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Abuse in the Church

By Muriel Green and Anne Townsend.

The following extract is taken from the first chapter of Anne Townsend and Muriel Green's new book, Hidden Treasure.

"I never have thought something like that could happen in our family - it's such a loving one and we all get on so well together!" wept Joan, Pete's mother, typical of a sad number of parents, relatives and friends who unknowingly collude with the fact that sexual abuse is occurring within a particular family set-up.

Because more often than not the perpetrator of child sexual abuse is a family member or a trusted family friend, the problem of disbelief is further compounded. 'Not us ... that sort of thing happens in other families!' is the typical attitude. Quite often the abuse is 'known about' at an unconscious level by several family members and even by friends; warning signs may be passed-off, ignored, repressed or denied as of no significance, so that years later on Joan confessed through tear-filled eyes: 'Yes! Now I see why it was that Pete was so quiet and subdued after those long sessions he had with his Dad in the study - but I'd assumed they were sharing and praying together, as father and son should do, and so I never interrupted them and thought no more of it.' She had even managed to ignore the fact that bed-wetting in Pete's case had continued well into his teens, and had effortlessly silenced the commonsense part of her which knew perfectly well that bed-wetting so late on was far from usual and her other children had been dry from a very young age. It was only when Pete confronted his Dad (when Father was in his 60's) and his father denied the abuse, that certain events and family secrets fell into place for Joan and she could see with horrible clarity what had been taking place all those years in their apparently 'happy Christian family' home. She was aghast and overwhelmed by guilt at her blindness and deafness to her son's childhood plight. She found it hard to understand how much fear her 'gentle' vicar husband had engendered in Pete about the terrible consequences should he ever talk about the sexual abuse that had taken place day after day in the supposedly carefree school holidays.

Sadly, sexual abuse is far more common than most of us realise. We hold the view that sexual abuse of children is any action by any adult that uses any child to meet the sexual/emotional needs of an adult. Tragically it occurs within the orbit of the church and within committed Christian families far more than had been anticipated, as well as outside them. Dr Amon Bentovim, a Consultant Psychiatrist at Great Ormond Street Hospital uses this definition to explain what sexual abuse is. He suggests that 'child sexual abuse is the involvement of dependent, developmentally immature children and adolescents in sexual activity they do not truly comprehend, to which they are unable to give informed consent and which violates the social taboos of family roles.' (H. Kempe, from Schecter and Roberg). He says that the following can come into the category of being sexual abuse: pseudo-educational contact; fondling of genitals; masturbation of child; masturbation of adult; oral or genital contact; simulated sexual intercourse; vaginal intercourse; anal intercourse; plus all forms of inappropriate sexualised contact with a child; plus child pornography; plus child prostitution.

We believe that there are no degrees of abuse. All abuse is abuse and abuse is serious. Our experience is that one incident of inappropriate touching can be as traumatic for one vulnerable person as years of genital stimulation or penetrative abuse may be for another. There would seem, however, to be degrees of trauma and damage, the extent of which can depend on factors like: the closeness of the relationship between the abuser and the victim, the personality of the victim, how often the abuse occurred, the period of time over which the abuse took place, what sort of abuse occurred, what sort of response the victim received when he or she tried to tell. It is important, therefore, to take each victim of abuse as they are and to accept that the damage from their abuse is as it is experienced and described by that person and never to make hasty judgements based on preconceived ideas about how serious the damage 'should' or 'should not' be.

Yet we hear all kinds of justifications being made for this - some more plausible than others and some containing half truths or truths that are twisted to suit the speaker. We hear words like, 'It's all part of growing up... '; 'It's best for children to learn by seeing and doing...'; 'There's no harm in something as natural as this...'. These are some of the reasons adults sometimes put forward to try to make acceptable the kind of sexual experience that they may give children before those children have reached an age when they are ready to learn intimate details about sexual activity in their own bodies. Our sad experience is that this may, and does at times, occur within what should be a very safe arena -namely that of a Church fellowship or another Christian context. Sometimes this exposure is gross and obviously out of order, while at other times it is more subtle.

