Bringing Sexual Abuse to Light

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Reflections of Early Childhood”

"New Passage" by Melanie WeidnerIn 2009, a member of our meeting—whom we’ll call “Zoe”—discovered that her family

had a years-long, father-daughter secret of sexual abuse. The family had attended our meeting for the duration of this abuse. When our meeting community found out about the abuse, we wanted to find ways to support all of the parties involved, but we felt ourselves at a loss. How could this happen to such good people? How could we nurture all of the parties without anyone feeling betrayed?

Our meeting found a way to educate ourselves about sexual abuse and to begin to provide such support. As we learned that a number of Lexington Friends are survivors of sexual abuse, we realized that domestic sexual abuse is far more common than many of us had imagined. When Friends Journal solicited articles on the topic of sexuality, we knew that sharing our meeting’s experience with domestic sexual abuse would be helpful to other meetings.

In writing this article collaboratively, we (Melissa and Betsy) draw from different experiences and perspectives regarding sexual abuse and health. Melissa’s interest in the issue goes back to the summer she turned eight, when, on a quiet morning, her teenage brother invited her into his room and raped her. She has dealt intermittently, and in many different ways, with the ramifications of that single act over the ensuing 50-plus years. As a nurse, as a patient, and as a reader, she often recognizes issues and consequences of sexual abuse. Betsy is a sexuality educator who teaches parents how to discuss sexual issues with their children. For most of her adult life, she has been an activist for reproductive health. She values education as the key to empowerment and a healthy life. She has felt led to share with the wider Quaker community her meeting’s process for dealing with domestic sexual abuse.

Lexington Meeting is a mid-sized meeting, a community of about 100 Friends with an average Sunday attendance of 30-35 people. We had never confronted such an issue in our community, and many of us thought of sexual abuse as something far removed from our lives.

When we learned about the abuse in Zoe’s family, our journey of self-education began. Zoe asked for a clearness committee to help her cope with her devastating pain. She told the committee that she felt it was important that the meeting educate itself about domestic sexual abuse. This request was passed on to our Ministry and Worship committee. Being familiar with sexual abuse, both as a nurse and as one who had experienced it, I (Melissa) offered to clerk an ad hoc committee that would develop a process to educate our members about the problem. In order to demonstrate the widespread nature of domestic sexual abuse, we invited Friends to submit anonymous stories about their experiences. Others, we felt sure, would have their own equally heartbreaking stories that would be a powerful demonstration of the prevalence of sexual abuse.

We received several stories to add to Zoe’s and Melissa’s. One member, “Lucretia,” wondered why her three-year-old daughter left her big brother out of her list of people to bless in her bedtime prayer, only to find out that, in her daughter’s words, it was “because he hurt my pee-pee.” The family had to live apart to protect the little one while seeking treatment for both of their children. Another member, “Elise,” shared a poem she had written in high school of the dreaded night-time encounters with her father.

The committee began working with a local social worker experienced in conflict mediation and restorative justice, and we planned reflection sessions that would last several hours each. We asked how we could become more aware of signs of sexual abuse, and how we could respond to it more effectively. While Betsy was not on the planning committee, as a sexuality educator she remained actively interested and supported the process.

Our first session focused on information and a reenactment. Experts from the local rape crisis center and the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association provided a definition of abuse and explained how it happens. They gave statistics about incidence, reporting procedures, counseling, and support. They dispelled myths about sexual abuse and answered our questions. The abuse stories collected from F/friends were published in our monthly meeting’s newsletter and were distributed as a handout at this session.

During this first reflection session, Melissa presented a short, one-woman play based on her childhood experiences. She began by charming us as an innocent eight-year-old girl who showed how her older brother shattered her childhood world by raping her. We watched that tender eight-year-old’s reaction and heard how her parents rebuked her for voicing what happened. The play fast-forwarded to Melissa as a young adult and later, a middle aged woman, showing how this distressing memory impacted her adult life as well. This reenactment made vivid for Friends the pervasive impact of sexual abuse on a real person and Melissa’s concern for the safety of future generations in her brother’s family. It was moving for the group to see this horrific experience played out through a woman’s life. It was made even more powerful by the realization that this Friend was willing to expose such tender parts of herself to help us understand sexual abuse.

