Image of hand clasping a church

Surviving Sexual Assault: Why It Has Been Difficult to Forgive the Church

I was crushed when allegations against the late apologist, Ravi Zacharias, emerged, and I read about how RZIM initially refused to believe the women who accused Zacharias of sexually assaulting them. As a victim of sexual assault, I grieved for the helplessness they would have felt.

RZIM’s most recent statement did eventually condemn Zacharias’ actions and show remorse and empathy for the victims. But the many articles from Christian leaders that have followed, rushing to offer grace to Zacharias, left me wondering, yet again, what grace there is in the church for victims of this particular sin.

It’s been more than two years since I began this series, where I first wrote about how I learned to forgive myself, then my abuser. This last article has been the most difficult to write. In some ways, the wounds from the church have been the most painful.

These Christian leaders are not wrong: perpetrators of sexual assault can certainly find forgiveness at the cross. But a response that focuses only on this aspect of restoration remains woefully inadequate. In attempting to extend empathy to Zacharias through an argument like “we all sin”, these writers have glossed over the very real anguish that his victims have suffered, and the very real justice and restoration that is also due to them.

 

A Victim’s Impossible Burden

It’s not surprising that a sexual assault victim’s ordeal remains underrepresented. Sexual assault is not like other crimes, where the evidence—empty bank accounts, physical wounds, or blood tests—testify plainly that a crime has been committed. My wounds can’t be seen, and there isn’t an x-ray to prove to others that something has been broken inside. So, I start on the back foot, and need to first prove that I am, in fact, a victim.

It’s a colossal task to ask of someone who has been wounded in the worst way. I still find it impossible to describe the trauma of being sexually assaulted to someone who has never been violated. The difficulty of conveying what exactly had been shattered and the horror of reliving the trauma when I did try to speak about it prevented me from telling my story coherently for years. There was also deep fear that people would think I was lying, especially since I was assaulted by a reputable church leader. I suspect many victims face similar struggles, and more, and choose to remain silent out of self-protection.

Since what I went through was far from “common knowledge”, my listeners had to exercise empathy if they really wanted to understand. My family and some dear friends did. They tried to imagine what being violated, and what being betrayed by someone supposedly trustworthy, would have made me feel. They did their own reading, to understand the bigger picture of what sexual assault was, and the complex dynamics it often involved. They even researched the “dos and don’ts” about how to reach out to a victim.

These things are immensely uncomfortable to do. It is indeed the rare soul who would willingly enter into another’s pain like this and “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). Their efforts, compassion, and empathy, made speaking about my experience that little bit easier.

 

The Cost of the Church’s Ignorance

But when I reported the assault, the responses from the church leadership couldn’t have been more different. I wasn’t expecting them to handle the matter perfectly; I knew this would be something new. I only hoped for a little empathy for how difficult it was to bring this matter to them. And—even as they needed to verify my story—I hoped that they’d be able to engage me in the gentle and compassionate manner I imagined Jesus would have used, if He had to relate to a victim of such injustice.

But as it turned out, not only did I have to work through the trauma of the assaults, I would also have to process the trauma of the church’s response to my report.

A former mentor, who made the report with me, proposed that the church conduct an independent investigation (with a panel that comprised at least one lawyer, a medical professional, and women). Having no formal structures in place to deal with these situations, the church leaders acceded to the wisdom of her proposal.

I understood the need for due process, and welcomed it. I’d heard enough horror stories to be grateful that the church wasn’t merely going to take the word of their charismatic senior staff over mine, and dismiss my report. But what truly winded me was the manner in which the process took place.

It was clear from the victim-blaming questions they asked that most of the leaders were not educated about sexual assault. They relied, instead, on their pre-existing “knowledge” of these issues, which seemed largely informed by erroneous assumptions.

More than being hurtful (and never mind the insensitive or patronising tone that they were often asked in), these questions hindered a fair investigation of the facts. They revealed that the inquirers already had preconceived assumptions of the events, judged me to be partially at fault, and absurdly implied that I had to take responsibility for another person’s sin.

A neutral question like, “Can you describe what happened?”, for instance, would have allowed me to narrate the events as they happened. An ordeal in itself, to relive the horrific details of the assaults. But a question like, “Why did you allow this to happen to you?” already implied that I had the capacity to stop her, and didn’t. But this simply wasn’t a fair starting point.

To give myself a fair hearing, I had to first identify and explain the unfairness of their assumption—they didn’t account for the fact that I couldn’t save myself—before insisting on having a chance to explain the facts. I had not consented to any sexual contact. She’d chosen to violate my body nonetheless, and I had been powerless to stop her.

It was pressure unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I’m certain it was supernatural grace that saw me through it. Towards the end, I was so frustrated and terrified that this biased inquiry would impede the facts from being known that I could barely think clearly. And yet, I knew I had to keep it together, because it felt like my receiving justice depended on how well I was able to be my own advocate.

Miraculously, after a long six months, upon the advisement of the inquiry committee, the church fired that staff for sexual misconduct. But the battle was not yet over. In a series of exhausting conversations, my family, former mentor and I had to persuade the leaders for several things that would be critical for my healing: (1) a formal letter of apology from the church, (2) counselling, (3) informing the key volunteers of the reason for her dismissal for accountability in order to protect other potential victims.

