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How Could This Happen Here?
Recovering Grace will observe Sexual Assault Awareness Month for the remainder of April.
In April 2012 and 2013, we published some very difficult stories of sexual abuse in ATI [Advanced Training Institute] families. Some critics objected that these families were extreme outliers within the program, and that ATI and IBLP have never condoned sexual abuse. We agree that the organization does not intentionally endorse sexual abuse, assault, or harassment. This month, however, we will explore how ATI subculture does create an environment in which abusers are often protected by hierarchy status and Institute family culture, while targets and victims are encouraged to remain silent and even submit to abuse. Although the subculture may not be willfully designed to facilitate abuse, its teachings and practices are so conducive to dismissal and concealment of abuse that it attracts those who are predatory.
On the surface, ATI and IBLP publications and guidelines prescribe a very strict code of sexual conduct, forbidding not only extramarital sexual activity but also flirting, romance, or physical affection of any kind between young single people who are not formally “courting.” Only very limited romance and physical touch is permitted for those who are courting or engaged, with outings usually chaperoned by family members whose presence ensures little to no physical contact between the couple. It is common for the weddings of ATI couples to include an announcement that the couple has never before kissed, and perhaps not even held hands.
There is some awareness in ATI subculture of the danger of sexual harassment and assault, but this awareness is focused almost exclusively outward, toward strangers and potential colleagues. Young women are discouraged from attending college or holding jobs outside the home because of the dangers of illicit romance, of compromising personal standards, and of being propositioned or assaulted by classmates or coworkers. At young women’s conferences, attendees are regaled with anecdotes of women attacked and raped by strangers, and are admonished to cry out to God as the method to combat such attacks. Women are often discouraged from walking or traveling alone, even within their own neighborhoods, because of the risk of catcalling or assault from strangers. (A notable exception to this concern for sexual safety seems to be young women working for and traveling with the Institute.) The possibility of a male victim of sexual abuse or assault seems almost unthinkable.
With sexual warnings thus focused on the moral dangers of premarital romance and the physical dangers posed by strangers, current and former ATI students faced with sexually predatory behavior from family members or trusted authority figures often find themselves in a no-man’s-land of confusion and trained submission, without the tools to identify or object to the behavior. They know all about fending off flirtations from other single young people, but not about facing sexual advances from authority figures. They know to scream if attacked by a stranger on the street, but not what to do if molested by a trusted family member, nor how to process or report such an assault after the fact. For those who do report such advances or assaults to others within the subculture, they are as likely to be dismissed or blamed as to be believed and assisted.
It is on these stories, and the teachings that have created this subculture, that we focus this April. It seems unbelievable that a subculture that so emphasizes sexual propriety, denial, and protection would conceal so much sexual misconduct and abuse, but passive facilitation of abuse is endemic to the system. Sexual abusers are attracted to and protected by the system.
Below are links to and excerpts from narratives previously published on Recovering Grace, plus two externally linked stories. Warning: Much of the linked and quoted content is of a troubling and sensitive nature.
Choosing Both Forgiveness and Prosecution. A former ATI student describes how she was shamed for her own childhood sexual abuse, and Bill Gothard’s later response to the family when they reported sexual abuse to him.
My mother did not become aware of the abuse until I was ten years old. She immediately put an end to it, but blamed me for it in the process, demanding with overtones of disgust that I spend the rest of the day in my room, and that while I was there, I was to “BEG God to forgive [me] for what [I had] done!” From that moment on, I believed to my very core that God hated me, and that He was utterly repulsed by my very existence. I was never taken to counseling. No one ever told me that the hopeless feelings of hurt and betrayal, shame and worthlessness that plagued me relentlessly were anything other than a deserved reward for my actions, in having allowed these things to happen to me by not telling someone of them immediately, the very first time anything had happened. This was a “principle” my parents had learned in their many attendances of Bill Gothard’s seminars… that the guilt of an attack falls to the young lady who does not “cry out” when assailed. I had failed to cry out. But for years, Michael had only molested me when we were left home by ourselves. As the years went by, he got more and more brazen, and would mistreat me with my mother sitting just around the corner. I was perpetually silenced with shame, fear, and confusion. None of that changed when my mother got involved… only the abuse itself stopped temporarily. Hardly another word was spoken of it. It was as though the whole thing never really happened, and it was all just swept under the rug. In fact, according to my dad in recent years, my mom never even told him the details of what happened… just a vague, “Something happened between Michael and Elisabeth, but I took care of it.”
…Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us all, my own pastor… my hero… my father… was engaged in a lifetime of a different kind of sexually abusive activity of his own, all while holding up a higher and higher bar of Bill Gothard’s standards of righteousness for the rest of us to attain. His behavior did not come to light until years later, when the judicial system got involved.
When we found ourselves faced with all this at once, our family was shaken to the core. Even worse, when we contacted Bill Gothard, in an endeavor to be completely under authority and to let him know of the devastating valley through which we suddenly found ourselves traveling, instead of finding compassion or support of any kind for our deeply hurting family, or accountability for my father, we found ourselves cast out of the home-school program and excommunicated instantly! Bill Gothard and our Family Coordinator never spoke to us again. Their response only served to reinforce my childhood perception that I was utterly worthless and that God hated me.
Without An Umbrella In a Broken System. A member of a second year ATI family describes how her stepfather was able to continue to molest, even though he was a known sexual abuser.
I have to admit that another thing that never made sense to me in ATI was the whole umbrella deal. How on God’s amazing earth was my step dad, who sexually abused me several nights a week, supposed to be God’s Best for me? I knew my God did not think sexual abuse of a child was the right or good thing. I could not accept that. I could not accept what I was taught–that because he was my father figure, my one authority figure, what he said, did, and wanted was God’s Will. There was just no way. But I tried to look past that. I figured I was the only ATI student who was sexually abused anyway, and therefore this teaching wasn’t bad… it was just bad in my home, right? I know now how wrong I was about that. I’ve been horrified to learn how rampant sexual abuse was in other ATI families. Many with much more harrowing stories than mine.
And so the abuse continued. Always at night, after bedtime. Always when I was asleep. I tried different tactics to keep him away from me. Sometimes they worked, but usually they didn’t. At the age of 16 I couldn’t take it anymore. I knew at this point it had to stop. I knew I did not have it in me to talk about it. I knew I could never bring it up and tell someone what was still happening to me. I was so scared and so ashamed. Ashamed because I was being sexually abused, sexually used, and ashamed because I was not a young child anymore–I was 16 years old! 16 years of age is plenty old enough to stop it myself! But I just couldn’t. I felt sick inside. I got to the point where I figured I would just scream and wake everyone up. I thought about bringing a knife into my bed with me and stabbing him to make him stop. I prayed and prayed. I clearly remember one afternoon praying; stopping only to eat and use the bathroom. It had to stop. I could not go on anymore. I could not take anymore. That night my mom caught him in the act. That night was the last night I was sexually abused by my former step-father. God had saved me when I could not find the strength to save myself.
I remember being called downstairs by my mother. I clearly remember her telling him, “APOLOGIZE!” and then she walked out of the room. I will never forget what he said to me next: “I’m not sorry for what I did, but I am sorry I got caught. You’re still a virgin, you know.” As if somehow I should feel grateful to him for that. I just sat there and said nothing until my mom came back and told me to go to bed.
It’s All My Fault. A former ATI student describes her molestation in the ATI training center where her family lived, and where her abuser—her adoptive father—was a counselor on staff with ATI/IBLP.
I messed everything up again when I was eleven. I still had no idea what sex was. I was hitting puberty and having all these “feelings” with no one to talk to. So I experimented again. Of course now I know how wrong it was. I’ve been told that most children experiment in one way or another, especially if they’re not told anything about what is happening with their bodies. It’s how they learn. Yet I was bent over the bed and given 100 swats.