It is easy to condemn the leader of a boys' houseparty who crept into Tom's tent one night and began to fondle him sexually - culminating after ten days with both Tom's professed conversion to Christianity and with the perpetration of anal intercourse. Talking to Tom as an adult Christian leader now in mid-life we are saddened by the traumatic and dehumanizing effect this has had both on him as a person made in the image of God and on the kind of Christianity he now practises. It is less easy to judge the motives of some of those adults who find (acknowledged or hidden) sexual gratification in showing explicit sex education films to their youth groups - for adults differ in the conscious and unconscious reasons as to why they show such material to young people and may have no overt or hidden motives that would be harmful to a youngster. However, we have come across instances where 'in the Name of Christ', material has been shown to the young that has been harmful to some and served the sexual needs of the one showing the material and gone against the interests of some of the children watching it.

Some people. may not realise that what happened to them as children was in fact sexual abuse. We would suggest that any one of the following might indicate sexual abuse; being touched in sexual areas, being shown asexual film or forced to listen to sexual talk, being made to pose for seductive or sexual photographs, being subjected to unnecessary intimate medical treatment in the bikini area, being forced to perform oral sex with an adult or sibling, being raped or otherwise penetrated, being fondled, kissed, or held in a way that felt uncomfortable, being forced to take part in ritualised abuse in which there was physical or sexual torture, being made to watch or look at sexual parts, being bathed in a way that felt intrusive, being objectified and ridiculed about your body, being encouraged or goaded into sex you didn't really want, being told that 'all you are good for is sex', and being involved in child prostitution or pornography.

It is obvious that children need protecting from risk and current legislation, in the Children's Act, tries to ensure that this is enforced in young people's activities within the Church as well as outside it. Recently (to the shame and embarrassment of many on the periphery and not directly involved in the situation) there have been instances where youth leaders working within the Church context have been taken to Court and prosecuted for inappropriate sexual activity with their charges. It is our experience that this does not apply to children alone but that vulnerable adults are not always guaranteed the immunity they expect to find within a Church fellowship from the kind of sexual exposure they would prefer to avoid or even find repelling. Such sexual involvement may include obvious sexual misconduct, sexual exploitation, sexual boundary violation and undue familiarity. It may range from a sermon which is just too sexually explicit for some members of the congregation or staff team and leaves them feeling vaguely uncomfortable, to very intimate hugging and kissing, to someone with pastoral responsibility engaging in some kind of sexual activity with a member of the congregation for who he is responsible. We are using the word he' since the abuse of power in this way tends to be carried out by men, but it can also involve women in responsible positions.

We also know of several women who have been enticed into sexual activity with male Church leaders who have claimed that it is done 'in the Name of Christ, and that 'it is God's will' for them to be intimate sexually. Pam told us that after sexual intercourse she and her pastor both knelt down by the bed and asked for God's forgiveness, felt better about what they had done, and then next day repeated the act. This has gone on for several years.

Psychiatrist Peter Rutter (Peter Rutter, Sex in the Forbidden Zone, Mandala 1990 pp 1-2) says that he found that sexual abuse was more common than he expected in the 'forbidden zone' (p 22) as being 'sexual behaviour between a man and a woman who have a professional relationship based on trust, specifically when the man is the woman's doctor, psychotherapist, pastor, lawyer, teacher or workplace mentor.' He writes about a fairly predictable pattern of relationship that typically takes place, and explains that these highly eroticised entanglements can occur behind closed doors, 'in any relationship in which a woman entrusts important aspects of her physical, spiritual, psychological, or material welfare to a man who has power over her.' He adds that 'the men who have sex with their female patients, clients, parishioners, students, are not the obviously disturbed men who occasionally show up in the headlines. Instead they are accomplished professionals, admired community leaders, and respectable family men whose integrity we tend to take for granted. I can now see that sexual violation of trust is an epidemic, mainstream problem that re-enacts in the professional relationship a wider cultural power imbalance between men and women.'

