Trigger warning: this article contains numerous graphic accounts of sexual violence.
“What’s wrong with me?”
I’ve asked myself this question each time I’ve been assaulted by a Christian man I trusted. Each time it happened, I felt guilty, alone, and sure it was my fault.
For decades, I hid these painful secrets from everyone. I was a Christian. An excellent student in my native Finland, then in Japan, and then in the US. An accomplished pianist. A missionary. A minister’s wife. A professor. A pilot. A social reformer. I had a PhD. I was well-known in my circles.
Nobody knew. Nobody guessed my secret shame.
But, I knew it was my fault. It had to be. Otherwise, why would I be the repeated target of sexual offense by Christian ministers and leaders? Clearly, something was seriously wrong with me.
That’s what I thought.
This is how it happened:
He was my great uncle, in my life since I was born. My family lived close by and we spent a lot of time together. We attended the same church, where he‘d been saved and now sang in the choir. The whole family rejoiced that their prayers about his salvation had been heard!
One summer, my parents decided that I was old enough to take the bus to spend a week of my vacation with my aunt and uncle at their cabin. They had no children of their own. I was so excited.
When my uncle took a nap, I usually laid down next to him. But one afternoon, his hands wandered into places where they didn’t belong. He whispered something in my ear about going off somewhere alone with him, out on the lake to fish and then onto an island—just the two of us. I was twelve at the time.
He abused me and yet made me believe I was somehow more special than before. I remember being tucked into bed at night by him. Or maybe the two of them, I don’t remember. I remember feeling like I was holding onto something that was terribly special, a secret that belonged just to us. I didn’t tell anyone anything about what happened because I truly forgot about it. This happens to many victims of child sexual abuse.
I didn’t remember until I was forty and happily married. When my husband’s stubble rubbed against my cheek, I was suddenly back with my uncle all those years ago. I started to cry hysterically and found myself in therapy seeking answers for my sudden trauma.
I was in high school when another man I trusted took advantage of me. Although I was good at many subjects and had the reputation of being a leader, I had a low self-esteem. I went to church faithfully, played the piano, accompanied the choir, led the youth choir, wrote and arranged music for them, and attended every time the church doors were open. I did little other than go to school and to church. I still felt I wasn’t good enough.
My new pastor and his wife took an interest in me. I confided in them and felt warm acceptance. My pastor started to pick me up from school, write notes to me during service, and show up at the house when my parents were at work.
I thought I was special—maybe even in love. My parents had serious misgivings about him, albeit unspoken to me. He told me we needed to love one another, just as the Bible said. His wife told me she was going to die young, and he was going to need someone suitable to help serve in the church and care for the children.
It was another special secret. I didn’t—couldn’t—tell anyone. And who would have believed me?! My own pastor was involved. What happened was inappropriate, was abuse, but the details are foggy. I remember the kissing and the hugging. Was there more? I honestly don’t know.
Somehow, the elders learned about what was happening. Overnight, the minister and his family disappeared, transferred to another location.
No one talked to me or asked me what had happened. Presumably, the elders didn’t want to know any details from me. They swept his abuse under the proverbial rug, and so did I. The church’s deafening silence only reinforced my belief that there was something wrong with me. It didn’t make any difference in my own assaulted heart that I was much younger, in his youth group, an active member of his church, and, therefore, the victim.
Decades later, I learned that, upon being questioned by the trustees of the church, the pastor blamed me for seducing him.
By the end of high school, I’d been groomed to be an obedient guardian of big, uncomfortable secrets. I had become codependent and allowed others to cross my boundaries in order to be judged as “acceptable” and “worthy” by those I held in high esteem. I was perfect “good girl” material, ready for the next perpetrator. I knew how to keep my mouth shut.
After high school, I traveled as an exchange student in Japan. There, I struggled with not being able to speak and understand the language or the culture. I knew few people, so I was delighted to be invited to assist at church, playing the piano for former friends who were preaching there. I knew them from back in Finland; my mother had even entertained them in our home.
I went to the hotel where they were staying to go over the service arrangements. The door was flung open and the preacher greeted me with a big smile. I stepped in and learned his wife had just stepped out to make her hair appointment but sent her greetings. Without further delay, he pushed me on the bed, pulled off my bottoms, and raped me.
In therapy many years later, I learned that my response—shock, disbelief, frozen stillness, and immediate denial and forgetfulness—is common among victims of rape. I didn’t even recognize that I’d been raped until years later. Again, I thought it was all my fault. After all, he said so. I’d been much too friendly and sweet on the phone.
And, horror of all horrors, I still went to the service that night. An obedient child, I played the piano, probably sang and smiled as if nothing was wrong. In complete denial and lack of understanding of what happened, I suppressed the memory. I know he raped me one more time that weekend, somewhere in a dark hallway of that large hotel but the memories, again, remain vague.
