A Survivor of Sexual Assault...in her words (Part 2)

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Welcome back, and to those just joining, welcome. In my last post, I shared different aspects of my story and how each impacted me differently. In this installment, I would like to go a bit deeper into how they affected me after my abuse.

Since my abuse first came to light through my religious leaders, this is the first area I would like to address. I feel it is essential to recognize the way religion plays a role in many survivor stories, often providing support and hope. Still, I also know I am not alone in having a negative experience with the way my religion impacted my healing. So, while this post may feel focused on the negative side of how religion affects a survivor's experience, I want to remind you that this post is about my experience. And I am aware that my experience is not the only way for religion to impact survivors, but focusing solely on the positive outcomes, does not leave room for conversations about the genuine negative impact it can and does have on survivors.

A common theme I have realized throughout my experience is my abuser was at the forefront. As much as I may not have wanted it to be this way, he took up all my energy for a long time. He was the focus of my parents' energy, and his path to forgiveness was the priority of our religion.

Let's break down the decisions my religious leadership made regarding my abuse. Firstly, even though I was a child when the abuse occurred, it was not reported. Part of me still wonders if waiting until I was 18 was also a conscious choice. It seemed natural and logical that the church would notify my parents. I also can't help but feel the lack of communication (not telling my parents and not informing me that my parents were not aware) was also a conscious choice and meant to protect my abuser.

We also skipped right into forgiveness. There is a discrepancy in my mind between having understood that perhaps my leaders didn't know or understand the impact that sexual abuse has on the survivor and not understanding how it would not be assumed something like this could be catastrophic. I can't move past my belief that I received little consideration. The priority was moving my abuser toward the path of repentance. My involvement ended once I forgave my abuser and got my church-issued therapist.

One of the most painful things that came from this was how my abuser was quickly permitted to resume his religious duties shortly after my "forgiveness." He blessed and broke our sacrament because of his position in the church. Blessing the sacrament in our church was a privilege reserved for those of great worthiness as it represents Christ through bread and water. It is considered a sacred responsibility, and those who take on this responsibility must be clean of any sin that would make them unworthy. Blessing and passing the sacrament require authorizations from the church leadership, and to see this responsibility given back to him after a few weeks was incredible to me. It invalidated my feelings, experience, and pain.

This honor signaled to me that the lifetime of trauma I would carry was the equivalent of having this special privilege revoked for only a few weeks. I also would have to listen to his voice bless the bread and water. As the blessed bread and water passed around the congregation, I would always know that his hands touched the bread.

In my religion, taking the sacrament is almost like a privilege too. Sometimes, if we sin, we are instructed to take a break for some time to move through repentance before being able to resume partaking of the sacrament.

“If you've committed serious sins that make you question your worthiness, you should confess them to your leadership. They can counsel you on whether you should partake of the sacrament.” Because of this guidance, it was hard not to speculate when anyone did not take the sacrament.

When my abuser resumed blessing and breaking the sacrament, I could not bring myself to participate. When I was trying to determine what to do about this, where I felt the "sins" committed would require a more extended period before being able to bless and partake of the sacrament again, I found this guidance. "Other courses of action such as refusing to take the sacrament, complaining to others about the unworthiness of the priesthood bearer, or reproaching the accused directly, all have negative results which are not helpful to anyone involved. Matters of this kind are quite sensitive and must be handled with judgment and discretion. The leadership carries the responsibility to do this."

This guidance told me to sit down, be quiet, and accept the invalidation and silence pushed onto me, and if I rejected that guidance, I was only making things worse for everyone else involved. This guidance is victim-blaming, and the decisions and judgments made by our leadership were making things far worse for me, but again, that was not the focus. There was no focus on considering or protecting a survivor in this circumstance. To protect my abuser, I wasn't allowed to discuss why I was not partaking in the sacrament. I was encouraged to continue taking the sacrament even though considering it made me feel sick. While I followed the first instructions, I still could not participate. And the stares came. I am sure this was partly anxiety, but it felt like all eyes were on me, and my siblings were confused about why I suddenly stopped participating.

I was already carrying many complex emotions with me, and choosing not to participate in the sacrament, but with nobody else knowing why, was very difficult for me. This religion was a big part of my life. Feeling judgment (real or perceived) made things worse for me. I started sitting at the back of the congregation where nobody else could see me (besides those who were passing out the sacrament) to help ease some of this anxiety and shame. It felt so backward. I had to choose not to participate in this important and special ordinance. I had not done anything to be required not to partake, yet my abuser was quickly "forgiven" by church leadership, and while I could not participate, he could. His participation was more important than my needs and comfort.

I felt invalidated by their decisions, and my feelings that my leadership did not understand the gravity of this situation resurfaced. But how could you not understand the situation's impact except out of ignorance? These feelings started to isolate me from my family, and often friends of mine would invite me to sit with their families because they noticed. It was a supportive and kind gesture, even if I could not accept it. The leadership's decisions effectively pushed me into becoming an outcast when I needed support from them and my community the most.

On top of the increased guilt and shame I felt because I could not participate in the sacrament, I felt like I was failing at being a good member of the church. He had done enough to be at this level of forgiveness in our leaders' eyes, and I could not seem to let it go. Why was I failing? What was wrong with me not being able to move past this like everyone else? Why did this feel like such a life-changing circumstance, but the actions of everyone around me seem to tell me a completely different story?

