Panic attacks, high anxiety, and digestive issues were the symptoms that encamped my body anytime I went to church as I began to process part of the sexual harm that marked my young personhood. I told the story nearly eight years after my childhood pastor was arrested for exploiting children and women through the means of pornography; I was one of the children.
Appallingly, this pastor’s evil was covered up by congregation members, people close to him and me, who sat in service every Sunday and pled allegiance to his authority. They deeply admired him and covered his tracks. They saw the allegations as nothing against him; instead, they said it was all a deception, and he was just sick and needed help. Much of his following stayed intact, and church members split according to the ones who stood with the victims and the ones who did not.
This man sexually exploited children and women at the church, at Christian camps, amusement parks, and wherever he saw fit. His victims were countless, and I have data to conclude there were others involved in partaking and assisting in his criminal acts. Finally, the truth came out when he was arrested. His crime was inappropriately categorized as “peeping,” and with the help of a wealthy congregate, he hired a defense attorney that assisted him in walking away on probation.
At that time, I was just 16 years old. Over time I began to fill in the gaps of how my young self held it together without a safe space to process the harm. A kind officer and victim’s advocate who worked the case held witness to my heartache and helped me fill in the rifts of my experience. Friends gently carried me through the understanding of how this crime was inappropriately categorized. They helped me see how far we have come to naming the actuality of trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.
In recent years I’ve been able to partake in the church, meeting several kind pastors who’ve listened to my story and offered a sense of grief. Still, on certain days the church still feels like an unsafe place to be, and I struggle not to dissociate because of the tone of a male pastor’s voice during a service.
Sadly, my story is not an isolated event; I’ve worked with countless survivors with a similar experience.
Sexual harm happens all too often at the hands of pastors, leadership, deacon boards, and unfortunately, those who have the power and privilege to make a difference but fail to operate with integrity.
Often, we hear more about overt sexual harm, such as physical abuse, exploitation, trafficking, and domestic violence; however, the harm can be covert harm, such as subscribing to leaders, political figures, and morals that condone sexual harm, violence, marginalization, racism, and the degrading of people groups.
The list in both the categories of covert and overt harm goes on. A parallel I’ve found with other survivors is the complexity of categorizing the viewpoint of the bystander. While the bystander normally claims no involvement with the harm, it is darkly sinister to remain hushed to harm of another human.
I’ve reflected a lot about the concept of the bystander in the current vicious political environment, during recent outbreaks of gun violence, and in regard to the brutality at the borders of our country. When we choose to be reserved and watch without stepping in, we become the spectator, and that is the exact opposite of who we are designed to be.
Brothers and sisters, my urge is to check your empathy and examine your ability to relate to other humans through the account of personhood, not the ascription to a denomination, political party, or belief system. Step into the wrongs you witness for the beauty of another’s soul, not subscription to a broken system that abides by power and privilege. Friends, choose to be the advocate, not the bystander, to the odes of injustice.
Anna Smith is the Founder of Hope Bound Collective in Ft. Collins, offering trauma informed yoga, counseling and retreats. Anna has a resilient passion to see trauma survivors experience healing and wholeness. Mother to Asha and wife to Chris she enjoys biking with her husband Chris, reading, cooking, throwing pottery, running and yoga. Learn more about Hope Bound Collective here.