“When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
In 1976/77, when I was only about 2 years old, my mother got involved with a church called Covenant Life (AKA TAG, Gathering Of Believers, People of Destiny International, and Sovereign Grace Ministries depending on the year) and got pregnant by one of the church members, and was advised to marry him. She did. So, I along with my eventual 8 siblings, were all in this church by default and through no choice of our own.
We all attended the church school CLS from the first year it opened in the lower level of the frost center in Aspen Hill Md. As a child, not knowing any different, I didn’t think it odd that field trips were actually “Right to Life Picketing” sessions, where we wore aborted fetus sandwich board signs and shouted “murderer” at random people. I thought it was normal that the children were routinely “spanked” by the principal for any and every little thing — perceived attitude, fidgeting in class, running in the hall, etc. I didn’t think at the time, it was odd to have required reading like the “Pilgrims Progress” in second grade, with issues like despondence, suicide, and legality, with atheists and giants who are out to abduct and murder pilgrims (christians) and then be instructed on the severe burden of sin being so great that our life’s purpose was to “carry that despondent burden on a path of deliverance” -- quite a weighty job for a child. I didn’t know kids in other schools were reading “The prince and the pauper” and “A cat in the Hat”.
I didn’t really understand why the library in the school was so small, and most of the books had several pages stapled together, and why when I checked a book out and pulled the staples out of those pages I was a sinner and severely punished at the school when they saw the book came back un-stapled. I was an avid reader (still am) and would sign out a new book almost daily. Even the reference books, encyclopedias (Britannica, with beautiful covers and pretty gold lines on the spine) had many pages stapled. I was actually doing a report on something to do with earth science, and looking things up led me to pages that were stapled together. I unstapled them while there in the “library” and read (OH NO, wait for it…..) a brief reference to Darwin’s theory of evolution! I returned the book to the shelf, and same days later the principal was somehow told the pages had been unstapled, and I was the last person to have signed for that book. I was called back from class to the principal’s office where I was told I should have known better and would now be “disciplined” for it, and then was told to bend over the principal’s desk, where he then pulled up my dress, exposing my underwear, and spanked me 15 or 20 times with a large flat board, counting it out as he went, and simultaneously warning me not to move so I wouldn’t get hit in the wrong place. I eventually learned they would continue to hit you until they felt you were crying loudly enough to show submission or brokenness. The students would often joke in whispers amongst themselves about who cried the loudest and how many classrooms away you could hear it from. The instrument changed periodically from a wooden board to a fiberglass rod with holes in it, but they were never shy to use it, that’s for sure. I remember one boy who had showed us classmates where they had missed his buttocks and hit his legs, leaving a clear purple imprint of the board with the holes in it for days afterwards. He had clearly not submitted to their warning of staying still during this discipline, although he claimed to us that he had, and they just had bad aim. As was customary, a note would be sent home to your parents informing them that you had been disciplined that day and why. This was not an unusual occurrence…. happened daily to any large number of students there. We understood it to be something that could happen at any time for pretty much anything. My little brother was spanked like this a few times in the same day as a preschooler (maybe 4 or 5 years old) for forgetting not to run in the hallway — multiple times in one day! It was sometimes explained as “you broke the rules and this is to teach you”, but often it was very ambiguous like “you have not been acting in the spirit of gods law, and your attitude is not in accordance with a spirit of obedience” – as if THAT clearly explains it to an elementary age child. After asking my teacher a question about whether Catholics were going to hell, since according to her only Christians went to heaven, I couldn’t get a satisfactory answer, so out of curiosity I persisted, and it was, of course, my persistence in questioning which showed an “attitude of disobedience, not one of submission”. And again, I was sent to the office to be “disciplined” in the usual manner. Parents would get these notes and were free to call and discuss it with the principal, but clearly the principal was always right and I can’t remember a single time it was ever questioned. Some of my friends would tell me they would be spanked additionally once they got home, if they were to go home having had to be “disciplined” at school that day. Having ungodly children was taught to be a clear show of parents who weren’t doing their job of controlling their child’s attitudes and behavior, and a strong will was to be spanked out of each and every one. I mean there were hundreds of books sold every sunday at the church on this very topic just to remind parents of the need to do this, and often. As an adult now I find the whole practice vehement and perverse. I know a lot of “christians” will disagree with me, as spanking their kids (and allowing other adults to do so as well) is considered a major part of good parenting, but amazingly enough I was able to raise a wonderful, compassionate, smart, well rounded, and happy son all the way to adulthood (he is now in college) without ever having to hit him, not once! Imagine that! I felt my responsibility as a parent was to teach, love, and guide my child through life, not “gain control through enforcement”. And it works.
