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Abuse survivor's handbook named 2016 Christian Book of the Year

A survivor of sexual abuse offers a scriptural way forward - and hope - to other survivors

The image on the cover of the 2016 Australian Christian Book of the Year, 'Child, Arise! The Courage to Stand: A Spiritual Handbook for Survivors of Sexual Abuse' by Jane N Dowling (David Lovell Publishing, Melbourne)

By Mark Brolly

August 19 2016A spiritual handbook for survivors of sexual abuse, written by a survivor, has been named the 2016 Australian Christian Book of the Year.

Child, Arise! The Courage to Stand: A Spiritual Handbook for Survivors of Sexual Abuse, by Jane N Dowling, was announced as winner at the annual awards ceremony at St Alfred’s Anglican Church North Blackburn on 18 August. The book is published by Melbourne’s David Lovell Publishing.

It was chosen from a shortlist of 10, which included a biography of a former Ridley College principal, Leon Morris: One man’s fight for Love and Truth, by Melbourne priest the Revd Neil Bach; Roy Williams’ Post-God Nation? How Religion fell off the radar in Australia and what might be done to get it back on; and Bernie Power’s Understanding Jesus and Muhammad: What the ancient texts say about them. More than 50 books were contenders for the award.

The awards are organised by SparkLit (the trading name of The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge Australia).

Ms Dowling, in accepting her award, said her journey had been a long one and there should have been many other people on the stage with her who were part of her decision, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to put pen to paper.

“I am also aware that there are others who cannot be with us tonight but who are rejoicing with us in Heaven,” she said.

Ms Dowling was sexually abused by a family member from her early childhood until her mid-teens, and later by a Roman Catholic priest.

At 21, she became a member of an international Catholic missionary community and completed her theology degree.

“The specific ministry of the community I belong to is Prayer and Ministry of the Word (the ‘Word’ refers to the Word of God, particularly as expressed in the Bible),” she wrote.

“As a consecrated member of the community, I have practised this ministry for the past 22 years.”

Early this decade, she took leave from her community and ministry for health reasons. It was during this time that Ms Dowling determined to give evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

“My turning point came at a time when I had hit rock bottom," Ms Dowling wrote. "I was in a very deep and very dark hole. Despair, desolation and hopelessness covered me completely and I was suicidal as a result.

“Then I did something that was life-changing for my personal journey of healing and overcoming the trauma of childhood sexual abuse… I picked up the Bible, opened it up randomly and began to read very slowly. The scripture passage I happened to open up at was from the Prophet Isaiah (43:1): But now, thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob, and formed you, O Israel. Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by your name: you are mine.

“These words left me in absolute awe. It was as if they went to the very core of my heart beyond that very deep darkness and they found me and spoke to me personally. I felt that they were coming from someone who was very familiar with my life, who knew what I was experiencing. This someone was God and God was reminding me that I am God’s creation and not to be afraid.

“It is very easy for survivors of sexual abuse to become isolated and disconnected. Many choose never to reveal their long-kept secret or to reach out for professional help or support … One of my hopes is that through this handbook survivors can discover that they are never alone because the loving God who created us and gave us life is with us in all the ups and downs of our healing journey.

“A very real consequence for survivors, especially for those who have been abused by members of the clergy, is a distorted image of God. God is often described by survivors as being far away, distant, uncaring, tough, punishing and angry. God is therefore someone who survivors are afraid to trust. Such false images of God were developed as we suffered the traumatic experiences at the hands of our perpetrators.

“The topic of God as ‘Father’ is a very sensitive one for those who have been sexually abused by their own father or by a priest who they referred to as ‘Father’. The false images of God survivors have are a consequence of their experiences of ‘father’, parent or priest, and these false images are the greatest obstacles to re-establishing a relationship with God.”

SparkLit’s National Director, Mr Michael Collie, said Ms Dowling’s book and Laotian Christian writer Lothy Hueang, who addressed the awards ceremony, were examples of “writing from hard places”.

Mr Collie said Christians were too often silenced by the extremes of persecution, in places such as Laos, and indulgence in the West.

The South Sudanese Choir from All Saints’ Footscray performed twice during the evening.

Two other awards were announced: Miriam Dale won the Young Australian Christian Writer award for The Weight of Hope, her collection of poetry and prose; and Annie-Jo Vogler was named Australian Christian Teen Writer for All the Ways We Are, a story of adolescents struggling with life and the complexities of living in an extended family.