Over the last few days, I have been taking part in #churchtoo, which is like the #metoo movement, but specifically sheds light on sexual assault in churches. It has brought some dark memories to the front of mind, things I have not thought about since they happened. I have debated with myself over and over about whether I should tell my story. The thing is, my story is like a poison in my guts that is seeping into everything, and so I am making the choice to talk about what happened to me.
I was an early bloomer. Before I reached age ten, I had already been assaulted twice. The first man was a babysitter’s husband. He groped me while I watched television on his lap, I was eight or nine years old. I told my mother and she confronted his wife. The wife became angry with my mother and I no longer went over there. As a teen when I asked my father why he never told the police about what happened to me his reply was that he did not want to ruin an old man’s life. At that moment I knew my value was not the same as that old man.
The second incident happened when I was around ten years old. I was playing in my favorite arcade at the mall. My dad was sitting just outside talking with some other adults. A man came up behind me and grabbed my breasts while I was playing a game. I shook myself free and the man ran out of the arcade. With my heart in my chest, I ran out and told my father. He went inside the arcade and alerted the manager. I don’t think the guy was ever caught but the damage was done. I paid a price for my early development. I learned that men saw me as prey and I had to be extra careful.
My mother always had trouble finding a church she liked. She finally settled on a United Pentecostal Church, which is like evangelicalism only far more extreme fundamentalist with lots of speaking in tongues. When I was in the sixth grade my parents took me out of public school and put me into the private school our church ran. This meant I was at the church all day every day. It was a very insulated experience. I was a very active young person. I was captain of my Bible quiz team and very involved in various church ministries. My home life was hard, so I tried to stay busy and out of the house as much as I could. As a young girl, my dreams were to go to Bible college and major in music. I loved to sing and took any opportunity I could to learn more about music.
My parents did not attend church regularly. My mother would attend in fits and starts. That being said, they were both in favor of my being there whenever the church doors were open. I would often get rides to and from activities by other adults in the congregation. This is where the trouble began. I was a very bright child and many of the adults treated me like another adult. My parents had always done the same thing. I was accustomed to adults treating me more like an adult than a child. This often left me open to inappropriate situations. I think my parents used my intelligence to discharge them of their parenting responsibilities. One afternoon on a day just like any other day I met Steve Dahl. I was standing amongst a group of adults and I asked if one of them could give me a ride home. I was eleven and in the sixth grade. I knew all of these adults very well except for Steve. He volunteered which seemed totally normal to me. I knew he had recently joined the church and was married there, I just had not been formally introduced. Once we were in his car he asked me if I needed to be home right away. I said no, my mother was preoccupied most of the time and so my being gone wouldn’t be an issue. We stopped and got ice cream and drove around. We chatted and all seemed fine until it wasn’t. At one point he reached over and grasped my hand and held it like it was the most natural thing in the world. At this point in my life, my father was never around. He would show up when it was convenient for him, mostly when he was between women. I was happy to have a man acting like a father figure and so I said nothing. He was thirty-one and I was eleven.
Things snowballed from there. His job was selling church pictorial directories for Olan Mills and he was often on the road. I became friends with his wife and she and I hung out often. He asked my parents if he could take me along on his long day trips to keep him company and to get me out of the house. We often did not have electricity and so there wasn’t much for me to do around the house. None of the adults around me thought this arrangement was odd. I mean a better solution would have been for the church to help my mother with our electric bills or for some of the women to mentor me.
Things escalated. He began to tell me how unhappy he was in his marriage and other things. I was ill-equipped to understand or help with. At times he acted like a kind uncle who took me for ice cream and spent time with me. And other times he treated me like a lover. Those were the bad times. He took so much from me from me. My first kiss, my first almost everything. He tried to have intercourse with me but he could not do it, it was physically not possible. He acted as though I was some experienced woman and would say things to me that I did not understand. He laughed at my inexperience like he could not believe how naive I was. Somehow in his haze, the fact that I was eleven and knew nothing about sex escaped him. At other times he seemed in awe at how mature my body was for my age. He would repent at the altar and then tell me how sorry he was for what he had done and how he would never do it again, but he always came back for more. I became attached to him as other parts of my world fell apart. My parents divorced, my mother struggled to keep us in food and being in the Christian school turned out to not be what I thought it would be. I started to disassociate and I felt trapped in a life that I did not want and did not know how to escape. Plus there was the all present worry about hell and the rapture. Yep, I grew up always fearing hell and the wrath of an angry god. After he would touch me I would go home and beg god to forgive me. I felt like my very body was a sin, a trap for men to fall into. I thought that something I was doing or saying must have made him do these things. Usually, when I was with him I would try to make myself small., I liked him and wanted him to want to be my friend, but I knew the other stuff he was doing was wrong.
He was very popular. He played the trumpet in our church band. He was friends with all of the adults in my life. Then his wife’s sister came to live with Steve and his wife. She and I were friends. We would mail each other letters like pen pals and I really liked her. I was eleven and so it was all scented pens and stickers. We were kids. When I found out she was moving here I was super excited! But once she moved to Madison she became cold to me and I did not know why. She was about three years older than me. She was very quiet and shy. She came to Madison so she could attend our church school, or that was what I was told. I have no idea if Steve had a plan bringing her to Madison or if things happened between them only after she came here.