I was placed in a room all alone. I ate alone. I played alone. I only left that room to go to my bedroom to sleep. I had EXTREMELY limited contact with my siblings. I was never allowed to hold my youngest sister when she was an infant. I thought that she would think that I didn’t love her, so I remember sneaking in to see her and crying in guilt as I said over and over that I was sorry.
It was during this time that my dad began molesting me. Just a few years ago I asked him why he did it. He told me that it was because I molested his children. I didn’t even know what sex was! How could I be a child molester?
…He forced me to pray with him each night about his sins. He would look deep into my eyes and say, “I was wrong for what I just did. Let’s pray together.” He would ask for my forgiveness, so I would “grant” it. I thought if I granted him forgiveness he would stop! But he only used my forgiveness each night as an excuse to continue his evil. I don’t think he ever intended to stop. He only wanted my forgiveness so he would be “cleansed” until the next offense.
A Difficult Journey. A former ATI student recounts what happened when her adoptive mother discovered sexual abuse within the family, and how Bill Gothard advised the family.
The abuse began shortly after I was adopted at age two and happened as often as once a week to several times a day. When I was about 5 or 6 years old, my mother found my then 17- to 18-year-old brother undressed and on top of me. She told him to go downstairs, and then told me I wasn’t allowed to be alone with him anymore. I remember very clearly the look on my mother’s face and the way she told me that we couldn’t be alone together. It felt like she was blaming me and thought I was responsible for it. I remember feeling very confused and hurt that she didn’t even ask if I was alright, or give me a hug and tell me that everything would be okay. Instead I remember being scared and wondering how my dad would react when he got home, and if I’d be in trouble. But nothing was ever said. It was never even talked about.
…I had matured early, and that night, at 11 years of age, was the first time I remember worrying about getting pregnant. The next morning I went to church with them. After the sermon, the pastor opened it up to an altar call while the worship team played. My brother went up to the altar and returned in tears, asking me to go up there with him to the pastor. My brother and I knelt down at the altar and he began praying and asking God to forgive him for what he had done. The pastor was very close by the whole time and prayed over us. I remember thinking, “If the pastor knows my brother is in his 20′s and I’m only 11, won’t he contact my parents or get the law involved?” But evidently he didn’t. My brother hugged me and asked me to forgive him for what had happened between us and promised it would never happen again.
Less than a week later it happened again.
…The first words out of Mr. Gothard’s mouth was, “Young lady, do you listen to rock music? I can tell because you have a dark countenance.” He went on to tell me that by listening to rock music I was not under my father’s umbrella of protection and was wide open for the devil to take ground. He asked me why I was being rebellious, so I told him exactly why I was being “rebellious”–I was being sexually abused by my older brother. He paused for a minute, and then he asked if perhaps I had given ground to Satan through my bitterness…
Mr. Gothard advised my parents to send me to the Eagle Springs log cabin program in Oklahoma, which was an extension of the LIT program (Leaders In Training program for court-appointed troubled youth at the Indianapolis Training Center). Mr. Gothard then told them them that taking legal action against my adult brother wouldn’t do him any good–in fact, they would probably lose him for good. I was flabbergasted at what he said! At the end, he told me to pray for my brother. He said he hoped I would make a change, but he really thought it would take a miracle.
He Was Supposed to Protect Us. A former ATI student recalls how her step father’s increasingly strident modesty standards correlated to his increasingly sexual attentions toward her.
He wanted me to sit on his lap. I remember a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach, but complied with his request anyway, because after all, he was my daddy. He ran his fingers along the row of buttons that fastened my skirt and came to a place where one was missing. “Uh oh! That’s not good… you don’t want any men to see your leg!” But while he said this, his fingers slipped under the fabric and he massaged my thigh. This was very upsetting and confusing. I remember swatting his hand away, trying to appear playful and innocent, when I actually felt dirty and ashamed. And betrayed. I never wore that skirt again.
