Deep healing for abuse survivor
Sexually assaulted by her father, one woman found a way to break through fear and darkness
It’s been a long, slow and torturous journey for Jane Dowling, but God has transformed her amazingly through the power of his word.
The former child sexual abuse victim has written a timely and valuable book, Child, Arise! The Courage to Stand: A Spiritual Handbook for Survivors of Sexual Abuse. It documents her journey and is helping other survivors overcome deep, serious spiritual effects of child sexual abuse.
Also, it was named the Australian Christian Book of the Year in August. Michael Collie – National Director of Sparklit, which organises the awards – calls the book a “gift”, not only to other survivors but also to the church.
“She decides to give God another chance, and while she reads the Bible, she hears her story from God’s point of view,” describes Collie. “She is one of the most powerful advocates for Bible reading I’ve ever come across.”
‘If there is a God, why can’t he stop it and make the perpetrator go away?’
Sexually abused by her father from the age of four, Jane had a short period of relief after he moved out when she was 16. But the long years of fear and domination left her vulnerable. Later, she was abused by a trusted Catholic priest for nearly 2½ years.
Baptised and brought up a practising Catholic, Jane became increasingly disillusioned with a God she felt was not protecting her and had abandoned her.
“I’d think ‘If there is a God, why can’t he stop it and make the perpetrator go away?’ And then every time I heard ‘God loves you,’ I’d think, ‘How can that be, God loves me?’”
Darkness broken by light
The turning point came when Jane had an emotional breakdown after the priest finally stopped his abuse. Aged just 19, she felt as though she was in a very dark tunnel with no way out other than to end her life.
“I just didn’t see one bit of light or one bit of hope and I felt so alone and isolated with no one really knowing what was going on. I was just living with sheer terror and desperation and feeling overwhelmed; my body was saying it can’t take any more.”
Jane always kept a Bible by her bedside but she never read it until one day, unable to get out of bed, she picked it up and opened it at a random page.
‘Who’s this who’s calling me by name?’
“For some divine inspiration, on this particular day when I was feeling suicidal, I opened up at Isaiah 43:1, which happened to be that beautiful passage where it says ‘Don’t be afraid for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name; you are mine,’” Jane tells Eternity.
“I realised there was a presence speaking to me through these words; these words that were coming from inside that darkness as I read them – ‘Don’t be afraid’ – were quite powerful. But I had the sense of ‘Who’s this who’s calling me by name? I really want to know this person,’ and saying to me ‘You are mine.’ So, I was really struck by that warm and caring and loving presence … So the word became light in that darkness and that presence became a flicker of life and hope in that darkness.”
Jane knew it was God speaking to her but, at that stage, she had no experiential knowledge of God. A hunger to know the person behind the words was ignited.
Her personal search for God led her to join an international Catholic missionary community called Prayer and Ministry of the Word, and spend several years in Spain. It was while in Spain that her inability to communicate in Spanish and the need for silence in the community triggered emotions associated with the sexual abuse.
“I began to experience fear coming up there but I didn’t know what it was. I used to talk with the people who were guiding me in my spiritual journey but they didn’t have the experience I had.”
“Then when I came back to Sydney four years later – so I was about 26 at the time – it began to come out more. I began waking up in the middle of the night with night sweats and nightmares, night terrors; I’d have flashbacks of different things coming to me from my family; smells started to trigger fear and some despair.”
But fear remains…
Still living as a consecrated member of the community, Jane would run to her bedroom and lock the door whenever a man came into the house. “I didn’t know how to explain what was happening to me. It was terror. So what was happening was I was being re-traumatised by the triggers of the sexual abuse, so I was taking on the behaviour of the child at whatever time the trigger was relating to; sometimes, I was a seven-year-old muted child.
“People in my community would talk to me as an adult but I would sit there and couldn’t communicate, as I relived many of those experiences. It felt like I was going crazy at the time and I was really afraid.”
