Memories so strong they produce heart-stopping nightmares simultaneously remain so repressed and clouded she cannot pinpoint the time when abuse began. But Janice—who prefers to withhold her last name—knows three male relatives conspired to abuse her sexually over an extended time when she was a small child.
"My mother knew and did not protect me. … An aunt told me not to be a tattletale. … It was as if everybody in my little world either molested me or knew I was being molested," she said.
At an early age, Janice became convinced she was unloved. "I knew I had no value," she said.
But a Sunday school teacher told her otherwise.
"She said, 'God loves you.' She didn't know how powerful that message was to me. She didn't know I was being molested," Janice recalled.
That simple message—"God loves you"— made a profound impact on her self-esteem and provided the base on which a mature faith could develop in time. But it's only the first of three statements she believes every church should communicate to every child.
The second directly addresses the abuse that scarred her young life: "If anything bad is happening to you, God wants you to tell—and continue to tell until somebody helps you."
The third statement helps the child know who to tell if a parent or family member is not the right person—a schoolteacher, counselor or principal; a policeman; a Sunday school teacher; or another trusted adult.
Janice has delivered that message to any church in her part of West Texas that will listen—and many are listening attentively. She already has been invited to speak to pastors in one Baptist association, as well as to all the ministers in a United Methodist district.
Gary Morgan, pastor of Cowboy Church of Ellis County, applauds any effort to "turn the light on" and expose sexual abuse. He recalled how, in one recent month, three adult women stopped him at the end of Sunday morning worship services, asking to talk about issues that stemmed from their abuse as children. One senior adult told him she was certain she was going to hell because of something that began happening to her as a child and continued through her teen years.
"What I never really understood before was how victims take ownership of the abuse, feeling somehow they caused it," Morgan said.
Several weeks ago, he decided to address the issue from the pulpit, talking about the everlasting damage sexual abuse can cause.
In the Old Testament, God set clear parameters for sexual conduct and attached harsh penalties to the violation of sexual boundaries, Morgan said, "because he knows what it does to the soul"—the essence of a person. Every relationship in an abuse victim's life—with parents, a future spouse, any children they have and with God—is affected, he told the congregation.
"It alters fundamentally their relationship with God, because they feel so stained, soiled, dirty, guilty and shameful that they think they must look that way to God, too," he said.
Morgan wanted victims of abuse—both female and male—in his congregation to understand they were not to blame.
"If you have been a victim of sexual abuse in your life at any time … wherever, whenever, however you were abused, it was not your fault," he said in the sermon, emphasizing that the person in a position of authority who abuses trust bears responsibility. "It is never the fault of the victim."
Furthermore, he said, victims should not feel responsible for any family unrest that results when they disclose abuse. "You need to realize everyone's already living in their own secret hell."
Morgan also addressed abusers and "bystanders"—accomplices who realize abuse occurs but seek to keep it hidden. "You've got to turn the light on. … If you choose not to disclose, the blood is on your hands," he said.
Victims of abuse feel guilt, hopelessness and isolation, he said. They need to hear someone in a position of authority acknowledge what has happened to them, pronounce it as wrong and assure them of God's love for them, he said. Morgan offered no easy answer or guarantee, but he assured victims if they disclose abuse and seek proper help, "it can get better."
Soon after the sermon, one woman wrote to Morgan, saying she was "still haunted by the abuse I suffered as a child at the hands of my father." On his deathbed, her father told her he hoped she could forgive him someday for what he had done.
"I don't know that I have. I refuse to allow myself thoughts about him. But the memories remain and creep into my life at odd times," she wrote. The woman told Morgan she related to his description of abuse as having one's soul stolen, and she noted the difficulty she had experienced relating to God as Father.
"Your message somehow gave me permission to have the feelings that have been with me for so long and told me it was OK," she wrote.
Too often, victims of sexual abuse have not found the help they need in churches, Morgan acknowledged in an interview.
"The church has contributed to the pain because we've been afraid to address it. The silence is deafening. And to the victims of abuse, it leaves them in a lonely place," he said.
Cowboy Church of Ellis County wants to change that. Morgan reported a staff counselor estimated the sermon about sexual abuse directly affected between 100 and 200 people, based on the response he saw in the weeks immediately following the worship service. The church plans to develop an ongoing, long-term ministry through several off-campus recovery groups for people with sexual abuse in their life history. The groups probably will be built around a study of The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse by Dan Allender.
Janice, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and went through intensive Christian counseling, now believes God has redeemed her tragic childhood experience.
Like the Old Testament patriarch Joseph, who gained prominence in Egypt and provided for his family in a time of famine after his brothers had sold him into slavery, she says, what others meant for evil, God meant for good.
"My identity is not in my family. My identity is not in what happened to me. My identity is found in my relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ," she said.