Trigger Warning: This post contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.
During the past week, the world was hit with the extremely disturbing news of child sexual abuse within a well-known Christian family. This horror has created no shortage of news articles, opinions, public statements, and blog posts from what seems to be the entire spectrum of humanity. Unfortunately, much has been written by professing Christians that clearly demonstrates the need for more understanding and education regarding the dynamics of sexual abuse and those who abuse. However, I do believe that this difficult public dialogue may actually be raising a greater awareness to an issue that is all too often ignored or misunderstood within much of the Christian community.
In my opinion, the most important voices to speak into this ongoing dialogue are those who have been victimized. These heroes can teach all of us so much if we simply take the time to turn down our own voices so that we can truly listen to what they have to say.
Jen Bicha is a good friend who is one of these amazing voices. She continues to teach me so much about this issue and about the heart of Jesus. I encourage each of us to take a few minutes to turn off our voices, and listen to what this hero can teach us. Thank you, Jen. – Boz
Last year I walked into a Florida courtroom prepared to testify about the memories that continued to haunt me. When I took the stand, the district attorney asked me what my relationship was to my offender. I hesitated before answering, “He is my brother.”
As I’ve watched the Duggar story unfold in recent days, I have been filled with a mix of emotions. Grief. Anger. Disbelief. Horror. As I saw debates rage back and forth about forgiveness, age, consent, hypocrisy, justice, and even Christianity itself, I wanted to scream that we are missing the point here. Who will be the voice of the five precious young women?
Can we take a moment and consider what it may have been like to grow up in a home where your older brother, your protector, is also your rapist? Imagine a world where monsters really do live under your bed, in your closet, and in the shower.
I will never forget the subtle ways my rapist began to groom me. My brother would be put in charge of watching my sisters and I when my parents would leave on errands. He would insist that he needed to watch us get our pajamas on as we prepared for bed. I was very capable of getting myself dressed without his assistance, but he threatened to tell our dad that I wasn’t obeying if I refused. I didn’t like what he was doing to me, but he was placed in a position of authority over me, so I felt I had no choice but to obey his demands.
After the initial grooming period, my brother’s abuse quickly grew extreme. Many nights I crawled under my bed and curled up in the furthest corner hoping he wouldn’t find me, but night after night he did. When I would go the bathroom, he would be hiding in the shower. There was no place of escape. As I lay in bed, my body aching in pain from the repeated assaults, I cried out to God for rescue.
But, rescue never came.
I grew up in an extremely religious/sheltered environment and had no knowledge of sex. I didn’t even know anatomical terms. Even if I had wanted to tell someone what was happening, I didn’t have the vocabulary. My brother also manipulated me and said that if I told, I would get in just as much trouble as him.
As months turned into years, I felt trapped in a nightmare that would never end.
The many adults who knew of my abuse including my parents, pastor, and teacher couldn’t fathom that a child, a young boy, was truly capable of this crime. In order to make it easier to stomach, they rationalized in their minds that maybe this was simply kids playing around. These mandatory reporters chose not to report. I still bear the pain of their actions. I was not believed. Nobody protected me. Nobody listened when I cried for help. They chose to believe my rapist instead of me. Over and over again, my abuse was minimized.
By minimizing my rapist’s culpability because of his age, they also minimized the severe, life-altering impact this crime had on the victims. My brother never received counseling or faced any kind of repercussion for his crimes. My father refused to allow me to receive counseling because he viewed the actions as consensual even though he had walked in on my brother raping me.
Every instance of abuse, no matter how seemingly insignificant, must be reported to the authorities who are trained to handle this. It is never our place to investigate or to try to determine the severity of these kinds of actions. By not reporting these crimes, we fail both the victim and the offender. I strongly believe that if this had been reported while my brother was still a young teen and he had received intensive counseling, our family would not have been so irrevocably shattered. However, when an offender is allowed to continue in these patterns of behavior for years without any accountability or repercussions, there is nothing to stop them from continuing to abuse.
Forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive. Taking the appropriate and necessary steps to report and prosecute abuse is not unforgiving. It is in fact the most loving thing someone can do, because it can help to protect other potential victims. Admitting your sin and confessing it does not negate the consequences of your actions. A truly repentant offender will do whatever is necessary to restore what he has taken. An excellent Biblical example of this is Zaccheus who repaid his debts tenfold. Although my offender admitted what he had done, he never acknowledged this was a crime and was unable to grasp the gravity of his offense.
Many have said that Josh Duggar’s actions were just a mistake. Repeated and ongoing abuse with multiple victims is not a mistake; it is a sexually deviant and calculated crime! Calling sexual abuse a mistake puts the blame back on the victims when they continue to struggle with the horrors of what they have endured.
