About six years ago, it became clear to me that my primary, final life task was to create greater health and transformation within the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the handling of employees who sexually abuse minors.
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not doing this to attack my church. I love my church, even though its actions have often brought me great sadness. I am a fourth-generation Adventist, and my family now has six generations in the church. I am doing this because I am committed to creating improved health and responsibility around the issue of church-related sexual abuse. Also, I am attempting to change the current practice of shunning those who speak out on this. Most of all, I am doing this to create prevention of sexual abuse and immediate intervention when such abuse occurs.
Children and teenagers who are sexually violated have their lives shattered. Not only are their lives harmed physically and emotionally, but also spiritually. When the perpetrator is a spokesperson for God, the victim's belief in God is damaged as well, often permanently. The presence of abusers in our midst has also led to suicides. Beyond the individuals, the institutions are harmed as well reputationally and financially.
I still remember when one of my friends in academy was rushed to the hospital after a suicide attempt. Thankfully she survived. She later revealed to me that her brokenness came from the fact that her own father, a very conservative Adventist minister, sexually violated her. Strangely, there is a higher incidence of child sexual abuse amongst ultra conservative pastors, especially ones who are millenarian and repressive of women being in leadership roles. They tend to be very male dominant and authoritarian. These are the same ones who are committed to perfectionism. They are often charismatic and highly sought after for appointments. One such pastor was emotionally incestuous with his daughter, and sexually incestuous with his granddaughter. Yet, his conference president told me he once thought this minister was his most promising young intern.
Too often institutional leaders delay action and leave issues of justice and restitution to the secular courts. Instead of administrators, school counselors at our academies have the better track record for taking proper action.
A helpful example of this connection between conservative theology and sexual harassment comes from the August 15, 2022, conviction of Harold Dien, a pastor and prominent member of the Southern California Indonesian Adventist community. He was found guilty in San Bernardino, California, of two misdemeanor counts of sexually touching and harassing an underage female. One of his victims began to serve as his translator when she was just entering her teens. She once told me, "You've got to know it felt very uncomfortable when he inappropriately touched me just before we stepped onto the platform. As I was translating, he brazenly said something which really shocked me, and yet I had to translate. He said, ‘I am perfect. I may have sinned sometime, but I don't remember that I have.’" Such is the denial system of the abuser.
As an educator for 38 years at Walla Walla University, Southern Adventist University, La Sierra University and Loma Linda University, and as someone who has a PhD in Clinical Psychology specializing in teens and addictions, I know first-hand about the hundreds of victims of pastors, teachers, coaches, and others employed by the Seventh-day Adventist Church who have sexually violated our children and teens. We often sanctimoniously point our fingers at the Catholic Church because of the sex scandals and say, "We're not like them. We protect our kids. We are holier than they are!"
However, as reports come in, and as seminars are now being conducted about the incidence of church-related sexual assault, the evidence is accumulating regarding how widespread this occurrence is in many churches. Fundamentalist denominations rank high in terms of cases. It has also been shown that where "chain of command theology" prevails—stating that God is the highest authority and second to Him are the male leaders, with women and children being lower on the "chain" of authority—here too sexual assault seems to be more often present.
My personal story of being raped at age 16, while attending Ozark Adventist Academy can be found in the spring 2018 edition of Spectrum magazine under the title, "Bernadine Irwin Brings the #MeToo Movement to Adventism's Doorsteps." In that article there was an invitation to join a private Facebook site called "Addressing Abuse in Adventism." Within only a few days there were over 264 victims sharing on this site. Almost all of them shared similar themes: 1) We weren't believed, 2) We were shamed for coming forward, 3) We wanted to die, and 4) We left the Adventist Church. Many have been labeled, "troublemakers" if they spoke out on issues of sexual abuse, and the employment of "troublemakers" or "whistleblowers" is generally of very short duration. Was I a coward to wait until I retired from denominational employment to speak out on this? Perhaps so.
I have a heart condition called “broken-heart syndrome" or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy. My being an advocate for victims of church related sexual abuse often breaks my heart. I have been a patient in the cardiac care unit three times within the past year when a stressful situation arose around my interventions related to my calling.
