The silence has been broken about sexual abuse at work and other places where powerful people exercise control over women, men and children. Yet the silence remains for too many people whose victimization took place on college campuses, in apartments, in alleyways and in private places by persons with no names and no faces that are recognizable to most people.
She was a first semester college student. Her high school grades had not reflected her true ability so she ended up going to a small but well known state school in a rural area. The family was thrilled that she had been admitted to college and was happy to drive the several hours it took to get to the school. The packed car was unloaded after the room, the dresser, the bathroom, the floors and every appliance had been cleaned and sanitized. There was an air of excitement as trips to Walmart were made to acquire curtains and rugs and all the things that made the room feel like home.
It was not easy to leave her alone, away from home and friends for the first time, but those who know her were confident she would find and make new friends. She
seemed happy and reports of early experiences of college life were all positive. The family proudly told the folks back home that things were going well.
She was not drunk or high when it happened. She was not at a sorority or frat house. In fact, she was walking back to her dorm after an early evening class, at the time of the year when darkness fell before 6:30, when she was attacked by a stranger. It was days later that she confided to her mother that she had been assaulted, but even then the shame had begun to take hold and she said that she had fought off her attacker.
The news spread across the family and a sense of outrage developed that was hard to explain. When asked if she had reported the attack to the campus police, the response had been negative. She offered two reasons for her silence. She did not want to relive the episode and she did not trust the Campus Police, some of whom she had seen acting in very unprofessional ways. It was not long after the incident that signs of depression began to appear. Her mother said that she went to classes and returned to her room. She had little social interaction on campus, did not eat regularly, had restless sleep and had bouts of crying. Finally, she agreed to begin counseling and was put on medication for a time.
Her grades were very good that semester. That allowed her to transfer to another school away from the constant reminder of her violation. It was only months later that she would tell her mother the whole story. She had not been able to fight off her attacker. She had in fact been raped. Her shame, distrust of the campus police and her fear that the male members of her family would take matters into their own hands combined to make a bad situation worse and led her to believe her silence was necessary.
Several years have passed but the effects of the incident still linger. Depression, though controlled, is still an issue and the horror of the night when her sense of ownership of her body was violently destroyed still haunts her. Much of the suffering has been in silence. She has told her story in bits and pieces to her mother, her therapists, a few family members and a handful of trusted individuals, but nobody fully understands the trauma of her violation. Not many of us understand why individuals we know personally become guarded, find it difficult to trust others or turn to alcohol or medication to sleep at night
Sad to say, her story is more common than most of us want to admit. No less disturbing is the fact that most individuals who have experienced sexual abuse have remained silent because of the shame they bear coupled with the fear of having to relive the experience in the telling of their story. They wrestle daily with an awareness that if they summon the courage to report the crime, their story may not be believed and as a result, the horror of their violation will be magnified. Past history would suggest that the reasons for their silence is justified.
However, the silence that remains must be shattered. Those who have been violated cannot continue to be victimized by a society that refuses to hear and a cultural perspective that justifies the violation of another’s humanity. The silence cannot continue because until the silence is constantly and consistently broken, those who abuse and violate women, men and children will continue to do so with impunity. The silence cannot remain normative because broken people cannot be made whole as long as they remain silent.
Society must provide safe spaces for the silence to be broken. The Church must become a sanctuary for those who have suffered silently even as the Church strongly
condemns any theological framework that oppresses those whose humanity has been violated. The Gospel must liberate those whose shame and guilt over their victimization leads them to be silent and give them a voice that puts an end to sexual abuse in high and low places.
While we celebrate those who have broken the silence, our hearts are broken by the vast majority who suffer and have suffered sexual abuse in silence. The fact that the silence remains is an indictment against all who claim to want “justice to roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”