Gaby’s early life was a mix of beatings from her father and strict religious instruction. Her local Assemblies of God church, where her father was a lay preacher, influenced and ruled nearly everything she did. Gaby attended different church groups almost every night of the week. She wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend until she was 16, and ‘Sunday was church twice’.
A young married pastor, Fred Wheeler, led the church’s youth group. At a summer camp when Gaby was 14, she became ill with cramps. Wheeler came into her tent, unbuttoned her jeans and started rubbing her stomach. Gaby had known him all her life and she thought nothing of it.
But when he said ‘We don’t need to tell anybody about anything because it was fine’ and then kissed her, his actions started to play on her mind. She thought about telling her parents but decided not to. Wheeler’s mother-in-law was a member of the church’s board of elders, and Gaby thought anything she said would be discredited.
Wheeler grew bolder. The youth group went back to his house one day and he managed to isolate Gaby. ‘He locked the doors … He said “Come in here, we’ll hide”. So we were hiding in one of the rooms … He kissed me and started to fondle me.’
Gaby protested but Wheeler said it was her fault. She hadn’t stopped him when he kissed her the first time, her jeans were too tight, and anyway if she did say something no one would believe her.
She decided she had to stay away from him, but Wheeler persisted. One night after youth group, it started with touching and Gaby was then forced to masturbate him. ‘He always had hankies ... You’d think his wife would have surely picked it up but she didn’t.’
At the end of that year, Wheeler coerced Gaby into his bed. He had no clothes on and said that he loved and understood her.
‘He knew my family. He knew I was the black sheep of the family … If you’d have asked me at that stage I would have said I loved him.’
She was under 15. No one else seemed to notice how much time they spent together.
Another time Wheeler sexually abused Gaby in his car. When the car was later hit by another vehicle, Wheeler blamed her, saying, ‘That’s because God’s angry at you and so he’s punished me’.
He took to calling Gaby ‘evil Jezebel’ and showed her the scripture where Jesus told the prostitute, ‘Go your way and sin no more’. Wheeler said, ‘That’s what God wants you to know’.
Then he became violent. When Gaby tried once again to break away from him, ‘he picked me up and threw me on the ground on my back. And I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t walk. And I said, “My dad is gonna kill you”. And he said, “No, he won’t”.
‘That’s when I really became scared of him … It reinforced that I wasn’t strong enough to get away from him.’
She still didn’t disclose the abuse because she believed it was her fault.
One day Wheeler sexually abused Gaby in front of a church elder’s house. ‘This still boggles my mind … but I can see it as clear as day … He had me on the ground. It was the first time he actually penetrated me.’ Gaby recalled the pain and asking to go home, but instead Wheeler took her to the back of an empty house and abused her again.
Gaby’s family began to notice her changing behaviour. Her grades fell and she became silent and withdrawn, particularly in front of her father. ‘I put the walls up and I numbed.’
When Gaby was 16 she told a young assistant pastor about Wheeler but begged her not to tell anyone. Nothing was said.
Gaby tried to take her life, and afterwards told her parents about a religious vision she’d had. It dawned on them that something bad had happened to her, but they didn’t know what.
It wasn’t until years later when Gaby left her first husband that she saw a counsellor and began to work through her experiences with Wheeler.
‘It was then that I discovered that the abuse had actually been child abuse.’
By then she was in her early 30s and on medication for bipolar disorder. Later, after her parents heard about Wheeler, Gaby told the church about his abuse.
‘They didn’t kick him out. They said they would monitor him around children. That was it.’
When Gaby left her first husband the church board ‘called me every name under the sun’. They told her to leave the church and never darken its doorway again. Her parents see her as ‘fallen’, she said.
Gaby has never received compensation from the Assemblies of God for Wheeler’s abuse and is not interested in pursuing it. But she did recommend to the Commission that they have compulsory auditing. The Assemblies of God currently don’t answer to anyone above the church board level.
Meanwhile, Gaby has a new, supportive husband and has found a way to love God and leave the Church trappings behind.