TRIGGER WARNING: The following article contains information of a sensitive nature. Details include that adult grooming. The contents of this article could be upsetting or trigger negative memories.
Last month we shared Keisha’s account of being groomed by her church Pastor. Her experience raised several questions, among them:
1. Is the Seventh Day Adventist church a safe space for women?
2. Are the powers that be in denial about the pervasiveness of pastors who abuse their privilege to the detriment of church members?
3. Adult grooming, does it really exist?
Since Keisha’s story was published, Loop has been contacted by dozens of women who claim to have had similar experiences with Seventh Day Adventist Pastors assigned to different churches throughout Trinidad and Tobago. Dozens more have also come forward and made claims of sexual harassment, attempts at grooming and victimisation by lecturers at the SDA-run University of the Southern Caribbean-formerly, Caribbean Union College.
One such woman is Lisa.
As a student of Caribbean Union College, now the University of the Southern Caribbean, Lisa said she had to ward off the unwanted advances of a well-known and respected lecturer.
These encounters, she claims, were reported to other members of staff and the department of Academic Affairs, but nothing was done to protect her and others with similar experiences.
“When I was a student at USC I had a lot of personal life struggles. I didn’t have a stable home background and was not in the best place. I was lost and when I went to school there was this teacher that seemed to take interest in me and gave me a certain type of attention that I wasn’t used to. I didn’t have good self-esteem or self-image or anything like that. I didn’t have protective factors, I didn’t have people that were looking out for me in any kind of way. This teacher would compliment me, it started with him telling me I was smart. I started to feel like this was a father figure or somebody I could trust,” she told Loop Caribbean.
That would soon change.
“He would start calling me into his office. At first, there were other people there. I started to feel like I was one of the special students, one of the selected group. Sometimes I would stay late in school to study and stuff and he would tell me to come to see him after class to talk. He would often say things like ‘you’re a troubled person’ or tell me I looked like I had problems and I could talk to him and trust him and stuff. I would sometimes stay back after school and talk to him about what was going on at home and he would ask about stuff so trust started to build.”
Lisa said that over time, the lecturer started to make off-coloured jokes and issue backhanded compliments.
“He would tell me I was attractive and smart and he would comment on what I was wearing and things like that. It started to get uncomfortable but I thought maybe I was overthinking it…”
The lecturer, according to Lisa insisted that the after-school meetings continue
“He would keep telling me he was there for me if I needed anything, then one time he asked me if I had a boyfriend and asked about my personal relationship life…”
It was at this juncture, Lisa recalls the meetings after class started to consistently be one on one.
“There was always something he wanted me to come to do and he started talking about his personal life, his relationships and stuff, this is somebody who was probably 30 years older than me at the time. I was around 21… then he started wanting hugs when we met. He wanted hugs in the office, never in the corridor for other people to see. The hugs started off as a joke hug like a pat on the back type of hug then it started to be longer. I started to feel really uncomfortable, and I have a history of abuse so when he started to do that instead of saying no I’m uncomfortable with this, I would just freeze. He would then make that into a joke and say I have so many problems. The running joke would be I have problems so something is wrong with me. I guess it reinforced in my head that whatever it was that was making me uncomfortable was a problem that was rooted in me.”
Lisa told Loop News, that on one occasion when the lecturer was giving her a lift home after school, he put his hand on her leg, squeezed her knee and started to move his hand upward.
“These were the days in USC when everyone wore skirts. He eventually stopped, I don’t know if it was because I was so frozen. I was freaked out because I thought that in him, I had a father figure I could trust in this crazy world because I was so lost and I didn’t have support systems. Then this person who I thought I could have trusted was now displaying the same behaviours that had me vulnerable in the first place.”
It was a challenge, but Lisa said she did all in her power to let go of that encounter, that is, until the same lecturer attempted to kiss her.
“After the incident in the car he brushed that off as a joke that didn’t mean anything and something he just did when talking. He tried to kiss me at a point in time and I think that’s when I was like no. When I pulled back he got upset, I don’t know if it was because I wasn’t going along or because I had responded in that way. I was just so scared and I didn’t know what to do. I confided in a staff member saying I felt afraid because I didn’t know what he would do. This is somebody I had confided in, told so many things about my family, I was afraid he would try to use that information to harm me in some way, that’s why I tried to get help from someone else in the school.”
Reporting these encounters with the lecturer did not have the desired effect.
