With the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh thrown into question by sexual assault allegations, President Trump tweeted that “if it was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed.”
Distressed by the president’s apparent ignorance of the dynamics of sexual assault, thousands of women and men have responded under the hashtag of #WhyIDidntReport, telling their stories in an attempt to answer the question that is so often thrown at sexual assault survivors: “Why didn’t you say something sooner?”
I join with them.
Why didn’t I report?
Because the Southern Baptist minister/rapist had told me that everything he did was God’s will and that I was to be a “helpmeet” to him in his holy work.
Because the Southern Baptist minister/rapist had later told me that I harbored Satan.
Because I was an impossibly confused 16-year-old girl.
Because when I told the church’s music minister, he instructed me not to talk about it to anyone else.
Because I was a good Baptist girl, raised to be submissive to pastoral authority and to “lean not” unto my own understanding.
Because I was made to apologize to the minister/rapist’s wife and I believed that everything was somehow my fault.
Because I was terrified of going to hell.
Because my whole self was enveloped in shame and fear.
Because the senior pastor told me I needed to rededicate my life to Christ.
Because it never would have occurred to me to put a “rapist” label on a “man of God.”
Because, even after others knew, the senior pastor praised the minister/rapist from the pulpit and my whole church community gave him a send-off with their best casseroles and Jell-O molds.
Because when I told my older sister, she called me a “slut.”
Because for decades I was incapable of admitting even to myself that someone I trusted so completely had violated me in such a profoundly personal and painful way.
Years later, what happened when I did report?
The music minister said the conduct was “consensual” even though I was a minor at the time of the assaults, and he still insisted that I had no business talking about it.
The church and the music minister made a preemptive strike, threatening to sue me if I continued to talk about what had happened.
When I contacted other church and denominational authorities – 18 in total – some ignored me completely and others made uncaring, bureaucratic, do-nothing responses.
When I contacted the Southern Baptist Convention, they wrote that they had no record the man was still in ministry – even though he was, as I later learned.
When I contacted law enforcement, they told me the statute of limitations had run out.
When I filed a lawsuit, the church used a longtime denominational attorney who tried to silence me with a nondisclosure agreement, which he described as “standard” and which I refused to sign.
I learned that another woman, a church secretary, had made sexual harassment claims against the same minister and that she had lost her job because of it.
When I dared to propose concrete steps that the Southern Baptist Convention could take to make church kids safer – the sorts of record-keeping and information-sharing that are common in other faith groups – I was disparaged, ridiculed and vilified.
Top Southern Baptist officials dismissed me as an “opportunist,” an “evil-doer” and a person of “no integrity.”
Countless others flung slurs such as “harlot” and “Jezebel.” You name it, and I’ve probably been called it, usually in an anonymous spew of venom and often beginning with the words “I’m a Christian and …”
Even some family members fell subject to the same ignorance as that of the president and criticized me for not “choosing” to speak out at the time of the assaults; it strained relationships.
My own mother used words quite similar to those of the president, insisting it “couldn’t possibly have been so bad” or I would have talked about it with her.
Later, Mom also told me that the church’s senior pastor had assured her I would “forget about it” – and she wondered why I couldn’t do that.
There is a significant cost for speaking out.
The many stories under the #WhyIDidntReport hashtag should dispel any mystery about why sexual assault survivors don’t speak up sooner.
Reporting can be as traumatic as the assault. Survivors anticipate that, and the responses of others seldom prove them wrong.
I myself sometimes wonder whether it was worth it. Institutionally, nothing seems to have changed, and the ministers faced little consequence.
Though he no longer works in children’s ministry, the minister/rapist still trades on his “45 years in the ministry” to promote his trustworthiness as a real estate agent, and he even named a Baptist “church partner” for his business.
The keep-it-quiet music minister kept his job and had a church concert series named after him, in honor of his work with youth choirs.
Meanwhile, for my family and myself, the costs have been high. In particular, I grieve for the guilt my mother felt and for how a religious leader manipulated her.
Nevertheless, I am proud to have survived the Southern Baptist Convention, an institution infected with a virulent rape culture enabled by theology, polity and religious tribalism. It’s a hellhole of a place for those who seek to report the sexual assaults of clergy.
A retired appellate attorney, she is the author of This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and his Gang.