I realize the power structure goes far beyond one toxic church. It’s ingrained into every aspect of our lives. One person, especially a newcomer, could not hope to make a dent in the wall of secrecy and abuse that kept a little girl trapped and silenced. Despite this, I still think about that girl, now a young woman, coping with the fallout of abuse.
For a long time, I couldn’t write down what happened because I didn’t know what to tell myself about it. I blamed myself even though I know I did what I could. Those memories remain so fresh in my mind they could have happened yesterday as I have often delved back, searching for something I could have done to have changed events.
I was excommunicated in a rather predictable way—outrageous, vicious rumors were spread about me to destroy my credibility. I was cast in the role of the “slithering serpent”, telling lies, and tearing at the fabric of their tight-knit community.
To protect identities, names and places have been changed:
- The victim: LG—short for Little Girl (Yes, I know it’s rather unimaginative.)
- The church: RNJ Church—short for Religious Nut Jobs (The church image used is not the actual church, which did not survive the controversy.)
- The perpetrator/first adoptive couple: Mr. Rapist and Mrs. Rapist don’t deserve the dignity of a fake name. I’m calling them what they are.
- Second adoptive couple: Although the names “Adam and Steve” were spitefully assigned to the gay couple who eventually adopted LG (I don’t recall anyone using the couple’s real name), I’m using the names Charles and Tim.
LG was a 4-year-old African-American girl at the time she was placed in foster care with Mr. and Mrs. Rapist. She began her life with a significant disadvantage; she was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. I believe it was stated the mother was in jail and the father was either unknown or uninterested. When her “caregivers” found that a homosexual couple had already adopted her brothers and wanted to adopt her, they put up a fight and got exactly as homophobic as you’d expect of a hyper-religious, uneducated small-town couple.
I’ve found a few articles about LG’s journey in healing from the abuse which occurred for an estimated 3 years between the ages of 6 and 9.
I don’t remember exactly how many people went to RNJ church during the time I was there. I feel like 200-300 sounds about right. It wasn’t a megachurch, but not exactly small, either.
Although the church was officially non-denominational, it was best described as Charismatic which means it’s a Pentecostal/Apostolic/Evangelical style of church; rather different from the stodgy Protestant churches my parents attended.
I was raised in the church. When I was a kid, my father was a pastor for Presbyterian, United Methodist, and Church of God (not the snake handling Church of God). So, basically different brands of vanilla. In my family, church is something you just have to do, so there wasn’t a question of whether, but where I would attend church. This is why you’ll see a few scriptures and Biblical references. From my insider/outsider perspective, I know the Bible and the church even better than most holy rollers do.
I started attending the new church as a friend who was new to Christianity invited me. I was immediately impressed with how diverse the church was. Everyone was so welcoming. I was new to “speaking in tongues” and since no one really pressured me to do it, I passed it off as an odd quirk and did my best to ignore how fake it was.
In the beginning, it really seemed that this was a church that would accept anyone and would be more open-minded than the sort of church I was accustomed to. I later encountered such virulent gossip—attacks that didn’t even contain a shred of reality.
What really blew my mind about this congregation was that being “former sinners” was a big part of their identity. They were big on talking about being former alcoholics and having other substance abuse or behavioral issues. They saw no problem in sharing how the Lord had healed them, yet later revealed an ugly side, taking glee in passing judgment on me for things I wouldn’t even have dreamt of doing. Offensive and sensational stories were stated as fact about Charles and Tim. Although the church members never met them, their orientation was apparently all they needed to know to know about “their type of people”.
As much as they engaged in “letting it all hang out”, they still used what I call “church-talk”, the veneer of politeness in which no one says outright what they mean if it would make them look bad. For those fortunate enough not to know, church-talk is about 3 steps beyond dog-whistle politics and corporate doublespeak.
I didn’t ask others about their level of education, but quite a few members mentioned I stood out for being a college student; more “book-learnin’” than most church members had. (This isn’t pointed out as a slight against them, but it’s an important part of the setting. I was clearly outnumbered by people whose critical thinking skills were out of practice or undeveloped.)
The perpetrator/adoptive couple
“Mr. and Mrs. Rapist”, the main power couple in the church. Mr. Rapist was the pastor’s right-hand man. He was an Usher and, if memory serves correctly, the Deacon of the church. He went out of his way to be around children, which I find quite troubling. He was school bus driver. Mr. and Mrs. Rapist were foster parents to about 50 kids over the years. I don’t really remember what the wife did, but I think Mrs. Rapist was a volunteer for the church.
