Illustration: Celina Gallardo

Topics: Ethical Living | Society

I was abused by a church organist as a child

I felt powerless. Who would believe the word of a young teenager?


When I was 13 years old, I stood in the sanctuary of a United church in southwestern Ontario and spied the console of the newly reconditioned four-manual pipe organ for the first time. I took piano lessons from age six all the way through public school, but during that time, I also fell in love with this mighty king of instruments. I convinced my parents that the pipe organ was the instrument I wanted to play now and for the rest of my life.

It made sense at the time to approach the organist at this church about giving me lessons. He didn’t hesitate, and I was too eager to suspect the trap he was setting for me.

My first lessons consisted of him chatting nonstop about irrelevant topics. We sat side by side at the piano while I, always good mannered, listened politely. We never went down to the organ.

It started when he began to sit a little too closely to me on the piano bench.  When I moved away, he would wait a few seconds and then move close to me again. My body turned rigid. It was impossible to breathe normally.

Then one cold fall day, he moved away from the piano to a nearby radiator. He was cold, he said, and he invited me to join him. I tried to keep my distance. The next thing I knew, he had turned towards me, put his arms around me and pushing hard against me, tried to kiss me. I froze. I thought I was going to vomit. I moved away from him, back to the piano and he left me alone.

The abuse continued and I began to dread my lessons, but was afraid to tell anyone why. Who would believe the word of a young teenager against a prestigious organist old enough to be her grandfather? I felt powerless.

In a matter of weeks, he was barring the door so I couldn’t get out. I put a bus ticket between my lips, hoping he would get the message. He finally moved away and let me out.

More on Broadview: I was sexually groomed as a child in the church

I told my parents I wanted to quit lessons because I wasn’t learning anything about the organ. They didn’t believe me, but finally gave in. Thirty years passed before I could finally tell a friend about my ordeal.

Around that same time, while at my parents’ one night, my mother asked if I’d heard that my former organ teacher had died. My heart started pounding. I could hardly breathe.

“You always wondered why I quit my lessons,” I said. “It was because he was sexually abusing me.”

My mother said she’d always wondered why. My father sat in silence. I could feel his rage toward the person who had done this to me.

Memories of sexual abuse never go away and can be as vivid and abhorrent as when they happened. I wrote a letter to the church where it happened, but I lost my nerve and didn’t send it. Another five years passed before I rewrote the letter and mailed it. All I wanted was acknowledgement and an apology.

Their response came via a lawyer’s letter, which said that too much time had gone by to do anything about it. I contacted other personnel in the church, but nothing was in place to deal with sexual abuse at the time. After that, I didn’t have anything left in me to pursue it further.

During those two years of abuse, and for the next three, I was the music director in the church where I grew up. I have been the music leader at General Council and Conference annual meetings. In 1975, I began freelancing, conducting workshops in worship and music in nearly every Canadian province. I have played for residents in long-term care and in the living rooms of people who love music.

Memories of sexual abuse never go away and can be as vivid and abhorrent as when they happened.

Some will wonder why I share this, after so long. I was able to contribute my musical gift in The United Church of Canada. Everything turned out fine after all.

For those who have been sexually abused and carried that burden for decades, nothing “turns out fine after all.” It’s not that easy. Dreams become nightmares, spirits are crushed, we feel like lesser persons and our gifts feel less precious than we thought they were. We are especially vulnerable to people who don’t understand what sexual abuse can do to a person. But perhaps above all, we are afraid.

I have a large framed photograph of a young girl, about 11 years old, hanging in my living room. She’s standing up to her ankles in the water of Lake Huron at Ipperwash. There are big waves coming towards her from as far as the eye can see. The sky above her is dark and one huge black cloud hangs overhead. She stands with her arms taut at her side, feet apart… watching, wondering, fearful. This could have been a picture of me.

I am standing in the organist’s office when I feel the waves break against me as he makes his move toward me.

Not long ago, I had the good fortune of spending some time on that same beach. I looked toward the point where I sat decades ago, drawing pictures with crayons on days when the lake was too rough for swimming. On this particular day, the water was calm all the way to the horizon. The sun sparkling on the water was my dancing partner. And surrounding me was a sense of the Holy. Of safety.

A picture of this day hangs in my bedroom. I look at it and know I am finally becoming me.

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