Right now, churches in Australia are experiencing a crisis of confidence. As the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has rolled along, a seemingly endless series of heartbreaking stories has emerged. Although a wide range of both government and non-government institutions are implicated, Christian organisations bear the brunt of blame. The crimes occurred in a time when churches were considered exemplars of morality and teachers of compassion. So the disenchantment the community feels at these betrayals is understandable.
It isn’t churches who are suffering most, but the survivors. Adults now, but the shadow of trauma still stalks them. And sadly, many haven’t survived.
Jane Dowling, author of Child, Arise! The Courage to Stand*, writes as a survivor. As a child she was sexually abused by a family member and then in her mid-teens by a Catholic priest.
Faced with the dilemma of how to make sense of God and the church in these circumstances, Dowling chose to cling to both, even living as a nun for 20 years.
Her primary purpose in writing her book, however, was not to tell her own story or give expression to her pain, but to offer healing to others, using the Scripture-centred methods that have been the focus of her religious life.
Child, Arise! is described as a spiritual handbook for survivors of sexual abuse. It provides a series of 42 short chapters, each of which is based on a particular biblical passage, applied to the experience of the child abuse survivor.
For someone not familiar with the Bible it might be hard to imagine how stories of snakes, giant wooden boats and bloody crucifixions could be in any way therapeutic. But Dowling’s way of engaging with the text is more of a personal meditation than a literary exercise, although she gives due credence to the historical context. In her Introduction she recounts how a particular Bible passage resonated with her at a crucial part of her journey:
“Despair, desolation and hopelessness covered me completely . . . . I was suicidal as a result . . . . I picked up the Bible, opened it randomly and began to read very slowly . . . ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name: you are mine’ [Isaiah 43:1].
“These words left me in absolute awe. It was as if they went to the very core of my heart beyond that very deep darkness and they found me and spoke to me personally . . . . God was reminding me through these words that I am God’s creation and not to be afraid.”
Dowling, like many Christians, holds a deep belief that the Bible is not merely an historical record or summary of theology. She believes that it is a key method God uses to connect personally with each of us in our various circumstances—”Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight” (Hebrews 4:12, 13).
Child, Arise! proceeds from this experience and this belief. If nothing is hidden from God’s sight, that includes the suffering of the abused. So the messages of comfort, belonging and healing in the Bible can be read as personal letters from a heavenly Father.
Dowling begins in Part 1 of the book by emphasising God’s presence and love, recognising that the experience of abuse often results in negative views of Him—distant, angry, capricious. Part 2 is more practical, helping survivors deal with issues such as panic attacks, anger and paralysing fear while guiding them into deeper engagement with Scripture.
Interspersed through the chapters are accounts of Dowling’s own journey toward healing, including her appearance at the Royal Commission. She explains how the insights she’d gained from Scripture gave her wisdom and courage in all kinds of circumstances. She’s clear, however, that she doesn’t see the book as a substitute for counselling or other therapies, but as complementary.
Child, Arise! was recognised as the Christian Book of the Year for 2016 by SparkLit. The judges described it as “a courageous and historic book,” one which best met the criteria of originality, excellence and relevance, saying, “Her reflections are gentle, almost tremulous. Jane shows her way from ruin and despair to healing and hope. . . .” In reply, in her awards ceremony acceptance speech, Dowling offered this confronting insight: “Every word, every experience I’ve written about in the book, has been a gift from God.”
She isn’t the first to come to a place of gratitude for suffering, but it will challenge many readers to see this applied to the experience of child sexual abuse: Is it actually possible that a survivor could look back on their trauma and recognise that good had come from it? Is it possible that someone abused in the context of a religious organisation could ever re-establish a relationship of love and trust with God again?
“I do recall that feeling of giving God a second chance,” said Dowling. “If I can do it, we all can do it.”
* Published by David Lovell Publishing, Victoria (2015).
If this article has triggered difficult memories or feelings for you, please speak to a trusted friend, family member or helping professional. Alternatively, contact an online or telephone help service such as Lifeline or beyondblue.