the Hope of Survivors

A Time to Speak! by Rita

"The Lord is close to those who are of a broken heart."—Psalm 34:18

My birth family was envied by many and loved by thousands. We were well known in the ministerial world of Seventh-day Adventists! “You are so lucky to belong to that family!” I often heard. I have fond memories growing up:

      • Vacations to Niagara Falls with all 5 of us kids and our cousins;
      • An abundance of love, laughter and joy;
      • Family worships that left me loving Jesus and desiring to be like Him;
      • Wonderful meals around the family table;
      • Sitting proudly as Dad preached and told stories about us when we were little;
      • Loving church families who adored our family.

The list goes on…

I was 4 ½ years old when I heard my parents discussing “school” for me. I remember feeling some concern but went about building my castles in the sand box. One morning Mom woke me up earlier than I was use to. “Get up, Sweetie, I am going to take you to school today!!!!” She sounded cheerful but I wanted nothing more than to play in my own back yard, climbing trees and exploring. 

RitaMy shiny shoes slapped loudly on the tile floor as we trudged down a lengthy hallway to an open classroom door. “The teacher greeted us warmly and stooped to shake my hand. Mom turned to leave and I felt panic set in. “Mom!!!” “I don’t want to stay here!!!!!” Mom did not even stop walking but calmly said, “You will be fine, Rita, don’t give the teacher any trouble.”

The tears and fears didn’t stop that day or for many years to come! That day began a succession of “flight” episodes where I would excuse myself to the bathroom and bolt for the double-glass doors at the end of the hallway. Across a busy highway I flew—barely checking for cars. I knew the inevitable succession of events. Dad would come home, slam the door, pull out his belt and whip me until I felt like a rag doll. Still, the fear at school mounted as teachers became frustrated to the point of tying me to my chair. I managed to run away no matter what creative measures they resorted to and no matter how severe the punishment when I arrived home—AGAIN.

Every school year from that day on my parents would enroll me in school and try once again to make me stay and have a successful year. I was 5 weeks into school when I was 9 years old and had managed to astound my parents and myself! I loved that teacher and, for some unknown reason, I was able to stifle the fear enough to stay in my seat.

Then it happened!! The teacher’s face clouded and her forehead wrinkled as she spoke to the boy next to me, “Johnny, you know better than that!!!!” Her voice was stern and something triggered for me and I found myself bolting for the door!!! Sprinting across the campus where my father was Academy Principle in Weslaco, Texas, I did not dream that he would be walking by at just that precise moment and would see me “running away” from school!

Humiliation & anger compelled my dad to reach for me, grabbing my left arm, swinging me swiftly on top of our Mercedes Benz Car. He began pounding my small frame up then down my body. I felt his deep frustration and also heard tears in his voice. My thoughts…..”What is wrong with ME???? Why can’t I go to school like all my siblings and like other normal kids??? Why do I bring my parents so much pain? I am defective! I wish I could lay here and die right now!”

My bruised body served as a reminder of my dad’s desperate frustration for many succeeding days.

It never occurred to me that dad might be wrong for spanking me. After all it was “Fear,” which he mistakenly labeled as disobedience. It did not make sense to me that anyone else could be in the wrong but ME. This day began what I call my “death wish.” I loved my family passionately but hated myself dangerously!

This served as a perfect prelude to the sexual abuse I would endure at the hand of a well-renowned pastor. Friday nights from the time I was 11 years old were sheer hell for me, often followed by a sermon by the very man who had molested me the night before. 

It began one summer night in Dallas, Texas. My first precious newborn niece had just made her debut and my sister and her new pastoral husband were staying in our home while my sister recuperated. I often stayed fixed by her sleeping side, staring at the new, beautiful wonder!!!! I loved every second of holding and cuddling her perfect tiny self. If my sister was bothered by my complete and constant adoration of my niece, she never said anything. 

