Millstones: Blaming the Victim

I don’t usually post my sermons. At best they are usually specific to a date and a congregation. But given the pain that is being spread around these past few weeks, seeing how so many of my women friends are finding their own pain brought up again watching other women be attacked for revealing their assaults, it seemed appropriate to offer a word of perspective from a follower of Christ. For what it is worth:

I had been planning a lovely sermon on the subject of being single-minded, of sticking to your faith, blah blah blah.

Thursday morning, trying to finish up the sermon, it just refused to come together. Then, in the space of less than five minutes, I received two messages from friends that stopped me cold, and forced me to change everything I had planned to say.

The issue brings me to tears for the pain having been afflicted on so many others. Fair warning: some of what I have to say may bring up painful memories for some of you.

Let this be a safe space where you know you can be protected and supported by your friends, where you are safe to weep if you need, ask for a hug if you need one, or, if to protect yourself, you need to slip out, please feel free to do so. Do whatever you need.

I apologize if my words cause pain by bringing up long-buried memories, but wounds only fester if they are buried. Healing occurs in the sunlight. Bringing our broken places before God is the way to healing and wholeness.

Last week’s reading and this week’s from Mark show us a scene with Jesus at home in Capernaum. He is talking to his disciples about how they are to conduct their lives and ministries. To illustrate, he has brought a small child into the group of adults. “here is an example” he says, “of the ones you must be very careful as you go about your life. Tread gently that you do not step on one of these little ones; watch what you do and say around them. Whatever you do, be extra, extra careful that you don’t do anything to harm one of the vulnerable ones.’

Jesus goes on to say, “it would be better for you if you tied a millstone around your neck and jumped in the ocean than if you were to cause one of these vulnerable ones to stumble.”

That little phrase about being careful not to cause harm to the weaker ones has been rattling around in my head all week, and Thursday morning, collided into the news headlines. A woman comes forward to accuse a Supreme Court nominee of sexual assault. Instead of being believed, and the alleged perpetrator questioned, she is attacked as a way of defending him. “Why did you wait so long to say anything?” Her character and reputation are attacked as a way of defending him. She and her family have had their lives threatened, have had to move out from their home. The accusers have been attacked as defense against the attacker.

Bill Cosby, one of the comedians I adored as a child, sentenced this week for his violent sexual assault. I’ve been thinking about all the positive things I thought about him, about all the good things he did, and he has ruined them all. His accomplishments are now forever contaminated by the horrid things he has done. Millions of good deeds do not balance out against the evil.

Last week, on Tuesday, Pope Francis acknowledged that young people are being driven away from the Roman Catholic Church because of the way it has handled the problem of clerical sexual abuse.

I have a young friend here in Burlington, raised in a very conservative part of the church, sexually abused by a leader in the church, when she reported it to superiors, she was the one blamed. That betrayal is now a monstrously huge obstacle preventing her from involving herself or her children in Church activities, and because of that, putting a distance between herself and God.

Attention has been focused more on the Catholic Church, but they are not the only parts of the Church who have had guilty parties in this. This is heart-breaking to me, to think of people, children and adults, who have had obstacles placed between themselves and God by faulty religious people.

Last week, I received this note from a dear friend of mine; she tells the story much better than I can. Here are her words:

I’ve stayed quiet on most of the #metoo movement other than to say, Me Too. Now we are hearing, “why didn’t she talk.” “It was 30 years ago.” I feel I can address those questions and need to. 1) Abuse of children wasn’t even illegal till 1974 (In 1973, Congress took the first steps toward enacting federal legislature to address the issues of poverty and minorities. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act was passed in 1974, which required states “to prevent, identify and treat child abuse and neglect.”) That means, as a person who is in her 51st year of live, I was 7 years old before there was even a law to protect me. 2) Abuse is often by someone you know, and it is confusing. The very people who are supposed to protect you have now been the abusers. Who does a child go to? A teacher? Not then. A parent? Abuser = fear of more abuse. A sibling? Maybe, if there is one. 3) Tell anyone! Well, at 4 and 5, a person may not have the words to do so. It’s also embarrassing to talk about. It is humiliating. We have been warned by the abuser what will happen if we tell.

