Healing the wounds of childhood sexual abuse

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My name is Michelle Hood and I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I will not revisit the story of my abuse in this article but rather speak of the lessons we must all learn as a result of past mistakes and mismanagement—not only from Church administration but also from members of local church congregations.

Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse has concluded and recommendations have been made as to redress and other matters pertaining to rehabilitation and policy structures going forward. For me, giving evidence to the commission was a most cathartic and healing experience. For many, it was recognition of the horror of abuse and a chance to be heard and, most of all, believed.

I have heard many people say that our Church must be clean because we did not rate a mention. This is not true. Sexual abuse in church communities is as rife as in the secular world. That’s because churches are made up of human beings—all are flawed by sin. Predators often see the cloistered order of the church community as a happy hunting ground. The truth is that none of us want to believe that any Christian attending church could commit such a crime. We worship together, socialise together and open our homes to each other. We cannot imagine this behaviour from one of our own.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church had at least 25 respondents* to the Royal Commission and may well have been called to public scrutiny in open session had the commission not had all the information it needed to present its findings.

Many have asked me why I shared my story with the commission. This is the first tangible opportunity that survivors have ever had to put matters right before the law. The legal system has let most survivors down in endless arguments about the letter of the law and little concern for real justice.

When I laid charges before the courts back in the 1990s, the legal system did as much to hurt me as anyone else and true justice was not served at all.

I felt worse in many ways by coming forward. So why did I? These offences continue because we sweep them under the carpet. If I had been able to speak up earlier I may have prevented scores of other children going through what I went through. A community that hides abuse enables abuse, and our society has done this for too long already.

Did I do it for the money? Financial compensation does help in putting some things right, but the main reason is that corporations and organisations are slow to change unless the hip pocket is hit and hit hard. Our Church and many other churches and groups have had to make substantial budgetary adjustments for what is to come, but so be it. Let’s be honest here. If this is God’s church, and I believe it is, then God will protect it. I’m also certain that God wants His house in order and pretty quickly. This is a pain everyone must share for the ultimate gain it will bring us all.

How does one child’s experience of abuse affect the church community at large?

I know of many survivors who will never set foot in any church ever again. If 20 people are lost to the causes of heaven for each victim, then multiply that by the number of victims and we are in the tens if not hundreds of thousands. And often overlooked in the roll call of those whose lives have been changed are the families of the perpetrator.

I was asked by the commission to list those who had added to my abuse—the list was quite extensive. The perpetrator had sexually assaulted me consistently for a number of years, but when I laid charges, the church leadership’s response was tardy and lacklustre, victimising me in the corporate sense and failing to secure my situation. I was spiritually, mentally and physically abused by members of church congregations who branded me a troublemaker for speaking out and thwarted every attempt I made to continue in church life. I was legally abused by a judicial system that failed me; people in high places who took the high moral ground at my expense while dragging enormous salaries from government coffers. I actually asked the commission when it would call on its own fraternity to explain its actions.

“This is a pain everyone must share for the ultimate gain it will bring us all.”

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