Startled to feel a hand on my back, I awoke from a deep sleep. Someone was rubbing my back with sweaty, shaky fingertips. What?? Who?? I couldn’t make sense of anything. I stayed still, keeping my eyes closed in the dark room. “Rita, I just thought you might like a back rub!” His voice was gentle, but it did nothing to soothe my shaking body. His hand moved over my body to places that terrified me. Violently shaking now, I was unable to speak. As stealthily as he entered my bedroom, he slipped out again and I was left with my jumbled thoughts! Nothing computed! Questions, deep sadness, torment, fear, and hundreds of other emotions swirled. I lay perfectly still watching and willing the sun to come up! It seemed like an eternity before I heard Mother stirring in the next room. I stole out of bed to her side. “Mom!!!!!!” “My brother-in-law came into my room last night…!” I began pouring out my traumatic experience when she stopped me suddenly. “I’ll be right back, Honey.” She walked out of the room, returning with my sister in a few minutes. They were both laughing and I longed to feel that lighthearted again but, somehow, I KNEW I NEVER would! “Your brother-in-law was sleepwalking when he came into your room. He thought you were your sister!” Then Mom stooped to my level firmly admonishing, “Don’t you ever accuse your brother-in-law of such a thing again!” “That would hurt his reputation as a pastor!!!!!”

The episodes continued and so did the gag order. I didn’t understand anything that was happening to me, but I knew there was no one in that house who could help me. I reasoned that I deserved the abuse. I reasoned that I was there to take the abuse so my brother-in-law would not bother any of my sisters or my little niece. 

I learned a lot over the next 8 years:

    • What a man’s erected penis looked like;
    • How to make a man ejaculate with my immature hands;
    • How to will myself to be calm and stop the violent shaking;
    • How to please a man any way you can imagine;
    • How to protect other young girls around me by taking the abuse;
    • How to disappear from my bed inside my mind when I needed to; and,
    • How to lay perfectly silent and submissive.

Mom began calling me by a new nickname, “Sober Suds.” She wondered why I was so sad these days and would often say, “Rita, a penny for your thoughts!” But she would not hear my thoughts—no one would. Until…
Alone with my sister-in-law one afternoon, I spilled my painful story to her open ears. To my complete surprise, she believed me and told me that she would make sure the abuse would never ever happen again. Then she asked me not to tell anyone else.

The abuse continued…I wondered if she had ever told my brother.

My sister was visiting us for a week while my brother-in-law was busy with his pastoral care back home in Keene, Texas, so I seized the opportunity to write him a “go to hell!” letter. It felt so liberating to say the things to him that I had no voice to say when he was raping me. I mailed it, feeling a little relief at having defended myself for the very first time.

To my complete surprise, I found a letter from him in the trashcan when he came to pick my sister up from our home. I don’t know to this day WHY he had written it, and then decided not to give it to me, but I found it! I gulped to read his apology and promise to stop the abuse. Relief and gratitude flooded my young mind! It was surely over now!!!!

Not so. It did not stop!!! Now, I had turned a corner, however, and I threatened to scream each time he came into my room. The abuse became isolated to exhibitionistic behavior as he would come into my room in his bathrobe and open it, revealing a naked erection. Other times he would pick the lock on the bathroom door while I was showering and I would see his hand pulling the curtain back slightly. I didn’t scream out loud, but inwardly I was screaming at the top of my imaginary lungs!!!!! I wanted it to stop! I hated the smell of his breath, the sight of his nakedness and the sound of his footsteps. I lived in terror that my precious sister would find out what he did!!!! It had become my primary role to protect her from the terrible reality.

When my niece was 18 months old they discovered that she had a terminal disease, Cystic Fibrosis. We buried her at age 5 and I believed my heart would stop beating from the pain. Now I KNEW that my sister could never, ever, ever endure finding out about her sexually abusive pastoral husband!!!! I would have to be excellent at keeping this deadly secret!! I would go to my grave with it. 

