by Natasha Garrido
[Warning: contains graphic, violent content. Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.]
There’s always a story to tell that people don’t want to hear about.
This is as true in the Christian community (Bob Jones University) as in secular places. The reality is that sexual abuse has become commonplace whether we notice it or not. We as Christians often avoid confronting it because, it doesn’t actually happen in the Christian community, right? Wrong.
Too often, we don’t realize this problem until people are harmed.
How Are We Not Seeing the Abuse?
“One in four girls and one in six boys are abused before their 18th birthday [over 7 million children are brought to Child Protective Services a year]. That is more than pediatric cancer. It is more than a lot of things but, you won’t hear about it,” said Dr. Andrew Schmutzer, a Bible professor at Moody Bible Institute who has written several books on healing from sexual abuse including The Long Journey Home: Understanding and Ministering to the Sexually Abused. “It’s extremely messy. There are no banquets, parades, stickers for things like abuse and molestation. It’s all strictly about Title IX assault or rape.” Schmutzer, himself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and strong advocate for discussion and change around this topic, continues:
“There are so many 1-800 numbers out there but you don’t have one for abuse in general or in Christian circles that are tied more to mission and leadership hierarchies. Children want to trust the leaders in their lives so, they don’t tend to out the leaders who are abusing and assaulting.”
Sexual abuse and rape happens more frequently in the Christian community than we can probably imagine. In 2003, the National Research Council released a 265-page report, which said, “80 percent of sexual assaults go unreported to law enforcement.” Sexual abuse and rape happened to a young woman, Erica, who agreed to tell me her story of sexual assault while she was enrolled as a student at Moody Bible Institute.
Erica told me, “When it started happening, my reaction was absolute fear. I was so scared that it was happening to me again.” A young man Jeremy who was studying to be a pastor was sexually abusing her. It would take her back to her memories when her uncle raped her as a child.
She would have really bad panic attacks because of those memories and had nightmares of everything that happened. But instead of seeing her uncle’s face, she would see the face of her new abuser instead.
“I thought everything would be OK and that he would apologize and never do it again, but I was wrong. No part of me was capable of getting out, even if I wanted to. I tell everyone he was everything I could ask of a guy in a relationship. But, imperfection was hiding beneath all the perfection.”
“He had given me a promise ring,” Erica said, “and from there, he wanted a lot more from me physically. He would do what he wanted to without asking me first or caring about how it would affect me.”
Erica said he would grab her hand and show her how he masturbated. She said he put his hand inside her clothing and penetrated her genitals. “Everything was forceful in the beginning. After a while, I just wanted to keep him happy. We would have disagreements and the way I could keep him happy was to do things that he liked--sexual things, whether I wanted to or not.”
“He would also get really upset with me all the time. I was upset too, so, there would be nights I didn’t want to do things to satisfy him. He would just storm off and do it himself.”
One night, she said that he became extra aggressive and forced her to perform oral sex and she blacked out from it.
“There were other times I would be left with bruises on my breasts,” said Erica.
Exploiting the Vulnerable
Dr. Andrew Schmutzer defines assault as: “The exploitation of somebody—usually younger, for the purposes of personal gratification. [It] can take all kinds of forms.”
In Erica’s case, her assaulter at the time (Jeremy) was just a couple years older than her. However, he is only one of the many assaulters she had encountered throughout her life.
“It’s important to add that abuse isn’t the same thing as battery or assault. You have non-contact sexual abuse (sexting, pictures, porn) not always a sexual violation by contact. There can be grooming that is involved. Abuse is usually progressive. Intensity often escalates.”
–Dr. Andrew Schumutzer
Many people assume that alcohol and drugs are big causal factors in sexual abuse. But, that’s not typically the case in the conservative Christian world. Rachel Monfette, the Title IX Coordinator at Moody Bible Institute made that clear. Title IX is a federal law that prohibits any educational program from discriminating against anyone on the basis of sex. It addresses sexual violence and requires schools to proactively address, remedy, and eliminate sexual violence on their campuses.
“Most of the violations that occur at Moody happen within the realm of a dating/marriage relationship. Sometimes when you look at the definition in the policies it is clear cut, but when you interview people, it could be a little messy to determine if there was consent or not.”
She said, “It all depends on the violation. So, depending on the severity, the level of violence, the number of times, if the sex-based misconduct was ongoing, how many victims — we would take that into account as we assess the discipline sanction ... The other thing that we take into account is if that person being here poses a threat to the broader community.”
