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‘As is typical of sex abuse victims, I thought what happened was my fault’

Writer recounts the night church stopped being her safe place.

I was only 13.

I was in eighth grade at a Christian school started by my church’s elders. I stayed busy with my church youth group. I hung out with my friends, crushed on boys and listened to Prince’s “Purple Rain” album on repeat. I was a pretty typical 13-year-old in 1985.

But I was only 13. I had just recently packed up the dollhouse that sat in my room for years, and I sometimes thought about dragging it back out. Barbie dolls still lurked in a box in my closet since I wasn’t quite ready to haul them up to the attic or give them away. I was navigating that bittersweet bridge between little girlhood and the teen years.

I was only 13.


Related: Church of Christ minister charged with state, federal sex crimes against minors


I believed in the strong moral code promoted by the adults in my life. If I stayed away from “bad” places such as bars, dark alleys and public school dances, I would be safe. So I did. I only went to safe places, which were home, school, youth group events and church. I was a good kid.

Church was especially safe. Three generations of my family were among its membership. My grandfather had preached the sermon on the congregation’s first Sunday of existence decades earlier. The men in my family had been ministers and elders there. Church was my home, and the people there were my family — some by our own genetics and all of them by the blood of Jesus Christ.

That year, one of the boys in my youth group who I had been crushing on began showing me attention. I was not used to this, but I liked it. He also went to my school. When he went out of his way to talk to me, I felt good. Attractive, even.

We both served in the puppet ministry during Bible Hour for the younger kids on Sunday nights. One night, he and I were the only ones in the show. After it was over, in the darkness behind the puppet stage, he locked the door that led out into the hallway and sat close to me on the floor.

I was shocked when he said everyone at school was saying that my best friend and I were in a lesbian relationship. I had no idea such a rumor had been circulating about me.

As a collective body of believers, it is our job to make our congregations as safe as possible for our children. This means changing the way we think and talk about abuse and abusers.

If I did what he wanted, he said, I would prove the rumors were false. He was older and more popular than I was, so I believed him and did what he said. I knew it wasn’t right, but as is typical of sex abuse victims, I thought what happened was my fault.

I was only 13.

I confided in a friend, and word of what had happened eventually reached my parents. They met with his parents, who forced him to apologize to me. He never spoke to me again. And as far as everyone was concerned, that was the end of it.

But it wasn’t.

He went to my school, and between school, church and youth group events, I had to see him six days a week. Sometimes seven. As a cheerleader, I had to cheer for him at basketball games. He and his family finally moved away a few years later.

I was only 13. And in those moments behind the puppet stage, church stopped being my safe place. I don’t know what could have been done to protect me from that situation or the aftermath. It wasn’t my job to figure that out at 13.

But as a collective body of believers, it is our job to make our congregations as safe as possible for our children. This means changing the way we think and talk about abuse and abusers. This means using resources to educate ourselves about abuse in church settings. It means understanding the importance of protecting survivors rather than abusers. It means getting uncomfortable, asking tough questions and receiving tougher answers. But we must do this for our children.

I was only 13.

DEANA NALL is a Christian Chronicle correspondent who has worked as a freelance magazine and newspaper writer for 28 years. A graduate of Abilene Christian University in Texas, Nall lives in the Little Rock, Ark., area with her husband, two daughters and two cats. Contact her at [email protected]

Filed under: #ChurchToo #metoo child sex abuse church sex abuse National Opinion predator Protecting Your Child from Predators sex abuse Top Stories Views

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