It is before church services are about to start, and I get pulled aside. “Anna,” he says. “May I speak with you?”
I swallow. I know what this is about.
I tell my family I will be along in a minute, and then I walk with him to the side of the building. “What can I do for you?” I ask politely.
I am polite. I am a good girl. I am fourteen years old, and everyone loves me. I am a role model for younger children. Everyone wants me to babysit for their kids. Everyone tells my mother that they hope that their daughters grow up to be like me.
And I am about to become complicit in a sexual assault coverup.
I stare into the eyes of a man older than me. A leader in our church. Someone I look up to and admire. He hesitates and says, “I need to know what Ellie told you about what happened with Mike.”
My throat closes. “She said that he raped her.”
He nods. He’s a kind man. He has a soothing voice. “Can you give me details? I need to know exactly what she told you.”
I look down. I’m innocent. I’m virginal. All of this—what Ellie told me—frightens me. “She said that they were in the garden of the church during choir practice. She said that he,” and I stop, and blush, because I am embarrassed. “She said that he shoved her down and forced her to have sex with him.”
Again he nods. I don’t know what to say. It is a long, tense moment.
Then he tells me, “I need you to keep this to yourself and not tell anyone until we get this sorted out.”
I nod. I am used to obeying instructions.
“You know,” he continues, almost hesitant, “Ellie is from a bad family. Her mother is mentally ill. Mike says that she told him she wanted to do this.”
Mike’s father was also a higher up in the church.
I swallow this. I know all these things about Ellie. I know that her family isn’t as stable as mine. I know that her dad lives with his girlfriend and has a drinking problem and beats her.
“I won’t say anything,” I whisper.
He smiles. “Thank you, Anna. You’re a good girl.”
And so, I do what I’m told. I don’t say anything.
I don’t say anything when I start having doubts about whether or not Ellie told me the truth about Mike. I don’t say anything when she and I drift apart and no longer see each other. I don’t say anything when I learn she got pregnant by some other guy a few years later and became a mom at sixteen.
Because I doubted her. She and I had been friends for years, but all it took to destroy her credibility was a five minute conversation with an adult, who told me what to do and planted seeds of doubt in my head about this girl who I knew, and knew well, and knew that she wasn’t the sort of girl who lied about things.
It’s also why, when I was sexually assaulted at seventeen, I didn’t tell anyone at my church, because I had seen how Ellie had been treated. By the time I was seventeen, she didn’t attend church anymore, and I didn’t even know where she lived. I kept it to myself with no one to talk to, for fear of repercussion.
Everyone has a great deal to say about the whole scandal involving Josh Duggar. I have never been a fan of the Duggars and I was shocked and saddened to learn what had happened to the victims. But what happened to them isn’t that uncommon. One out of four females and one out of six males will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, with the majority of these assaults occurring when they are children. Children, who are told to be good. Children, who are easily manipulated into thinking that ‘being good’ means following the instructions of those older than them. Which can sometimes mean not telling their parents what a trusted relative is doing to them.
Plus, the Duggar girls live in an isolated environment, and since their parents did not take any steps to protect them for over a year after the first assault occurred, they had no one to stand up and defend them. No one.
I was haunted for a long time for what I had done to Ellie, but thankfully as an adult I see that I was manipulated and the fault does not lie on my shoulders. The fault belongs to the adults who should have helped Ellie and protected me.
We can do better.
(Author’s Note: Names have been changed).