One fall day I lay feverish with the flu bug, weeping into my pillow, wondering where God was and why He did not seem to be there for me. My dad came home from a business trip and, at a weak moment, I sought his strong warm arms. Oh how healing it would be to have Daddy take care of my brother-in-law for me and end this nightmare!!! With hot tears streaming down my cheeks, I had barely begun to unpack my story of sexual abuse. Dad put his hand up immediately and said,  “Don’t say another word, Rita!!!!!!” “Don’t ever speak of this to another soul—it would kill your sister and mother!” Then he said them—the words that would drive me to desperation and, ultimately, the decision to end my life. He said, “Rita, I want you to know that I forgive you!” He left my room and shut the door behind him—emotionally and physically.

I just THOUGHT the worst thing happened to me the day my brother-in-law entered my room for the first time! The pain of my dad’s words and attitude cut me deeper than I could deal with. 

I excelled at helping the Family appear unified, loving, and beautiful! I dutifully hugged my tormentor every time we were together. “Anger” would start to arise, but I would stuff it back down. My mom’s words followed me everywhere, “Honey, just think about someone less fortunate than yourself. Just be positive. Just be happy. Just forgive people!” She addressed my morose attitude by constantly trying to force me to appear happy for the sake of the family image.

Inside, I was in unbelievable emotional pain! At age 13, I swallowed an entire bottle of aspirin out of sheer frustration with my life. Not well thought out obviously, but it was a cry for help. One that went unnoticed! 

The last episode of unsolicited exhibition occurred when I was 20 years old while at my sister’s house preparing for my wedding day. The end had come! Finally! Finding my voice for the first time—even though it was a risk that my sister would find out what my brother-in-law was up to—I screamed at him to leave me alone! My sister did wake up to discover his behavior, but chose to see the incident as isolated and forgivable. 

Several years later my sister would hear only my brother-in-law’s minimized version of the abuse when I suspected him of sexually molesting my 5-year-old daughter. I waited until I heard him alone in the garage. Moving directly in front of him, I slapped his face so hard his glasses flew across the garage shattering on the concrete floor. “If you ever touch my daughter again, I will kill you!” I was seething! Turning on my heels I exited through the kitchen, he was right close behind me. He told my sister, “your sister is convinced that I molested her daughter!!!” He yelled across the house. My sister came bounding into the kitchen staring in disbelief—not at her husband—at ME. “How could you think such a thing, Rita????” She wore a horrified expression and glared over at me. Silence engulfed me. This was the way my sister was to find out about the sexual abuse her husband had been heaping on me. The problem—it was a very watered down version to be sure. We didn't talk about the abuse for many years and even then it was minimal information that was shared.

A familiar SHAME – ugly and dark fell like a thick cloud over ME as I sat with my bags packed waiting with my children for my brother to pick us up and deliver us away from the “crime scene” to my parents house 2 hours away. I felt guilt-ridden! Mortified at and responsible for the pain my sister was feeling! Blaming myself that she had found out—I was in good company. My brother drove us in silent disapproval. In that deafening silence I heard, “You are the problem here, Rita! How COULD you let your sister find out about you and your brother-in-law!!!!! Hasn’t she suffered enough burying a child!”

Once deposited at Mom & Dad’s I sought some shred of compassion. Nothing! More silence! Heavy and thick. “Dad, can we talk about this?????” I plead in a fearful hushed tone. “Mom!!! Get me my blood pressure medication—NOW!” Dad hollered across the house. I was shut down by an emotional steel door!!!!

The battle raged—in my own heart—the “death wish” was relentless!

Then I received the dreaded phone call, “Rita, (It was the voice of my brother-in-law, my tormentor!)—Your father died two hours ago of a massive heart attack!” Why????? “God, not my daddy!!!!!!!” “He can’t die now—we haven’t talked—he doesn’t know my whole story!!!!” “He can’t die yet!!!!!”