Although no additional stories have come out from his work as a bus driver or foster parent, I can’t help but wonder if some stories have remained untold.
The couple didn’t bother to adopt LG until the gay couple came into the picture. It was only after about 2 or 3 of the 5 years she was in their care that they even felt the inclination to start adoption paperwork. I don’t know which of the two of them led the push to adopt the girl; I fear this was prompted by Mr. Rapist, to keep the outlet for his sexual urges within reach.
Why I had to go
Instead of fitting into the Midwestern ideal of a “good Christian”, I feel that being a Christian means one should strive to be Christ-like instead of backstabbing, hypocritical, and narrow-minded. I believe reality has a liberal bias and I support evidence-based, science-based legislation that protects the vulnerable. In other words, I’m a heretic.
This church hadn’t pulled the “Women must be silent and submissive” nonsense, but I knew that no matter how politely my opinions were stated, they would be less welcomed than a man’s opinions and these particular opinions were considered threatening to the status quo.
But I still have this crazy idea that it’s better to change hearts and minds, and to try to have a positive impact. Idealistic, stupid and stubborn; I’m proud to say I haven’t grown out of it. I don’t remember how long I had been attending the church before things got ugly, but I’m sure it was at least 6 months, probably a year or more. I was rather comfortable and felt that I was part of it, so walking away didn’t feel like the right thing to do. There was a feeling that since I was part of it, I could have a positive impact. This was an insular community—how else would they encounter a challenge to their views from within the group? (If not me, then who?) I would never expect them to take part in a pride parade, but I was bold enough to think I could encourage at least the “love the sinner, hate the sin” level of enlightenment.
I felt that if I could grow up in the church, in the same small town, without hopping into the basket of deplorables, I could reach these people—and even pull a few out of the basket.
Bless her heart
Looking back at myself, it’s hard not to think: “Bless her heart. She’s doing all this and will only be punished in return.” And I’d do it all over again. I’ll probably never learn from Matthew 7:6, still throwing my pearls before swine, knowing full well I shall be trampled and torn to pieces for daring to try.
When the subject started coming up about “those homos” adopting LG, I absolutely would not allow such remarks. In the 90s, in a profoundly conservative area, I was unusually progressive, gently prompting others toward political correctness. This was an excellent way of sorting out who was worthy of my time and it created a safe environment for a few friends in school to come out to me, although they had to remain in the closet around others. (If you’re too young to know who Matthew Shepard was, it is important to know why many people remained closeted.)
I also refrained from using church-talk and tackled the issue head-on. Church folks aren’t used to being confronted with facts; flustered if they can’t rely on their comfort zone of faith, feelings, or tradition. If I had it to do all over again, I’d probably add a touch of church-talk and be a little sneakier. But at the time, when someone would talk about the issue, referring to Chris and Tim in a homophobic slur, the conversation would go something like this:
Me: “I’m sorry, are you referring to the men who want to adopt LG?”
RNJ Member: “Yes, like I was saying—Those homos—”
Me: “Would it be possible to refer to them as LG’s prospective parents, or something besides ‘those homos’? I don’t see a need to make disparaging remarks about people who are trying to give LG a stable home with her brothers.”
RNJ Member: (Flabbergasted) “Well, they’re homos! That’s no place for a little girl!!! I don’t think the Lord intended for Adam and Steve to have children in their home!”
Me: “I think 2 men who have no interest in the ladies would statistically be the safest place for her.”
RNJ Member: “But they’re PERVERTS!”
Me: “Do you know them personally? I don’t see how making assumptions about people is the Christian thing to do. These men also passed several tests and interviews and adopted her 3 brothers. Don’t you think it’s nice that they’re trying to raise the family together?”
They’d try to bring up Leviticus. I’d make the point that Mr. and Mrs. Rapist hadn’t formally adopted the girl; they were still foster parents who had not attempted to adopt until Charles and Tim already had gone through all the steps to formally adopt the brothers. This showed Chris and Tim were committed to providing a safe, loving home for the family.
For the great insult of challenging their views and reminding them they’re not really doing WWJD, I was slandered and basically excommunicated. I was still allowed into the building but got the cold shoulder. I imagine that’s what Klingon discommendation feels like.
The smear campaign
Right around the time the smear campaign focused on me, the friend who got me into this church was in the process of sliding out. He had brought a few other friends along, and over time they faded out until I was the only one left. I’m not sure if they lost interest or endured some backstabbing as well. Since I was the troublemaker, they had to crank up the craziness.
