Survivors of Sexual Abuse Share Their Stories, Call on the Church to Listen to Those Who Are Suffering at SBC’s Caring Well Conference

Rachael DenHollander speaks at the “Caring Well” conference in Dallas, Texas. | ERLC

Survivors of sexual abuse shared their stories and called on the Church to come alongside those suffering during the “Caring Well” conference hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission in partnership with the SBC Sexual Abuse Advisory Group. 

Several women shared their survivor stories as part of the ERLC’s sixth annual national conference held this year on Oct. 3-5 in Grapevine, Texas.

J.D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, praised the outspokenness and ongoing courage of SBC abuse survivors and encouraged churches to take cases of abuse seriously.

“It is wrong to characterize someone as ‘just bitter’ because they raised their voice when their warnings were not heeded. Anger is an appropriate response, a biblical response, in that circumstance,” he said.

By ignoring cases of sexual abuse, “we put more people in harm’s way, we create obstacles to faith for those who were affected,” Greear said.

“This is a Gospel issue. The credibility of our witness, and even more importantly, the souls of our people are at stake,” Greear concluded. “Caring for those vulnerable whom God has entrusted to us is a way that we can and we must put the trustworthiness of the Gospel on display.”

“Abuse is unspeakably tragic,” he added, “but this is the moment that the church can put on display the matchless power of the Gospel. Churches are equipped to do something unique, something our society cannot do because we can offer not just reckoning, we can offer resurrection.”

Susan Codone, senior associate dean of academic affairs at Mercer University School of Medicine, revealed she was just 14 years old when the youth pastor at a small Southern Baptist church just outside Birmingham, Alabama, began abusing her.

Over the next 18 months, she became a victim of continual sexual abuse. When she was 15, she approached the senior pastor of the church and shared her story with him.

Her pastor fired the youth minister but “then he picked up with me where my youth minister left off with me.” She was sexually abused by the church pastor for the next four to six months.

Fearing “no one would believe” her regarding the youth pastor and pastor, Codone was too afraid to report her abusers to authorities. “I thought what had happened was my fault. They told me that I had brought down men of God,” she recalled.

While the abuse ended when she was 16 years old, Codone said the “effects have continued throughout my life,” impacting her mental health, family, and faith in God.

“[M]y faith has fluctuated over the years, and my service to [God] has been interrupted by my inability to trust Him completely and to trust the church completely,” she said. “The church must do a better job of being a place of healing and refuge.”

Still, Codone said she is a “hopeful survivor” and outlined 10 requests to churches, including: “Understand that what might look like spiritual apathy to you is really spiritual disconnection because of trauma, and respond accordingly.”

Megan Lively, a social media specialist, revealed she was raped while a student at a Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. However, when she reported the ordeal to administration, she was “belittled by leaders to whom I had come for protection” and “made to feel as if what happened was my fault,” she said.

“The day I reported what happened to me I was seen as a problem to be dealt with rather than a child of God who had been sinned against. I was seen as someone threatening an institution rather than as a sister of Christ.”

It wasn’t until 15 years later in 2018 that Lively decided to disclose the abuse she endured. This time, she experienced support thanks to her husband, pastor, and the new seminary administration. Today, Lively said she is “cared for by the institution that I was convinced had failed me.”

Lively shared the long-term effects of sexual assault, including physical pain, flashbacks and insomnia.

“It may be helpful to know survivors inside and outside the church walk through life with an incredible amount of internal fear, anxiety and insecurity,” she said. “We must join together against this enemy and draw near to the One who has already crushed his head,” she said. “Jesus has won. I am His.”

Jackie Hill Perry, a speaker and recording artist, talked about the sexual abuse she suffered at just 6 years old at the hands of a 16-year-old boy.

“I don’t remember how he got me to follow him into the basement,” she said, adding that her abuser was someone “familiar” to her.

“The teenage boy … never told me not to tell, but what I do know is that it became a secret because to tell someone, I thought, was to implicate myself in an act of doing something that ought not be done,” she told attendees. “Being a child, I didn’t have the capacity to even consider that his evil was not also my own.”

“I didn’t speak of that day, until I learned of its name,” she said, revealing at 14 years of age, she was able to call it by name, she said — sexual abuse.

“It allowed me to connect dots. The consequences of abuse like fear and shame and control dominated my days but it had a source that I could not acknowledge until it was reintroduced to me.”

“It was not merely that a teenage boy did something to me when I was little,” Perry said. “That’s far too abstract. … It was that I was molested and violated by an image-bearer who did not see me as one. What happened was a perversion, demonic, a tragedy.”

God’s healing, she said, is not immediate. Rather, it is “gradual and unassuming, and it usually begins with the hard work and … revelation that the trauma exists,” she said. “Everything related to my molestation that needed to be healed had to be recognized first.”

When she grew up and got married, Perry said she had difficulty accepting her husband’s complementarian view based on her past experiences.

“He wanted to lead me well, but complementarianism, as it looks when lived, was terrifying when I remembered the last time I let a boy lead me,” she said.

Perry added, “Trauma makes you inquisitive, you know. It makes you doubt everything and everybody. … I cannot tell you how frustrated I still am because it does not matter how much theology I have attained now. I am still affected by what happened to me then.”

“Even though my mind does not remember all of the details, my body does,” she added. “I am over 30, and I still feel like a 7 year old on most days. I am still so fearful of following anybody anywhere.”

“At this point, Heaven is my ultimate hope of healing,” Perry said. “It isn’t that God is not healing me now, because He is, but I am not satisfied with that, and I don’t’ believe I have to be. This incomplete healing is what propels my hope for a more sufficient one.”

“In Heaven, there will be a man that has never take advantage of me, a man that has always used His power to serve. Jesus is healing me, and Jesus will heal me.

“Yes, it hurts still, but what has happened to me or us won’t hurt forever. Trauma will not have the final say. Jesus will.”

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Leah MarieAnn Klett