughter called home. She was crying. Dad, I need help. Find me someone up here that can help me. We were shocked to now learn that the cause of her turmoil and sadness was her being abused by her youth leader. We now realized that she had to get space and distance from her abuser in order to stand up to his threats. At the end of our conversation, I thanked her for telling me.
BURTON: Christopher said believing the victim is very important at such a time.
CHRISTOPHER: When a victim has the courage to tell a trusted adult, it is absolutely vital that they are believed. They are never to be blamed. A victim is never, ever at fault. The victim is calling for help and you may be the only person to lead them out of their nightmare. I might also add that in everything that we have ever accomplished in all of our lives, we have never been more proud than we were of our daughter the moment she stepped into this cavernous, intimidating court room, prepared to stand before the judge, a jury, the press, his defense attorney, whom you knew was going to attack her character, face her assailant to say publically that what he did to me was wrong. Our daughter displayed a courage and a conviction that is beyond measure. And I will quote the health care professional who was at the trial, and after the trial, placed her hands on our daughter’s shoulders, looked into her eyes and said, “You will never know how many young people you have just saved.”
BURTON: Why are you sharing this very difficult experience with a wide audience on radio?
ANGELA: Statistics are if there is one victim, there are an average of nine. Many people knew or suspected of her abuse and did not tell us. Evidence in our case points to many other victims in the years prior, and none of them spoke or reported. I would not be able to have peace knowing that others were hurt by my silence. We want to educate and bring it out of the dark silence, which is what abusers count on—silence. Experts estimate that one of every three to four girls and one of every five or six boys are sexually abused by the time they’re 18 years old. So, this means that there are children who are silently bearing the burden and the pain of sexual abuse. For us to be silent would only encourage and enable the predator.
BURTON: At the point that your daughter told you, what was your next step?
CHRISTOPHER: This was on a Sunday afternoon, and we were lost. One reason is because we knew no one who’d ever dealt with this. Nobody talks about this. And hence, our foundation fell out from underneath us. And on that Sunday afternoon, we thought who do we call? Do we call the police? Do we call a therapist? At that point in time, we had an interim minister at our church and we found him and he gave us some advice. But the first is we realized—we literally didn’t sleep for three days—but we realized that we had to push our feelings aside, because our daughter was calling, she was crying for our help, and we were the only ones; we were all that she had. So we had to push our feelings aside to come to her aid.
Over the next weeks and months, there were quick trips to go visit her, long phone calls in the middle of the night, because we knew that she had to heal, she had to come out of this at her own pace. She began seeing a therapist. After extensive therapy, she said “I now realize that the grooming started at age 15.” So it takes time to unwind that, you know, the emotional and in this case, spiritual attachment. It has taken all of our energy for the last three years of our life, just to work on getting her and our family healthy.
BURTON: Was she able to stay in school?
CHRISTOPHER: Not only did she stay in school, but she has excelled at school because she made the decision to not allow this to define her life. Thankfully, she is an amazing young woman of constitution and strength that I’ve not witnessed in many adults.
ANGELA: She is doing well, however, victims of sexual abuse, it alters their lives forever. It’s not like a disease or something that you can be cured from. It is something that day to day, it’s in the back of your mind, and your healing comes from telling someone. Your healing comes from therapy and talking about it. When people are silent when they tell a trusted adult and they don’t believe them, chances are they will never tell another person. And by never talking about it, it comes out of their lives in other ways, usually in negative ways. So even if someone is an adult was abused as a child, it is still therapeutic to tell someone, to talk about it, to get the evil out of you. But it is something that will always be with you, whether you are on the healing road and working on that to make a positive outcome, or you’ve never told anyone, it will be with you forever.
BURTON: Thank you so much, Angela and Christopher, for contributing from such a tragic and hard experience. Next week we’ll look more at the healing journey they’ve been on and how they are trying to make a difference for others regarding sexual abuse of kids. I hope you’ll join us again next week and tell others about it—especially those who work with youth in your church and community. And now we’ll turn to Harvey Yoder, who as a professional counselor, has dealt with this topic. Harvey?
