Christa Brown's saga resonates more for me now that I'm a mother
July 4, 2009
Christa Brown's story will likely make you mad. As a naive 16-year-old growing up in a North Texas Baptist church in the 1960s, she was pressured into having a sexual relationship with her youth minister. The married pastor told Brown it was God's will and justified his marital infidelity by citing Bible verses about concubines — then excoriated her as a satanic temptress when his wife found out.
When Brown reported the abuse to another church leader, the minister, like so many Catholic priests we've since heard about, was transferred to another congregation. No police investigation. No announcement to the congregation.
It was difficult hearing Brown's account last year when I wrote in the American-Statesman about the soft-spoken Austin lawyer and her efforts to improve Baptist churches' inadequate system of handling sexually abusive ministers. But I didn't really identify with Brown. Nothing like that had ever happened to me.
My world shifted dramatically when I became a mother in January, and when I picked up Brown's recently published book "This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Predator and His Gang" a few weeks ago, I saw Brown's story with new eyes. What if someone tried to do this to my daughter?
That very question would ultimately save Brown from a life of denial and pain (more on that in a moment). For me, it sparked a memory of one of my first stories as a religion writer.
In June 2002, I was in Dallas covering the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting. Hordes of media descended on the Fairmont Hotel to watch the bishops write a sex abuse policy. About six months earlier, the Boston Globe had revealed an elaborate conspiracy among the Boston Archdiocese's leaders to protect priests who sexually abused minors, and similar patterns were emerging in other parts of the country.
Many victims traveled to Dallas to share their stories with the bishops and the press. During an impromptu news conferences in the hotel lobby, one of the best-known activists, David Clohessy of Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, critiqued a measure the bishops were proposing to deal with abusive priests.
Determined to fairly represent the church in the article, I pushed Clohessy to acknowledge that the bishops were making a genuine effort to fix the mess. "Don't you think this is the best they can do right now?"
Before he could answer, a woman in the crowd turned and called out to me, "Do you have children?" Annoyed, I tried to brush her off. She repeated the question.
I might have told her it was none of her business or that it had nothing to do with my question. I might have told her to back off. I don't remember exactly, but I'll never forget what she shouted before turning around: "If you had children, you would understand."
I glared at her. I understand just fine, I thought.
But her words haunted me over the years as I wrote about other abuse victims. If you had children, you would understand. And now, of course, I do have a child, and I do understand.
What happened to children at the hands of Catholic priests and bishops was so beyond the pale that no policy could ever make it right.
I see that now because I know what it means to want to protect someone so fiercely. I know what innocence is and the importance of preserving it as long as possible. Molesters don't just ruin childhood, they set their victims up for an adulthood fraught with anxiety and anger, failed relationships and self-loathing — nothing any mother would wish for her child.
I always felt sorry for abuse victims. But as I held my baby and imagined all the wonder and joy that awaited her, I began to understand more clearly what Brown and so many others had stolen from them.
For Brown, the shift in understanding came with motherhood, too. As her daughter became a teenager, the dark memories of her "affair" with the minister began to resurface.
The truth had become so distorted that she didn't even use the right words to describe what had happened to her. Affair rather than abuse. Temptress rather than victim.
If a trusted adult coerced her daughter into a sexual relationship, Brown writes, "I knew I would be outraged. I wouldn't call it an 'affair.' ... Every time I thought about it happening to (my daughter), I started crying. It took me a long time to figure out that I was really crying for myself — for that naive 16-year-old girl that I myself used to be."
The realization set Brown on a journey toward healing, a path that would lead her through anxiety attacks, thoughts of suicide, counseling and eventually activism on behalf of victims.
Like her Catholic friends who tried to effect institutional change, Brown said she encountered hurdles and denial and indifference among Baptist leaders in the national and state conventions. Her abuser, who finally left the ministry after serving different churches, never faced charges. And Baptist leaders have yet to create a national database of abusers or a central reporting point for victims.
But "This Little Light" should stir Baptist leaders to action. And it should help all of us understand just exactly what's at stake.
Eileen Flynn blogs at eileenflynn.wordpress.com