After things had been going on for about two years I finally went and told my pastor. I’m not sure why I was afraid of him. He was a big man and preached fire-and-brimstone so that might have something to do with it. I thought he was imposing. I told him and he recorded it. I did not tell him everything because I could barely speak I was so afraid of what was going to happen to me. So he asked me questions and I answered “yes” or “no.” He knew what happened, just not the details. He said he would get back to me and I left his office.
He never got back to me.
He never said anything at all. I waited for the next shoe to fall. When my mother found out she called me a hussy and was mad at me for a long time. I received no counseling, support, or justice. The police were never called nor social services. I was told by some adult that we should handle things within the church so that we would not bring shame, reporters, or cops to the church doorstep.
The order of things become foggy at this point, probably due to trauma. Within days Steve phoned me and told me he had to leave town and it was not my fault. That was it, that was all he said. Soon after I found out that right after I went to the pastor Steve’s wife came home and found him in bed with her little sister, who was fifteen years old. Steve fled to Vegas and I have no idea where she went. I imagine back with her parents. At the next midweek service, I was confronted by Steve’s wife. She came close to me and said that I had to talk with her after the service. I was scared out of my mind! I went with her into the church basement and into one of the school classrooms. She told me she was so disappointed in me for cheating with her husband. She said she trusted me with him. I said nothing but “I’m sorry.” Then she insisted that we pray together for my soul and repentance. All I remember about that was how she loudly spoke in tongues next to me. She didn’t talk to me much anymore after that.
Here is what I have pieced together since then. Steve was sent to another church for restoration. He and his wife divorced. She was allowed a divorce by the church because of adultery. This is where things get really nuts! He then married his ex-wife’s sister, the one who was fifteen when they were caught together. I was told that her parents let her go out to Vegas to be with him.
They are still married and he is pastoring a church in Wisconsin.
I have spoken to him once. Remember he sold church directories? As an adult, I went to a Southern Baptist church and he came by to sell us a directory. My stepmother was helping with the directory and when she saw who it was she alerted me. I was in my early twenties. I went to my church elder and told him about Steve. He said he thought we should talk so I could get closure. He bullied Steve into talking with me but closure was harder to get than I thought. In the elder’s office, the three of us sat. Steve explained to me that I was a very mature eleven-year-old. He said he thought I wasn’t really angry with him but that I was angry with how the church responded to me. He told me all about how Christ had forgiven him and restored him. He told me how my childhood pastor has embraced him with forgiveness. I don’t remember much about what I said., I think I fell under his spell like I was a kid again. After he left, the elder said that he felt Steve did not take any responsibility. I wish I could have that moment with him back. It took me until I was in my late twenties to discover feminism. At twenty-eight I left the church and blossomed into the woman I am now. If I had that moment back I would call him what he is. He is a pedophile. I would want to rage at him for all he took from me. He is pastoring a church in northern Wisconsin. He has a Facebook page where he posts about his church. His church has a YouTube channel where you can watch him preach. In the bio part of his church’s website, there is no mention of what he did to me or the fact that he married his wife’s sister. He has children and I have to wonder if he ever abused them or anyone else.
I left the UPC church at sixteen. Eventually, I landed in a Southern Baptist church. I left that church when I was twenty-eight. I left because they told me that it would be a sin to divorce my husband. He was physically violent towards me along with being mentally and emotionally abusive. I felt I had to go to protect my kids. They told me that I could separate from him, but not divorce. In order to get the help I needed from the state, like benefits, I needed to be divorced. Plus he was threatening me all the time and I knew he would not just get better. We had been together for twelve years. At this point, I decided that if god was going to send me to hell for protecting myself and my kids, then I would pay that price. Hell seemed better than where I was. I tried other churches and just couldn’t stomach it anymore. I stopped believing. I turned towards history and tried to understand how the Bible came about and how women were treated because of it.
What Steve did to me ruined my adolescence. I think the adults in the church viewed me as a slut and adulteress. Some of them avoided me and others gave me evil looks. People have said to me why not just reveal who all of these people are. My question is who do I include in this crime? My parents, who were too enmeshed in their own crap to look out for me? The man who did it? The pastor who did not call the police? The wife of that perv, or any of the other adults who knew about it? No one ever checked in with me to see how I was doing. I was met with knowing silence. Later at about fifteen, I would see Steve again, at our church’s family camp. I was sitting in a pew with my puppy-love boyfriend and Steve just shows up like nothing happened. Was he removed? Nope, he was forgiven. He sat in the back but I knew he was there.
I can tell you that The United Pentecostal Church had a sex problem. I know of other cases where older men helped themselves to the young and I know of young people forced to marry at fifteen or sixteen years old due to having sex together. Don’t come at me and say I should forgive and come back to god. I have a god and she doesn’t require that of me.