The next session was an opportunity for Friends to check in with themselves mentally, emotionally, and spiritually after the information sharing and reenactment of the first session. Many feelings had been stirred up, and our awareness and sensitivity were increased. The third session focused on justice, punishment, forgiveness, and reconciliation. We explored questions like, How do our Quaker values help us hold victims and offenders in the Light? How do we square our values with the established punishments? For instance, the perpetrator of Zoe’s abuse asked two Friends to write letters on his behalf to the judge prior to sentencing. Other Friends had mixed feelings about taking such an action. In explaining his reason for writing a letter, one Friend argued that no person is defined by the worst thing he or she has ever done. We also grappled with other questions:

Does prison do anything to help the perpetrator?

Is restriction of the perpetrator’s freedom a fair punishment?

Are we motivated by the desire for revenge?

What is justice?

What does forgiveness require of us?

How should we deal with the offender if he were to return to the meeting after leaving prison?

When thinking about a perpetrator of sexual abuse, these are extremely challenging issues. Throughout our discussion, we maintained our concern about the safety of the victim.

These sessions were times of profound sharing and learning, deeply moving and emotionally draining. After each, there seemed to be so much more we had not yet touched or adequately addressed. We scheduled a final session where we were able to recognize that we needed even more time to reflect and process what had happened, and it was important for us to let our community move on. Our facilitator assured us we had done good work.

Perhaps it goes without saying that these issues and questions are far from resolved for Lexington Friends. We have opened the door and let in the Light. Those of us who have not experienced sexual abuse realize now that it is all around us. Those who are survivors of abuse know we are not alone. As a meeting, we know that we are in this together, a strong, loving community of Friends, better prepared to support each other.


Melissa: Reenactment of a major trauma is not to be undertaken lightly. While it was fun to put myself back into my eight-year-old skin again, I was surprised by the very real fear that little girl felt, knowing (as the historical little girl had not) as I walked across the room that I was about to be forcibly raped. I found it terrifying and shattering to re-experience; immediately afterward, as I continued with the presentation, I was short of breath and emotionally drained. I chose the dramatic presentation because lecturing or reading about such a life-altering experience seems to sterilize it. But I would not have felt safe doing it without the support of my therapist and my meeting community. My first performance was in my therapist’s private office, and we discussed it at length when I finished. While the reenactment was a healing moment for me, I would strongly discourage anyone from doing it without similar support, lined up in advance.

My biggest lesson from the reenactment, and from the reflection sessions in general, was that no single event creates an entire person. Many victims worry that if people know this about them, it will be all they will see. “Sally, the wise and wonderful Friend, a leader in her field,” will become “Poor Sally, I don’t know how she manages from day to day, what can I say to her?” Things that happen to us certainly have a real impact on our values and attitudes, but they do not become our identity. Rather, our identity influences how we understand that moment and integrate it into the rest of our being. A survivor of a traumatic event is first and foremost a person; although she has experienced this horrid event, she still exists outside of that experience. She still has favorite things, likes and dislikes, and talents. Speak to those!

Betsy: The major lesson for me was how common domestic sexual abuse is in families in our meeting, in our community, and in society. Secrecy and shame allow it to continue. The most powerful tool we have to end sexual abuse is revealing it and opening it to the Light. We can do this by sharing our stories, supporting victims in their healing, supporting perpetrators in their healing (if we can, and if we have the opportunity), and easing shame by sharing love, acceptance, and support.

I serve as co-clerk of the Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice committee, which is currently revising our book of discipline. A couple of years ago, we begandrafting a chapter on close relationships, including family relationships. As a result of the events at Lexington Meeting, I asked the committee to include a section on domestic abuse. The following text is currently seasoning and will be considered for approval at our 2013 annual sessions:

Abuse in a home
The exercise of inappropriate power in close relationships can result in physical, psychological, or sexual abuse. In the face of the social isolation often associated with an abusive home, those victimized may feel alone and desperate. Meetings are advised to educate themselves about domestic abuse and to become particularly sensitive to signs of such situations and to be bold in offering assistance. Meetings are encouraged to create communities of trust in which those who are being abused can seek the support of the meeting.