The most severe incidence of my broken-heart syndrome happened on the second day of a trial. I was shown photos of Howard Dien in Indonesia being treated like a rock star at a large Adventist convocation. In one photo he was greeted at the airport in Indonesia by church leaders. In another photo he was standing behind a podium with leis around his neck and a huge sign behind him bearing his name and describing him as the featured speaker on July 23, 2022, just days before his criminal trial was scheduled to begin.
When I saw those pictures, my despair was overwhelming. I thought, "there's no hope at all for my church to change!" It broke my heart. In that moment the worst chest pains that I have ever felt began. I was immediately taken by ambulance to the new Loma Linda University Medical Center where I was admitted for cardiac care. I prayed, "Oh God! Please just let me die. It hurts too deeply to care this much!"
It has often hurt too much to care this much. Over the years, I wished that just once I could hear an apology from Pat Shelton, the one who sexually assaulted me when I was 16 at Ozark Academy. Before I finished writing the article, I submitted to Spectrum magazine in 2018, I decided to see if I could reach her by phone. The last place I heard she lived was Lincoln, Nebraska. When I called information asking for Pat Shelton in Lincoln, Nebraska, suddenly her phone was ringing, and I heard her still familiar voice.
"Hello," said Ms. Shelton.
"Hi," I responded. "This is Bernadine Irwin."
"I don't know any Bernadine Irwin!" shouted Pat Shelton.
"You last saw me many years ago at Ozark Academy," I persisted, knowing my voice was trembling.
"You ruined my life once! Whatever do you want now?" she screamed.
"I just wanted to see if there was anything you wanted to say to me," I stated, so longing to hear an apology. I felt like hearing an "I'm sorry" just once would mean so much.
"I suppose you want an apology, but I really didn't do that much to you!" she continued to scream.
"What happened to you when you were young?" I asked with tears in my voice. "That's none of your business!! I retired not long ago from being a school counselor and was given many honors and awards. That's all you need to know!"
"I'm doing some writing about the rape," I told her.
"If you say anything about me, I will sue you!" she roared.
With that she slammed the receiver down with a bang. Later I was to learn from Jared Wright, who did the investigative reporting for the 2018 Spectrum magazine article which featured my story, that it was College View Academy where Ms. Shelton had finished her career as a counselor.
In some denominations they keep a worldwide data base of sex offenders, and this has proved very useful in terms of avoiding passing perverts from one place to another where they are able to continue to victimize. Many have suggested a data base for sex offenders for the Seventhday Adventist Church. So far only excuses have been given for not doing this.
When Ozark Academy heard from me and others about Pat Shelton's behavior, they immediately called Milo Academy where she taught previously. Milo Academy's administration responded, "Well there were rumors, but … " That failure to disclose shattered my life for a very long time. That failure to disclose, or to keep a worldwide data file on church-employed sex offenders, has shattered many lives, sometimes for eternity.
The 2018 Spectrum publication of my sexual assault resulted in many calls. Ozark Academy, Milo Academy, and College View Academy all reached out to me. Their calls contained two themes:
1) Condolences for my experience and 2) An eagerness to distance themselves from any decisions related to Pat Shelton. I also received many calls from people who attended Ozark Academy and College View Academy during Pat Shelton's tenure. Even though I changed Pat Shelton's name in the Spectrum article, the calls revealed that she was immediately recognized.
Adventist Risk Management, the third-party administrator for the insurance companies which insure the Seventh-day Adventist church worldwide, got involved. Once she began meeting with me, ARM paid for it.
So began years of involvement with the amazing survivor of Dien's atrocities. For the first years after the assault by Dien, his victim barely survived. Dien's conviction granted a vindication of his victims. Nonetheless, the scars from the wounds Dien inflicted will be present for the rest of their lives. Thankfully my pain and professional training allowed me to work with the church to help another victim and to convict a perpetrator.
We need more church openness and change. While it will always be true that as human beings, we desire to have positive news about our church, we still place ourselves at great risk by our current practices. This experience gives me hope that, by sharing our stories, we can work together to protect the least of these.
Bernadine Irwin, PhD, is founder and president of the nonprofit Freedom to Be: The George Irwin Foundation which offers healing for at-risk populations through equine therapy and nature retreats.
Title image credit: Bernadine Irwin
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