What We Don’t Talk About
I was sexually abused, and I won’t be silent about it any longer.
It happened only once, it was by a much older man who I knew but wasn’t close to, and in the terrible realm in which these things happen, it could have been much, much worse. Thank God, he stopped when I protested.
I tell my own story (and just told it in a sermon, from which this essay is adapted, that was delivered Dec. 4, 2011 at the First Parish in Needham), in part, because I know I’m not alone. The studies differ, but most agree that at least one in four females and one in six males will have been sexually abused during their childhood (that number is from a 1998 Boston University study; you can read more statistics here). In any situation we’re in with more than a few people, there is at least one person who was abused as a child: that’s the bottom line.
Recent news has made this sad reality more obvious than ever. About a month ago, the news broke that a former Penn State assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, was charged with dozens of criminal counts, all of them related to allegations he sexually abused dozens of young boys over a period of decades. The allegations were disturbing, both in their graphic nature and in the fact that there are so many allegations and over such a long period. Many of the stories have focused on the man accused of abuse, the institutions he was involved with and how they will be affected. Very little time has been devoted to concern for the victims. I wish this were the exception in coverage of abuse, but I don’t think it is. It’s all too common for coverage to focus entirely on the abusers, and not the larger picture of the reality of abuse and those whom it harms. The stories of the victims become second place to the stories of those who did the abusing.
We should be less concerned about Penn State, however vast its failures in covering up these allegations, and much more concerned about those who have made those accusations. The victims cannot be the forgotten figures in the story, even as we try to respect their privacy and their pain. It’s a terrible thing for those boys, many of them now grown. It’s a double tragedy for the victims of abuse. The abuse is terrible, and then having to relive it by talking about it is worse. Victims of abuse often feel like they are all alone, and that something must be terribly wrong with them that they could be the one this happens to.
That’s something we prefer not to talk about. Abuse is something that’s reported in the news, that happens to other people, not those we know. That we can safely talk about, terrible as it is. What a shame that happened. How terrible that those people were abused, that some coach used his respected position to molest little boys. Thank God that’s not us. That we can talk about.
What we don’t talk about is just how close this actually hits to home. Sexual abuse affects all of us, even if we don’t know about it directly. The statistics make it clear that none of us is untouched by abuse—all of us know someone who has suffered abuse. We don’t talk about it because it’s so painful, so terrible to think that abuse happens to those we love, to think that it affects us at all. And so we stay quiet. It is only now that I can even speak about my own history publicly, and it was only in recent weeks I even told my wife and my family about what happened to me.
For many years, I kept silent, ashamed at what had happened, scared about what that meant about me, terrified to admit that something was wrong, even though it was obvious to me. This is a familiar refrain for anyone who’s dealt with victims of sexual abuse: Abuse makes the victim think that something is wrong with them, not with the person who attacked them. Victims don’t want to let anyone know that they have been violated, because of what they fear it says about them. Who am I to be abused? What is wrong with me that this happened to me, and not to someone else? These are the thoughts that run through their heads.
For years, I didn’t tell anyone, and I wish I had. I wish I could have reached out for help, that I had the courage or the ability to let people help me heal. Instead, I lived with it for a long time, and it’s only now that I talk about it at all. Abuse makes you feel like you are the one with the problem, that something must be wrong with you, when nothing could be further from the truth. Abuse says something about the person doing the abuse. They are the ones who are broken, the ones from whom something has gone terribly wrong.
And yet, abuse does take innocent victims and damage them, physically, emotionally, psychologically. Abuse victims have that terrible brokenness inflicted on them. Victims receive a pain, a terrible thing they have done nothing to deserve. It’s the worst kind of tragedy, because innocent people are changed in a way that stays with them for a long time, often forever.
This is not a problem we can ignore, not something that we can hope will go away if we don’t worry about it. It’s too prevalent, too much of a reality in our lives. It’s not something that just happens just to other people. It can happen to anyone. This is why many congregations have policies intended to create a safe congregation, especially where our children are concerned. No policy is a guarantee against abuse, but it can be a safeguard. We must have a commitment to create a safe place. We will not tolerate abuse, and we stand prepared to combat it in our community and in our lives. This is a safe place to talk about issues of abuse, to seek healing and protection. We must report abuse when we know about it, we must get authorities involved so that the work of justice can be done. But I think we, as people of faith, have a larger and in some ways much more difficult responsibility concerning sexual abuse.
We have to live out our vision of a world where people don’t have to live in fear, and where people know they will have help when bad things inevitably do happen. This is what our churches have to offer the world. This can be a safe place to talk about difficult, scary things. This is a place to seek help, to get support in stopping abuse and support in healing in its aftermath. We are here, all of us, to provide a safe place in an often scary world. Our congregations can be communities where abuse is not tolerated, and where healing is promoted.
This is my hope, my vision for us. May it be so.