And I certainly didn’t understand the true cost of attending this church school — how parents had to be current church members in good standing, and tuition depended on their level of involvement with the church (“oh, you’re short on tuition this month? Well you can clean the pastor’s house, or babysit for one of them— did you tithe this month? Let me check the tithing records. Have you missed any required homegroup meetings this month? Do we have any reports from your homegroup leaders of you being “unteachable”?). The words and phrases used within this church might sound innocuous, but anybody who has escaped a cult before knows how the most seemingly innocent phrases like “care”, “unteachability”, etc all have deeper darker and often threatening meaning behind them.
I thought it was normal that we couldn’t listen to the radio – it was secular and an outside influence from sinners trying to damn us to hell along with them – and that TV was mostly the same. It was a childhood, wary and afraid of anything outside of the church since it surely meant hell fire and damnation. This idea of secular vs the church (bad vs. good), (always wrong vs. always right) was not merely “perceived”…it was clearly and unequivocally taught and encouraged as the truth. I didn’t make up the idea…..it was reiterated through constant teaching and preaching and insisted upon through discipline and punishment. Note, there were some really nice people and teachers I remember as well including some teachers and other church families. But even they, probably always having the best intentions, had subscribed to the theology and practices already put in place in the school and homes by the church leadership. It’s not necessarily just personal issues I have with individuals, it’s the ideology of it all that the actions and practices stem from which are at the root of the problems.
I often mused to myself even as a little girl, how sneaky and incredibly smart all these outsiders must be, because they put on SUCH a convincing show of being really good nice people -- but they must be wicked since the church says so. I secretly respected the few outsider women I had encountered because they seemed so nice and happy, even without submitting to a man’s leadership. It must be a trap – how could someone know they were going to hell and seem to not have a care in the world?
Fast forward through more than 10 years of this indoctrination, sin picking, heavy centralized shepherding, and being limited to the churches circle in school, church, homegroup, youth group,…. (hell, even vacation was only ever to these church sponsored retreats).The secular world was something to be afraid of.
My mother started to get concerned when her usually perfectly well behaved 11 year old daughter had been “acting out”, having a “bad attitude” towards her husband, and the church had advised my mother to admonish her and demand she respect him as godly children should. Maybe my mother wasn’t exhibiting enough submission at home as an example to her daughters? When she found out a few years later that actually her husband had been sexually abusing her daughter since age 11, she was devastated. She immediately called the pastors (John Loftness and Gary Riccucci) as was the only customary and acceptable reaction to any family issue as directed by the church. These church leaders handled this situation in the worst ways possible.
I could detail a hundred things they did next which only made the situation worse by blaming the victim, attempting to cover up the crime and keep it secret, to supporting the pedophile financially and legally. They sent my mother to her care group leader for counseling who told her to god wanted her to send her daughter away so that this man could return to the family home as the head of the household.
My mother insisted on finding counseling for her children. The pastors had told her they were looking for counseling for my mother and her children, when really they were biding time, and three weeks went by after she told them and he had admitted to the crime. Only because she continued to insist on finding counseling, the pastors then, knowing a counselor would be required to report the sexual abuse, retained legal counsel for the pedophile, and assisted him in turning himself in as a show of repentance. The pastors pressured her to ask the court for leniency for this man who had abused her child. They testified as character witnesses for him in court. He had repented and been forgiven, just like that. We were all warned not to tell anyone in the church, even though the abuser was still attending — it would be gossip.
