by Reema Dixit Sukumaran | 23 April 2019 |
The next time I saw Pastor, at a school event, he acted like nothing had happened. I was unsure how to cope with this strange new reality. He was still himself: fun, loving and hugely charismatic.
He was still affectionate with the students at the Adventist School. But what had looked to me before like safe love and affection looked drastically different now. What he’d done to me, had he done to others?
I escaped to a friend’s home in Maryland, and then in August to Andrews for graduation. A guy I had liked during college came for my graduation. His name was Sanj, and during this whirlwind weekend, he found the courage to admit his deep affection for me, and that weekend quickly became a moment in time that changed everything. Sanj and I dated, became engaged and soon were planning our life together. As wedding plans were being put together, we went to premarital pastoral counseling that was recommended in the church we attended.
Yet the betrayal and rape by someone that I had trusted so deeply was still raw. I had temporarily put a band-aid on the wound, but whenever I tried to remove the band-aid it was obvious that the emotional wound was still raw and unhealed, Finally in one of our counseling sessions, I revealed the truth. I had been raped by my pastor. The ugliness of this violation was seeping into my life and I had no idea how to handle it.
Our premarital counselor encouraged me to do something. He said that he would help me—help us. So many emotions flooded through me. Someone cared. Someone was going to help me.
We decided I would make a telephone call to Pastor and record the conversation. I was instructed to call him “my rapist,” to speak frankly about what he had done to me and record the ensuing conversation. This was the hardest thing I could imagine ever doing. How was I to call him and act like everything was okay? Alone in my apartment, I sat with the cassette player and phone and dialed his number. My hands were shaking, my voice quivered as I greeted my rapist. He sounded confident, as though he knew his power over me.
After a few minutes of strained small talk, I let him know that I was getting married and wanted to clear up a few things. I reminded him of a letter I had written to him after my graduation where I adamantly blamed him for taking my virginity without my permission. Now on the phone, I restated that sentence. “I was really angry about losing my virginity to you without my consent.”
As the conversation went on, he never once refuted that sentence. I wish I had been stronger, fearless and called him out more forcefully as the rapist he was! Yet the 22-year-old me was afraid. Making that call took all the courage I had and then some. After hanging up, I felt such a feeling of pride for standing up to him, he had not denied anything—and he would never have thought I was capable of taping him.
Our pre-marriage counselor then contacted the principal of the academy and notified him of what had occurred. My rapist initially denied my allegations. However, once he was told that there was a tape recording, he asked what I wanted. He was told to turn in his ministerial license and that he would not be allowed to minister in the church.
I expected the principal to deal with this issue justly. Yet before leaving the school, the principal, his friend, gave him a glowing recommendation and allowed him to write the community a letter. In the letter he stated that during the time of his mother’s death, a young lady came into his life and took advantage of him while he was vulnerable and he was now paying the consequence.
My rapist turned in his ministerial license. His wife left him and moved out of state. Sanj, my new husband and I started our life together in Canada.
Over the years, I reached out to many church administrators to notify them that my rapist is still preaching in Adventist churches—yet no one listened or cared. I felt that I had done what I could, and I resigned myself that pursuing this further with my church was a dead end. Life had to go on.
Fast-forward 23 years. Sanj and I had a family—six boys. Life has been good and God had been faithful to our family. My husband loves and cherishes me, and while not perfect, I have a family that I always dreamed of. Home is a real haven—the safe haven I had longed for.
After I had first found the courage to tell my story, I had asked God to use my story, so that my pain would have purpose. My younger brother, Kumar Dixit, was a pastor in western Canada. He asked me if I would share what had happened to me 23 years before to a pastors’ meeting. I was excited, but petrified. How would I be received? Would they believe me?
Trembling, I told about this betrayal. A betrayal by one youth pastor, yes, but also my church and the school administration. I said, “In the 23 years that had passed, not one person has reached out to me from the church.” Holding back tears, my pain audible and visible, I sat down.
I did it. I had shared my deepest pain.
The president of the conference reached for the microphone. He walked over to me. The room was so still and quiet, you could have heard a pin drop. He looked at me and said, “Reema, you want an apology from your church? As a minister of the gospel of the Seventh-day Adventist church, I’m sorry.”
As I sat there, listening to these words, tears rolled down my face, I felt something. I felt that band-aid gently fall off and true healing began to occur.
Change is happening in the church. Many of the leaders in our church today are determined to stop the violation of trust. Since then I have been invited to be part of a course for pastors about clergy sexual abuse, through the Adventist Learning Community. Even though it is difficult to tell my story in public, I have started speaking publicly, and giving seminars on this topic. I was a featured speaker at the #Enditnow Abuse Summit. I have been overwhelmed by stories others have shared. I have asked God to use me to help prevent more of these stories occuring in our churches or schools. As I share my story, I hope more victims will find their own voice to tell their story, and pastors and leaders will get the help they need and avoid betraying the trust of the vulnerable.
One prayer has been answered: my story has helped others to heal as well.
Reema Sukumaran is a speaker and author whose goal is to bring the topic of abuse by clergy out of the darkness, and to speak openly to leaders so they can recognize symptoms of unhealthy boundaries and burnout. She is the proud mother of six growing boys, and works alongside her husband, an audiologist. She resides in Ontario, Canada. Her website is ReemaTalks.com.