Susan Waters is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She is the mother of three children and lives in the Midlands. Her story has been an anonymous story on The Forgiveness Project website since 2005. In 2016, with her parents now dead, she waived her right to anonymity.
The pressure to blindly forgive, particularly within Church teaching, can keep people stuck and unsafe. I believe this easy grace can allow abuse to thrive within families and institutions. Rather, the option to leave a harmful connection and even to sever all ties may be urgently necessary. Forgiveness may be achieved eventually with distance, if this is chosen.
For me, it has been an ongoing path towards healing. I now realise that the jolly swimming teacher and paedophile, Bob. C, groomed my whole family. He was arrested in 1970 when he was caught abusing a boy at Richmond Swimming Baths. Although he confessed to molesting four boys, there must have been many other children, including myself, damaged by him.
Until recently, I thought Bob C. received a prison sentence, at a time when there was no segregation for sex offenders. I had rested in knowing he got his punishment. In fact, I now know he was fined £50 at a Magistrate’s Court and instructed to be of good character for two years. Despite a public shaming, his predatory compulsion probably continued; I muse he would have been forever looking over his shoulder.
Abuse by a family member, another of Bob. C’s victims, continued into my adolescence (an experience which I somehow suppressed for many years). The crisis only began when I was bathing my daughter and the horror of what first happened to me at that age surfaced
I sought help in Christian literature, but could only find lovely stories about reconciliation or praying for the abuser’s redemption. God forgave me, so I must forgive. This just compounded my sense of guilt, buffeted by a sea of secrets.
I knew however, that this relative’s supervised access to my children must end, even though the recriminations would split my family apart. My elderly parents and my then husband wanted to know why there was to be no further contact. The shame felt so overwhelming, it took some time to say I had been exploited by two men. Although I received psychiatric treatment, much of the trauma remained frozen for many years.
This became apparent when my parents died, because as Executor I had to trace my estranged relative. As an act of restorative justice, I asked for some of his bequest to cover therapy costs, which was given without apology. This was negotiated online without his wife’s knowledge, as I wanted to spare their happy marriage.
He wanted to “move on” once the money arrived, possibly shut down by guilt. It was a relief that the responsibility to end the relationship was taken out of my hands. Yet the wrenching of a family bond was painful, as loving memories are mixed into the fearful night. My final email gave my forgiveness as the best chance for healing by moving on too. As Desmond Tutu counsels: “Forgive others, not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace.”
Facing up to Bob C. has enabled me to see him eye to eye with empowered adult boundaries. Ultimately I know he did not steal my core sense of self. Accepting the past and giving up my anger will hopefully end a conversation with a man long-dead. I sense a freedom in trusting the process of life, that justice will find its own course and consequence.
Other faith traditions have helped me fare forward – the Hawaiian Ho’oponopono Prayer and the practice of loving kindness that concluded a Buddhist Vipassana retreat I attended. The latter reads:
“If anyone has harmed me in any way either knowingly or unknowingly through their own confusions, I pardon them. If I have harmed anyone in any way either knowingly or unknowingly through my own confusions, I ask their pardon.
And if there is a situation I am not yet ready to forgive, I pardon myself for that. For all the ways that I harm myself, negate, doubt, belittle myself, judge or be unkind to myself, through my own confusions, I pardon myself.”
It is a potent echo of The Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us, as we forgive those who sin against us”, but with a recognition there might be slow progress to this point. Giving up my faith was never an option though, as its strength is as dear to me as breath. My hope is that in these more enlightened times, the Church will teach that forgiveness and separation should be a possibility.
I would like to acknowledge the support of Margaret Kennedy’s Christian Survivors of Sexual Abuse group and Sandra Collins’ “Survivors at the Centre” research project; I’m grateful we coincided when they were active. With this, thanks to my trauma therapist, Debbie Campden and my loved ones and helpers, seen and unseen.