“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we will ever do.”

Brene´ Brown

This quote is framed on my bedroom wall, a reminder to keep loving myself through the process of owning all the parts of my story.

I have walked through the heartache of my younger brother’s death and faced the questions related to my estranged birth father. While each of these difficulties required intense work and internal healing, there was one chapter of my life I kept far away from as the thick feeling of shame felt too heavy to face. 

I Faced The Shame

At 14, I was “betrothed” to my much older youth pastor. Everything that sounds wrong about that statement was wrong. I was spiritually and sexually abused and lost a good portion of my formative teen years, isolated from my peer group. I had normalized, blamed myself, and eventually disassociated from the experience as much as possible, locking it away for decades.

Through Brene´ Brown’s work, I learned shame thrives in secrecy, silence, and judgment. It loses its power when it’s met with empathy. Having built shame resilience around this particular chapter of my life, I started to see perhaps I wasn’t responsible for what happened to me. I finally saw it for what it was. It was abuse, and it was predatory. 

A short time later, I watched “Abducted In Plain Sight” and immediately recognized the pattern of manipulation and coercion. I had the very alarming realization that the abuser, in that case, continued to abuse. It was then I decided to come forward and report to the authorities to keep my abuser from potentially harming others. What happened to me could NOT happen to someone else.

I Came Forward

I reported. That process could be a story all on its own. Figuring out who to report to and how without trauma-informed staff was challenging. I eventually found an amazing advocate. (Note to other survivors and survivor supporters, find the advocate first!) I initially reported in early 2019, and the case was eventually referred to Pennsylvania’s Attorney General’s office. They worked with the PA state police to investigate, and charges were finally filed in April 2021.

News stations across the region covered the story, which circulated among friends, family, and religious and anti-religious circles.

“AG Shapiro Charges Former Bradford County Youth Pastor”

“Former Bradford County youth pastor charged for sexually abusing teen girl”

“Youth pastor who was ‘betrothed’ to 14-year old girl charged with sexual abuse”

Although many people in my life knew I was that 14-year-old, I didn’t speak publicly until now. This is my story. It doesn’t hold the same shame it once did. I’ve done my work, and I know I wasn’t responsible for what happened to me. 

There are those who still believe I should let it go, but I will not. Fenton needs to be held accountable. Acknowledgment of harm still has to be made. My parents have apologized (profusely) and are part of my healing process, but they weren’t the only adults who had an influence in my life at that time. The church still hasn’t formally acknowledged me; I’m not holding my breath. (Their attorneys most likely recommend they don’t acknowledge anything. Ironic how doing the just and moral thing only matters when it serves the church best.)

It’s Not Just About Me

While this story is my story, it’s not just about me and what happened to me. There was an entire system of beliefs that supported the environment that was not only conducive but also kept me silenced for so long. If you’ve seen the recent docuseries, “Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets,” you know I wasn’t the only young woman introduced to the concept of courtship and betrothal, or marrying young in an effort to ensure sexual purity. Many of my peers married young and now have a thing or two to say about those outcomes. Anti-dating, courtship, and purity culture are still promoted within mainstream Christianity. Church culture isn’t learning from the experiences of others. Instead, they shame and blame those who speak up, saying, “You didn’t do it right. You are the one who is wrong.” 

There isn’t space here to go into the depths of how a culture that denies personal autonomy, particularly when it comes to women and children, breeds abuse. We can’t cover how stripping someone of their critical thinking skills in order to instill obedience and “respect” debilitates a person. Don’t even get me started on how ineffective the use of shame is in creating change. Or how absolutely repulsive it is to invoke “divine” authority to control and manipulate. I’m speaking out, contributing my voice to those already sounding the alarm that some dangerous beliefs continue to circulate and need to be re-examined.

More than all of that, it’s helping other survivors that has motivated me to speak up now. I am one of many. There are so many people that have been abused, whether sexually, emotionally, verbally, physically, or spiritually within a construct of their belief system. Knowing I wasn’t alone, finding other survivors, and finally being able to share and process what happened in safe, empathetic spaces helped me heal and reconnect the parts of myself which fractured amidst the trauma. The work is hard, but it is worth it! 

There Is Hope

What happened to me when I was 14 years old does not define me or confine me. It is merely part of my story. I am reclaiming what was taken from me and intentionally creating a life I am proud of and love living. Much of my work with clients is centered around helping them discover the life they want, on their terms, versus subscribing to the life they’ve created based on the scripts of others. 

To my fellow survivors, I see you. I hear you. I BELIEVE you. You matter. You are not alone. What happened to you is not ok. There is hope, and you deserve to heal. 

To everyone else, I would love for you to read the story from my first interview, which includes quotes from some brave and supportive people in my life. Hemant Mehta is a talented writer and provides some very thought-provoking perspectives. 

“At 14, she was “betrothed” to her pastor. She’s finally sharing her side of the story.”

I’m sharing my story in hopes to spark conversations that will lead to change and provide hope to other survivors who perhaps have felt they were alone in their experience. Please feel free to pass along.