His words ring true to us for we believe that the role and status of women in many church institutions and organisations indicates that such a power imbalance exists which is more marked than in society at large. The Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches for instance are among those few organisations not to have a functioning equal opportunities pay policy and to exclude women from high office. This power imbalance suggests (what may seem to be unthinkable and impossible for many Christians to believe could be the case) the possibility that women may even run a greater risk of sexual exploitation within the framework of a Church group or para-Church organisation than outside it.

Peter Rutter's words may ring alarm bells for some well-meaning and genuinely kind Christian male leaders. He writes: 'To me, and to all men in power, the woman can easily become a sympathetic, wounded, vulnerable presence who admires and needs us in an especially feminine way. If we have been working together for some time, a familiarity and trust develops between us that starts to erode the boundaries of seemingly impersonal relationships. Whether they say so openly or not these women often convey their feeling that we are treating them far better than they ever dreamed a man could. As a result, we may find ourselves experiencing a closeness, a comfort, a sense of completeness with these women that we have long sought but rarely found; many of them begin to feel the same way about being with us.'( 7)

Both of us have worked with women who have felt close in various ways to the male leader of their organisation, whose intimacy has been enhanced by a shared spirituality and prayer life but whose trust has then been betrayed by the leader's misuse of it, and who have been left hurt and wounded and unable to share their story with anyone because (as they see it) 'to tell anyone what had happened would not be to the glory of God and might be to the detriment of Christianity'. Thus silence has been golden but has been bought with thirty pieces of silver stuffed into the mouth of the woman who has thus been unable to seek the help she desperately needs to work through her emotional damage. Rutter's words fly in the face of those Christians who commonly protect their male leaders by saying, 'But the woman seduced him ...' or 'It takes two to tango and she's bound to be partly responsible for it ...'. We believe that it is the person with the power (the one in authority) who carries the responsibility for setting the boundaries and for protecting and safeguarding a relationship.

We agree with Peter Rutter when he states that 'any sexual behaviour by a man in power within what I define as the forbidden zone is inherently exploitative of a woman's trust. Because he is the keeper of that trust, it is the man's responsibility, no matter what the level of provocation or apparent consent by the woman, to ensure that sexual behaviour does not take place.'

When such trust is betrayed Peter Rutter believes that both parties are the losers, for 'the damage a man causes himself when he violates these boundaries is often elusive, because in the moment of forbidden sex he may be able to convince himself that he is satisfying a deeply felt need. Yet in the very act of exploiting the woman in order to feel more fully alive, he abandons the search for aliveness within himself. When a man's brief moment of forbidden sexual release is over, he is left with more emptiness than before ... and he is in denial of his own psychological wounds.

In 1983 research (Silver R, Boon C, Stones M, Journal of Social Issues Vol. 39 811-2 Searching for Meaning in Misfortune: making sense of incest) showed that 80 percent of the survivors questioned said that they sometimes had searched for some kind of meaning, reason or way to make sense of their experience of incest, even though it had ceased up to 20 years earlier. About 50 percent said that they could make no sense of it and that the passage of time made things no clearer. Those finding some degree of meaning found a degree of comfort in this. The search for many took the form of attempting to make some kind of sense of the dynamics of what had happened - reminiscent of the concept familiar to medical people of 'working through a trauma'. Thus some Christian survivors may not only work through what happened to them seeking to understand it but also want to give this part of their past significance and value in their present life. While this may be a good thing to do we are aware that it is open to potential violation by others with apparently well meaning motives. We think of some Christians known to us who have written personal accounts or been filmed telling their stories of abuse who, it seems to us, have been abused again by those who want to use their story either to make money or to win converts to a certain brand of Christianity. This may give the survivor some kind of purpose and meaning for the abuse but the way in which it is done, used and even exploited, can turn out to be a repeat of the abusive cycle. Hidden, unknown and unconscious motivation needs watching in this area, for people who have been sexually abused are more likely than other people to find themselves in situations where they are being abused in some way or another, not realising that an old familiar pattern is being repeated.

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You are reading Abuse in the Church by Muriel Green and Anne Townsend, part of Issue 1 of Ministry Today, published in January 1994.

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