It took separating myself from my religion to begin to challenge these thoughts. With the way my family and my religious community reacted to me and my abuse, all signs pointed to myself being the problem. Granted, of course, there were many things I had to unlearn and heal from because of this experience, I was not doing perfectly fine, but I and any other survivors are not the problems. Unsupportive bystander reactions are a subtle way of victim-blaming without using blaming words. Our actions can have an equal impact on survivors' healing.  

My religious leaders were not the only way religion impacted my experience. Although this happened many years later, during a conversation where I was again trying to validate my needs and experience, I would like to share a conversation between my mother and me. As a preface to her message, this conversation started because I expressed sorrow that I wasn’t given space and consideration to participate in family events anymore. My family didn't consider my discomfort at being near my abuser. I acknowledged how I felt there was no restitution made for me in this process and everyone seemed to accept that it was enough, although I, the survivor, expressed it did not feel like enough. I also said that I didn't need her to choose me over him because I was finally choosing myself over them. This is some of her response. I cannot include the entire answer because there is identifying information, and it is very lengthy.

"It seems the only thing you will accept as an acknowledgment of your pain is to cast ‘abuser’ out like a leper or have him stoned like the woman caught in adultery would have been if Jesus hadn't interceded. But He did. He did so for her and the abuser. He did so for you and me. None are exempt from His mercy or forgiveness. He cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance, whether great or small. That means none of us, no man or woman who has ever lived, is better than another. We all live. We all make mistakes. We all hurt others. We are all hurt by others. None of us can escape the need for a Savior. No one. 'Abuser' has accepted his sin against you. He confessed it to you and many others when he could have easily kept it hidden and continued in his ways. His "apology" was being truthful about what he had done and asking for your forgiveness. His remorse has been deep and paralyzing throughout the years. It will never leave him. You do not see his remorse because you are so caught up in your pain. Do you think he feels safe knowing that you might decide to report him to the police at any time? Do you think it has been easy being exposed to his family members? No, it has not, but he has never complained to me once about it. It was humiliating for him to be sent home early from his mission because of what he did to you. A liar, a dishonest and unrepentant man, would have kept it all in the filthy darkness from which it was born. A remorseless man would enter the temple knowing he was unworthy. He has felt guilt that perhaps you will never know. I have seen him change. He has accepted the Savior's invitation to be healed and made clean. There is nothing more he can do to make restitution, for it is the Savior who has paid his price. There is only one truth, 'my name,' and that is the truth of love. God has love for every one of his children. He does not choose one over another. We are, in fact, all equal. But we each get to choose to accept His love and allow His healing power to take our pain and make us something more than we ever could have been without it or reject His hand that is always outstretched to reach our weak attempts at reaching."

I am aware I may not be the most objective on this perspective, but it is so invalidating to hear that from a religious perspective, we are equals. Not to say I am a perfect person, especially in how my trauma was driving my bus for a long time, which impacted my ability to make healthy decisions. But as you can tell from her response, all his restitution has been in the form of how our religion feels he should receive repentance. It is not survivor-focused.

Because he chose to tell me he had abused me, all is forgiven. Because he decided to allow himself to have consequences for his actions (consequences only within our religious organization), he should not have to do anything else. All I asked for was a compromise. I never asked the rest of the family to view him the same way I did. In fact, at the beginning of all of this, I asked that he go to therapy so I could be sure he would never hurt another person like this again, and I was told they couldn't force him to go to treatment. And I am at fault, and it is because of my selfishness I cannot just let go of my pain. These mindsets are not my truth, victim-blaming, and only encourage an environment of invalidating and dismissing survivors. These harmful views on forgiveness and healing are excused because of religious teachings and beliefs. These beliefs must change.

This conversation happened after many years of therapy and a lot of healing on my part. And that is partly what made this conversation possible, I had never felt like I could advocate for myself in that way, and because I had healed and moved through so much of that pain, I was able to do so. Although I have healed a lot, and I have done so much work to unlearn things this experience taught me, it is also important to acknowledge there will always be some pain that I carry with me. Sexual violence changes someone for life, which is just an uncomfortable aspect of it. Hearing he did the work within our religion, which should mean it is like it never happened for him, was so hurtful, and I am grateful I was not told this earlier in my healing. However, the actions of everyone around me expressed a similar perspective from the beginning.

I must carry what he did to me and grow around that pain for the rest of my life, but he can let it go because of a religious perspective. And honestly, that is his choice. While I don't believe he really can let his decision to abuse me go and heal from his choices and guilt with religious forgiveness alone, if having the spiritual "all clear" makes it a bit easier for him to live in that ignorance and dismissal of the impact he had on my life, I have no control over that. I do have the ability to encourage conversations about how religion can do better to teach survivor-focused values. Sexual violence is a significant problem. Most, if not all of us, know someone who has experienced this, whether we are directly aware of it or not. This, to me, shows the importance of teaching values that are also survivor-focused. We can all work to change the ways that we deal with abuse within our religious communities.

Thinking back now, my decision to leave my religion makes a lot of sense. Everything I had known had changed entirely within a few months. My family suddenly didn't support me; my brother had betrayed me; my religion had made decisions that only compacted the betrayal. I had left my family, cut my brother out of my life, and my religion was the last thing to go.

What I have experienced, and what I am sure others have experienced, too, is not survivor-focused. Healing, restitution, and justice are all processes in which the survivor needs to be included. We cannot say we are doing what is best for the survivor with love and intention when our teachings and processes are abuser-focused.