…The man who was supposed to protect me from evil was the one introducing it into my life. Through this period of time, his requirements for our modesty standards became more and more extreme with each day that passed, and would often change without notice. For several years, I couldn’t wear anything made out of knit fabric or flowing, rayon fabric because the item of clothing might cling to my figure and be alluring to men. Button up skirts had to be sewn shut, lest anyone see my leg in between buttons. All buttons on a blouse had to be buttoned, up to the neck. Necklines could not show even a hint of collarbone. T-shirts were not allowed–all shirts must have a collar. Socks must be worn with all shoes, even sandals in the summer. Nylons were not allowed because they were too much like skin, and the sight of skin was sure to cause men to lust, so only opaque tights were okay. Makeup was forbidden, as was curling or perming my hair, because curls were sensual. For a few years, we were not even allowed to wear anything made of denim, because blue jeans were something that the (rebellious) hippies wore. There was much more, and it changed all the time. What I’ve figured out is that he made a rule against whatever his current inward struggle was at the moment.
…I don’t care to ever see or speak to him again. He never apologized to me, or to my mom or siblings about the way he treated us. To this day, he thinks that we are simply rebelling and misguided, and prays that we will one day return to him, repentant.
The Ravages of Guilt. A former ATI student recalls processing his pre-ATI abuse in the context of ATI teaching.
…My sexual abuse was not related to the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) in any way. It would have happened regardless. But the words that evil, wicked woman spoke were the beginning of years of brainwashing that convinced me that everything was my fault. I must have done something wrong. I must have invited the abuse somehow. Maybe I was just a bad, evil child. Maybe I deserved it. It wasn’t just the threats that my abuser heaped on me that kept me from telling my parents what was going on. It was also the fact that I knew, deep down, that even if I turned to my parents, even if my abuser was prevented from carrying out her threat, my parents would also blame me for what was happening.
By the time my abuse came to an end, we had joined ATI. And the teachings in the Basic Seminar answered all of my questions! I must have been out from under my parents’ umbrella of protection! My abuse must have been because I liked to sneak evil music tapes into my Walkman when my parents weren’t looking! I was consumed by guilt. Guilt because not only was my abuse my fault, but also, while I was being abused, I acted out that abuse with someone else, someone who was also being abused by her father. We were only kids. It was all we knew.
So I decided to get under my parents’ umbrella and stay there. I was the model son. I went to all of the Basic Seminars and worked in all of the Children’s Institutes I could. And then came my year of working at the Indianapolis Training Center (ITC), doing the godly work of Bill Gothard. It was while I was in Indianapolis that my eyes began to open.
Set Free By Grace. A former ATI student tells how the extreme submissiveness ATI cultivated made her more vulnerable to a spiritually and sexually abusive counselor later in life.
…My teen years were calm and peaceful. I never rebelled. It never even crossed my mind to think differently from my parents. If an authority wanted me to be a certain way, then that was God’s best for me. By this time, I was completely unable to think independently, or (God forbid) ever say “no” to an authority. If my authority’s wishes were truly God’s will for my life, why should I ever say no?
…I did not learn to think for myself overnight. While I soaked up my counselors’ love and acceptance, trying hard to believe that God really loved me that way, I also became very codependent on them. I was trained to be dependent on others my entire life, and one solitary act of independence could not immediately change that.
As it turned out, my counselor took full advantage of my trained submissiveness and began grooming me for sex. As my counselor, he controlled me emotionally, molding me to the place where I believed I could not survive without him. Over three long years he used my body again and again. I would ask him to stop, but he said God was okay with it, and that when the time came it would stop naturally.
A Life Defined By Externals. A former ATI student learns that her step father’s private repentance for sexually abusing her had not marked the end his sexual abuse of another sibling.
…My stepdad had been sexually abusing my little sister and me for a year before we joined ATI. When I was 13, we attended our first Basic Seminar. I sat through the whole thing with my parents. Afterward my stepdad brought me into a side room, apologized, and promised me it would never happen again. He kept his promise; I was never abused by him again. When my Mom found out about it, she forgave him.