Jane worried that she was losing her religious vocation but her leader suggested her problem was psychological rather than spiritual, so she embarked on a journey of psychological healing that felt like “inner chaos”. She felt out of control in her whole being because she could go into a panic attack anywhere and, if that happened, she would be like a little girl instead of a 26-year-old woman.
“All those feelings I had towards God during the time of the sexual abuse began to come out.”
But this is when she experienced the amazing power of the word of God to integrate the distorted spiritual experience of her inner child with her healthy adult self.
“All those feelings I had towards God during the time of the sexual abuse began to come out. So, within the process, I did feel that God was uncaring but … reading the word would tell me, ‘No, God is someone who’s close to me.’”
But even God’s desire for closeness and intimacy has “monstrous connotations” for someone who has been abused by their father, or a priest, she points out. “Anything that implied intimacy with God Father, I used to run away from it,” she says. “All those beautiful passages of ‘I will take you into the desert and seduce you’ from Hosea 2. For a long time, they used to give us that on retreats and I’d think ‘I don’t want to go into the desert alone with God Father. I could be abused again; I won’t feel safe.’
“And I had to physically, mentally and spiritually stop and do that work in prayer time and say to God Father, ‘OK, I’m sorry. I’m putting my feelings of so-and-so in you; I know you’re very different. I’m going to take the risk and I’m going to trust you, so OK, you can call me your dearest child.’
“God told me over and over again through many Scripture passages … ‘You’re honoured, precious and I love you.’”
“And even with doing that I’d still get this sense within me that I’m not totally safe here, but I’d still try and remain there with God the Father and do that work. It was a slow journey. Eventually, those feelings were being transformed the more I was able to stay there with God in prayer and work through those feelings.”
God’s love and care
Through sticking with such spiritual exercises for up to three hours per day, Jane was able to change her image of God from an angry God who wanted to punish her – as her own father had – to experience God as loving and caring.
“And that turns around that whole experience of me feeling I’m bad because God told me over and over again through many Scripture passages, ‘Jane, you’re very good’ – like Genesis – or ‘you are my dearest child’ in Isaiah 43; ‘You’re honoured, precious and I love you’ – just beautiful passages that kept reaffirming God’s love.
“So whenever I’d feel I might have done something and feel I made a mistake and given a talk and thought ‘Gee, that was really bad,’ and just all that shame coming up again from the abuse, I’d stop and just be conscious of that and let God say to me, ‘No, it was actually very good; I love you.’
“So it was just practising the word on many occasions during the day, that that belief of shame was being changed.”
Whenever Jane gave talks in retreats, she was able to speak of God’s word with authority – not just theoretically, but as something she had experienced in her life.
“It’s a beautiful blessing in disguise, because I actually feel now I can use all that for others.”
“A living God had transformed me through that word and that was then what I was sharing with others,” she says. There’s no need to memorise long passages of Scripture, Jane says, but just a few words that are powerful for a person. For example, Jane finds power in Jesus’s word to his disciples in Gethsemane – “enough”.
“Sometimes he’d just say to me, ‘Jane, enough!’ Or when all the negative thoughts come up, and I’d be in that boat when suddenly the storm comes up, and he’d just say ‘Jane, be quiet, be still.’
“It was just the spiritual exercises of allowing Jesus to speak to me and really change me at that time, to really try and be faithful to that. If he said ‘Quiet, be still,’ well, OK, be still with those thoughts.”
In 2010, just when she had achieved some stability in her life, Jane was diagnosed with a chronic auto-immune illness, which presented a new set of challenges and unravelled deeper layers of the trauma of sexual abuse.
In 2012, while she was taking a leave of absence from her community, she heard former prime minister Julia Gillard announce the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Jane felt called by God to write a book for the benefit of other survivors of sexual abuse.
“I’m so grateful that I can use it because there was a part of my journey where I felt God was inviting me to share that more,” shares Jane. “But in religious life that could never happen, so I’m so grateful for all the events – as painful as they have been – since 2012, from my coming out of religious life, and the trauma that happens at that time, and then with the illness.
“It has been such a painful journey that it’s a beautiful blessing in disguise, because I actually feel now I can use all that for others.”