The following article is written by a survivor of child sexual abuse in the now redundant Methodist Order of Knights, who wishes to share his experiences with the broader church community. The publication of this article represents a significant step in his personal redress journey. WARNING: Please be aware that the article includes references to child sexual abuse that may be upsetting for some readers. Free confidential support can be obtained by ringing a qualified counsellor at the Blue Knot Foundation helpline on: 1300 657 380.
When I turned 12 in the mid 1970s, I started attending the Order of Knights in a church hall near where we lived in Sydney. The OKs, as everyone called it, was an organisation in the Methodist Church that provided a program of activities for Christian boys and young men.
I remember the first night I went along to the church hall with my older brother. Later in the evening we played a game of hide and seek in the hall. I chose to hide under a table in the dimly lit kitchen. One of the leaders came into the kitchen and I crawled out from my hiding place when he spied me. He sat on a chair and pulled me onto his lap, put his arms around my stomach and said ‘I’m so glad you’re coming here. I hope you enjoy the OKs. Is this your first time? You’re going to like it I’m sure.’ I remember feeling confused by this interaction. I’m sure at one level I appreciated this man’s friendly welcome to me as a new kid in the group, but I also felt uncomfortable with such an intimate display of affection from someone I hardly knew.
This man was not one of our regular group leaders but he held a senior leadership role in the OKs. He would visit our group from time to time and join in the evening’s activities.
A few months after the incident in the kitchen, this same leader established a pattern of behaviour where he would ask me to stay back at the end of the evening to help him with an unspecified chore. After everyone had left for the night he would take me to a carpeted area which was a kind of storage room. He would often tell me that I had been ‘naughty’ earlier in the evening and would suggest that I needed to be punished in some way. I sometimes would say, ‘I haven’t been naughty, have I?’ I was never sure how serious he was because he said it in a playful way. ‘You’re gonna pay for your sins, boy,’ he would sometimes say as he started to unbutton my shirt and loosen the button on my trousers.
I grew up in a family that was intimately involved in church life, firstly in the Methodist and then later in the Uniting Church. I therefore had very limited exposure to what some might call ‘the sins of the world.’ I think this may partly explain why I did not understand the true nature of what was done to me in that musty storeroom in a Methodist church hall with this man who was a very senior youth leader in the OKs. I didn’t tell anyone about it afterwards, because I didn’t really know what it was or how to explain it and because I was worried that I was in trouble for something and I didn’t want to get into any more trouble. I really think I just stored the memory away somewhere and didn’t think about it until recently. As I remember it now, with my adult mind, I know that what was done to me, on several occasions, by that leader, was clearly a serious act of sexual assault, but carried out in a manner that left me feeling that it was some sort of game.
I feel that the time has come to acknowledge the painful and unsavoury truth that one of the key youth organisations in the NSW Methodist Church did not provide a sufficiently safe and wholesome place for young boys to attend. I regret to say that the particular leader mentioned above was not the only man in the OKs to sexually assault me when I was 12. On one other occasion, another OKs leader, a veteran and senior official within the organisation at that time, also sexually assaulted me after creating a situation where I was alone with him. Many years later I learnt that this particular leader was known by others to be a paedophile, though I have no knowledge of whether there were ever any reports made to the police.
Sometimes it seems incredible to me that I did not understand the sexual nature of these assaults. I honestly don’t think I even thought of them as assaults at all, yet I know that at a deeper level I was greatly traumatised by them. I remember coming home after each occasion and having a strong wish to hide somewhere. I would typically lock myself in the toilet or bathroom for a few minutes. I would always feel extremely tired in my head, and very fatigued in my body.
I found I needed to tune out for a while. I also remember on these occasions experiencing a shivering in my body that felt like a release of stress. Later, I would go to the kitchen and seek out a favourite food, usually a bowl of ice cream. I had a great need for comfort and reassurance and would usually have a bath and go straight to bed.
The legacy of these experiences upon my life has been significant but not always obvious. By the time I reached adulthood, I seemed quite unable to ‘grasp the nettle’ in any area of my life. Throughout my 20s, I struggled to complete an education program, develop relationships and find employment. I felt I carried an injury from my childhood, but despite seeking professional help, could not clearly recall the origin of this injury. I know that during this period I was often a source of considerable worry for both family and friends.
Shortly after I turned 31, I developed a number of debilitating physical symptoms that persisted for many years. These symptoms appeared to have no underlying medical cause, although one medical specialist suggested I suffered from ‘adrenal fatigue,’ a condition typically associated with chronic stress. I remember going through periods where I felt so bad I had to take time off work, on one occasion for more than a year.
The path to healing, both for myself and for the wider family of the church that I grew up in, is not entirely clear to me. I know that it begins with a painful and rather agonising encounter with the truth of what occurred. For me, this ‘encounter with the truth’ began about two years ago, when quite spontaneously, the memories from childhood returned to my mind as if I had put them away in a drawer many years ago and forgotten I had put them there. At first they were very upsetting and perplexing. I found I really needed to use my adult mind to try to make sense of all the things I had not properly understood as a child. It has been encouraging to notice a considerable improvement in my physical wellbeing since I started working on these memories.
As I reflect upon my experiences, I am reminded of the reasons why we acknowledge and seek to protect the innocence of children. I am painfully aware that, even as an older child, I was unable to understand many aspects of the adult world and could not therefore properly identify and protect myself from a sexual predator, especially one who held a position of trust and authority in my community.
I recall the line from that well known hymn — Trust and obey, for there is no other way… and know that I did, like most children, trust and obey, but in doing so I fear that I co-operated, in some sense, with a terrible crime against my body and my soul.
Perhaps the time has come for us to learn a better understanding of what it means, within a community of faith, to trust and obey those who guide us in that faith, especially our elders but also each other.
HOW TO ACCESS REDRESS
A range of options are available to survivors choosing to take up redress. Some survivors have described their experiences in a private meeting with a senior representative from the church or institution while others have submitted a written account. The church has then officially acknowledged these experiences and offered an expression of remorse. It is hoped that these gestures will contribute towards the survivor’s healing and facilitate reconciliation with the church.
The Uniting Church employs a Social Worker to assist survivors who wish to engage in its redress scheme. The Social Worker can provide support to survivors who would like to report their experiences to the police. To learn more about the Uniting Church Redress scheme, please contact:
Phone: 1800 713 993 (Monday-Friday 8.30am-5pm)