Jesus-like image hiding face, Elena Ray / Shutterstock.com
Editor’s Note: As we continue reporting on the important topic of sexual abuse and violence, Sojourners has opened up the Sexual Violence and the Church blog series for submissions. This piece is one such submission. If you are interested in submitting a post for the series, please email the Web Editor HERE.
I first became aware of the realities of sexual abuse in the church at the tender age of five. I happened to look at the television screen and witnessed police officers escorting my hand-cuffed youth minister in front of a crowd of reporters screaming questions. The words “YOUTH PASTOR ABUSED CHILDREN” flashed across the television screen.
I was confused and scared. My family comforted and assured me that the pastor had only “hurt” teenage boys and that I was safe. The church hired a new minister and, on the surface, life seemed to resume to normal for our congregation. But as a child I had no idea of the effects of the abuse and its aftermath had on the survivors, their families, and our church community. Many families soon experienced disintegrating marriages, friendships were broken, and faith was lost. One survivor’s family had their home repeatedly vandalized and were forced to move hundreds of miles from our town to escape fellow believers who grew angry with them for filing a lawsuit against the perpetrator.
Church leaders shunned media attention and feared “airing dirty laundry” in public, encouraging members to keep the experience a secret for the sake of the boys and church. As a child, and then a teenager, growing up in an otherwise loving, connected church, I never remember hearing church leaders address this aspect of our shared history in the open. To some of the survivors and the broken-hearted, the silence on this topic was welcome; to others it was deafening. While secrecy was the rule, the legacy of the abuse was real and active in the community. Rather than being cared for with dignity and love, the survivors and their families felt that they were a shameful secret to be whispered about and hidden. I learned as an adult that I was intimately connected with some of the survivors but never knew about their silent pain. I had no idea that I was a participant in a culture of silence and shame that often surrounds sexual abuse and is especially pronounced when boys are abused by men in the church.