The girl I was at the
time of minister's sexual abuse.
Almost a year after reporting the abuse to church and denominational leaders, I put this letter on cars in the church parking lot. I wanted to make sure church members were informed before I filed suit. Baptists purport to practice “congregational autonomy.” At least in theory, that’s supposed to mean that the members make the decisions, and I still held out hope that the members might act differently than their leaders. But it was a futile effort. The church still chose blindness, and Gilmore continued in ministry.
May 12, 2005
To Members of the First Baptist Church
of Farmers Branch:
I grew up in your church. I went to morning and evening services, Sunday School, training union, Girls’ Auxiliary, prayer meeting and revival services. I marched into your sanctuary to the sound of “Onward Christian Soldiers” during Vacation Bible School, and I paraded down the aisle for G.A. coronation ceremonies every year until the Queen Regent cape was placed on my shoulders. I served as a substitute pianist when the regular pianist was gone, and I sang in the youth choir. I went on countless retreats and trips with the youth group. Two of my sisters were married in your church.
|My younger sister Leslie and I stand proudly in our Girls' Auxiliary regalia.
I loved the church. And I loved God with all my heart. I was driven by a sincere desire to try to know God's will and do God's will. I was a true believer.
All of those memories were supplanted by the degradation and defilement of what your former youth and education minister did to me there. I was just a naive 16-year old church girl who had never been on a single date and never even held hands with anyone. Tommy Gilmore was a married adult, a parent and a minister. He was also counseling me at the time – counseling that he himself initiated.
I was raised to respect the church ministers and to believe that they were called by God. Nevertheless, when Gilmore pressed himself on me, I still said “no” – at first. But he persisted, and little by little, he convinced me that it was what God wanted from me. “Think of Abraham - think of Noah - think of Moses,” he said. “Do you think what God wanted from them made sense to them?” He told me that I wasn’t supposed to try to understand and that I had to be willing to “live by faith.” So, that’s what I tried to do. And using my own adolescent faith, trust and gullibility against me, your man of God violated me in unspeakable ways – all with words of God and in the name of God. Such despicable blasphemy, and yet God makes for a powerful weapon when used by a predator.
I was so totally conned that I actually felt special and chosen. I thought I was following God, but the path ultimately led me to a place of total darkness. After months of abuse, Gilmore started telling me that I was the serpent and Satan’s ally. He said that I harbored evil, and he made me kneel in his office while he prayed to God to cast Satan from me. He even made me apologize to his wife for what I had done, and I begged her to forgive me. Through all of this, I became so confused and distraught that I finally broke down crying at my piano lesson one day, and I told my piano teacher – the music minister – about it. I felt so horribly guilty and believed I was going to hell.
Shortly after I told the music minister, Gilmore left to go to a new position at a bigger church in Tyler. He was sent on his way with praise from the pulpit about how blessed we all were to have known such a man of God.
The abuse had a soul-murdering impact on my life, although I wasn’t able to understand until recently. I now know that, because of the level of trust involved, many psychologists compare the harm that kids experience from clergy sexual abuse to the harm that is caused by incest. Ordinary, decent people feel revulsion at the mere thought of incest and instinctively know how extremely damaging it must surely be for the kids. I hope there will come a time when ordinary, decent people will feel the same way about clergy sexual abuse, and that is why I am writing you this letter.
When my own daughter became 16, it began in my mind a process of resurrecting all the memories of what was done to me at that age. As a mother, I know that my fury would know no bounds if any trusted adult – any coach, teacher or minister – ever did to my daughter what was done to me. Thinking about it as a mother to my own daughter made me finally weep for the young girl that I myself once was. I finally understood that it wasn’t a wrong done by me, but rather a horrific wrong that was done against me.
I wish I could say this story had a constructive ending. But so far it doesn’t. I sent a detailed report of my abuse to your church and denominational leaders. I thought my report would be met with care and concern, and I hoped something positive could come of it. I assumed that church and denominational leaders would act so as to assure that Gilmore could not hurt anyone else. How naive I was.
Although I made no threat of any lawsuit, and although I filed my report solely within the church hierarchy, and although the gist of it could be readily confirmed, your church responded through its lawyer with what seemed to be an attempt to intimidate me. I perceived it as an effort to silence me, and this upset me more than words can say. I cannot help but wonder how many other clergy abuse victims have been intimidated right back into their quiet dark corners of shame by letters such as the one sent by your church’s attorney.
