In 2004, when Georgia* was in her teens, she reconnected with her local Adventist church community. It seemed like a safe place for her to rebuild her faith in God and develop new positive relationships. She did not suspect she would be groomed and targeted for sexual abuse by a church elder, Tom,* who had known her since she was a child.
Tom encouraged Georgia to participate in adult Sabbath School and the church choir, and he became a much valued and supportive father figure for Georgia. A few months passed, and the relationship began to change, with Georgia exposed to increasing sexually inappropriate behavior. After a short time, with Georgia alone in his home, Tom sexually abused her.
Georgia was in shock at what had happened. She felt deeply wronged, powerless, and confused. Despite Georgia’s confusion, she had the courage to disclose her abuse to her mother and reported it to the police.
The abuse affected Georgia dramatically; she struggled to focus at school, and she was overwhelmed with feelings of anger and betrayal. Sadly, she even considered ending her life.
Georgia sought out the care of her Adventist church community. She spoke with her pastor and told him what had happened to her. Pastor Ron* listened to Georgia, showing care and sympathy. He believed Georgia and supported her. He had Tom removed from his church roles and made it possible for Georgia to attend church without fear of seeing Tom, who was ultimately convicted for the abuse.
The impacts on Georgia have been lifelong, as is a common feature of those having experienced child sexual abuse. It has been nearly two decades since the abuse, and Georgia no longer attends church or believes in the existence of God. However, on reflection she feels gratitude toward Pastor Ron because he heard, believed, and validated her trauma. In acting on her disclosure with awareness and empathy, she feels her abuse was treated seriously and with sensitivity, and because of this, she feels comfortable sharing her story to help create greater awareness of child sexual abuse and its impact.
While Georgia is changed by her trauma, by speaking her truth she contributes an important narrative to destigmatise the shame and silence surrounding child sexual abuse. As commonly recounted by survivors, concern and consideration of other potential victims is ultimately the reason Georgia speaks openly today. For shining a light where there is darkness, we are grateful for Georgia generously sharing her story.
The impacts of abuse are multifaceted. At the core, the abuse within a faith-based context destroys the survivor’s faith journey, distorts their view of Christ as a loving Savior, and thus can irretrievably damage their relationship with God. Abuse not only affects the survivor but also has significant impact on their family members. Families are often left do the best they can to support the survivor through their mental health struggles, risk-taking behaviors, self-harm, and the like without fully understanding the cause of these behaviors and how best to provide support. Church members and the wider community can also be impacted as they try to understand and respond to what may appear to be irrational behaviors of the survivor. Likewise, the perpetrator’s family are affected as they try to comprehend the abuse their loved one has perpetrated.
In partnership with God, we are all potential “change agents” to build safe Adventist communities, where abuse has no place and we are changing and empowering lives so that everyone can equally experience the love of God. Protecting the vulnerable from abuse is a shared concern and a joint responsibility. The part you can play is to work collectively with programs such as Adsafe and your local church and conference, to help build safe faith communities. Like the pastor in the survivor’s story, let’s listen and believe so we can facilitate a healing journey for those who have experienced abuse and trauma.
“Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble” (1 Peter 3:8, NIV).
*Names and details changed for privacy reasons.