My name is Michelle Hood and I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I will not revisit the story of my abuse in this article but rather speak of the lessons we must all learn as a result of past mistakes and mismanagement—not only from Church administration but also from members of local church congregations.
Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse has concluded and recommendations have been made as to redress and other matters pertaining to rehabilitation and policy structures going forward. For me, giving evidence to the commission was a most cathartic and healing experience. For many, it was recognition of the horror of abuse and a chance to be heard and, most of all, believed.
I have heard many people say that our Church must be clean because we did not rate a mention. This is not true. Sexual abuse in church communities is as rife as in the secular world. That’s because churches are made up of human beings—all are flawed by sin. Predators often see the cloistered order of the church community as a happy hunting ground. The truth is that none of us want to believe that any Christian attending church could commit such a crime. We worship together, socialise together and open our homes to each other. We cannot imagine this behaviour from one of our own.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church had at least 25 respondents* to the Royal Commission and may well have been called to public scrutiny in open session had the commission not had all the information it needed to present its findings.
Many have asked me why I shared my story with the commission. This is the first tangible opportunity that survivors have ever had to put matters right before the law. The legal system has let most survivors down in endless arguments about the letter of the law and little concern for real justice.
When I laid charges before the courts back in the 1990s, the legal system did as much to hurt me as anyone else and true justice was not served at all.
I felt worse in many ways by coming forward. So why did I? These offences continue because we sweep them under the carpet. If I had been able to speak up earlier I may have prevented scores of other children going through what I went through. A community that hides abuse enables abuse, and our society has done this for too long already.
Did I do it for the money? Financial compensation does help in putting some things right, but the main reason is that corporations and organisations are slow to change unless the hip pocket is hit and hit hard. Our Church and many other churches and groups have had to make substantial budgetary adjustments for what is to come, but so be it. Let’s be honest here. If this is God’s church, and I believe it is, then God will protect it. I’m also certain that God wants His house in order and pretty quickly. This is a pain everyone must share for the ultimate gain it will bring us all.
How does one child’s experience of abuse affect the church community at large?
I know of many survivors who will never set foot in any church ever again. If 20 people are lost to the causes of heaven for each victim, then multiply that by the number of victims and we are in the tens if not hundreds of thousands. And often overlooked in the roll call of those whose lives have been changed are the families of the perpetrator.
I was asked by the commission to list those who had added to my abuse—the list was quite extensive. The perpetrator had sexually assaulted me consistently for a number of years, but when I laid charges, the church leadership’s response was tardy and lacklustre, victimising me in the corporate sense and failing to secure my situation. I was spiritually, mentally and physically abused by members of church congregations who branded me a troublemaker for speaking out and thwarted every attempt I made to continue in church life. I was legally abused by a judicial system that failed me; people in high places who took the high moral ground at my expense while dragging enormous salaries from government coffers. I actually asked the commission when it would call on its own fraternity to explain its actions.
"This is a pain everyone must share for the ultimate gain it will bring us all."
So where to now? As the findings are made clear and we as a community come to terms with the enormity of this situation, we need to search our collective morality and seek answers to the big questions. How can we best bring back the lost lambs of abuse? How can we prevent a repeat of this situation? How can we be more inclusive? How can we be part of healing the wounds of past and, sadly, future generations? These are very big questions that can only be asked and answered in the full light of truth.
I have embraced a very difficult ministry of inconvenient truth since starting Mission Serenity—a charity supporting abuse survivors—more than a decade ago. I’ve been given relative freedom to discuss these matters in public and open forums and, as a result, have participated in the healing journey of hundreds of survivors and their families. Galatians 1:10 is my source of encouraging support: “I speak to please God not man.”
Former South Pacific Division president Dr Barry Oliver expressed his deep sorrow for me in public in 2014 at the South Queensland and North NSW camp meetings. God has blessed me with a healing ministry, a happy marriage and a very strong relationship with Him.
As the Royal Commission was winding up, the Church acted decisively and with great compassion long before the findings were handed down. I was deeply touched by the efforts made to support me and the speed at which things were done. What is of the highest importance now is that we keep this momentum going and make the required changes, to prevent these things from happening on our watch. If we don’t, many of us will have some very awkward questions to answer when judgement comes.
The Church has engaged in an extensive and thorough investigation into my claims over the past 10 years, and has endorsed my actions and found my story to be true and correct. I thank God for that and I ask anyone who sees honest survivors as troublemakers to examine their hearts. What if your son or daughter were abused and confessed? Would you want someone to push it under the carpet?
My name is Michelle Hood and I am a grateful believer in Jesus Christ. I am happy and it is well with my soul. My healing journey is almost complete and, for the first time in my life, I am free.
To read Michelle’s testimony go to missionserenity.org.au.
* This figure represents the total number of child sexual abuse survivors from the Seventh-day Adventist Church who were given a private session by the Royal Commission, and not those survivors who approached the commission but were not given a private session at the time the report was finalised. This figure also does not include survivors from the Seventh-day Adventist Church who reported to the Royal Commission by phone, email or letter.
If this article has raised an issue for you or someone you know please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 (Australia) or Adsafe on (02) 9847 3488 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michelle Hood is co-founder of Mission Serenity.