Guest Post: How Well Does the Church Handle Abuse?
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It took me until I was 18 and had moved out of my house to finally wander my way into the Counseling Center at BYU. I was having trouble in school, trouble sleeping, general anxiety. There began my awakening to what I was. I was abused as a child. I finally spoke the words aloud. I was broken. I was a victim.
The first time I told someone about my sexual abuse it was to my therapist at BYU. I was 19 by then. Through therapy I gradually put names on the abuse: physical, emotional, sexual, and spiritual. The sexual abuse took the forefront. I look back now and am shocked that my therapist did not insist on calling the police or a social worker when I told her. I was convinced that I was the only victim. But she knew that I had younger siblings still living at home. She knew that my father was the perpetrator. She knew that statistically it had probably happened to more of my siblings. I wish she had done something. Admitting that I came from an abusive family was so new to me at the time. I did not feel comfortable navigating those waters. I definitely did not have the guts to blow the whistle on my father. I did not even know that I should have blown the whistle on my father, that my siblings were in probable danger. A social worker or police officer should have been notified. My father should have been stopped.
That same year I told my bishop. His response was “How old were you when it happened?” I told him I was 8 years old. “Wasn’t that a long time ago? I don’t think you need to break up your family over this when you can deal with it through therapy.” Then he asked “How old are your other siblings?” I told him I was the oldest of five and four of us were female. He asked whether I thought anyone else in the family had been abused. At that time, I honestly thought I was the only one, so I told him that. He restated that I did not need to tell anyone except my therapist. My younger sister was eleven at the time. At that point she had been abused for about three years.
I was sexually abused for about one year when I was in second grade and then it stopped. That was plenty. Once is enough to do all kinds of damage. In contrast, my younger sister endured 9 years of sexual abuse by the time my father was arrested. 9 YEARS. This kills me. It kills me not only because of the quantitative amount, but because it could have been stopped. I found out during the ninth year.
Once I learned of my sister’s abuse I went to my bishop at the time, in Michigan. I was 25 by then, pregnant with my first child, and had several years of therapy under my belt. My bishop’s response was so different. He told me he was bound by not only by Michigan law to call the police and report it, but also needed to call the Church hotline for legal advice on how to proceed. He advised that we call my parent’s bishop and tell him what was going on. Surprisingly, that bishop was also very supportive of calling the police. Both bishops explained very gently that I was encouraged to be the one to call the local police in California and give a statement to an officer. They said that if I did not feel able, that they could give the statement for me, but it would be harder to prosecute my father and get my younger siblings into a safe environment.
I suspect that in the six intermediate years between talking to my BYU bishop and my Michigan bishop there was a change (shift?) in Church policy. I think they probably give bishops better instruction on what to do with abusers and victims. It sounds like bishops have Church leaders to call for advice. These are good steps, but I must be honest: it is not nearly enough. What about a hotline for the victims? What about bishops automatically providing therapy, instead of waiting for victims to ask? What about having stricter whistle-blowing policies, to protect further victims?
I cannot help but be cynical when the only time the Church seems to actively support calling the police is when children are still living at home and/or the abuser is still abusing. Abusers need to face the law and Church discipline, no matter if their victims live at home or not and no matter if they have “stopped”. It sends a message to victims that they are inherently less important and undervalued when abusers do not have to pay for their crime. Victims have no choice but to pay for what happened to them.
I am an abuse survivor. Over the last four years since I learned of my sister I have been increasingly more open about it. So I find myself here at The Exponent reaching out to other women and men to tell a part of my story. For a more in personal account of my experiences, you can read my personal blog: kmillecam.blogspot.com. It is my priority there and in my life to openly discuss the effects of abuse. The truth will set us all free.