But my mother was not submissive and she refused to beg the court to release the man who sexually assaulted her child as the church had told her to. So we (my mother and her 9 children) were put out of the school, and spiraled into a state of dire poverty over the next year. My mother pleaded with the church for help, but they only further demonized her. The pastor told my mother, her “poverty was self induced” because she had not been submissive to their guidance. Having always been a homemaker and mother in the church approved way, she had little means of providing for her 9 children. She went and got a minimum wage job and worked until it almost killed her. Our electricity was cut off, our house was in foreclosure, we were starving, when my mother came down with pneumonia and was hospitalized. Having offered no help so far, the same pastors showed up to the hospital to tell her they would make sure all of us children were taken care of while she was in the hospital. But actually they were plotting with the recently released pedophile to assist him in petitioning the court for full custody of the children. They had been making anonymous calls to the state saying my mother was unfit to try to help the sexual pervert gain custody of the children so he wouldn’t have to pay child support once the impending divorce was final. The social workers were surprised the church leaders had not done more and were not confident at the time that they were going to really help at all, considering they had seemed more supportive of the child molester than they were of the victim and family. The social workers also said they were concerned that if the state did not step in, certain much needed agency support wouldn’t be readily available to us all, like professional counseling, and legal aid for my mother to get child support from the ex. They felt leaving us to rely on a church, who had done little so far, could end up even more disastrous than it already was. They did ask the pastors if there was anything the church could do to avoid separating the kids and placing them in foster homes with so many of us, finding foster homes for all the children was almost impossible. Coincidentally (NOT), the kids young enough not to be able to tell anyone about the sexual abuse were placed with a few church families for a few weeks until the state put them into outside foster homes to make us all eligible for services. Being old enough to tel people their secrets, I was sent to state facilities immediately. JL told me that day “we would like to help but we have no place for you to go, there is nobody willing to take you in, so just go on to the shelter (alone) and we will continue to look for a family that is willing to let you stay with them until your mom recovers”. That was the last time I heard from him, until I saw him once, a year later, in family court (testifying to the good character of the molester). I was separated from my siblings, and dropped off at a shelter for homeless delinquents, followed by institutions, foster homes and anywhere else the state could find an open bed. But the pastors care and concern only ever was for the molester — they arranged for the kids to “visit their father” (thankfully supervised per the courts), and at one point even required my sister, the victim of his sexual assaults, to come into their offices and sit down in a meeting to force her to accept her abusers apology, so he could be forgiven and resume membership in the church (which he did and remarried in that church, had two daughters, and still attends to this day).
There’s a long list of decisions the church made that negatively affected and re-victimized my family. Once I saw they had deserted me completely, I started sending letters to the two pastors and the church, every year on the anniversary of the day my mother reported the abuse to them, listing the things they had done, and telling them I wanted to be a constant reminder of their awful actions. They never once responded or acknowledged these letters (and later emails). I would drive by their church building and spit out the window at it. Years went by and I continued to send the letters, even when I knew they would never respond. One year as I was preparing to write the letter as ususal, I checked online to make sure their addresses had not changed, and I came across a blog called SGMSurvivors. This blog had many ex members of this group of churches, telling their horrific stories of abuse by the leaders and the church. I was floored at the similarities between my experience and others. First, to find out I was not alone in what I had experienced, was amazing to me, having imagined for so long that it was just us. But to read how they systematically protected pedophiles and abusers and re-victimized the victims of these perpetrators in a longstanding pattern of abuse of their authority infuriated me. I eventually posted my story on the blog and have followed its progression since then as it continues to follow along the ever dramatic roller coaster that is SGM ministries through the perspectives of those who have survived its worst. http://www.sgmsurvivors.com/
One day in the grocery store I ran into someone I had gone to the church school with. He recognized me and asked about my family and I told him what had actually happened. He had no idea about what had really happened. He asked if he could go to the pastors to question them about it, and I of course said yes. He did just that, and the initial response much later to him from one of the pastors named Gary was:
Please forgive my long overdue response.
Thank you for making me aware of your conversation… and for your obvious heart for the care of anyone drifting from fellowship with Christ…for whatever reason.
Yes, John and I had primary pastoral responsibility for the family during what was certainly a most tragic, grieving and painful experience.
The sin committed and subsequent fragmentation of their family was one of the saddest experiences of our ministry. Because of the sin and alienation there was a need for separation, so John provided care for the mother and children while I walked the father through the necessary legal process in taking responsibility for his actions.