HARVEY: I attended a conference some years ago on childhood sexual abuse where one of the presenters, a seminary graduate who should have known better, stated with a straight face that the Bible has little to say about the value of children—about respecting their rights or protecting them from abuse, or giving them much of a place in general. I wanted to ask her what Bible she’d been reading, and whether she’d never read about Moses, the infant protected in the marshes of the Nile, watched over by God and jealously guarded by his sister and parents in defiance of Pharaoh’s order. Or how about the Christmas story, in which we’ve almost overemphasized the infant Jesus in comparison to the attention most give the rest of his life? And how about the absolutely clear cases of Jesus making statements like, “Don’t ever dare offend or harm or abuse any child, or you will be judged and condemned by God Himself, who has each one under constant watch by special angel guards.”
To Jesus, the most disempowered, the least of these, the most defenseless, are his first priority. “Let the children come to me, before anything and everyone else,” he says. “And if any of you puts a stumbling block in the way of one of these little ones, it would be better for that person if a great millstone were hung around their neck and they were drowned in the depths of the sea.” This is strong language indeed.
In my work as a counselor, I am often reminded of the long term effects childhood drama can have. In several studies I’ve read on sexual abuse and communities of faith, the abusers were less likely to be either strangers or parents or grandparents of children or teens, but reveal a disturbing number of cases of younger adolescents being abused by older teens or by other trusted church or family friends. [A summary of such research can be found at http://www.beliefnet.com/Wellness/2002/03/Soul-Betrayal.aspx]
But no matter who the perpetrators are, it’s hard to overstate the damage this kind of abuse can inflict on victims who may tend to blame themselves, live with a sense of profound shame over their experience, and have increased issues with trust and with self-esteem. One middle age adult I worked with a number of years ago had extreme problems with displaced anger. He frequently vented on everything and everyone around him, which he was later able to trace to his experience with an older man, a neighbor, who sexually abused him for years while he was of early elementary school age. For decades he had felt unable to tell anyone about what had happened.
My prayer is that we can create a climate in which children and teens especially, are safe, and where any and all victims can feel free to share their abuse experiences with others who will stand by them and help them heal.
BURTON: Thanks for these additional insights, Harvey. You can listen again to any of this, read the script, or find a study guide at our website, www.ShapingFamilies.com. Please check it out and tell your friends.
MELODIE: We have a free booklet available at our website called “Dealing with Child Abuse,” which addresses the topic in general. Just check the Current Offer button. You can also receive a sample “Sexual Abuse Child Protection Policy” adopted by one of the churches that sponsors Shaping Families. It can give your church an idea of what is important to include in such a policy. It will also be available from links at our website, along with many other resources recommended by Angela and Christopher.
BURTON: Or, write for the booklet and sample policy by sending to Shaping Families Box 22, Harrisonburg, VA 22803. That’s Shaping Families Box 22, Harrisonburg, VA 22803. Supplies are limited.
MELODIE: We’ll be back next week with Angela and Christopher telling more about their healing. I hope you’ll join us too. Until then, this is Melodie Davis . . .
BURTON: . . . and Burton Buller, reminding you of Christ’s own love and care for all children. Shaping Families is produced by MennoMedia for the Mennonite churches.
Our Daughter Was Sexually Abused – Part 2
ANGELA: The thought of one of our children being sexually abused is so unimaginably repulsive and sickening that we turn from it and we allow ourselves to believe that it could not happen here, not in our small, quiet, conservative Christian community.
BURTON: You are hearing from the mother of four daughters who, with her husband, is here to share their family’s sad and tragic experience with the sexual abuse of their youngest daughter. I’m Burton Buller and this is Shaping Families.
MELODIE: And I’m Melodie Davis. In our most recent program, Angela and Christopher, pseudonyms for a couple in a small Midwestern town, began their story. This week we look more in depth at sexual abuse, at the typical profile of an abuser, some of the myths about perpetrators, why and where it happens, and what to do.
BURTON: Angela and Christopher’s daughter was just beginning college when she was finally able to tell her parents what had happened during her senior year of high school. A well-known area youth pastor sexually abused her. The young woman was courageous enough to press charges and the perpetrator spent time in prison. He now must register every 90 days as a sex offender. Angela begins by talking about some of the myths concerning abuse.
ANGELA: Well, the number one myth is, it doesn’t happen here. That was me before this. We are not as safe as you may think. Perpetrators gravitate where there are few safeguards in place, which gives them easy access to their victims. Our desire to trust and think the best of all people puts our children in danger.
BURTON: Another myth is, child molesters are easy to spot.
