50 Years Later, Should I Finally Talk about My Pastor’s Sex Abuse?

This is very difficult for me to write. I was sexually abused by my pastor starting when I was 8 years old. I'm an aging man of 66 now, and I feel like I've spent my whole life repressing my feelings about the whole episode, which lasted for about three years. I grew up in a great, loving family, a conservative family, and I have three grown children with families of their own now. For most of my life I thought I would take these horrible memories to my grave. Sometimes I think about sitting down with my children and revealing what happened to me, but then I come back to the fact I feel guilty and deeply ashamed for letting it go on for so long, for never doing anything about it, for never attempting to hold the pastor accountable. How many other children did he abuse because of my cowardly unwillingness to step forward? I doubt anyone would have believed me. It was a different time for the Church back then. What do you think I should do? I've come this far by myself, why burden anyone else? —Tortured Soul
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Dear Tortured Soul,

You are not a coward. The only person to blame in this story is the pastor, who bullied an 8-year-old by taking advantage of faith, youth, and innocence, who knew his actions were against the laws of people and God, and who apparently did not seek help to stop or was unable to stop.

If anything, you’re a hero, and I would like to thank you for introducing this painful question. Many others have had experiences like yours, and your letter will be a comfort to them; I hope the ensuing conversation will be a helpful exploration of what someone who has been through something similar might want to do. You have begun by breaking a silence of over 50 years. The vast majority of people who have experienced sexual abuse never mention it to anyone, because they feel frightened, ashamed, and alone, whether they are children or adults, men or women—in fact, men are less likely to speak up than women are.

While I clearly don’t know all there is to know, I wonder if the pastor warned you to keep silent, perhaps implicitly by saying “this is our secret” or maybe more explicitly with threats. That’s a common theme in abuse cases, though you may have had other reasons for choosing not to speak up. If they did indeed happen, demands for silence were as much a part of the abuse as the physical cruelty was. You were used by the pastor for three “horrible” years, as you write, which must have been a terrifying time, and you had to endure it alone, and you were a child, much too young to be able to deal with the perfidious and sadistic behavior of an adult, much less a pastor, someone who held a position of respect and power in the community. How could a child possibly have been able to call him to account?

Silence protects the abuser, and the abuser knows infinite ways to create that silence through manipulation, instilling feelings of guilt, fear, and shame, as happened to you. The pastor likely created these painful feelings in you to protect himself; he wanted you to feel scared, alone, and helpless so he could be safe from discovery. Most, if not all, people who have experienced sexual abuse have feelings like yours, and such feelings keep people silent. They are a tool that the abuser uses to control his or her prey.

You write that you came from a loving and conservative family, but that despite their lovingness you were unable to ask them for help. Perhaps that very lovingness made it more difficult to mention—you may not have wanted to cause your parents and yourself further pain, and so you tried to protect everyone. Your decency and love for your family were used against you.

Your family was “conservative.” There are many possible meanings to the words “conservative family,” but I wonder if you might not be implying that it was difficult to talk about intimate matters, particularly sexual matters, in your childhood home. At one time many parents thought it was better for children if they never talked about sex. People think differently now. Some discussion is necessary and helpful. You do have to find a balance, of course, and not feed too much unnecessary sexual information or be too graphic about what you want to say, and the conversation needs to be geared to the child’s age, but parental silences about sexual matters can, seemingly paradoxically, harm the children whom they wish to protect. People are now learning how to speak about different kinds of sexuality, including that which occurs in loving relationships and that which uses sex as a weapon. People, children and adults, need to know the difference. Religious and educational institutions are also beginning to have public discussions along these lines.

When you were a child, you feared that if you told people the truth about your pastor you might not have been believed—and I agree, sadly, that you might not have been. I do know of instances where people have revealed that they were abused by a family member or by a close family acquaintance and they weren’t believed; in fact, people became angry at them, accused them of being destructive, and of making things up.

How can this happen? Sometimes people react in strange, angry, and blaming ways because they are frightened, their world is shaken up, turned upside down even, when they hear that someone they trust, such as a close relative, family friend, or, in your case, pastor, has done something so nefarious. They can’t deal with it and so they decide it can’t be so, it didn’t really happen, it’s just too horrible to be true, too scary to discover that someone you are supposed to trust is in fact dangerously untrustworthy. It’s easier for them not to believe what they hear, especially if it’s a child who is talking.

You’ve lived alone with this history for more than five decades. Often people find it difficult to be close or to trust others when they have been betrayed as you have, and they find it very difficult to have an intimate adult relationship. Nevertheless, you have children and grandchildren; you’ve created a family life that sounds rewarding. That’s not easy when you’re carrying such a tough secret all alone.