“Wake up.”

Daddy whispered in my ear.

“Come on,”

Daddy, why’re you so near?

“I know a game,”

He said, not quite himself

“That makes me happy.”

We walked past the shelf

Of happy-family snapshots.

“Daddy’s filled with love,”

He wants to give it all to you.”

I thought of a dove.

So clean, so pure.

Something I could never be

After all the things that

Daddy’d done to me.

I dread the night.

I listen for the measured


When in the dark I know, that

Daddy’s coming to my bed.

Written by a regular attender of our meeting when she was in high school, 1990)

Melissa Levine and Betsy Neale

Melissa LeVine is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She has been a member of Lexington (Ky.) Meeting for several years. Betsy Neale is also a member of Lexington Meeting and provides sexuality education for parents.

8 thoughts on “Bringing Sexual Abuse to Light

  1. Dealing with the knowledge of incest within the meeting at the death of the longstanding respected member who had been the perpetrator was a new and very uncomfortable feeling. As I have grown and friends have confided their experiences to me,
    I have found I have been far from alone in sexual abuse experiences of all kinds. But in the past there was always the clear line between the villain and the victim.
    This was the first time that I could clearly see that there was “that of God” in the villain…..Most confusing and illuminating at the same time. It has made me look at other “criminals” a second time…..our worst selves and our best selves.
    Thank you for the surrender it took to bring this article into the light to share. I commend you.

  2. Awareness of these issues is very important for Friends Meetings. Thanks for bringing it forward in such an articulate and loving fashion. It is particularly important to think holistically about the issue as you suggest. Abusers are often victims, and their sins do not blot out the Light that shines in them. But I would like to add one dimension to this discussion which often gets left out.

    I have spent most of my life recovering from psychological and sexual abuse by my mother. It cost me my first marriage and almost my second one. It has left me struggling to trust, to love, and to have uncomplicated intimacy with my wife who means everything to me. I’ve spent years in counselling, years struggling to talk about it, years trying to find peace. And I’m the lucky one, the one who managed, somehow, to escape. My brothers did not fare so well.

    My family has lived out the sadly typical cycle of abuse. One brother ended up in a relationship with a violently abusive woman and effectively helped train his own children to tolerate abuse or to become abusers themselves. Another brother ended up going to jail for abusing his own children, passing on the pain and suffering to yet another generation of innocent victims in very much the same patterns he had learned. And, to be honest, the affairs I had during my first marriage (because I was unable to cope with intimacy) were the way I passed on my suffering to others.

    When we think and talk about abuse it is very important to remember that while men are certainly responsible for a good deal of it (probably the majority of the more dramatic interfering sort) abuse by women (tending more to the psychological end) is actually quite common and very much a part of the cycle of abuse. Despite my history and despite what happened to my brothers, even I often think, “was it really that bad?” If I can do that, it’s not surprising that others don’t give women’s abuse due attention. I am physically big and strong. I am a confident and successful professional man in a patriarchal world that gave me all sorts of advantages that women don’t have. I don’t look like I need or ever needed anybody’s help. In fact, this culture has done everything it can to train me to put on that kind of front, and frankly, I do it well. It’s understandably hard to remember that I was once small, weak, innocent, and utterly vulnerable. My mother was bigger than me. My mother set the terms. My mother was my world. And it was not a good place.

    Men who have suffered abuse speak about it with great difficulty. Feelings of shame certainly lie behind this. In part this also has to do with male reticence in a culture which trains boys to ‘man up’ and shames them when they can’t. (This certainly happened to me.) But in significant measure it also has to do with a paternalistic culture that has a blind-spot for abusive women, particularly when the victims are male. Not having listeners who have thought about these issues makes it much more difficult for men to seek the help they need. Among Friends I had to learn to choose my words very carefully so that others didn’t mistake my anger for unthinking misogyny. And that was hard: it seemed horribly unfair that I should have to choke back my anger about what happened to me, especially among those who should be the best listeners of all.

