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With no verdict, how survivors of child sex abuse find own sense of justice

Why We Wrote This

For many survivors of child sexual abuse by priests and pastors, there is still no legal recourse. Several survivors say that doesn't mean justice is forever out of reach – but that it takes different forms. Part 2 of 2.

Kristen Norman/ Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Larry Antonsen poses for a portrait at his home in Chicago, IL., on Wednesday, September 12, 2018.

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Since breaking her own silence, Christa Brown has devoted much of her time over the past decade to thinking and writing about justice for those who endured childhood sexual abuse. While the nation has zeroed in on Roman Catholic priests and the global hierarchy that has mostly tried to shield their own, Ms. Brown, an attorney, has been outspoken in bringing the issue to the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. Her story reflects a particular kind of abuse that many women who grew up in conservative evangelical traditions have described over the past year: Her married youth pastor used his spiritual authority to make sexual advances toward her when she was an emotionally vulnerable underage teen. She sees “ultimate justice” for survivors as “a justice within our own bodies, a justice over the portion that we ourselves have any possibility of exercising some control over” to heal and live a happy life. She also says denial hurts not only the survivor, but the church, which also needs to look within for healing. “I believe it’s human nature, really, this instinct for denial in the face of extremely uncomfortable truths,” Brown says. “So I think what’s needed is asking ourselves, how do we advance as humans?... How can we become better faith communities if we never look at the hard truths standing squarely in front of us?”

Whether practicing the rhythmic breathing of her daily yoga practice or hiking along local Rocky Mountain trails near her home in Colorado, Christa Brown says one of the most essential experiences of justice for abuse survivors happens within themselves. 

It is only a portion of justice, she says, and in many ways it lies beyond the rare punishments handed down by the justice system or church authorities. “How do we integrate justice into our own whole selves, psychologically, spiritually, and physically?” says Ms. Brown, who was abused by her Southern Baptist youth pastor when she was an underage “hyper-religious teen.” “How do we bring about some wholeness and a feeling of completeness for ourselves?”

Brown was among a number of survivors of childhood sexual abuse by religious figures who shared their stories with Monitor. Each of them, in their own way, described what true justice would look like for them. In Part One, Michael Norris, a chemical engineer in Houston, described how he became one of the very few who was able to confront his abuser in a court of law and see the priest who abused him convicted and sent to prison. Becky Ianni, a mother of four in Virginia, described how her former Catholic diocese gave her one act of justice she wanted most: a full public admission of what had happened to her and a public apology that named her accuser.

Such institutional processes are essential forms of justice, Brown says. But as Mr. Norris described, they are difficult to endure for survivors, and in many ways these official channels remain outside their control. For Brown, the “ultimate justice” for survivors is “a justice within our own bodies, a justice over the portion that we ourselves have any possibility of exercising some control over” to heal and live a happy life.

Since breaking her own silence more, Brown, who also survived breast cancer, has devoted much of her time over the past decade to thinking about justice for those who endured childhood sexual abuse. While the nation has zeroed in on Roman Catholic priests and the global hierarchy that has mostly tried to shield their own, Brown, an attorney who specializes in civil appellate law, has been outspoken bringing the issue to the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

And her story reflects a particular kind of abuse that many women who grew up in conservative evangelical traditions have described over the past year: Her married youth pastor used his spiritual authority to make sexual advances toward her when she was an emotionally vulnerable underage teen.

It’s a story numerous women have told as the #MeToo movement opened a space for them to break their silence. It became a national issue, after a number of women accused Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, of pursuing them when they were teens as young as 14.

Supporters defended the Southern Baptist judge, who lost his bid for the United States Senate, saying in effect that the outspoken Christian conservative was expressing his God-given aggressive masculinity. Besides, many also said, young teen girls often play the seductress, not the victim.

Such claims ignore statutory rape laws as well as basic morality. And many surmise that Protestant denominations, which make up the vast majority of American Christians, may also have just as many unreported cases of sex abuse against children. Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham and a law professor at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., has cited information from insurance companies covering Protestant churches. He sees evidence that that abuse is just as widespread as in Catholic churches.

“My goodness, Protestants for the most part have no clue that this is as serious as an issue in their own churches,” Mr. Tchividjian told the Monitor in April. Unlike the centralized hierarchy of Catholicism, however, most evangelical congregations are relatively autonomous – making uncovering abuse in thousands of independent churches an even more difficult task.

The problem, Brown says, is denial. And just as survivors must turn inward to experience the ultimate form of justice, so must congregations. 

“I believe it’s human nature, really, this instinct for denial in the face of extremely uncomfortable truths,” Brown says. “And it’s a valid instinct to protect and believe people that we know and love and trust – and pastors are much loved in faith communities.”