Is an Apology Enough?
Eventually, Erica and her pastor, Jonathan sat down and talked to one of the deans at the school about her situation. This dean just apologized about everything that happened and didn’t take any further steps from there. He didn’t even allow Erica to explain what happened. Erica wished that the school had initially showed more concern for what happened to her.
Boz Tchividjian, founder of GRACE, an organization focused on investigating and helping religious institutions respond to cases of abuse such as Erica’s. Tchividjian reports that all too often,
“Instead of acknowledging the failure and grieving over the pain the institution has caused an already traumatized victim, some leaders immediately move into self-protection mode and will stop at almost nothing in shifting the focus away from their own reprehensible failings in order to protect personal and organizational reputations.”
Erica continued by saying, “I wouldn’t want Jeremy [the assaulter] to be dismissed [from school] but for the safety of other people, it would be good if he wasn’t there. At least, have him not be there during the investigation. If they would tell me to file a police report and also start an investigation it doesn’t make sense for him to be on campus.”
The summer after the year of torment and abuse, Jeremy went to California for an internship at a church. He completely cut off communication with Erica and started dating someone else he was working with. He did not respond to any of her messages, he didn’t break things off, he just shut her out. He blocked her and all of Erica’s friends. At that point, she was still fighting to fix their relationship only to find out from Jeremy’s best friend that it was over.
Towards the end of the summer, Erica started opening up about the abuse to her close friends. Around that time, that is when she reached out to her school. Because they were being unresponsive, she decided to drop out.
“I didn’t want to be here [the school] because I didn’t think I would be supported enough and I just couldn't handle everything with the lack of support from the school. Why was he allowed on campus with the ability to do all those things? While they knew that kind of behavior was happening,” said Erica.
She was too fearful to come to campus to get her things when school started back up again. Her assaulter, Jeremy, was asked to sign a non-contact form and was not allowed to contact Erica or any of her friends.
What Should The Christian Community Do Now?
Sexual assault and rape is an issue that has not been properly addressed in the Christian community and in places where people are serving in ministry. It’s a reality, and many leaders believe Christians need to open their eyes to it. Bianca, a friend of Erica’s said,
“It's happening right here in the Christian community, in plain sight. It’s hard, but people who were assaulted shouldn’t do nothing, don’t say nothing. You have a voice, [the abuser] didn’t take that from you. It might seem like it, but he didn’t. Go use it again. If it didn’t work the first time, yell again for as long and loud as you have to. It’s never OK and it’s never your fault.”
Erica’s story is one of the many stories of assault and rape within the Christian community that could just be hidden and forgotten again. Erica has pushed passed a victim mindset and is now wanting to make sure no one else goes through this. She said,
“I’d encourage people in the Christian community to step up and stop judging. To open their eyes to what's happening. To allow conversation to happen. I think that is just so important that they understand that they need to listen, to hear them out on everything they have to say.”
“So often, we hear but we don’t listen. We don’t listen to the details — to the pain. We are just listening for the things we are able to judge them for. Don’t judge them but to love on them. Embrace them in their community, love them but understand that they will need to have boundaries for their mental and physical health and to be understanding of that,” said Erica.
This is all still so fresh, but even then, the redemption has started. Erica’s best friend, Elizabeth said, “During all of this, I watched her transform from a bubbly, vibrant woman to someone who couldn’t pull herself out of bed. But, she turned to God for her strength and it’s encouraging that she did that. She has definitely, towards the end of this, grown. But at the beginning, (she was) absolutely destroyed.”
Through intensive counseling, and a lot of prayer, Erica is slowly healing. Even if it has taken a while, justice is being served and Jeremy is being asked to leave this upcoming school year.
Not everyone is on this same path of redemption. Survivors say they aren’t being heard or cared for the way they should be. We know what the issue is now, we know what we should do.
- Join the #ChurchToo Protest on Moody Bible Institute’s campus on Tuesday, April 10. Event details here.
- Read and sign this petition: Stop Gender Discrimination, Spiritual Abuse, & Violence at Moody Bible Institute (#ChurchToo #MeToo #TimesUp)
This guest post was prepared by Natasha Garrido and the opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Janay Garrick (though it’s likely that they do).
Natasha Garrido is an intricate mix of cultures rolled into one. She is an aspiring writer who sees a future in social media (@tashagarrido). One of her main goals in life is to help others fight for their rights.