…After a few years of marriage, while my husband was in Army Basic Training, I was visiting with my best friend one evening. I had never told her about my abuse or about my sister’s abuse. She mentioned to me that she had been praying for my sister and me for years because she could see the signs of sexual abuse.
…That was when I felt an urgent need to talk to my little sister. We went to lunch and I started telling her what my friend had said. She then opened up and told me that she had been abused by our stepdad for over ten years! Her entire childhood was filled with abuse while within the ATI system.
Thank You, Dad [external link]. A former ATI student writes an open letter to her father about his anger and abuse, and what it taught her as a child.
Dad, you took us to church three times a week and we sang about God’s love, salvation, the joy of the Christian walk. We sat eight in a row in the pew, all the arrows in your quiver lined up so quiet and well behaved, the perfect family. We were shaking in our boots, afraid of you. You abused us emotionally, psychologically, physically and sexually…
Dad, you taught me that God is angry, vindictive and cruel. You taught me that God doesn’t care about my emotions, and that he thinks I’m worthless too, aside from the mass salvation he provides to those who fear him enough to accept it.
Dad, you taught me hate myself. You taught me and my sisters how to submit to men without asking questions. You taught me that any kind of chastisement or punishment at the hands of a man was really God’s divine strengthening of my character, or a punishment for my sins. That either way I should accept this treatment with open arms, praising God for his generous discipline. You taught me that I was worthless and always would be, and that I could look forward to a lifetime of further abuse and loving punishment from God, praise the name of the Father and his Almighty Son, amen.
When Asking Why Does Not Bring Answers. A former ATI student and training center staff family member recounts how she tried to use ATI teachings to understand and cope with her past sexual abuse.
For many years after this incident I stuffed this memory; I couldn’t bear the guilt I shouldered since I was convinced I had caused what happened. Even though I buried the memory, I took the guilt out on my body, hating it. I blamed anything remotely attractive about myself as something that had tempted my grandfather and cause a good Christian man — the closest thing I had to a father — to sin.
A year later, I attended an ATI girls’ counseling seminar. After one of the sessions, a girl who had experienced something similar to what I had experienced asked Mr. Gothard during the Question and Answer time why God might have let that happen to her. His answer was that the abuse was to teach her to value her spiritual soul above her physical body and make her “mighty in spirit.” This only added more fuel to the hatred I felt for my own body. I spent so many years wishing I was built like a boy, hiding under turtlenecks and jumpers, wishing I wasn’t someone who was remotely attractive because the abuse was my fault. When I ended up moving to the Indianapolis Training Center a few years later, all my body-hating reached new levels as I was regularly told by the leadership that I was probably immoral due to my father’s affair, and that they were there to “help” me.
Looking back, I see that my grandfather was a classic groomer: He made me keep secrets from my mother, and he pushed physical boundaries way before he actually outright crossed them. And the reasons I was so convinced that God had “let it happen”? I now realize that this just fed into my need as a victim (and the needs of those in authority) to find a reason — any reason — why it had been my fault so I could keep it from happening again.
Sins of the Preacher: How Chad Curtis Went From Hero to Convict for Sexual Misconduct [external link, some explicit description of criminal sexual abuse]. Neither Chad Curtis nor any other individuals in this story have any ATI or IBLP connections that Recovering Grace is aware of, nor do we wish to cast the story in false light by suggesting any organizational connection. This link is included because it so vividly illustrates a grooming and damage control process many sexually predatory authority figures use to bypass or eliminate resistance in young targets. The abuser cultivates an image of impeccable moral rectitude, leverages the trust placed in him by both the young person and the community, normalizes sexual behavior as part of otherwise “professional” interactions, speaks to and portrays the underage target as a culpable and equal participant in romantic and sexual activity, attempts to shame the young victim into retracting reports of abuse, and pressures the victim to reconcile with the abuser.