“So I think what’s needed is asking ourselves, how do we advance as humans?” she continues. “How do we become better people? How can we become better faith communities if we never look at the hard truths standing squarely in front of us? And this is what so many faith communities just can’t bring themselves to do.”

In the late 1960s, when Brown was 16 and a member of one of the oldest Southern Baptist congregations near Dallas, her youth minister, Tommy Gilmore, offered to counsel the teen girl, she says. Brown’s father, a veteran of World War II, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the family was experiencing episodes of turmoil.

During the counseling, however, the minister became sexually manipulative. “The minister’s weapon was the faith that I held within my own heart. God’s will and God’s word became so twisted that I actually believed what the minister told me – that I was special and that I had been chosen by God to be a help-mate for the minister in his holy work,” Brown wrote in 2005. She has also written a book, “This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang,” a memoir and exposé of the process she went through when she reported the crime.  

Feeling guilty, the pastor blamed the girl for the months of abuse she endured. He told her she was like the tempting serpent and made her kneel in front of him so he could pray to God to cast Satan out of her. And when people in the congregation, including her piano teacher, found out what he had done, the youth pastor made Brown apologize to his wife.

Like many survivors, Brown tried to put the experience behind her. She went on with her life, starting a career in law, getting married, and giving birth to a daughter.

In 2005, when her daughter was approaching 16, the age she had been when she was abused, Brown felt something snap within her. The Boston Globe had recently exposed widespread abuse and coverups in the Catholic Church, and she felt she had to do something.

She wrote to her former church, describing what had happened. She also wrote to members of denominational organizations, following the guidelines Texas Southern Baptists had already put in place for victims who accused ministers or others of sex abuse.

She was rebuffed at every turn. Her former congregation in Texas even threatened “recourse” if she persisted in her accusations. So Brown took them, and eventually her abuser, to court.

She sought out her former piano teacher, whom she had told at the time. In fact, the youth pastor who abused her also confided to the teacher, who led the church’s music ministry at the time. According to court documents, however, her former teacher denied that her experience was sexual abuse, calling it a consensual relationship. The fact that she was underage, and the fact that the relationship would be considered statutory rape according to Texas law, were merely “legalities,” he said. But his account corroborated her claims.

In 2006, the church settled the case, named her abuser, and expressed “profound regret” for what had happened to her 40 years earlier. As part of the settlement, the letter was sent to congregations in Georgia and Florida, where her abuser served as a youth minister in the decades that followed.

Brown also began a years-long battle to get her former denomination to acknowledge what happened to her. She wrote her memoir and prodded the Southern Baptist Convention to institute concrete reforms to help victims find justice.

She says Southern Baptist leaders should provide “a safe and welcoming place to receive reports about clergy sex abuse, particularly for cases that cannot be criminally prosecuted.” Trained panels should carefully assess all accusations, and this information should reach people in the pews, with both online databases and letters sent out to all congregations where the abuser ministered, Brown says.

Courtesy of Christa Brown
Christa Brown, an attorney living in Colorado and a survivor of abuse at a Southern Baptist church in the 1960s, hiking Mount Evans in the Rocky Mountains. Ms. Brown says the ‘ultimate justice’ in cases of child abuse is survivors finding restoration within themselves so they can go on to live a happy life.

In July, the Southern Baptist Convention announced the formation of a study group to assess the denomination’s responses to accusations of sex abuse. Advocates named Brown to a list of 14 people the denomination should consult.

“How we as a convention of churches care for abuse victims and protect against vile predators says something about what we believe about the gospel of Jesus Christ,” said the convention’s president, J.D. Greear, in a statement. “Our churches should be a refuge for the hurting and a safe haven for the oppressed.”

It’s a start, Brown says, even though the instinct to turn away from such crimes remains a powerful force confronting victims and survivors. And she notes that forming a study group is not same as taking concrete steps to actually transform churches into safe havens for the oppressed.

“I think the strange thing is, so many within faith communities feel this fear of our stories and this fear of our anger,” Brown says. “But in truth, what I believe – and I've talked with hundreds of clergy abuse survivors, and have lived my own story – there's no one who understands the very nature of denial better than clergy abuse survivors who have lived these stories and seen it within ourselves.”

“So I think a great many of us feel profound compassion and understanding for the nature of denial, because we have seen that to arrive at any place of understanding within ourselves and to move forward in our lives, we have to deal with our own denial,” Brown says.

It’s not simply survivors who can find the “ultimate justice” of inner healing and wholeness.  

“It would be lovely if faith communities would also work to ‘let justice roll down like waters’ by fostering accountability within the faith,” she says. “But of course this is a form of justice that most Baptist clergy abuse survivors, and those in other faiths as well, seldom see.”

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Larry Antonsen, a retired building engineer in Chicago, experienced a hard-to-describe transformation after he recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a priest.