I received the first two. As far as I know, in the church bulletin, they merely thanked her for her years of service and wished her well for her future endeavours. While I can’t speak to their intentions for concealing the true reason for her departure; I can only hope that there haven’t been any other victims.

 

My Struggle to Forgive the Church’s Ignorance

For the longest time, I struggled to forgive them. How could they let their fear—of not knowing how to manage dark sins, of a potential lawsuit, of awkward conversations with church members—prevent them from doing the right thing by the people in their care?

How could justice lie in the hands of ones who didn’t realise their own ignorance on these important issues? Did they know how much it could have cost me, and has cost others?

I’d never quite understood why ignorance required forgiveness before: how can one fault someone for not knowing any better? But the little that someone knows does not mitigate the magnitude of the damage he can inflict. Jesus understood that. His violated body on the cross testified that the mob’s ignorance wasn’t harmless. It was literally killing the Son of God.

Yet, as Jesus hung there for something He did not do, and as the mob stood there oblivious to what they were doing, He did the remarkable. He uttered His last few words on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

As I considered His words, I realised that Jesus’ ability to forgive in the face of great pain reveals that even pain has its limitations. However great the anguish He was feeling, it did not take away His humility, His ability to empathise with people, or His reverence for God. It was not powerful enough to destroy who He fundamentally was.

I take great comfort in this. It tells me that the pain others inflict on me does not have the final word on who I am. It tells me that God can keep the most valuable parts of who I am in a place that pain cannot touch. It tells me that the pain from ignorance will not kill me.

And even though Jesus did die at the hands of ignorance, it was still not the final word on the matter. His Father of justice did not let the truth be mired under the fog of ignorance for long. Jesus died, He rose, and finally, the people saw that He was the Son of God.

I am learning to forgive the men for not knowing any better because I can see that they are not the ones who ultimately define the narrative of the assault. It is God’s truth, justice, and righteousness that will, even if it appears veiled at present.

But He does not leave me without hope in the meantime. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross means that I never have to utter His subsequent cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). In the points of greatest pain from the leaders, I felt His presence in the people who believed me. These extraordinary women and men who prayed and advocated for me, who spared no effort in ensuring that I received redress, were His means of grace to me.

But for my one story, there are countless others of victims who have seen their reports shoved aside and who have been hurt by their church leadership in far worse ways.

With you, I grieve. My heart breaks for what this betrayal has cost you, on top of what you have already suffered. For you, I continue to research, teach, and write about how churches can become an unequivocal place of refuge to all sexual assault victims. I pray that God will prove that He is indeed the One who sees you (Genesis 16:13–14), and, in spite of how people have failed you, bring you what you need to heal. You are not alone; He does not forget you.

To church leaders, I beseech you not to close your hearts to the ones who report sexual assault to you. The trauma that a victim experiences is far greater than what has been represented in Christian circles. Like yours, our bodies are made in the image of God. But ignoring us when we’ve been violated and choosing to protect our abuser’s reputation, or the comfortable status quo to avoid facing difficult truths, tells us otherwise. It tells us that someone else’s perverse pleasure is worth more than what is inherently most precious to us, what God Himself has called sacred (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). And this can destroy a person completely.

I hope the church can offer more to the bruised reeds of society. We are called to be the embodiment of Christ, who is the head of the church (Colossians 1:18). Will you seek how to offer a more life-giving response to victims of sexual assault, so that when they look into your eyes, it’ll be Jesus that they see?

 

Editor’s Note: This article is the third of a three-part series. The first: Surviving Sexual Assault: How I Learned to Forgive Myself. The second: Surviving Sexual Assault: How I am Learning to Forgive My Abuser.

3 replies
  1. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    Thanks for having the guts to share, Nelle. You’re absolutely right, we shouldn’t sweep away the victims as some inconvenient nuisance. Thanks for reminding me of that.

    Reply
  2. Elisse
    Elisse says:

    Nelle, thank you for being so brave to share your experience and wounds here. It took me some time thinking whether I should give a comment here or not. A lot of considerations in mind. I also experienced a sexual assault by a church leader many years ago, and all you wrote here are so true. I feel you. I’ve been through similar things too, and now I only keep it to myself and my closest friends and just focus on healing myself because ppl who never experienced it won’t understand all the horror. Even after many years, even when I thought I have forgiven that person, I still have the trauma unconsciously. I dread meeting or talking to older man alone it makes me shaky and cry.
    I find some comfort in your articles about this topic, that I can have hope in Christ who truly cares for the victims who are struggling silently. Thank you for writing this. God bless you.

    Reply
    • Nelle
      Nelle says:

      Dear Elisse, I’m so sorry to hear about what you’ve had to suffer through. I know what you mean about being afraid of opening up to people for fear that they won’t understand. Dismissive or insensitive remarks can add to the hurt that you’re already struggling with. I’m sorry, too, to hear that the trauma triggers still surface for you. I experience them too from time to time. Going for therapy with someone trained to work through sexual assault has definitely helped. My therapist was able to work through my triggers with me, and help me find healthy coping mechanisms so that I don’t have to live paralysed by fear. I’ve not fully overcome everything yet, but it’s certainly eased over the years. I’ve prayed that God will provide help like this for you as well. We may never know why we’ve had to experience this, but we can be certain that God is more than able to bring us healing and set us free. Take care, Elisse.

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.