ANGELA: The reality is they are respected leaders in the community; they look like the person sitting next to you at the ballgame; they look like the person sitting next to you in the church pew. They are popular teachers, coaches, ministers; they endear themselves to the community so that their motives are not questioned. They may even be your family or close friends. Ninety percent of all abused children knew their molester. Of the ones that have already served time, when they’re released, over 90% go back at it again. And they’ve learned so many tactics on how to go under the radar so that they’ll never be caught again.
BURTON: Is there a typical profile of a predator?
ANGELA: Predominantly, an abuser is a male—sometimes female, but predominantly male—over 30 years of age. They are without a criminal record. They have few age-appropriate friends; they’re more interested in children and children’s activities than in what adults are doing. If they’re married, the relationship might be a smokescreen for what their true intentions are. If they’re not employed with children, they’ll put themselves in volunteer positions that give them opportunity to spend unsupervised time with children. They work hard at stalking their targets. They are very patient. They develop relationships over years. They groom by giving special attention. And one way that they groom is that they tell the potential victim, “You know, I can help you get that scholarship. I see that you have leadership ability. I want to work on that with you, one-on-one. We’ll maybe go to a missions conference and you can go free of charge. I’ll cover it. Don’t worry about it.”
BURTON: Angela notes that the cell phone can be a tool of the perpetrator.
ANGELA: As a parent, we give children cell phones and we think it’s helping their safety, they can use it whenever. And that’s true. But it also is the tool of a perpetrator because they could have access to that child day or night. If they have the cell phone in their room, they could text, call, whatever, and you have no idea as a parent. If you call to check on them when they’re at their friend’s house, you have no idea if they’re really at the friend’s house.
BURTON: Perpetrators can insert themselves between a child and their friends.
ANGELA: They isolate their victim from others, from friends and family, and they make it so that the child depends on the perpetrator for things, and not friends or family. They silence their victims then with threats. They may feel harm could come to them or their family members.
BURTON: Religious perpetrators prey on the victim’s trust and faith.
ANGELA: They can say: “If you tell someone, it will hurt my ministry. Think what it would do, and God wouldn’t want that. Think about what your parents and your grandparents would think. No one will believe you.” Why would you tell?
BURTON: What kind of kids do they seek out?
ANGELA: Oftentimes, they seek victims that are in families that are not getting attention, that maybe don’t have role models as far as both parents; troubled children—but that is not always the case. And it is not the case in our family. We are very hands-on parents and I would always say to myself, “I will know. She will tell me. I will know when there’s a person that is unsafe. I will know that.” But we trusted our daughter. We believed her; we had no reason to doubt her and so that was his in. You can trust your child, but you don’t have to trust the world around her.
BURTON: Why are churches particularly vulnerable to this kind of thing?
ANGELA: Churches are vulnerable just like anywhere else. Children gather there for one thing. We want to believe the best in all people and that God can change anyone for the better, and all we have is Christ-like intentions. But by encouraging our children to trust and obey adults without reservation, we’re in fact making it very easy for the molester to infiltrate their lives. When we are silent in our churches and do not speak when we suspect it, we aid the abuser and we harm the child. When churches do not have safe church policies—or even windows in the classrooms—our children are not being protected. When churches do not do background checks of volunteers, our children are at risk. Molesters steer away from organizations that have training and policies in place. And I see nothing more important in a church atmosphere than protecting the children and the vulnerable.
BURTON: How can parents be educated about what to look for?
ANGELA: Well the number one thing is, trust your instincts. Don’t let it go. That’s my number one thing to parents—to be vigilant. There is a program called Darkness2Light.org, and it’s a national nonprofit organization that will come to your church, your school, your organization, and give you workshops on ways to protect children and on educating on what abuse is, pretty much every aspect of it. It teaches adults how to protect children. If you would eliminate or reduce the one adult/one child situations, you will dramatically lower the risk of sexual abuse. Over 80% is eliminated if you take away the one-on-one situations. Go for the group event. If it does have to be a one-on-one, one adult, one child, then things you can do are drop in unexpectedly. You can make sure that the outings are observable by some other person. You can ask about specifics of the activity that’s going to take place, and then talk to your child after the event, see how they’re feeling, what happened. They’ll tell you some things. Tell adults who care for your children that you are educated on child sexual abuse. We have to talk about it. We have to talk about it in our churches, we have to talk about it in our schools, we have to educate. Don’t expect there to be obvious signs. Very many are subtle. If there are changes in the behavior in some way of the child, those are red flags.
BURTON: If you are suspicious, do you have to have proof?
