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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...




No Longer Hushed

Child abuse victims find healing through recovery in Christian contexts

By John W. Kennedy
Jan. 23, 2011

Nicole Braddock Bromley’s divorced mom, Cindy, remarried when her daughter turned 3. New stepfather Vince appeared to complete the perfect blended Christian family. Indeed, growing up Nicole emerged as the seemingly perfect girl, excelling as a student, athlete and class leader.

Yet behind the veneer, Vince privately told vulgar jokes to his preadolescent stepdaughter. He showed Nicole pornographic movies, warning her never to tell anyone “our little secret.” When Nicole was 5, Vince began molesting her, swearing that if she told her mother about their “special” relationship, Nicole’s mother never would want to see her again. He threatened to kill Nicole’s dog.

Manipulation of the vulnerable child continued for nine years. The confused and ashamed Nicole felt as though she had no recourse but to comply. Vince told her no one would ever believe the accusatory lies of a child against a well-respected adult.

“Children don’t have a name for what they are experiencing,” says Elizabeth Dermody Leonard, sociology professor at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, Calif. “They don’t have the vocabulary to say to an adult, ‘I am being abused at home.’”

Leonard says more than 750,000 cases of child abuse are substantiated each year in the United States. The National Center for Victims of Crime reports that one in three girls — and one in six boys — is sexually abused by age 18.

“It’s happening in every type of home, in every community and in the church,” Bromley says. “Victims are sitting in the pews, and offenders are sitting in the pews.”

Nicole remained silent until age 14, when Cindy became concerned about Vince’s increasingly controlling conduct. That’s when Cindy asked Nicole if Vince had ever behaved bizarrely toward her.

Nicole revealed the secret — and her mom instantly believed her. They fled the family home and went into hiding after reporting the abuse to the local children’s services agency. A week later, after police investigators questioned Vince, he committed suicide.

Amanda’s nightmare
Not all abuse is at the hands of stepfathers, although they are the most common offender. Amanda Richardson suffered abuse from her biological father. And, unlike Nicole’s mother, Amanda’s mother reacted in the more common way: inaction.

To the outside world, Amanda’s father appeared to be the loving and attentive head of a happy family. The family sat on the second row of their Baptist church every Sunday morning.

Physical and emotional abuse happened first. Whippings with a belt buckle that caused her bare bottom to bleed and forced drinking of dirty water from a chicken trough occurred soon after Amanda started grade school. The humiliation and degradation, which included repeatedly calling her fat and stupid, served as grooming Amanda for sexual abuse that happened between ages 10 and 14.

Her father told her that although all fathers did this with their daughters, she must keep it a secret. Her father removed the lock from the bathroom door so he could walk in when she showered. Amanda feared for her life.

All the while, Amanda’s father selectively quoted Scripture to support his actions, including that children must obey their parents (Ephesians 6:1) and parents who fail to discipline their children don’t love them (Proverbs 13:24).

Leonard says abuse occurring in the name of God is common, with parents often telling the abused child, “I’m doing this because you’re bad” or “I’m doing this because I love you.”

Disbelief and inaction
Even though Amanda’s fear of her father intensified, at age 14 she finally found the nerve to tell her mother what had been happening. Her mother minimized and denied reports of the abuse. Her mother told Amanda’s father, who rebuked her, warning that he could get into a lot of trouble if she told anybody else.

Amanda became suicidal.

When Amanda was 15, her mother found her journal detailing what her father had done to her. Amanda’s mother burned the notebook. When Amanda again complained to her mother at 16, her mother called her a liar. When her mother heard an audiotape surreptitiously recorded of the abuse, she destroyed the evidence.

When children who are abused finally ratchet up the courage to tell someone, most frequently their mother, they commonly are met with disbelief — and instructions to not tell anyone else.

“So many are told to hush, to keep it a secret, so shame won’t be brought on the family name,” says Bromley, who wrote about her ordeal in Hush: Moving From Silence to Healing After Childhood Sexual Abuse. “This furthers the lies told in the first place, and sends the message to the child that she isn’t good enough to be protected.”

Consequently, the girl tells no one else because the warning of the father — that no one would believe her — has been fulfilled. The mother, for myriad reasons, regularly chooses to believe her husband (or boyfriend) rather than give credence to the child’s account. Thus, the child realizes the one person who could be her protector distrusts her.

Bromley and Richardson advise child abuse victims to keep telling an adult — another relative, a teacher, a coach, a pastor — whom they trust until someone believes them. Teachers and pastors are mandated by law to report a suspicion of abuse to child protective services authorities.

“In the life of a child who is being abused, just having one supportive, kind, concerned adult listener makes a big difference,” says Nancy Rivas, a Christian counselor with Meier Clinics in Wheaton, Ill.

“The first step to healing is breaking the silence,” Bromley says. “No matter what the circumstances are, Jesus can take our pain and suffering.”

Forgiving and recovery
For Bromley, the effects of abuse didn’t end with her stepfather’s death. She confided in no one else and coped by becoming even more involved in clubs, sports and studies. High school classmates elected her homecoming queen.

Not until her sophomore year of college did Bromley seek professional help on her own to heal the anger, bitterness and hatred she held toward her stepfather.

