‘My stomach hurt; I felt beaten up. What had I done to bring this on?’

In the wake of the Jian Ghomeshi scandal, many brave women have shared stories of sexual violence. I’ve decided it’s finally time to tell my own. And it involves a colleague in United Church ministry.

By Anne Simmonds

It was 1985 in Toronto. I was 38, a single mother, a recent Masters of Divinity graduate and an assistant minister in a mid-sized United church. Things were going well.

Then one weekend, my senior colleague was going out of town and asked if I would lead worship with another clergy member who attended the church but worked elsewhere. I had met Wade several times during coffee hour. He was friendly. There was no reason to say no.

Several days before the service was to take place, Wade (not his real name) called and suggested that we meet for dinner to discuss the details. We met at a restaurant and gave our order for drinks. But seconds after the waiter had turned his back, Wade looked at me and said, “I know you want to make love with me, Anne.”

I couldn’t speak. Did I hear him correctly?

Forcefully, he repeated, “Anne, I know you want to make love with me.”

“No” I blurted out, frantically scanning my behaviour. I did a mental check of my clothing, never shaking the feeling that I invited this unwanted solicitation.

When the waiter returned to see if a second glass of wine was on order, I said, “No, thank you.”

“Of course she will,” he intervened.

“No I really don’t want it,” I protested.

But it was too late; the waiter listened to him, not me. I then attempted to steer the conversation to planning Sunday worship. In my mind, he was the authority — the one in charge of the service. In addition, he was on the Presbytery committee responsible for my ordination process, so I felt trapped. It did not occur to me that I could leave.

The sexual pressure and innuendo continued throughout dinner. Each of Wade’s comments — that he was available whenever I wanted him and that he was convinced that I wanted him — took me further into confusion and closer to panic.

After finishing dinner and having enough to prepare for Sunday, we finally left the restaurant. He asked if I could drop him at his home, not far out of my way. As if I was under a spell, I couldn’t think straight — and agreed. In my car, he tried to kiss me. He was not bigger or stronger than me, and I fought him off while mentally beating myself up for having been so stupid as to let him in the car. I then started the car and dropped him in front of his house, where he lived with his family. Several blocks later, I pulled to the curb and shed tears laced with anger. My stomach hurt; I felt beaten up. “What had I done to bring this on?” I asked myself.

The question hounded me throughout the night. After sleeping poorly, I awoke to a ringing phone at 7 a.m. It was Wade.

“I bet you want me now, don’t you?” he whispered into the phone.

I hung up. I felt invaded. Not having any awareness that I might be able to back out of my Sunday responsibilities, I arrived at the church to set up for the children’s program. My office door was ajar and offices were left unlocked. On my desk was a piece of paper tucked in the front of my Bible. It read: “I’m looking forward to working with you this morning. Here is how to reach me.”

I was repulsed, angry and afraid. I then went through the motions of the morning, making sure Wade and I were never alone, and left the building as soon as I could. In fact, I avoided being anywhere near him and never spoke to him again. (He died in 2002.)

Initially, I was too ashamed to tell anyone. Eventually, I told a therapist who had been supporting me through my marriage separation. He helped me understand that it was not my fault.

This took place at a time when, as a culture, we were just starting to acknowledge and talk publically about sexual harassment and abuse. When I first became aware of the notion of sexual harassment, I thought it was possible that some women were uncomfortable with their sexuality, and overly sensitive to light touch and playful flirtation. But did I ever change my mind in a hurry!

After I stopped blaming myself for the incident, I told my senior colleague what had happened. He took me seriously when I asked him never to put another woman in a similar position with Wade. I also met with the Conference oversight minister, who listened with compassion and reinforced the notion that Wade’s actions were completely inappropriate. He suggested, however, that no further discussion be had, or action be taken. And I agreed — until now.

Rev. Dr. Anne Simmonds is a United Church minister and adjunct faculty at Emmanuel College in Toronto.

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