Often when we’ve had a hard history to master, it takes years until we can do so. I would guess that even though you never mentioned your history to anyone, you were working on it internally, even unconsciously sometimes, and your private and intense work is beginning to bear fruit as you become ready to talk about it, to examine it, to deal with those painful feelings in the open air and in the company of people who love and respect you.

I am glad that you seem able now to deal with the abuse that you experienced. These feelings have been with you for a long time, and I think before you discuss them with your family you might consider meeting with someone who is trained to deal with such issues, perhaps a counselor or other mental health professional, who will be able to protect you as you deal with the pain that often accompanies profound emotional work.

After you’ve had some time to digest all that has happened, you might indeed want to talk this over with family members. You mention your children. You don’t mention other family members; perhaps a spouse, close friend, brother or sister might also be part of this discussion. You can decide about this on your own, of course, or with your counselor.

You worry that you might be a burden. Truly, the people who love you will feel sad and horrified when they hear your story. They will also feel closer to you and more loving. Perhaps until now they’ve felt a hint of things that have been left unsaid over the years, and wondered why, and will ultimately feel grateful that it is no longer so.

I salute you and wish you a full and complete recovery from all the burdens that until now you have had to carry alone.

Warm regards,
Lynn

Lynn Somerstein
Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT is a Manhattan-based, licensed psychotherapist with more than 30 years in private practice. She is also a yoga teacher and student of Ayuveda—the Indian science of wellness. Her main interest is in helping people find healthy ways of living, loving, and working in the particular combination that works best for them, connecting to their deepest energic source so their full range of abilities can be expressed. Lynn's specialty is understanding and alleviating anxiety and depression.
  • 8 comments
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  • Kelli

    Kelli

    March 15th, 2014 at 7:22 AM

    You are so brave to finally feel the courage to come forward and talk about this. I am so sorry that this had to happen to you and that there were no adults in your life who were willing or able to protect you from the actions of this monster. Now is the time, if you are able to begin to talk with family about this. It won’t change the past and it won’t undo it but maybe it will once and for all allow you to exorcise those demons that you have had to live with all this time and put them to rest for good.

  • levi

    levi

    March 15th, 2014 at 10:44 AM

    I don’t think that there is anyone in your life who loves you who would think that you were burdening them. If you want the truth I think that most of them would want to know why you waited so long to tell them and you felt like you had to hold all of this inside for so long.

  • Julia

    Julia

    March 17th, 2014 at 10:29 AM

    You shouldn’t feel bad for wanting to talk about this. This is something quite heavy to carry around with you for a lifetime and never feel free to talk about. I can’t imagine having this weight inside for so many years so I agree that if it feels good to get it out, then by all means, it’s time to shout it from the rooftops! You did nothing wrong and continue to do nothing wrong by sharing your story. You are finding a way to cleanse your soul, to make things right for yourself, and there is absolutely no shame in that. I admire your courage and ability to speak out.

  • bonnie S

    bonnie S

    March 19th, 2014 at 11:47 AM

    Honestly, I am so torn, I kind of wonder what the motivation is for wanting to tell. Will it do any good now other than making the kids feel really bad for something that they can do nothing to change? Or maybe they already suspect that something happened to you? I think that a better idea might be to enlist the help of a third party like a therapist to talk to. It is clear that you are still working on this as any of us would be, but I think that since it happened so long ago your kids, it might be unfair to unsettle them with this kind of information so long after this has happened. Find a great therapist ans let him or her guide you and help make the best decision. Eventually you will work out what the best one will be, but I think that I would work some on myself before just opening up and telling all.

  • Fran

    Fran

    March 20th, 2014 at 12:09 PM

    Journaling could help you get everything out in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone

  • Stan

    Stan

    March 22nd, 2014 at 3:58 PM

    You are a hero for making it this far through life without a breakdown or anything else really serious happening to you as a result of this! Now is the time, my friend, to let it all go. You have been expected to carry it with you for far too long… let it out, release that pain.

  • MacRae

    MacRae

    March 24th, 2014 at 5:43 PM

    don’t feel bad for sharing
    your thoughts
    and feelings
    and memories’they are yours and they are important
    any anyone who makes you feel otherwise
    isn’t really worth the time

  • Cristina

    Cristina

    April 3rd, 2014 at 4:11 AM

    I’ve been on a similar situation myself, and you are brave.. despite the thoughts of some people, It is good to speak out those things it is true that you can not change them.. but it helps you heal your inner self.
    and to feel whole again with the support of your loved ones. no matter the time passed it happened…

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