The abused child I carry within

Participating in the Culture of Safety training and listening to the discussion around it, I am two people.

One is the experienced minister, analysing the changes being made and thinking about how best to introduce them to a congregation.

The other is the small child experiencing abuse, the one who still lives inside the adult me and responds to the discussion with pain and outrage.

From the age of about three, I was physically and emotionally abused by members of my family.

This was decades ago, when much less was known about family violence, mental illness and emotional abuse. There was still a belief that physical abuse could not happen in nice families.

My family was definitely nice: two parents, married to each other, the father in full-time work, the mother in part-time; four children, all doing relatively well at school, even if the eldest child seemed to suffer from an unusual level of anxiety about their performance; the entire family attending church every Sunday.

No one looking at us from the outside could have imagined that anything was wrong. I certainly didn’t know that anything was wrong, because I had never known anything else.

Psychologists and social workers describe part of what happened to me as ‘scapegoating’ and a lot of research has been done on it.

Dysfunctional parents choose one child to blame for everything that goes wrong in the family, rather than addressing what they themselves are doing wrong. The scapegoat may then act out, living up to that identity. That certainly happened to me.

Throughout my teens I was a bundle of anger and hate, completely different from my much more stable younger siblings. Today the adults around such a child might question why they were ‘acting out’. But, as I said, this was a long time ago.

Growing up as an abused child is lonely. Believing that I deserved what was happening to me, I carried a load of guilt and shame with me everywhere I went. I could never allow my friends, teachers or the adults at church to see who I really was, because if I did they would reject me.

Even worse, if they didn’t reject me, there was the chance that they would blame my parents for what they were doing to me. Since I was responsible for my parents’ well-being that would only add to my guilt. I was the scapegoat, the one accountable for the emotional state of my family.

As I grew up I realised that I could probably seek help for myself and that there were people who would listen and believe me, but I believed that that would be a betrayal of my parents and would only make everything worse.

Things change. I grew up, went to university, and studied psychology. I sought out an extremely helpful psychologist who told me one of the most important things I have ever heard: a three-year-old is not responsible for what happens to them. Not even if that three-year-old was me.

My parents separated; they went to see psychologists themselves, talked about the patterns of abuse in their own families, were diagnosed with mental illnesses and received treatment. They apologised to me and I forgave them.

Things have changed, in my family and in the society that surrounds us, and as far as I can see only for the better.

I wonder what it would be like living my story out today. Would family violence have been mentioned at my school, and would I have made the connection between what was being talked about and what was happening to me?

Would I have been aware sooner that what was happening to me was wrong? If I approached a teacher or minister, would they have been prepared to see through my family’s ‘nice’ façade, aware that family violence and child abuse can happen in the best of families? Would my parents’ mental illnesses have been diagnosed earlier, and would they have received the treatment they needed?

Like most people who experienced abuse as a child, I am now a relatively functional adult. Human beings are astonishingly resilient. I grew up determined to do my absolute best to prevent what happened to me happening to any other child.

I became a minister in the Uniting Church, using the residual responsibility I feel for the entire world to care for others.

I regularly see a psychologist who reminds me that I am not, in fact, responsible for the entire world; believing that is a work in progress. I am surrounded by people who know the real me and love me, including my family.

But what happened to me is still part of who I am.

Inside me there is still a three-year-old child who believes they are bad; an eight-year-old who believes they are responsible for the feelings of everyone around them; a teenager so angry at the world that only violence can express it.

Most of the time these identities are subsumed by the adult who discovered that they are worthy of love and can love others. But sometimes they reappear.

Over the past few years I have participated in the Synod’s Safe Church Training. I have seen elements of my story reflected in case studies and the three-year-old has cried inside. I have heard people complain about the obligation for all church volunteers to have Working with Children cards and the angry teenager has wanted to break things, because surely anything that might help protect children from abuse is worth some inconvenience? But the eight-year-old knows that expressing this might hurt the feelings of those around them, and so I have stayed quiet. Except here.

We know now how many people have experienced and are experiencing violence in their family, how many children have grown up and are growing up abused. These people are both sitting in the church’s pews and preaching from the church’s pulpits.

We are definitely sitting in training days and church meetings listening to people complain about the inconvenience of the Culture of Safety.

Bethel Pastoral Centre is available to people who want to talk with someone confidentially about abuse and misuse of power within the church.
Telephone 03 9859 8700; email 

If a child is in immediate danger, ring 000 and report the situation to the police. Try to keep the child safe in the meantime.

To report abuse, contact your state’s crisis line – Department of Human Services Child Protection (Victoria) 13 12 78 or Department of Health and Human Services (Tasmania) 1300 737 639.

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