Like other survivors, he compares the abuse he endured as a child to the “murder of the soul.”

Unlike the other survivors who told their stories to the Monitor, however, Mr. Antonsen never once experienced an institutional form of justice. His abuse has never been officially acknowledged by either the church or the state.

Yet by his own account, he has come to a place of inner healing that is complex and difficult to describe. When his own forgotten memories swept over him at a Catholic men’s retreat in 2006, he began a journey that both answered questions about his own struggles with alcoholism and intimacy over the decades, and reshaped him into the man he is today.

Still devout, Antonsen’s faith remains an essential part of his life, he says, just like it was for his parents. His mother, especially, instilled in him a prayer life. “Pray always, and everywhere God will hear you, and God will listen and answer your prayers,” she wrote her children before her death.

Today, in retirement, Antonsen watches three of his four grandchildren while their parents are at work. His experiences with them are some of the most joyful of his life, he says.

“And I’m beginning to look at my abuse maybe in a different way,” he says. “When I was drinking really heavily and really trying to quit, and really struggling a lot, I used go to a priest friend. He's not around anymore, but I used to go to him kind of for spiritual counseling, and just for advice. He was a very spiritual person, and my friend.”

“And he told me, with the alcoholism, he said, ‘You have to try to get to that point where you can see your alcoholism as a gift,’ ” Antonsen says. “And I thought when he said that, well, I starting thinking, ‘That's a bunch of bull.’ I was even angry.”

“But I think that I got to that point, a point when I began to see my alcoholism as gift that I could share, and that I could use it to help other people, because of my own experiences,” he says.

“And I’m trying to do the same thing with the abuse,” Antonsen continues. “I don’t want to say that it’s a gift, certainly. But, you know, it’s something that has changed my life, and now it’s something that I can share with other people and maybe help somebody along the way.”

In the 1960s, he and his friends in his south side Chicago parish would often travel to an Augustinian youth camp in Milwaukee, a place where they goofed off and had fun while under the supervision of the priests who ran the camp.

When he was 15, he agreed to go up to the camp alone one weekend with one of the priests. The man instead brought Antonsen to a motel room, gave him alcohol, and assaulted him.   

“I guess I was in shock,” he says. “I mean, I didn't know what to do. I panicked, just panicked, and I got up and ran. Actually put my clothes on and ran outside. But I thought, what I am I going to do? I’m in Milwaukee, far from home.” So he went back. The priest was nearly passed out drunk. “I was I scared, I was really scared.”

And it was strange, Antonsen recalls. He continued to see this priest regularly at school and at church, “but I completely, and I mean 100 percent completely, blocked it out of my mind for 40-some years.”

By the time he was a senior, he was already grappling with alcoholism, he says. Shy, quiet, not quick to get close to others, even after marrying and having three children.

After he recovered these memories at the men’s retreat in 2006, he immediately reported it to his diocese. Like those around the country, it had instituted a number of reforms in the way it handled such reports of past abuse. 

But there was a problem. The Chicago diocese did not have jurisdiction over orders of monks like the Augustinians, who report directly to the pope. Antonsen would have to take his accusations up with them, officials told him.

“I realize now all the mistakes that I made, because I went at it alone and I should have had somebody with me,” he says. He reported his story a second time to a priest in the office of the Augustinian order. A week or two later, the priest called him. He had talked to the priest Antonsen was accusing. The elderly priest, now living in a nursing home and close to death, denied it.

“So that was pretty much the end of it,” Antonsen says. The order did offer two years of counseling, but without official acknowledgement. He and his wife refused to accept.

“Then for a whole year, I never went to church, never did anything,” Antonsen says. “I just was sick to my stomach, so disgusted about the whole thing – and then reading about the cases that were still going on and still being reported? I was just very, very full of anger.”

He started going to therapy. A specialist in treating sex abuse survivors, the therapist helped him work through his anger, and he was able to again begin to practice his faith, he says.

“I don’t think the Catholic Church realizes the pain that survivors go through,” says Antonsen. “I don’t think they have any idea, and it’s something that I don’t think ever completely goes away.”

It’s still painful, he says, to think about how his close relationship with his parents suffered after his abuse. He flunked out of college and then joined the Marines, he says, to try to prove something to himself. “These painful memories never go away; it’s just that I’ve come to a place where the anger doesn’t consume me.”

Even more, Antonsen was able to find another community in which to take his experiences. The community at Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) was a “godsend.” It became a place for him to be himself, share his story with others without shame, and hope that it could somehow be part of a healing process for others.

“I’ve gotten it out, and I’m not afraid to talk about my abuse anymore,” he says. “I’ve talked about it to a lot of people. I think it’s good for me – it’s been good for me.”

Part 1: For survivors of priest child sex abuse, what would real justice look like?

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