We just watched Spotlight. I lived in Boston when it all happened. So not a ton of it was new news to me. But as we were leaving, Luke told me that someone from his childhood church was recently discovered to be a child molester. And some victims have been very brave in being very public about it.
And this began to stir things up for me. Stories few people know. Stories related to church. Stories that deserve to be told.
And then I read this and the first story paralyzed me and I realized I needed to tell these stories._
My mom and dad are getting ready to go out of town. I'm not sure how old I am at this point. I have to be less than 2.5 because my baby brother isn't along for the ride yet. My parents are going to leave me over night with an elderly couple who are leaders in our church. This couple have essentially been my nannies - and more. I called them Grandma and Papa. And Papa was easily one of my favorite people in the world.
As they are getting ready to leave town, Grandma and Papa's daughter knocks on our door. This is a little strange. They talk with her. She has something heavy to share. Something she'd rather not. But she can't not. So she lets my parents know that her father has a history of molesting very young girls.
Obviously, my parents' trip out of town is canceled. They sit down with the couple. Grandma knew. Papa swears he's a changed man. Grandma promises that she won't leave me alone with Papa. This isn't really good enough for my parents. So things change. I go to a church day care - from a different church. More on that later.
But things also don't change. Grandma and Papa stay "Grandma" and "Papa" for years. They are a part of the family. Papa stays my favorite person. I was too young to know if he ever did or tried to do anything to me. He is my Papa. For decades.
A favorite story Papa tells me is that he has a tape of me laughing as a toddler that he listens to over and over. That story seems precious to me. Because I don't know. As far as I know, Papa has always been the one man in my life who has loved me well.
Until one day when Papa attacks me for being a woman in ministry, for not being married yet, and for being overweight. I call my mom in tears. Papa was the only man who had loved me well and now...
My mom can't bare to hear me saying what a good man he is. So she tells me the story.
I remember the story of the tape of a small girl laughing and suddenly is it a menacing story...
He says he is better. He says Jesus fixed it. But at our next family gathering, I notice an overly attentive eye on my cousin's daughters.
And I have a lot of work to do to heal from all this and figure out this new terrain.
And it isn't until my husband and I watch Spotlight that it dawns on me: We should have told Papa's church. Others should have known. What might have happened because I didn't know and when I did know, I didn't say anything? It's soul crushing.
Note: We ended up switching churches not too long after this - so if you grew up going to church with me and you are worried that this was our church, it wasn't!
In need of a new childcare option, after my mom goes back to work after having my brother, I go to a church ran day care. They have very little kids like my brother. And they have older kids coming by after school gets out.
The day care has a coed bathroom. They allow an older boy to go to the bathroom with my three-year old self.
He molests me in the bathroom.
As soon as he lets me leave the bathroom, I run straight to the teacher. Sesame Street told me that if someone touched me inappropriately, I should tell a grown-up. So I do.
She says nothing.
She says nothing to my mother.
My dad is out of town. That night at dinner, I start crying and my mom doesn't know why. Three-year-olds do this sort of thing. I stand up next to the table. I am so small that my eyes are just level with the table top. Through tears, I tell my mom what happened. I already told the teacher and she ignored me. And now I have to tell my mom.
My mom does the exact right thing. She comforts me. She told me I did the right thing. She calls the teacher on the total crap that was her handling of it.
The teacher says: "They are just being kids. It's normal."
My mom says no.
She has me visit a child psychologist. The psychologist says I'm handling it well and just to keep an eye on it. And she did. She brought it up regularly. Gently. Allowing me to set the pace for it. Allowing me to feel what I felt. Creating space for me to process. And always reminding me I did the exact right thing and none of it was my fault or anything for me to be ashamed of or to minimize.
My mom was a tenacious hero in this story. She was a strong woman in the face of darkness. She showed me how to become the woman I am today. The woman who could stand up to a gun outside of a Target years later. I can't tell this story without pausing to say thank you to my mom.
We switch day cares.
The CHURCH preschool remains open with no policy changes as far as I know and I am told again: "He was just being a kid. It's normal."
The Ongoing Story:
These are fairly mild stories given the atrocities that happen to kids. All too often at church.
Things could have been worse. But things were not okay.
The worst part of all of this is the excuses and the secret keeping. Keeping the victimizers safe at the cost of the victims. But it doesn't keep the victimizers safe - it keeps them broken. Ashamed. Telling me it's normal. Shaming me for thinking it's not normal. Keeping "Papa" in my life. Keeping "Papa" a leader in the church until his dying day.
When we don't offer victims space to bring these things to light - or honor a 3-year-old trying to bring it to light - we do harm.
When we don't offer victimizers the gift of shining light on their darkness, we do significant harm.
According to this article on child molestation in the church, One study suggests that a perpetrator will molest an average of 12 persons for a total of 71 acts of molestations. It's not a one-time slip up that saying a prayer to Jesus will fix.
Another study suggests that 38% of women and 16% of men are molested before turning 18 and that only 5% - FIVE OUT OF 100 - acts of child molestation are reported to law enforcement.
Many - most - children never report molestation. I was one of the minority who did. And I was ignored. At a church.
Changing the Story
And so I'm sharing these stories. That daycare is gone now. "Papa" is gone now. I'm not sharing to point out these individuals or that organization but to point out the importance of honesty.
I'm sharing this to be honest myself.
And maybe this invites others to be honest as well.
These things happen in church communities far too often.
This is not okay and it will not become okay unless we face it.
Until we grieve it.
Until we search out transformation rather than a rug to sweep it all under.
Until we stop using the transformative power of Jesus to say that repentance is enough.
I believe progress has been made since the mid-80's when these stories happened. I believe we are working on writing different stories. Let's be diligent in that work. Let's be honest in that work. Let's change the story.