During my time in Japan, I regularly attended a small church pastored by American missionaries. One missionary couple lived in an apartment above the church. The wife’s parents traveled from the US for a winter vacation; her dad was a minister, who could also sing. The two of us were asked to perform a song or two together in Sunday service.
Alone at the church, we practiced the moving Gaither classic “He Touched Me.” We stood side by side, a blue hymnal in my hand, a guitar in his. Suddenly, he slid his hand down and pulled out his penis.
He whispered to me—so that his wife, daughter, and son-in-law upstairs wouldn’t hear. He was going to arrange a place for me to study near his church in southern California. “Wouldn’t that be nice?” he suggested.
For heaven’s sake, what was wrong with me? How could something like this happen to me again?
When I attended a Christian university in the US Midwest, men there told me I caused them to have “blue balls” (a crude slang term for male sexual frustration). I really didn’t understand at first, but I knew that whatever was happening to them was my fault. I was somehow responsible for their misery. But if I could hurry up and get married, the problem would be solved. Surely that was better than allowing these men to burn with lust? I needed to protect them from me, from temptation.
My boyfriend and I soon became serious. It was only my freshman year, but we seemed to be a good match, to have the same life goals. He was a Christian preparing for the ministry, said he was a virgin and, best of all, promised to take me “as is.” He said he forgave me for my past, something no one else in his position would do. After all, I was damaged goods.
During our first week of marriage, he hit me. “Because I ruined his meat,” he said. I thought I was supposed to make beef stew, but he’d meant roast beef. This should have been a major red flag. But I knew that it was on me, all because of my shortcomings, my mistakes. I needed to do much, much work to become a better wife. And so the abuse continued and I submitted to a narcissist for the next seventeen years.
I didn’t know I had worth. I didn’t understand how to set boundaries. I didn’t know that I had the right to determine who touched me—and when, where, and how. I felt I had no power to decide anything for myself. I never knew that sex should or ever could be a mutual act of love.
Though I’d grown up in a country, Finland, where equality between the sexes is normal and expected, I was also raised in conservative evangelicalism (a less common religious tradition in Nordic countries). I was taught that man was created superior to woman. Or at least, that was the implication, and the Bible was interpreted—by many well-meaning people and by some less so—to support that idea.
I also thought the label “Christian” meant “above sin.” I didn’t understand that being a Christian is a journey, that once you meet Christ, you’ve only just begun. Christians are still flawed. They can still abuse. They can still make mistakes. They can still violate and manipulate others. They can still commit crimes.
Men exercised dominion over me in ways that left scars on my heart and psyche for decades. Their abuse and the toxic teachings and practices of churches I attended messed with my understanding of and trust in God. It’s most certainly affected my sex life and my whole sexual being negatively. Even when I felt that it was moral to be with a loving man I was married to, I felt—still do sometimes—that I’m doing something wrong.
After all these years, what these men did to me is still with me every day. I’ve seen counselors, psychologists, psychotherapists, grief counselors, trauma counselors, and psychiatrists during different stages of my healing. They tell me the wounds of abuse are deep and long-lasting. It’s true.
This article isn’t a confession. I’m done with those, with religious leaders and churches who find ways to blame me for the trauma I endured. I now know that when these men touched me, it was they who were guilty. It was not my fault, not my sin. I was the victim.
A house of God is a place where we expect to be safe, but it’s not automatically so. Churches are populated by sinners, not saints. I was told not to get in the cars of strangers as a child, but my mom didn’t warn me about pastors in churches. But, simply because potential violators happen to carry the label “Christian” doesn’t mean that they have integrity or that they’re harmless.
In order to create safe churches, we need to become aware of our failings and blind spots, and we need to talk about sexual abuse. Communities grow safer when victims dare to speak up, when perpetrators are confronted, and when everyone watches out for everyone else, men included.
If we believe that God created men and women equal, we have an obligation to teach that beautiful message early. We need to ensure that young, developing bodies and souls are able to comprehend what’s happening inside of them and differentiate normal sexual feelings from abuse and manipulation. Girls must know that they’ll be believed regardless of who violates their boundaries or causes confusing feelings and sensations.
Most importantly, we must recognize that sexual harassment and abuse in the church could happen to any of us, at any age. There are evil-doers behind the pulpit and sitting in the pews with us who, given the opportunity, will exploit us. And almost worse, there are Christians who remain blind, deaf, and mute in order to guard the pure image of the church. They would rather hide from the ugly truth than face it with courage and fierceness for justice.
I thought I was the problem for a very long time, that the abuse was my fault, that something was wrong with me. But there’s nothing wrong with me, or you. There’s something very, very wrong with the abusers and the system that protects them.
Eyes Open To Abuse: A Tool to Create a Safer Church
When Churches Don’t Believe Victims, They Commit Abuse
Silence—A Response to Abuse in the Church