And what I learned about the Church
As a child I saw the original black-and-white version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. If you’re not familiar with this movie, here’s the run down: ordinary people are replaced with exact alien replicas of themselves, and the body switch happens while they’re asleep. (Let’s just say I had some difficulties sleeping as a child.)
Based on the numerous remakes of the movie, as well as other movies and books with the same basic premise, I don’t think I’m the only person who’s terrified by the idea that a loved one could look like the person you know and trust, but instead be some inhuman being intent on destroying you.
While most of us don’t actually experience anything like this beyond the realm of science fiction, some of us have.
One warm Thursday evening in the beginning of June, after a decade of marriage, I sat at my kitchen table and listened as a female relative — a child — told me my Christian husband had been sexually abusing her for at least three years. I remember feeling numb. And very calm.
By the next morning the numbness was in competition with a variety of intense and constantly shifting emotions: terror, violent grief, confusion, anxiety, rage.
Remarkably, my husband admitted to the abuse. Of course he only acknowledged to as much as the child could bring herself, with great difficulty, to describe.
This was the man I had laughed with, cuddled with, cried with, and had daughters with. I had known him since we were teenagers. I wondered: was my husband evil? Or was he sick? Could he be healed? And, even if he were to be healed, would I ever be able to trust him again?
In the midst of this horror, there were some Christians who were wonderful, filled with love, wisdom, and support. One assistant pastor talked and prayed with me. He reassured me that I wasn’t to blame in all of this. I didn’t see the abuse throughout the years because my husband was spending enormous energy lying and hiding his behaviour.
The pastor explained the church’s and my responsibility to report my husband’s abuse to the police. He also talked me through the options: the pastor could either confront my husband and give him the chance to turn himself in, or we could report him to the police. Either way, my husband would be arrested.
My husband chose to turn himself in. He eventually pled guilty to a lesser charge to avoid a trial and possible jail time. He was charged with a misdemeanor and was sentenced to probation and court-ordered group therapy for sexual offenders. He experienced a resurgence of faith. He told everyone who would listen his manipulative version of the abuse, with no regard for the privacy or feelings of the victim or even his own family.
And he was pitied.
I remember receiving a phone call from the police officer who took my husband’s confession. He called to advocate for my husband. He told me, in all his years on the force, he had never done this. But he said he needed me to know how “broken up” my husband was. Then the officer tried to persuade me to consider forgiving my husband and to stay married to him.
Stunned, I asked him if it had been his wife who had molested a child for years, would he take his own advice? He was quiet for a moment and then said, “I don’t know ma’am. I don’t know.”
I also witnessed a judge, after learning of my husband’s actions, refer to my husband as a “man of integrity.” I’ve since learned this is quite common. Many sexual offenders are gifted at causing others to feel sympathy for them. My husband was no exception; he excelled at this.
In the aftermath of dealing with the reality of the situation, I suffered from and was treated for severe trauma. I had been a Christian for close to 18 years, without any crisis of faith until this point. I had been sure of God’s love, care, and interaction in my life even in the midst of pain and difficulties.
Suddenly, I resonated with C.S. Lewis’s words from A Grief Observed: “Not that I am … in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not, ‘So there’s no God after all.’ But, ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”
I agonized over whether or not I had been wrong about God, over whether or not I could trust Him. To make matters worse, the majority of Christians, while often well-intentioned, responded in a number of unhealthy and wounding ways.
Many reacted in fear and withdrawal. I’ve come to the conclusion that my circumstances shattered many people’s illusions that the world is a safe place. If this could happen to my family, then perhaps they were vulnerable to traumatic events in their families as well.
And because of their fear, they needed someone to blame; turns out that someone was me. If they could identify something I did wrong, something that they wouldn’t do, then their families were safe from harm. I was accused of everything from not being submissive enough to being sexually frigid.
Also, bizarrely, my decision to divorce was viewed by many as me breaking my marriage vows. The reality is that I needed to get divorced in order to protect my children and myself from my husband’s deceptions and frightening compulsions. My husband’s actions had shattered our marriage covenant long before the divorce papers were filed.
Through this whole process, I learned that much is required of those victimized, while little is asked of sex offenders. When my husband began to spin his story, it was received with affirmations of how courageous he was. He was even placed on the worship team within a few months of his confessions.
In contrast, I was expected to never be angry, bitter, or wrestle with forgiveness. I needed to heal quickly and quietly. And, of course, I couldn’t ever question his “recovery.” His was a wondrous redemption story, and to question his trustworthiness was to question God’s work in his life.
Christians are prone to be a naive bunch. We tend to want to take people at face value, and we want to envelope them with forgiveness and acceptance. Don’t get me wrong: these are good things. After all, Jesus said to be innocent as doves.
But He also admonished His followers to be as wise as serpents.
This is where we fall short. Within months of the victim’s disclosure, my husband, who had spent years skillfully living a lie, claimed he was recovered. And people simply believed him.
The church must become educated in how sex offenders function, manipulate, charm, and lie. Christians need to be especially aware how sex offenders groom their victims for abuse, while simultaneously grooming their communities to trust and defend them. Otherwise, not only will we never be able to prevent abuse from occurring, we won’t be able to support the recovery of victims without causing them more suffering and potential damage.
Unfortunately, many of the Church’s responses echo and reinforce the effects of being groomed by a sex offender. Instead, the Church should ensure those who are betrayed and devastated by the sexual offenses of a loved one feel heard, supported, protected, empowered, and advocated for.
In my experience, few Christians do this well.
Though I still experience intense PTSD symptoms, it happens less often now. I’ve gotten married again, which is nothing short of a miracle, to a wonderful, gentle, funny New Testament scholar. We haven’t given up on church, either; together, we’re searching for a faith community that is safe and healthy.
After many years of therapy, prayer, and learning to trust people who are trustworthy, my life and faith are completely different from anything I could have imagined. And wondrously, throughout it all, my relationship with God has been strengthened.
Photo (Flickr cc) by cnfiton