As she got older, no doubt much discussion took place between her and her Mom about that very difficult season. I would be glad to talk personally to you, to answer any questions and to explain the steps we took and why, as this tragedy unfolded.”
Maybe I’m pessimistic, but it sounded like an offer to take the opportunity to justify and rewrite history from an advantageous viewpoint. I have no reason to suspect any different. If they felt they had done something wrong, surely they would have responded to MY letters over the years. I wrote another excruciatingly long email and sent it to both pastors John and Gary suggesting to them that an apology would at least help their own reputations they cared so much about. After this church member again followed up about it with them, and in the midst of a ongoing public shakeup in their corporate ranks, they finally responded to me. Gary, in part, wrote:
“It appears that, at least in some of your comments, there may be some misunderstanding of what we did and why. Our hope is that a conversation and some clarification about the past may be a means of God’s comfort and grace to you for the future. Please contact John or me if you feel that a conversation might be helpful.”
John, in part, wrote:
“Our care (or lack of care as the case may be) for your family during those years was one of the most challenging tasks that we have encountered as pastors in more than 30 years. That is not to excuse any failures on our part, but to let you know that, in the light of today and what we have learned since then, and especially in light of getting your perspective, we would see deficiencies in our care. There are gaps that we may be able to fill in and things we remember that may broaden your understanding, but please don’t take that as making any defense or let it take away from the deep sadness we feel for your experiences in the aftermath of Dave’s sin against your sister and mother, and beyond that, to your entire family.”
Both replies ended with an offer to meet and discuss everything. I really struggled with wanting to believe they would have the decency and integrity to actually acknowledge and admit to their wrongs, apologize, and leave it at that if we met. But the words that keep jumping out at me are: “misunderstanding” and “broaden your understanding” and “gaps we may be able to fill in” and “sadness we feel for your experience” (as opposed to sadness we feel for our actions). I don’t trust them. I also feel like now as an adult I have a CHOICE I didn’t have as a child. I can choose to not sit and hear a whole cockamamie roundabout justification with a good dose of biblical rhetoric thrown in, especially since I feel like that would only serve to royally piss me off. And since I’m now an atheist and not a christian, I am not bound by doctrine to react with humility or reverence. I don’t need reconciliation with them. I don’t want to hear them spout their “words of god”, since I believe they are only exist for those people who choose to believe them, interpret them, and practice them -- so in that regard, this church showed my very clearly how they in fact put gods words as they believe them into action (the “living” version of the things they believe in). IMO a god like that, were he to exist, wouldn’t deserve any following. For me heaven is now a state of mind, not a place we must find. Even as the membership rushes to the blind defense of these pastors calling them “men of integrity”, I now have a higher standard for integrity for people in my life, and they (the pastors) would not now qualify.
I realized that my intention all along was to attempt to have them acknowledge what they did, hoping that if they actually SEE it, I mean really GET IT, it won’t happen to anyone else. My entire life was negatively affected for years, by their decisions, in ways that would make you cringe to know, and if they don’t “get it” then maybe others will. I’m not looking for the truth — I already have it — I was there – I have all the documents to prove it — I KNOW. I just feel like they are only sorry it came out -- sorry it was told -- not sorry they did what they did.
I am angry that their lies and abuses still continue to this day. I don’t carry around constant anger and bitterness with me every day, for those of you who might think my life is controlled by the past. It’s not. I do struggle with the “what ifs” at times…. and wonder how life could have really been different for me. But, I also think about how when I now encounter hungry people, abused people, pregnant teenagers, foster care children, the homeless, etc. I have a unique ability to say to them: “I understand” -- and really mean it. I’ve accepted all my struggles as a part of life which makes me stronger than I could’ve been without it. Percy Shelley, a social justice advocate and English poet from the 1800’s wrote a play called Prometheus. In it she writes:
“To suffer woes which hope thinks infinite; To endure wrongs darker than death or night; To defy power which seems omnipotent; To love, and bear; to hope till hope creates from its own wreck the thing it contemplates, …this is to be good, great and joyous, beautiful and free; This is alone Life, Joy,.. and Victory”.
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