Despair, deep depression, and the loss of my precious daddy caused me to reach what I believed was an intolerable limit. Checking into a mental hospital because I felt physically unsafe, I was assured that I had done the right thing. Four weeks later when the doctors felt I was ready for a weekend back into the mainstream of my own life, I was terrified. Hopelessness caused me to take an entire bottle of sleeping pills back to the hospital with me and ingest them as I was checking back in for my final two weeks. I told no one! 

Waking up in ICU two days later, I learned that they had performed heroic measures to save my life! I was devastated at waking up in the hospital to face life AND my poor choice!!! 

It took me several years and many hours in therapy to realize that I needed to report my brother-in-law to the authorities and to the church in order to protect other potential victims. In this process “I” was found by church leadership to be the “incredible” party and my brother-in-law was exonerated and transferred for a fresh start in some other church. He & my sister sang together and were well known for their compassionate, widespread ministry. They were revered and deeply loved by thousands. My brother-in-law simply did not LOOK like a pedophile! He looked like the respectable, honest, integrity-driven pastor of a 1,000-member church.

Faith for Today partnered with Cystic Fibrosis foundation to create a movie about my sister and brother-in-law entitled, “A Lesson in Loving.” It was their story of losing their daughter to the dreaded disease and their journey of faith throughout the experience. This movie evoked yet more empathy and adoration from their growing list of supporters. 

I was 55 years old before I finally got the courage to talk to my sister about the abuse. We had not spoken about details and it was clear she had no real desire to hear my side of the story but when I asked her for permission to STOP being expected to hug her husband each time the families got together she said, “Are you EVER going to forgive him, Rita!!!!” I explained that it wasn’t about forgiveness but rather that his breath and person triggered some horrible memories for me. She replied, “Don’t you think he just had a special love for you?” 

The pain of being sexually abused and for being a part of a church organization that never would acknowledge the sexual abuse I endured for 8 years was nothing in comparison to the pain of feeling that my perpetrator was preferred and believed over me by those I held most a dear!!! My mother called it an “affair” between my brother-in-law and I. She, too, “forgave” me for this affair. I craved the protection of my dad’s strong capable arms but instead was believed to have been the instigator of the “affair.” 

My sister is 10 years older than me and seems like a second mother in many ways. I love her so much it hurts! When she first learned of the abuse, she quickly informed me, “Rita, I will NEVER leave my husband, no matter what!!!” She has been true to her word.

Healing has begun and The Hope of Survivors has played a huge role in helping me to forgive my pastoral perpetrator, my beloved family, and my precious church! The encouragement I found to embrace the church/faith I love again has put my feet firmly on a sound path of healing. 

I have kept silence long enough. I found my voice and will share my story! Shame often accompanies experiences like mine but I will not be ashamed anymore. I did nothing to attract a 22-year-old man to my 11-year-old self! I am NOT the one who caused my precious sister more pain—he is! I was not wrong to seek help and tell people what was happening—the church was wrong for not listening and believing me! 

I also refuse to live in bitterness and anger. God had never abandoned me—He was in that room, close to my side—holding me and protecting me in ways I can now see! I thank God for a journey that taught me great compassion! 

I look forward to beginning a new life! I look forward to serving Him with my whole unreserved heart, mind, body and soul. I am out of prison—the prison of silence and I am stepping into the light of His beautiful healing! My death wish has been replaced with a deep desire to LIVE to help others in pain….. Emotional pain from trials that are not popular to share!

Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.

[END OF STORY]

If you are a survivor of pastoral abuse, we would love to hear your story and possibly make it available on this web site for others to read and renew their hope. You can use a pseudonym if you choose and rest assured that all personal information will be kept private and strictly confidential. Please contact us.

Please note: We do not necessarily agree with or endorse all the information contained in the survivor’s stories. We do, however, feel they have some valuable information that could be useful to you in your recovery. It helps to know you’re not alone, that others have shared your pain and have healed, by the grace of God, in their own time and way.

The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart...Psalms 34:18