We left the story of Sally at the age of 15. Sexual harassment and a botched exorcism had left her fairly vulnerable. There was no one either in her family or elsewhere to help her interpret what had happened or to make any sense of it. Although her father was to become an active Christian seven years later, his silence at the time was of little help to her in her confusion. Without any discussion, she stopped attending church, but she was not free of the thought patterns of conservative Calvinism with its emphasis on depravity and sin. Just before her 18th birthday, she found herself in desperate need of help to deal with a major incident in her life, a pregnancy and a subsequent abortion. It was in an effort to deal with the guilt that consumed her over these events that she decided to join a second Baptist church. The congregation seems to have been a smaller set-up and it was led by an apparently genial 67 year old male pastor. Sally described him as a ‘wise old granddad who couldn’t hurt anyone’. However she found it odd that he chose to involve himself closely with the youth group. This pastor and his wife had adopted three Asian children who had all by now left home.
One night the pastor came and took an act of worship for the youth group. During the course of this service he preached a strong sermon about forgiveness. In the course of his address he emphasised the importance of confessing sins to others and how that no sin was too big for the Lord to handle. Sally found this sermon helpful and so, afterwards, she and another girl, who was also dealing with the aftermath of an abortion, approached the pastor with the hope that ‘all would be fixed’. The pastor made an appointment to see Sally alone but she found things getting ‘creepy’ when he insisted in rubbing her back and shoulders while she told her story. He then declared that Sally needed to spend more time with him. The sessions became regular ones and he would pick her up on Fridays for a lunch appointment. During the course of these meetings his hands would stray to touch her leg and her hair. Finally he would send her on her way with what Sally describes as ‘horrible hug’. These sessions were terminated by Sally. She found herself having to lie to the minister, that her boss could not release her for Friday lunchtimes. While she was able to protect herself from a full scale sexual assault, her identity as confused teenager on the cusp of adulthood was little helped by these ‘sessions’.
Sally herself has realised that for an elderly male pastor to be discussing details of boyfriends, sexual activity and abortion with an 18 year old girl was entirely inappropriate. This has to be said before any comment is made about the touching, the stroking and the hugging, none of which were ever sought or welcomed. From the perspective of a clergyman, I can also see that the preaching about forgiveness to a group containing impressionable young women could be seen as a form of grooming. Sally and her friend were both extremely vulnerable and they were having to carry the burden of unresolved guilt without any psychological or family support. For the pastor to enter into that situation without specialised skills and background and to imply that he could ‘fix’ the problem was a piece of grotesque dishonesty. The reality was that he seemed to want to get close to this young woman both physically and by knowing her inmost secrets for his own emotional gratification. This is abusive emotional exploitation. If he had been genuinely interested in helping her, he would have established certain basic facts of the situation and then quickly referred her on to someone (most likely female) who would have offered her appropriate support and help. Instead he used his position of being the ‘above suspicion’ pastor to pursue his own selfish purposes. Once again, although she was not in fact sexually assaulted beyond the unpleasant touching, she was made to feel a ‘thing’ whose only value could be found in being a source of entertainment to an elderly man of God. Sally has not told me what this betrayal by a man of God has done to her image of God, but it is commonly reported that cases of this kind not only destroy trust in people of spiritual authority but make it hard for a victim to believe in the God that the pastor supposedly serves.
This story which Sally is sharing with us is sadly something which seems to be fairly common. One ‘creepy’ pastor or clergyman can pollute the possibility of trust in God for other individuals who come into contact with them or hear about their reputation. The Catholic church has suffered appalling damage through the revelations of child abuse. It is not just the individual boys and girls who were abused that have suffered; it is also the large numbers of others who shy away from the possibility of finding God through a man of the cloth because of what a few ‘black sheep’ have done. To think that a large number of people in our societies do not even expect to find the world of the spirit through a clergyman is the height of tragedy. There must be many Sallys around but still more people who shy away from the church through finding out, directly or indirectly, what certain men of God have done. A single such betrayal allows an unknown number to be cut off from even the possibility of trusting a man who is supposed to be a servant of God.
We will be hearing more of Sally’s tale but I should express my own pleasure in the fact that Sally is still searching for God and is still able to trust a minister (in this case me!) with her story. The two incidents I have recorded of the impact of representatives of the church meeting up with a vulnerable individual is sufficient for most people to think of giving up on the church completely. Sally has not given up but we have her story with which to help others who may face the awfulness of abuse in one place in which they ought to have to felt safe. It is this kind of betrayal that that this blog wants to expose and, in exposing it, help it to be outlawed. Such evil always finds it difficult to exist in the full light of day.