In an effort to discredit me, I was branded a “whore”. The gossip that was being spread about me was frighteningly elaborate and lacked any basis in reality. Not only was I allegedly hooking, but their stories included a specific street corner where I worked. I also supposedly worked as a stripper and serviced customers in the parking lot. (I wonder how much they thought I charged…) As for the strip club, I had never been there. I didn’t even know where it was located until I got lost on a shortcut years later.
When I heard about this, I didn’t give the reaction they hoped for. Instead of bursting into tears, I busted out laughing.
“They think I’m a hooker?!?! I don’t even know where that intersection is! You mean our crappy little town is big enough for a red-light district? And what were they doing there, anyway? I’ve heard of this strip club you’re talking about, but I’ve certainly never been there. I don’t even know where it’s located.”
They also didn’t appreciate the joke that I dared to say we should ask whoever-it-was what they were doing in red-light districts. Had this happened more recently, I’d have corrected them, using a more appropriate term such as “sex worker”, but even now, I don’t think they’d understand the difference.
I was a waitress about 25 hours a week and full-time college student. Some people from the church recognized me from work, so it was established fact that I had a “normal” job. My commute, including parking and getting to and from class took about 45 minutes each way. I don’t understand how they think I had the kind of spare time to spend wild nights out. Did they think I spent all that time waitressing to create a cover story? I also made a few jokes that if I was engaging in more lucrative work, wouldn’t it be logical for me to ditch the grunt work of waitressing for something that paid considerably more for moaning? (As you could imagine, they didn’t think that was funny.)
The next time I heard these outrageous lies, I made the same mistake of bringing up WWJD Christian values. I started adding these points:
“I’m upset that if anyone thinks I’m a hooker, no one ever reached out to me. No one prayed with me. No one offered to help me ‘get off the streets’ or even point me in the direction of some ministry that would help. I thought that this was the type of community that would want to help, not shame someone who probably didn’t have a lot of options!”
As the saying goes, that went over like a fart in church.
Week after week, both the homophobia and smear campaign grew progressively worse. I mentioned it to the pastor, along the lines of: “I’m not sure if you’ve heard the others were saying this, but I think you would want to know that the church members are not only gossiping about me, they’re saying some really nasty things about the couple who want to adopt LG.”
I was afraid he knew, and his reaction made it rather clear that he not only knew, he either encouraged the rumors or started them himself. He just gave me a condescending smirk and a pat on the shoulder as he walked away.
I dug in deeper, and continued my “turn the other cheek” campaign of compassion to counter the smear campaign. I’ve always been a bit of an oddball, so being an outcast or the subject of gossip really wasn’t a big deal for me. I could take it. I wanted to believe truth would win out in the end. What I wouldn’t accept was the “growing” hatefulness and homophobia. I tried to look past the fact that it wasn’t growing; it was always right there, beneath the surface. Anyone who knows much about the church knows it’s all a façade. You don’t pull back the layers, get in there with a flashlight and start poking around. They show up in their Sunday best, using small talk and genteel phrases, knowing that house was built on sinking sand (Matthew 7:24-27).
Though they reveled in gossip, I still thought I could have some positive impact. As I feared, all their proclamations of being former sinners just meant they had to crucify someone else. Anyone who threatened the illusion of their church became the whipping boy.
Although my situation wasn’t part of the church service, updates on the gay couple became a bigger and bigger part of the sermon. Increasingly homophobic, with prayers and blessings to Mr. and Mrs. Rapist, so that they could keep LG in their home to protect her from the “sinning” couple that were “attacking” their happy family. Then it became central to the sermon— “Satan is attacking Mr. and Mrs. Rapist, tearing LG away from a loving home, the serpent is coming between them,” etc.
The congregation was now emboldened to speak more freely of the gay couple. “Can you believe those fudge-packers are trying to take LG away from Mr. and Mrs. Rapist?” I remember sitting in stunned silence in my car as I watched the other cars leave that day. I was just one person, completely outnumbered, trying to counter ugliness with positivity. Nothing I said would make a difference because I was supposedly some harlot, therefore nothing I said mattered. I was still new enough that there was a “She doesn’t even go here” unspoken vibe that deepened the rift.
My failure to heed this signal to leave was bad enough, but my attempt to edify the group would simply not be tolerated. I had dared to challenge their shaming by highlighting their own behavior. My refusal to be shamed into silence added fuel to the fire. Nevertheless, I decided to mention these issues to the pastor again. I wasn’t exactly stupid, but stubborn, knowing the pastor’s non-verbal dismissal of my concerns was church-talk for “Get lost”.