This “mistake” wakes me up night after night with dreams too horrific to put into words. This mistake causes me to panic at the slightest touch. This mistake causes flashbacks and triggers that make me break out in a cold sweat while my heart races. This mistake has caused depression that looms like a cloud of darkness that threatens to consume me. This mistake has caused a litany of health problems, trust issues, fear of men, and countless other life-altering struggles.
Childhood “mistakes” are long forgotten, but an injury to your soul lasts forever.
Another common excuse that I’ve heard is: “It is in the past. He is a Christian now. He has changed.” When abuse has not been handled correctly, there is no “in the past” for victims, especially when your perpetrator continues to live in the same home as you. When parents allow the offender to remain in the same home as the victim, they are telling the victim that the offender’s comfort and external family appearances are more important than the safety and emotional well-being of the victims. Even when you try to shove it down and act like everything is fine there is a lingering sadness and deep pain that is magnified when you are not believed, not to mention the terror of not knowing if and when the attacks will begin again.
When Christians call for grace to be given to an offender, especially when abuse wasn’t properly handled, it can be very damaging emotionally and spiritually. During the time frame that my brother was raping me he claimed to have become a Christian. If he was a Christian, did that mean that God Himself condoned these horrible acts? What had I done to deserve this? These are some of the agonizing questions that come when offenders are not held accountable for their abuse.
I remember sitting in church as a 12 year old hearing a sermon on marriage and being filled with shame. I already knew something was different about me; something that I couldn’t yet put into words. How do you explain what it means to lose your virginity before you are old enough to even know what that word means? I was never told that the shame I carried wasn’t mine to bear. I never knew that God could still love me with all of my scars.
Silencing victims by saying that this shouldn’t be talked about, or should remain within families, says to a victim that this is something to be ashamed of. That they are in fact damaged goods. When these crimes are called out and discussed in a public forum, the offender alone should bear both the responsibility and the shame. These matters need to be discussed not only for prevention, but also for healing.
Victims need to be heard. They need to be believed. They need to know that what happened was not their fault. We bear witness to their suffering when we give them a voice.
The only way we can ever hope to stop abuse is if we are willing to talk about it and admit that it happens. We also need to acknowledge that the Christian community is not exempt from this horror.
“When we imply that victims bring on their own fates – whether to make ourselves feel more efficacious or to make the world seem just – we keep ourselves from taking the precautions we need to take in order to protect ourselves.” Dr. Anna Salter
It is demeaning towards boys and men when we say that abuse was just because of hormones. We need to raise our sons to honor and respect women. We need to be open and honest with our children and have frequent, ongoing conversations about their bodies and appropriate boundaries, especially surrounding the issue of consent. By doing so, we are providing our children the necessary tools to recognize and communicate unsafe behaviors that others display. Open communication with our children is essential if we want them to come to us with the difficult questions or issues.
My story is a devastating example of the damage caused when all too often our focus is on protecting the offender and not providing support for the victim.
I knew my family would be upset when I reported my brother’s abuse, but I never expected the intensity of their rage and their unabashed support of my rapist. They repeatedly reminded me that I was ruining his life and that they believed he had changed in the many years that had passed since he committed his crimes. My heart screamed. Didn’t I matter? How many victims should there be before his crime is taken seriously? In court, my brother admitted to abusing four other girls, although he could only be charged for the two victims who reported.
My family couldn’t see that their questions already tortured me when I lay in bed at night. What if he has changed? Am I destroying my brother’s life by bringing this up over a decade later? But I was haunted by other questions too: What if he hurts someone else? How will I ever live with myself if I could have stopped it and did nothing? Instead of judgment, I needed a shoulder to cry on. The weight of this decision was too crushing to bear alone.
I will never forget watching my relatives line up in the middle of the courtroom waiting their turn to go on record supporting my rapist. First an aunt testified, then another, and another, then my uncle, sister-in-law and finally, my own mother. My friend held my hand and whispered in my ear, “This is incest.”
When my rapist was led away in handcuffs, tears streamed down my face. After waiting a lifetime for this moment, instead of celebrating, I felt an overwhelming sadness. There were no winners in court that day. He was my rapist, but he was also my brother and I grieved for the devastation this crime had inflicted on my entire family.
The next time you defend a predator and say, “Oh, he was just a child,” remember the faces of the innocent little ones whose childhood was stolen.
To the Duggar girls and all of the precious abuse survivors reading this: Never forget that there is hope for healing. Although life after trauma is messy and working through the pain is difficult, it is absolutely worth the fight. May you rest in the hope of a God who cradles his wounded children in his arms as his own body is wracked with sobs for the suffering you have endured.
Jen Bicha is a Pediatric Intensive Care Unit Nurse. She is also a passionate advocate and speaker on child sexual abuse particularly focusing on how to bring healing and change to the religious communities. Jen would like to thank Tina Anderson who helped her write this difficult, but incredibly important post.