Content warning: The following article discusses sexual assault, grooming and clergy abuse.
Gallia* remembers the day she realized she was abused by her pastor with a sinking feeling.
“I sat in shock with the sickest feeling in my gut,” she explained.
Gallia lives in Manitoba with her husband and children, and just a few years ago sought counselling from the pastor of her home congregation.
“He promised he could ‘heal me’ from my childhood trauma of sexual abuse and recent marriage troubles,” she explained.
The so-called healing turned into grooming her for even more sexual abuse.
Gallia remembers being asked to write out her experiences with abuse in detail so the pastor could get a full picture of what she had experienced. He then moved the counselling sessions from his office to his home, used scripture against her, and asked Gallia to ignore her instincts and allow him to touch her.
She said her pastor showered her with gifts and compliments, insulted her husband and friends, leaving her isolated and feeling like he was the only one who could help or understand.
“It was a slippery slope to arranging meetings where the primary purpose was to have both of our sexual needs met because he suggested it was helping me heal and would, in fact, help me return to my husband without any unresolved sexual trauma,” Gallia explained.
When Gallia came forward to talk about the abuse with members of the congregation, she was effectively shunned by the church and the leaders tried to cover up her experience, she said. This was by far the most difficult part of the entire experience.
“My family and I were able to find refuge in a healthy and thriving church eventually, but the grief over loss of relationships with people we considered family has been incredibly difficult,” she said.
Two years ago, Gallia called MCC’s Abuse Response and Prevention program looking for help.
A path towards healing
The program equips churches, organizations, families and individuals with the resources, supports, and knowledge necessary to respond to abuse in trauma-sensitive ways.
It also offers workshops, trainings, consultations, referrals, and support groups upon request.
“I will never forget that first trembling message I left,” Gallia recalled. “I cried and felt so scared I'd be rejected or not believed but hoped somebody would call me back with answers.”
Jaymie Friesen, the coordinator of the provincial program did call back, and Gallia said the program helped bring her back to life.
“I wasn't alone and she was going to walk me through this horrible process of talking to my local church board as well as make sure I was provided with proper counselling,” Gallia said.
Going for help eventually led her to reporting the abuse to police.
“She (Friesen) has accompanied me to the gruelling court appointments as I testified before a judge and other court officials,” Gallia said.
Friesen says one of the most important parts of supporting those who are survivors of abuse is advocacy.
“When someone has been harmed and abused and then they have to do all the grunt work to try to get a conference, church or leadership to follow through with appropriate recourse, it's a huge ask for someone who's already been hurt in such a significant way,” she said.
That was true for Gallia.
At one point, she remembered Friesen sitting between her and her abuser in a court room, providing the support she needed during an especially difficult time.
“Hopefully this program alleviates some of that stress of having certain conversations when you already feel so depleted,” Friesen said.
Gallia said the program helped her through one of the most difficult experiences of her life.
“This program saves lives. No exaggeration. Without the support the Abuse Response and Prevention program provided to me I likely would have never reported my abuse to anybody let alone go through the criminal court system,” she said.
“I don't know how I would have mentally endured the ridicule, gossip, bullying and ignorance of those connected to my case without the unequivocal support and resources. They are doing God’s work in a mission field that is often not talked about.”
If you or someone you know has experienced abuse, please seek out support through MCC’s Abuse Response and Prevention program or another program in your community. To learn more about MCC’s program, visit https://abuseresponseandprevention.ca/
*A pseudonym to protect the safety and privacy of the individual. Gallia is Hebrew for “God shall redeem”.