A major trauma doesn’t go away when the perpetrator is no longer around. Bromley has found memories of abuse cropping up even at the joyful times in her life, such as her 2005 marriage to husband Matthew and the birth of her two sons, Jude, now 2, and Isaac, 6 months. The family lives in Columbus, Ohio, and attends a Vineyard church.

Along with being a mother, Bromley, now 30, writes and speaks about abuse full time at churches, high schools, women’s conferences and especially Christian colleges. Her latest book is Breathe: Finding Freedom to Thrive in Relationships After Childhood Sexual Abuse.

Richardson likewise responded to her abuse by excelling in school as well as becoming a leader in her church youth group.

Many perpetrators are unwilling to confess and repent of their actions. Bromley says a survivor can forgive the offender without a face-to-face meeting. She recommends confrontation only if there is hope of reconciliation — or if there is concern that someone else also is being abused.

Richardson eventually confronted her father, which yielded no admission of guilt. She eventually ended contact with him in a letter, saying she had forgiven him, but she could not excuse his behavior.

Making no apologies, he wrote back to say he had an ongoing relationship with the Lord and would go to heaven if he died. Subsequently, Richardson found support when she revealed the abuse to her Aunt Mindy, who instantly believed her and showed unconditional acceptance.

In connection with her abuse, in November 2009, Richardson’s father began serving a 50-year prison term after being convicted of first-degree aggravated sexual assault of a child under age 14 plus second-degree sexual assault of a child. Richardson, now 28, tells her story in Saved From Silence: My Journey Back From a Childhood of Abuse.

Role of the church
While recovery groups for alcoholism, divorce and porn addiction have cropped up in various churches, discussing sexual abuse often remains taboo in Christian circles.

“Keeping sexual abuse a secret isn’t going to make it stop, and sweeping it under the rug won’t make us safe,” Bromley says. “If it remains unaddressed, it’s an injustice not just to the church but to the whole community.”

Churches need to be a secure place where pastors and laypeople are unafraid to enter into frank dialogue with survivors of abuse, Bromley says.

Richardson participated in five years of intense weekly counseling sessions as a key component to her recovery.

Church settings can be the best healing place for a wounded party to seek validation of what has happened, Richardson says. She says while she can never forget the maltreatment, God helped to change her perspective.

Trusting God is a major issue for abuse victims. As an adult, Richardson stayed away from church until the birth of her daughter, Grace, now 4. She started going to First Assembly of God in Whitehouse, Texas, with Daniel, her police officer husband of seven years. The couple also has an 8-month-old son, Nate.

“It was the first time I felt people loved me, even though they knew what had happened,” says Richardson, who is a dental hygienist and clinical professor in Tyler, Texas.

Leonard encourages church leaders to train Sunday School teachers and youth workers in how to identify signs of child abuse. She also hopes would-be pastors will take a course on family abuse. And laypeople can keep their eyes open to unusual behavior exhibited by the friends of their children.

Rivas says, depending on the situation, someone who suspects abuse is ongoing can do everything from asking the child directly to making an anonymous call to a child protective services office.

“When Christians see something suspicious, they should be concerned enough to follow up and not brush it off,” says Rivas, who attends Living Water Community Church, an Assemblies of God congregation in Bolingbrook, Ill.

“When a child has been a victim of abuse in a home that is part of the household of faith, it has a devastating effect on that child’s view of God,” Leonard says. “When abuse occurs, it creates a crisis of faith for the victim.”

A child can have a more difficult time convincing others that abuse has occurred if the family regularly attends church, Leonard says.

“The church shouldn’t put a higher value on the institution of marriage than it does on the health and well-being of those in it,” Leonard says. “A child is not better off with a parent who beats or molests her on Saturday night then takes her to church on Sunday morning.”

Michael Fleming, pastor of First AG in Whitehouse, where Richardson attends, says churches must be proactive.

“When the topic is taboo, that’s the exact type of situation the predators prey upon,” Fleming says. “If we don’t address the subject, it keeps us from protecting our kids.”

First AG in Whitehouse, in conjunction with the local children’s advocacy center, has trained its workers in what to look for in sexual abuse.

“It could be anybody,” Fleming says. “They’re not necessarily wearing a trench coat in the shadows. Odds are it is someone you know.”

The sexual abuse plague likely will increase because the culture is becoming more sexualized, and pornography — especially child pornography — is more prevalent. Bromley says the objectification of girls fuels the urge for control among some men and spurs them to act out in real life. While physical abuse usually is impulsive, sexual abuse typically is carefully premeditated.

“The pornography industry is fueling this to some extent because many people become addicted and feel tempted to act it out,” Rivas says.

Leonard and Rivas say pastors can help with awareness of child sexual abuse by proactively preaching about the topic.

“Just bringing it up and acknowledging that it’s there helps make people more comfortable talking about it,” Rivas says.

Miraculously, Bromley and Richardson not only have survived and discovered a sense of self-worth, they also are thriving as adults, thanks to God’s loving-kindness and the care from other Christians.

“God really intervened in my life,” Richardson says. “I could be in jail, a prostitute, a drug addict, an alcoholic.”

“It’s a conscious choice to let go of the need to force our abusers to fix or pay for the mess they have caused in our lives,” Bromley writes in Hush. “It’s a mental resolve to lay it all at the foot of the Cross.”


JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and a master’s in counseling student at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Mo.

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