ANGELA: If there is reasonable suspicion, you do not have to be the one to prove it. You tell the authorities, either the Child and Family Services or the police, and then they do the research, and it can be anonymous. They don’t have to know it’s you if that’s what you’re concerned about. Act on your suspicions. Report it. Don’t be the silent bystander. Because think about if you were the silent bystander, sex abuse could contribute to a lifetime of psychological and emotional problems for a child.
BURTON: Where can parents and families turn for help?
ANGELA: If you have a question, say I’m not sure this is abuse—maybe I want to call and talk to someone—there are child abuse help lines that you can call and they are trained with knowing what to tell you to do, where you can go. One that I would recommend is National Child Abuse Hotline, which is 1-800-4ACHILD. If you do need to report it, most people would report it either to child protective services or to law enforcement.
BURTON: We’ll have more of this family’s recommendations for help on our website. Angela’s husband, Christopher, offers a final reminder for families.
CHRISTOPHER: If you sense something is wrong, act. Speak with your young person. It gives us a great sense of peace and comfort to know that we stood up and told the truth about a topic as dark as this one.
BURTON: We are grateful to Christopher and Angela for sharing their family’s heartache, and I invite you to share it with your church, school and friends. Just go to our website, ShapingFamilies.com. These parents stress how important it is to talk about this uncomfortable topic so that children can be protected. And for those who have already been harmed, talking may help to bring about healing.
For our My Turn space today, we have a slightly different and personal comment by our producer, Melodie Davis.
MELODIE: As I sat down to talk with Angela and Christopher, my mind couldn’t help but go to my own three young adult daughters. We all think of our own kids when we hear sad experiences like this: either how to protect them now, or what we would have done if it happened to them as kids.
I remember a helpful little instructional cassette and book on safety our children enjoyed using. It was called “The Safety Kids” and through it they learned their home telephone number, to be wary of strangers, and to “yell and scream” if anyone tried to take them or hurt them in a store.
But warnings about “stranger danger” wouldn’t have helped Angela and Christopher’s daughter because over 90 percent of sexually abused children know their molester. While we all try to be wise and educated about children and sexual abuse, things happen in the best of families, to all kinds of kids. And when bad things happen, we need to be there for our kids, whether in homes or churches. We need to hear and believe their stories—the kids, the parents, the siblings and loved ones. They may need to share their stories overand over, or they may want to clam up and put it away, and not want to talk about it.
On Shaping Families we’ve endeavored to share true stories of real people trying to make sense of their lives. Repeatedly, people who have shared the stories you’ve heard on Shaping Families, say that telling their stories is therapeutic. They want to help others by sharing their stories, but they also end up helping themselves.
Unfortunately, we are winding down the Shaping Families program, due to the tough economic times we are in which has affected our organization. Three years ago we had hoped to create additional income for our agency to help fund this program. But that hasn’t happened. After a generous start up grant, we have grown to include over 20 radio stations and about 10 sponsors, but we have not been able to secure funds to continue producing the program. Therefore, next week’s program will be our last.
We’ve been privileged to produce this program and know many of you benefited from it. The programs will continue to be available at ShapingFamilies.com—a rich resource. We invite you to use it any time you need good information and stories on family issues. Or you can purchase the study book that’s available there for small groups or classes. We’d still love to hear from you, with any comments or questions you might have. To comment, you can use the form provided at the website.
BURTON: Thank you Melodie. To read or hear this again, please visit our website, ShapingFamilies.com. There you’ll also find a number of resources that Angela and Christopher have recommended.
MELODIE: We remind you that we also have a free booklet available, “Dealing with Child Abuse,” which addresses the topic in general. You can also receive a sample “Sexual Abuse Child Protection Policy” adopted by one of the churches that sponsors Shaping Families.
BURTON: So check the website, ShapingFamilies.com, or write for the booklet and policy by sending to Shaping Families, Box 22, Harrisonburg, VA 22803. That’s Shaping Families, Box 22, Harrisonburg, VA 22803.
MELODIE: We’ll be back next week with Mel and Lorna Klaassen, telling the story of how they’re helping others with grief, as a result of their 18-year-old daughter’s terminal illness. I hope you’ll join us. Until then, this is Melodie Davis . . .
BURTON: . . . and Burton Buller, reminding you to walk with others going through times of trial and difficulty. Shaping Families is produced by MennoMedia for the Mennonite churches.
For more resources on sexual violence and abuse, click here and scroll to the bottom.