“After reporting it and sharing what had happened and the progression of what had happened he was using threats,” Lisa claims. “He kept calling my phone over and over saying don’t go and do anything stupid otherwise xyz would happen. I was really afraid. I took it to the dean then it went up to Academic Admin. I told them I felt unsafe and told them what was happening and that he was calling my phone and making me really uncomfortable. They spoke to the teacher and said it was all in my head and asked if I was willing to damage somebody’s career because of a little inconvenience. They made me drop the class, because of that I couldn’t do a minor anymore…”
Lisa said she is still bothered by the fact that she was forced to drop a class she needed while there was no consequence for the lecturer.
Worried that the threatening phone calls would escalate, Lisa confided in a friend. This individual she said, was the first person to validate her concerns and encouraged her to lodge a complaint.
According to Lisa, everything was reported to the lab technician, the dean of the faculty and the head of Academic Admin.
“Academic Admin told me he didn’t actually assault me and asked me where I wanted to go with that. He told me I had my whole career ahead and asked why I wanted to mess up a man’s career. He said men have needs and he was probably just having a low time. It was I guess maybe for him to diffuse the situation. I went alone, I didn’t have confidence and I was afraid. When I went to see him, I told him everything because I thought he was going to help but actually he was more on the teacher’s side.”
Now as an adult, with a lot more life experience, Lisa said she realises how “messed up” the entire ordeal was.
“Part of why I had backed down, was because he (the head of Academic Administration) was asking and insinuated that I led the teacher on. He said I basically put myself in the situation by going into the teacher’s office. At the time it was just like, I doubted myself too and thought maybe I had led him on…”
She told Loop it was long after the fact that she was able to acknowledge that her lecturer had identified and preyed on her vulnerabilities, even before she confided in him, sharing explicit details about her personal struggles.
“He had probably identified that I was a vulnerable person who didn’t have any family support and came from an abusive home with lots of different issues. He realised I was lost, had low self-esteem and was insecure and he took advantage of that. He was screening me asking the questions he did. When I thought he was trying to be a support system and trying to be like a father figure, he really wasn’t. I didn’t fight back or say don’t touch me or anything like that but my body just froze and maybe that was just enough for him not to proceed, I’m not sure. I wasn’t the only student, I don’t know if that person is still teaching at the school but I know they (the school) helped to cover it up.”
Lisa said she is sharing her story in the hope that it would help to spark a deeper conversation about the prevalence of sexual impropriety of teaching staff at USC and result in action being taken to initiate much-needed change on the way these issues are addressed.
According to the University’s sexual standards policy, “Faculty, staff, administration, trustees, and students of the University of the Southern Caribbean are expected, in their teaching, influence, and example, to uphold Christian sexual standards as held by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”
The policy further states:
We believe that God’s ideal for sexuality is achieved when the sexual expression is limited to a man and woman who, as husband and wife, are committed to a lifelong marriage. All expressions of premarital and extramarital friendship are to be chaste, and behaviours, which suggest otherwise, are to be avoided. All forms of sexual expression between homosexuals are contrary to the ideals of the University and will result in disciplinary action. Further, every form of promiscuity, sexual abuse, and exploitation is contrary to the ideals of the University and will result in disciplinary action. The University of the Southern Caribbean honours an ideal of sexual purity, which transcends mere legal enforcements. Any student, faculty member, or staff member who may be troubled with a sexual issue is encouraged to seek confidential counselling.
On the issue of sexual harassment, the USC statement said it is “reprehensible and will not be tolerated” as it “subverts the mission of the University and threatens the careers, educational experience, and well-being of students, faculty, and employees.”
Relationships involving sexual harassment or discrimination have no place within the University. In both obvious and subtle ways, the mere suspicion of sexual harassment is destructive to individual students, faculty, employees, and the University community as a whole. When, through fear of reprisal, a student, faculty member, or employee submits, or is pressured to submit to inappropriate sexual attention, the University’s ability to carry out its mission is undermined.
Sexual harassment is especially serious when it threatens relationships between teacher and student, supervisor and subordinate. In such situations, sexual harassment exploits unfairly the power inherent in a faculty member’s, supervisor’s or student’s position. In matters like grades, wage increases, recommendations for graduate study, promotion, and the like, a person in a position of power can have a decisive influence on the future of the student, faculty member, or employee.
In the next instalment of this series, you’ll hear from several women who are sharing their stories of abuse at the hands of religious leaders and lecturers, in the hope that others would be spared the experiences they’ve had.
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