There are many more things I could say. What I want others to understand is that whether a child, a teen, or an adult, being abused is scary, embarrassing, and sometimes easier to keep to yourself. Please don’t judge us. Please don’t judge me. When the “family secret” did come out, another adult blamed me for the abuse continuing, telling me, “If you would have told, this wouldn’t have happened.” Other adults knew and were told by multiple victims it was happening, and all chose to bury their heads in the sand.

I can name at least 20 young girls that my abuser molested. I’m sure there are many more. You know what happened? He was given a choice to go to jail or go to the mental health floor of the local hospital for a week to be pampered – no cooking, no cleaning, no laundry. A choice! He was never arrested, never spent a day in jail, and has never had to register on the sex offenders list. There have been NO punishments other than those we, the abused have suffered. Another reason we don’t tell. What is the point?!

Every situation is different. If someone tells you something inappropriate has happened, listen to them. Be there for them. Don’t blame them. And speak up for them! I will always wonder why I wasn’t important enough to protect and keep safe from my abuser.

I do not write this for sympathy. I don’t need that. What I need is for others to maybe understand a little better that each time the abused is questioned and put down, it adds to the abuse. Please, be there. Believe others. Be gentle. Be the voice. #whydidntitell

Individuals, overwhelmingly women, are being attacked for telling their stories of being attacked. But it is not an even playing field. Because their story is of an individual being attacked, raped, assaulted. What is being defended is not the individual accused, but more than that; an attitude that says sexual assault is normal and expected by men. Those who have been hiding the Church’s involvement in sexual abuse, those who are now defending a privileged rich white male, are defending the assumption of sexual assault by men in general as normal. What is being defended is a perverted culture.

We hear it, “well, Boys will be boys.” In the current case in the news, rich white boys from wealthy families, attending a private school costing $60,000 a year, rich boys from rich families who are being taught that the rules which apply to others do not apply to them because they are above all that. Other people, as in, those who are not rich, do not matter. Do whatever you want to them, you have the power of wealth to protect you. One of those in the news has in the past been quoted as saying, “Whatever happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep. That’s been a good thing for all of us.”[1]

The Church has covered up sexual assault by Priests and Church Leaders, abetting their abuse by moving abusers around, by hiding their crimes, by thwarting the efforts of Law Enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute those crimes. The Catholic Church has had the most press coverage, but the problem goes throughout all religious institutions.

This culture needs to change; abuse must become unacceptable, and it is not the fault of those who come forward with news of being assaulted. “Boys will be boys” is no longer an acceptable excuse. Let me go further and say that “no means no” is no longer enough. We need to be teaching our sons and daughters that only “yes means yes.”

The Church must stop hiding its head in the sand and speak out. No law, no change of culture will change the past, but we are not condemned to keep on repeating the abuses of the past.

And it is long past time that men stepped up and said aloud to their brothers that this behavior is unacceptable. This is a Faith issue because our commitment to following Jesus requires us to protect the weak, to refuse to place occasions for stumbling in the way of others, and to insist that the Church and the Culture change. This is an issue for the Church because the Church, that means us, have an obligation to speak these God-Truths to the Culture in which we live. Especially men.

A drunken party and one of your male classmates is assaulting a woman? It is not enough to mind your own business, it is your obligation to step up, speak up, and make him stop. Build a culture that finds assault against others to be unacceptable.

We who seek to follow Jesus must learn how to not put stumbling blocks in front of others, especially the vulnerable, the young, the weak, and tender.

Pray with me:

“God forgive us. We have harmed the vulnerable ones in ways that leave life-long emotional scars. We have put stumbling blocks in their way to finding your love. Worse, we have defended the guilty to protect institutions and traditions and the structures of power. Open our eyes, God, that we might see the Truth and practice True Love, the love that protects the vulnerable from the powerful, that seeks justice for all, even against the mighty. Show us the footsteps of Jesus, that we might learn to welcome all, especially the least, the lost, the vulnerable, and the weak. Until all the world might sit at the feet of Christ, loving God, guide us.”

[1] Reported by ABC News: 2015 when speaking to a group of law students at Catholic University where he made a similar comment.

“Fortunately, we had a good saying that we’ve held firm to this day, as the dean was reminding me before the talk, which is, ‘What happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep,'” Kavanaugh said.

“That’s been a good thing for all of us.”

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