I knew nothing would come of it, but I could not allow one more week to pass unless I addressed these issues directly with the pastor. I knew that he knew, but I just couldn’t let it rest until I did SOMETHING. So I made a list and mentioned each point, and handed him a letter. Overkill, I know, but it had to be done. I’ve gone through a few computers since that time, so I can’t find the original, but to the best of my recollection, the main points were:
- Lack of compassion: If anyone thought I was a hooker, I saw firsthand how little they wanted to help. If I was drowning, they wouldn’t hand me a lifesaver, they’d throw me a brick.
- Disregard for social justice: Although gay people didn’t yet have the right to marry, it was legal to adopt. Charles and Tim had created a home for LG and her brothers. They went through far more obstacles than a straight couple to complete the family which proves a level of dedication that should more than make up for anything perceived as a shortcoming.
- RNJ church members were so proud of the real sins they overcame but dreamt up offenses of one who dared to speak up, and a couple who tried to help, who were conveniently not around to defend themselves.
- Outlandish lies: Not only were their lies laughably bizarre, they were eerily specific. It’s upsetting to know that someone was so practiced with lies and spent so much time and effort crafting such an elaborate backstory for me. Surely that time and effort could be put to better use!
Picking my battles
I didn’t dwell on the issue of homophobia, knowing it would fall on deaf ears. This was more than a decade before the Obergefell victory. I had to pick my battles, so I stuck to a plea for compassion and recognizing integrity. I believe I also closed out the letter referring to Hebrews 12:15 “Let not a root of bitterness spring up amongst you, poisoning many.”
I knew that in person I had to state my points quickly to prevent any interruptions. I handed the pastor my letter and said that since he called out issues with the church during announcements, I hoped he would address at least one of the issues during next Sunday’s announcements. (Even though I don’t like to use it, I know church-talk, too! That translates to: “I expect you to do this.”) I knew this was all pointless, but I had to give him the benefit of a doubt, at the very least, for my own closure. (It calls to mind Abraham’s bargaining for the people of Sodom in Genesis 18:22-33.)
He didn’t say either way what he planned to do (church-talk for “It’s never going to happen”) and curtly said excuse me and walked away (church-talk for “F*** you.”).
But the pastor actually DID address the issue about homophobia! He delivered a Fire and Brimstone message about the wages of sin, making sure to reference the “horrors of homosexuality” along with the behavior of which I was accused. “Women selling their bodies and tempting men into sin” and so forth.
There are only so many ways to say, “GET OUT!” and he said them all in that sermon. I said goodbye to the handful of people who didn’t seem entirely horrible and the door did not hit my rear on the way out. Time was a precious resource for me and getting a few hours back on Sunday mornings was a real godsend for my busy work, school, study, and commuting schedule. Trying to lighten the mood as I drove away the very last time, I reflected on how threatening my presence was for them. It’s rather flattering. Someone, or a few of them, were making up elaborate stories about me. I was living rent-free in their heads for quite a while!
Unfortunately, they’ve lived far longer in my mind.
Big bad news
I don’t know exactly how long after I left the church that their case started getting mentioned in the newspaper. The custody battle had heated up and Mr. and Mrs. Rapist were pleading their case in the court of public opinion. They finally gained custody of LG, so their case went under the radar—for a few years. I was saddened to learn the young girl wouldn’t be able to live with her brothers, and I was concerned that although she might be well treated, they were raising her with hateful values which could make things difficult if she sees her brothers—if that was even allowed. There was nothing I could have done at that point, and I had my own issues and a busy schedule.
A year or two later, Mrs. Rapist was changing LG’s sheets, and found bodily fluids that wouldn’t have come from a 9-year-old girl.
During the same time Mr. and Mrs. Rapist were working the church and community into a fervor over the “perversion” LG was sure to face with Charles and Tim, LG was facing horrors from her hypocritical adoptive father.
Mrs. Rapist did the right thing. She contacted the police. It must have been hard for her, having been married for more than 20 years. I give her credit for doing the right thing, which also meant she was forgoing her own financial security and years of loneliness at the end of her life. She was not exactly a spring chicken and I’ve known of other women who would turn a blind eye to such things because they couldn’t handle a major change in their lives. She broke from the “Stand by your man” and patriarchal messages that the man is the unquestioned head of the household and is to be obeyed. But I take back that credit for something she did later.
The molestation case briefly became national news. This was before social media, so it quickly died and the eventual adoption and reunion with her family was the happier and therefore less marketable story. RNJ church did not survive the scandal, perishing not from some wicked outside force, but from the catabolic nature of their bigotry.
