By Molly Evans* | 7 September 2023 |
My body quivered as I read and reread the eight-sentence reply that I had just received, via email, from the Executive Secretary of the Pennsylvania Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
We were encouraged by the note from your former counselor that shows you have been able to focus on working through many issues. …Are you still receiving counseling?
He was encouraged by the note from my former counselor?
The note from my counselor had said:
At the time I met Molly* it is my belief that she was experiencing the effects of traumatic sexual, mental, emotional and social abuse. The abuse began when Molly was a teenager and the perpetrator was a married male who was in a position of trusted leadership in the Seventh-day Adventist church Molly attended as a minor.
My father died in a highway accident when I was eight years old. A fatherless child is one of the most vulnerable victims of predators.
The church lay pastor/head elder began his grooming of me sometime after my tenth birthday. I was not aware of it. No child is. But I remember him later saying to me that he’d had his eye on me since I was ten. He believed that to be a compliment.
At the age of fourteen, that church elder/lay pastor took advantage of my mother’s trip to the hospital to deal with a health crisis by offering to sit with my brother, sister, and me for the evening. After my brother and sister went to bed, the grooming became sexual molestation, intimidation, and the programming of my young mind to keep secrets for many, many years. When a predator says, “Don’t tell your mother,” the child is not going to tell her mother—especially if he has made himself an integral spiritual advisor and father figure to her family.
Even as a teenager, I knew that there were church leaders in the local church who were aware, or at least suspicious of, his activity. Yet he remained in a church leadership position.
The full story is as convoluted and disgusting as can be, and I am not writing this article to delve into the specifics of my abuse. Let me only say that when an abuser in a spiritual authority position intertwines a church’s unique religious beliefs with statements like, “God showed me you would be my wife someday,” or, “You made me do it”—and those statements are backed up with a conspiracy of silence by the church leadership at large—a young girl begins to believe that she is responsible for the protection of the church, not that the church is responsible for her protection.
The recent public revelation of a second settlement made to the victims of Miracle Meadows School has reignited a conversation that never fully dies, but often needs fuel to get attention. Unfortunately, that fuel comes in the form of victims who try to get help within the church, but find that the only real help comes from pursuing legal remedies.
What I find even more disturbing is how often the conversation quickly segues into discussions about church liability—is tithe money used to pay the settlements, is the established General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists responsible for lawsuits brought against self-supporting institutions, and any number of other financial concerns. Generally, in a matter of minutes, we forget about the victims and worry about the money. “I hope my tithe isn’t paying for this!”
My abuse was so paralyzing that the perpetrator was able to keep me silent, and that carried into my adulthood. Decades passed before I had the courage to first open my mouth and speak the words in a professional setting. More significant time passed before, in 2021, I dared to write the entire sordid story in detail.
It took eleven typewritten pages. I sent those eleven pages, along with a letter from my professional counselor and one other confirming document, to the Pennsylvania Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
A weak response
More than six weeks of silence passed before I emailed the executive secretary asking for confirmation that the packet of information had been received. It was only then that I received a sterile eight-sentence response to my eleven pages of gutting information, which had taken years of courage to compose.
We want to encourage you as you continue the journey and your healing process, having read in your letter the evidence of your strong and enduring relationship with God, “who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” Philippians 2:13 (NASB)
I could have received a more warm, personable response from the Maytag repairman. As my husband observed, “At the very least, they should have sent someone to your door with flowers.”
My crushed spirit sat on that response for a year. And then I reached out to legal counsel. They reviewed the information, agreed that I had enough material to pursue a civil suit, and opened a file.
Unfortunately, that file sits unused. Along with many other states, Pennsylvania has a statute of limitations on abuse cases—one that long ago shut me and multitudes of others out of the process of seeking restitution. Unless and until a window of opportunity is opened through the political process (which has happened in some states), we remain silenced.
And there are plenty of super-sized, powerful church denominations and organizations who fight against the temporary lifting of the statute of limitations, because they are more concerned about their coffers than their victims.
As I click around on the North American Division’s enditnow website, I am angry.
- “Break the Silence.” That is the headline on the enditnownorthamerica.org website.
- “Pretending that abuse does not exist in ‘my church, school or home’ perpetuates its continuance.”
- “We’re working to create safe churches, educate church leaders and communities to identify and prevent abuse, and help victims.”
The response I received from the Pennsylvania Conference was this:
- Silencing me (sweeping it under the rug)
- Pretending that “my church” does not have abuse issues
- Acknowledging zero responsibility when it comes to helping a victim
There is not much substance on that website for the victim. There is some instruction and guidance to keep the church above board. There are some guidelines for recognize abuse. Yet the overriding concern seems to be, “Let’s protect the church and keep it from getting into trouble.”
Yet for the victims there are no faces. No stories of abuse from within the church. No offers of help. In fact, not even a staff page to make it personal! Whoever manages this campaign is safely hidden from view. Please, Adventist leadership, if you are going to do this, be real about it!
What I find even more telling is that under the Child Abuse Response tab, there is no directive to call the authorities. Having been a victim whose abuser was protected because no one wanted to stain the reputation of the church by calling the police, I firmly believe that the very first step in any manual that we produce on child abuse should be to call the authorities. Let’s protect the child first and worry about reputations later.
It is the age-old story of money, men in power, and what they expect to get away with.
But something else is rising to the surface of the age-old story. It is the bruised women who have decided to take charge, have courage, speak up, and refuse to be silenced any longer. I am one of those women. Yes, I am writing under a pseudonym, because there are innocent victims of my story who need protection, as well as the protection that I need should there eventually be an opportunity to bring a civil suit against the church.
Our membership is uncomfortable with the thought of suing one’s church. But the fact remains that most victims don’t want to have to go through a lawsuit or a court case. They are forced to do it. When I wrote that letter to the conference, what I wished more than anything was for my church establishment to care, to ask what they could do for me, to offer restitution. Restitution doesn’t erase or heal a thing. But with abuse victims, it at least says, “We acknowledge the harm you have suffered while under our watch.”
My body is still keeping the score. The Seventh-day Adventist Church represents all the bad things that happened to me there. If the church continues to break those who have already been broken by an abuser within the church, by refusing to offer healing through restitution and an acknowledgment of fair consequences, it will eventually encounter a silent population of church members who are finding their voices, and who are willing to seek restitution and take public steps to do so.
Those men in suits and ties who manage and dictate from the upper levels, who purport to speak for God when they declare that women aren’t worthy to have the same positions that men have—well, those men’s declarations won’t hold that spiritual power over the legal processes of our nation when the time comes. In multiple states, it is outside the church where, ever-so-slowly, justice is being served to victims. Hopefully, that will soon apply to more states.
For the church that presents itself as the remnant of God and a demonstration of His character, it shouldn’t take a lawsuit.
*Molly Evans is a pseudonym.