With such a response, how can I possibly believe that your church would be able to prevent the same horror from happening all over again to some other young church kid? One thing I know for sure is this: Silence serves only the predators.
It is degrading, humiliating and painful for me to even speak of this. Nevertheless, I flew to Dallas at my own expense last November to meet with three men from the Baptist General Convention of Texas and with one of your deacons. In fact, the meeting was delayed and rescheduled for the sake of allowing one of your deacons to attend. Yet, when I got there, not a single deacon from your church showed up. Only the church’s attorney was there. I was deeply disappointed. Even though I agreed to meet in your city, your church did not even do me the courtesy of sending a single deacon to talk with me face-to-face, one human being to another.
I tried to provide an opportunity to make some amends. In response, I feel as though your church chose to essentially spit on me. I sought to reopen this old wound to drain and heal it. And in response, I feel as though your church chose to reach in and savage the wound.
However, I know that a church is more than its deacons, and certainly more than its mere lawyer. So I am making this attempt to reach out to you as the members of the congregation and to inform you. My understanding is that, in a Baptist church, each and every member has a voice and a vote.
I don’t believe anyone actually doubts my story. The Baptist General Convention of Texas keeps a file of clergy abusers. By their own written policy, they will add a minister’s name to that file only if the sexual abuse is reported by a church and only if there is a confession, a conviction, or “substantial evidence that the abuse took place” as determined by denominational attorneys. I have been informed that the Baptist General Convention of Texas has now added Tommy Gilmore’s name to that file.
What I don’t understand is why the names in that file are kept confidential. As a parent, if your kids were active in one of Gilmore’s other churches, wouldn’t you want to know about this?
Over ten months have passed since I made my report, and I stay awake at night worrying about how many others Gilmore may have hurt and may yet hurt. I worry about how little it seems to me that the denomination is doing to protect against Gilmore and others like him. I don’t understand why Gilmore has still been able to work in children’s ministry. Even if church and denominational leaders are willing to believe that this man will not abuse anyone else, shouldn’t parents be informed and allowed to decide for themselves about where they will entrust their kids?
If I could have spoken of this sooner, I would have. However, I know my response to this trauma was normal. For people abused by clergy as teens and preteens, the amount of time before a first report is often several decades. As with me, it often happens when their own children reach the same age. It is the very nature of the harm that victims suppress the darkness and the shame of it.
Because a clergy predator often has multiple victims, I think church leaders should openly inform congregations about reports such as mine so as to reach out to other possible victims and so as to avoid an institutionalized culture of secrecy. If you or anyone you know had sexual contact as a minor with the prior minister Tommy Gilmore, or with any minister anywhere, I urge you to report it to police and to get counseling – no matter how long it has been. You can find support and information at www.snapnetwork.org. You can also make a completely anonymous report to legal authorities at www.victimpower.org.
Lest you somehow think this was simply about money, you should know that what I requested was an apology, a counseling stipend, and a symbolic gesture demonstrative of the church’s concern for victims and its commitment toward prevention in the future. The Baptist General Convention of Texas provides counseling for clergy abusers, and so it seemed reasonable to me that counseling support should also be provided for the victim. As a symbolic gesture, I asked for a labyrinth set into your church’s front lawn, with a small meditation garden and a plaque saying: “The labyrinth is dedicated in prayer for victims of clergy sexual abuse and in honor of their efforts to reclaim life and faith.” Labyrinths have an ancient history as spiritual places where people find renewal, and my understanding is that the Baptist General Convention of Texas indicated a willingness to pay for its initial construction. But your church’s lawyer said it’s not possible on the church’s property. I believe it was more likely a lack of will rather than a lack of possibility.
Clergy sexual abuse can happen anywhere. It happened to me and it happened in your church. I have seen no remorse and no one has asked my forgiveness, but even if they had, there is no amount of forgiveness on my part that would serve to make kids today any safer. What will make kids safer is for church and denominational leaders to treat clergy sexual abuse as the horrific crime that it is. What will make kids safer is for church and denominational leaders to be supportive of victims because when victims come forward, predators are revealed. What will make kids safer is for church and denominational leaders to make protection of kids the very highest priority. What will make kids safer is for church and denominational leaders to act with openness, forthrightness and vigilance in dealing with the hellish reality of trusted clergy who sexually abuse the young and vulnerable.