One pair of hands
RNJ church had been out of my mind until that point. Now the story of what happened to LG continues to haunt me. I often think of LG and how many LGs are out there when news reveals church hypocrisy or politicians proclaiming the moral high ground, which is to say frequently. When recent news broke about Republican Ohio State Representative Jim Jordan’s lewd activities with wrestling students in August 2018, I looked up Mr. Rapist in the state offender database. Since Mr. Rapist’s sentence was for 40 years, I didn’t often look him up, but I occasionally did check when cases such as this, Joe Paterno, or Larry Nassar prompt me to make sure there is one pair of hands that won’t be groping a child.
I was unpleasantly surprised to find Mr. Rapist had not served even half of his sentence. No doubt prompted by some combination of the cost of medical treatment for someone of his girth and advanced years along with overcrowding and his wife’s petitioning for his early release. He is now free to roam among an unsuspecting public.
I can no longer admire Mrs. Rapist’s forthrightness in turning in her lecherous husband. Only 7 years (and perhaps even earlier) into his sentence, Mrs. Rapist was pushing for an early release because they were both retirement age and she wanted to spend their remaining years together. I hate to think of how lonely or desperate for company she was to want to spend the rest of her life with a man who was not only unfaithful, but a monster who was molesting a child under her own roof for the last three years before his arrest. Some RNJ church members were divorced, but perhaps she didn’t personally believe in the concept of divorce. As part of the plea for an early release, she also promised never to have children in their house again. (Because naturally their house is the only place he could scar a child for life.)
A life of ease and a cozy home
He is on the Sex Offender Registry for life, but he was returned home only 16 years into his 40-year sentence. I admit I looked up his address on Google Street View and found a well-kept and cozy 1-story 1500 square foot home. (OK I also admit I looked it up on Zillow and maybe a few other sites…Being good at research doesn’t pair well with a preoccupation!)
I looked at the freshly mowed yard and imagined him lazily sipping a cool beverage as he wound his way around the yard around on a riding mower. The detached garage, which Zillow describes as having a workshop, brought to mind Mr. Rapist whiling away the hours with carpentry or some other pursuit, enjoying his carefree golden years.
Although I can only assume the details of his charmed life, other news stories from the past few years reveal the aftermath of LG’s life. She continues to struggle with trust issues and has had difficulty with stability and gainful employment. Therapy treatments are still necessary and a financial burden.
Mr. and Mrs. Rapist seem to be untouched by such hardships as their home has a new roof and recently replaced flooring in the living room and hallway. When the portly Mr. Rapist enjoys a leisurely bath in his oversized bathtub, do his thoughts linger on LG’s plight? When he cooks a steak on the charcoal grill, do his thoughts turn to LG’s ongoing anguish as she rebuilds her life? While meticulously trimming his hedges, does a sense of remorse give him pause as he considers LG’s burden as she works through the pain she suffered for his pleasure?
Judging by the self-satisfied smile on his Sex Offender registry portrait, the answer to all these questions is “No.”
LG, as any survivor of childhood sexual abuse, has been given a lifetime sentence while her perpetrator walks away scot-free from a drastically reduced sentence. Sure, he’s on the database for life, but how often do police check in to make sure offenders notify their neighbors?
I know I can’t lose sleep over all the injustices of the world, but I couldn’t let go of this one.
Long ago I forgave Mr. and Mrs. Rapist, RNJ church, and “the church”.
In curing myself of insomnia, one of the things I learned to do is to write down what is bothering me. It has helped with so many other issues, but the one issue that kept coming back to me on restless nights is what I saw as my part in LG’s trauma.
Now that I have finally made sense of my story and put it in writing, I feel I have finally forgiven the one person I could not forgive until now—myself.
I recognize the fact that expectations I placed on myself were unrealistic. I logically but did not emotionally realize I really couldn’t have changed anyone’s mind and I couldn’t have helped that girl. I did what I could at the time, and I didn’t even know about the abuse until I was long gone. I continue to remind myself the molestation wasn’t even publicly known at the time (though the over-the-top protestations of Mr. and Mrs. Rapist seemed suspect), but I didn’t have a part in it.
When another tale of abuse makes headlines, instead of sleepless nights torturing myself with:
“I could have helped that girl.”
“I could have helped that girl.”
“I could have helped that girl.”
“I could have helped that girl.”
“I could have helped that girl.”
“I could have helped that girl.”
…will be replaced with:
“I did what I could, but I couldn’t have helped that girl.”
I shall not weary of doing good, but now I won’t torture myself over what I cannot control.
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. –Galatians 6:9