By Faith Ingraham
I have lived with a secret for the majority of my life. Many others are living with the same secret and they, like me, are suffering from the damage and pain it causes.
I was born into a pastor’s home, the sixth of nine children and the only girl. We attended church regularly and seemed to be the normal pastor’s family. My mother worked full-time as a secretary to support the large family. My father pastored several small churches.
I accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior when I was 5 years old. I wanted to please God, my parents, and the people around me. I tried to give God first place in my life and memorized many Scripture verses that helped me in my Christian walk.
My secret began when I was about 10 years old. It was then that my father chose to misuse his position of authority over me.
He raped me.
He would then rape and molest me whenever he found an opportunity. This abuse continued until I was 17 or 18. I cannot tell you how many times I was raped by my father. But it was something I constantly dreaded.
Each day as I came home from school, I would pray, “Oh Lord, help him not to be home,” or “Lord, please help him to stop.” But the abuse didn’t stop. I felt trapped—a prisoner in my own home.
One day my mother came home from work a little early and discovered our family secret. My father excused his behavior and blamed me for his actions.
God gave my father many gifts, but he chose to abuse and squander those gifts. He and my mother were given the gifts of nine children to love, nurture, and discipline. My father not only failed to meet the responsibility of caring for and protecting his children, he chose to steal from his children and God who had given them to him.
My father stole from me. He took away my innocence, childhood, and trust. He also robbed me of my sense of security and self-worth. He stole the gift of intimacy God intended to be shared between a husband and a wife. What was meant to be an expression of love is now seen as a selfish act of abuse.
My father stole from my husband. My father took the body of my future husband’s wife and used it to fulfill his own lusts. My body did not belong to him. It was not his to take. But he chose to act on his selfish desires, not taking into consideration the damage he was causing.
My father also stole from my children and those I would minister to in my Christian family. Because of my abuse, many of my emotions have been buried in an effort to protect and preserve them from deeper wounds. Because of this, the love and concern I feel for those around me often has been hidden from them. Even though I care a great deal for those around me, my ability to express my feelings to them has been impaired because of the abuse I endured.
I kept my secret because I felt it was the only thing to do. What difference would it make if I told someone? Who would believe me? Who would be hurt if the truth were known? What would happen to our family, to the people in the church, to me, to my father? There were so many questions and uncertainties. So I kept my secret.
Telling the Secret
During my engagement to a young man I met in Bible college, I felt it was necessary he know I had been a victim of sexual abuse, so I told him my secret.
His first response was to cut off our relationship with my father, but I told him we needed to forgive him. We thought this was the biblical way to handle the situation and we forgave him, even though he never confessed or repented of his sin against me. My father even performed our wedding ceremony, and both he and my mother remained a part of our lives.
Recently we realized our mistake in the way we dealt with my father’s sin and criminal activity.
Because I had never told my secret, my brother and his wife allowed their children to spend the night at my parents’ home. My father chose to take the opportunity to abuse another victim. He molested their 15-year-old daughter who is mentally disabled.
We then learned my father had been accused of sexual abuse of others and his pattern of abuse had persisted because his behavior had been excused or overlooked. People who knew of his sin chose to look the other way or decided not to make waves. They kept their secrets. Meanwhile, more victims were added to his list.
I realized my silence was enabling my father to continue his criminal activities.
I knew my secret must be told.
My husband, who was pastoring the church my parents attended, and two of my brothers confronted my father about his most recent abuse of my niece. They followed the guidelines set forth in Matthew 18.
They told my father he could be forgiven, but he must accept the consequences of his behavior. This would include confessing to the legal authorities and being registered as a sex offender. He was also told he should confess to family members and others who had been hurt by his abuse. He was informed his ministry would be limited by his offense. He should no longer teach his Bible study and he wouldn’t be permitted to teach children. And he would need to receive counseling for his addiction.
A Common Secret
It’s so sad the secret I kept for so long is not all that unusual. A 1990 telephone survey of 2,626 Americans found 27 percent of women and 16 percent of men had been sexually abused. Of those participants confirming sexual abuse, 42 percent of women and 33 percent of men never disclosed it to anyone.1
The majority of victims are abused by family members or trusted family friends. Only about 2 percent are abused by strangers.
This means of every four people you know, at least one of them has a secret. Some of them may have been abused only once; some of them may have been abused numerous times by the same abuser; and others may have had several different abusers from the same family.
It is time to tell the secret.
It is time to acknowledge this evil not only occurs in the secular world, but it is thriving in our churches. Keeping the secret enables abusers to continue their sinful behavior.
When my secret was revealed to members of our small church, several women in our congregation shared similar secrets. One pastor’s daughter had been abused by a visiting speaker who had been a guest in their home. Another had been abused by a pastor to whom she had gone for counseling. One lady, who attended a school for missionaries’ kids, witnessed sexual abuse by dorm parents.
God cannot bless our churches if we do not deal with the sin of these offenders and call for true repentance. The story of Achan’s sin at the battle of Ai in Joshua 7 is an example of how God withholds his blessing if there is hidden sin in the camp.
Confronting the Abuser
The church is finally starting to address the problem of the many hurting victims who need healing, but often we excuse the offender, enabling him to continue in his abuse of others.
We are trying to remedy the problem by putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. We need to address the root of the problem. We can’t just continue to patch broken lives while allowing abusers to continue their destructive behavior.
Most of us have needed to correct a child or person who has hurt another. The correct response is to confront the one who is being abusive and let him know there will be consequences for his behavior. When we correct abusive behavior, we are not being unloving or unforgiving; we are teaching good behavior and self-discipline. We are also teaching respect for God and others.
Too often the church responds to sexual abuse by telling the victim he or she needs to forgive the offense and seek healing in Christ. But the sin of the offender is excused, discounted, ignored, or minimized. We do not address the abuser or hold him accountable for his criminal behavior.
Why do we not confront the abuser and require him to accept the consequences of his actions? Why do we refuse to admit there are abusers in our churches? It brings shame and reproach to the name of Christ when we keep such secrets.
It’s time for victims of sexual abuse to stand up and say, “By the grace of God, we’re going to stop this sinful behavior within our churches.” We can no longer be enablers.
1“The Secrecy of Child Sexual Abuse,” by Nancy Faulkner, Ph.D., Sexual Counseling Digest, October 1996.
Faith Ingraham lives in Addison, New York. She and her husband have created Speaking the Truth in Love Ministries (http://speakingtruthinlove.org) in an effort to teach the church how to biblically deal with sexual sin.
Read the sidebar, “WHAT WOULD JESUS DO”