    The thing is, male anger can be genuinely frightening not only to the viewer, but also to the man feeling it. This is particularly the case if that anger is directed towards women whom men are taught to care for and protect. It took a very long time for me to allow myself to really feel the violent anger that I had a right to feel as a child. So not only do abused men not speak about their anger, they don’t even allow themselves the enter privately into that first and crucial stage of feeling and acknowledging their emotions about what happened to them.

    So what does this all boil down to? Abused men need to talk about the abuse they have suffered so that other men with similar experiences can be set free to heal, and when men talk about it we all need to listen lovingly. Just as crucially, when Friends talk about abuse, we not only need to use gender-neutral language but also to openly recognize that women can be abusers and men victims. If someone had done this it might have helped my brothers. If someone had given them a loving place to talk about what happened to them it might have saved their sons and daughters. And, heaven forbid that it should happen, but it might have prevented this pain from being passed on by their children to yet another generation.

  3. This article concerns me and has left me disappointed. I advocate for restorative justice and I question our criminal justice system but from the queries presented in this article I can’t help but notice very little discussion about the victim having THEIR needs and the perpetrator being held accountable by the community.

    None of the queries mentioned above even include the word “victim”. The article almost forgets her except for the obligatory “we maintained our concern about the safety of the victim”. Perhaps queries about the needs and experience of the victim arose and perhaps the community did hold the perpetrator accountable, but it isn’t made clear in this article. This leads me to believe that despite our testimony to Equality, Quakers (like much of society) are still actively participating in Rape Culture, wherein the attention goes to the perpetrator and the victim becomes merely a vehicle for a discussion.

    Outside of the conversation about sexual assault, there is a trend I’ve observed amongst Friends to immediately jump to forgiving a member/attendee of a Meeting who has done something that is inexcusable. Forgiveness should be treated as a selfish act (by selfish I mean something you do purely for your own benefit) in addition to something you do for the person who’s wronged you. I’d go as far as to say that you can even leave the perpetrator out of the equation entirely when reaching forgiveness.

    It’s possible to forgive an act that seems unforgivable, but Friends seem uncomfortable with asking themselves if they should. Asking the hard questions and holding community members accountable with specific consequences opens up many more opportunities for forgiveness and reconciliation.

  4. Hi
    Excuse me for butting in on your conversation here – because I was searching the web ( as i sometimes do ) for discussion about Friends and sexual abuse. I’m an adult but was raised quaker in a household where sexual abuse was perpetrated by my father on me and my siblings. i was never beleived when i talked about it and my parents became members of the false memeory society in the 90’s and received support from the meeting in the form of clearness committees etc.

    Personally, although there are many things about the society that i like, I don’t think it’s stucture is capable of dealing with sexual abuse in the families of the members if the perpetrator is is also a Friend. Freinds are too used to thinking about restoritive justice and are not so good, as the previous poster points out, when it comes to thinking about the victim.

    The lack of a professional religious leader also creates a problem as there is nobody who an abused child or teenager can turn to in confidence ( i know a lot of professionals in other chuches have abused this position but that is abother story ).

    So my best advice for the person who is abused by a fellow quaker is to get help from outside the society if the perpetrator is also a Friend because the meeting will not be able to provide protection.

  5. Hello

    replying to my own reply here… but I’ve been doing some more thinking about this.

    Basically quakers need to do a lot more thinging about how to apply our beleif in the light within to istances of child abuse and especially child sexual abuse.

    We know that there is that of God in all of us – even people who have committed acts of sexual abuse.

    But where a young person has ben abused, we need to protect them and nuture the spark in them that has been hurt. and therefore our first concern should be with the child.

  6. I am a Quaker seminary student doing a project around Friends’ responses to abuse, and I would like to talk to Friends who have worked on developing and implementing policies of protection about your experiences within your Meeting. I would also like to talk with Friends who are survivors about your experience in your Meeting and how you would like to see Meetings support survivors.
    This article is now a few years old, and I don’t know if it is getting new views or popping up in internet searches, but I am going to comment anyway.
    I welcome emails from Friends who would be willing to talk with me:

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