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Ending his silence

Editor's note: This story is part of a joint effort by the Mail Tribune, KOBI Channel 5 and the Jackson County Child Abuse Network to educate the public about the extent of child abuse locally and what Rogue Valley residents can do about it. Two more stories are planned on Mondays in April as part of child abuse awareness month.

By Sanne Specht

Ashland contractor Randy Ellison never told a soul what the preacher did to him. Not when the sexual abuse started. Not when it ended. Not even when the fallout nearly destroyed his life.

"My secret became shrouded in guilt and shame," Ellison said. "I questioned life and had regular thoughts of suicide until I was 30."

Ellison was 15 when a charismatic youth minister began sexually abusing him. For more than 40 years, Ellison remained silent about the devastation wrought by the trusted leader in his community — a 40-year-old married man with children of his own.

"My life was taken totally off track," said Ellison, 59. "You don't just move on from sexual abuse as a child. Not without help."

Statistics show that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday, said Marlene Mish, director of the Children's Advocacy Center. It is estimated that at least 39 million Americans are survivors of child sexual abuse. Using that number, one can estimate that more than 25,000 residents of Jackson County were victims of child sexual abuse, she said.

Male victims of sexual abuse live lives that are broken in ways others cannot even imagine, Ellison said.

"We live in a world of guilt, shame and secrets," he said. "Many of us find we are uncomfortable in our own skin. And yet we do not even know why. Most victims never tell a soul what happened to them. Many never admit it to themselves."

Ellison remembers the 1960s as an era filled with folk music, peace, love and idealism. It was Ellison's mother who insisted he attend the popular church. Ellison was not to become "crude" or "a drinker," like his father. She wanted the minister to provide an upstanding male role model for her impressionable young son.

"Somehow in between this, he insinuated himself and his perversions. Perversions he disguised as love," said Ellison.

Secrecy and shame are two powerful psychological weapons pedophiles wield to keep their victims silent. While it is hard for any child to speak about sexual abuse, it can be particularly difficult for boys because they face greater social stigma. Boys often question their own sexuality and often are rejected by the males within their own families, she said.

"There are pretty good reasons why boys don't tell," said Mish.

Ellison's willingness to tell his own story of abuse, survival and evolution to become a victims' advocate "takes incredible courage," she said.

"I have a lot of respect for him," Mish said.

Ellison chooses not to discuss graphic details of his abuse. He doesn't know why it started, or even why it ended. He simply tried to "lock it all away," he said.

"People get all hung up on what happened and how it happened," said Ellison. "But that's not what it's about. It's about what it does to you. The distortions that it makes in your life. What a relationship, sex and love come to mean."

Ellison's mother died a few months after he married at age 20. He and his wife of 38 years, Helen, had two daughters and now have several grandchildren. Throughout the ensuing decades, Ellison kept his secret locked inside himself.

"I neither trusted nor confided in anyone," he said.

Ellison also became hardened toward himself. He buried his vulnerabilities.

"I needed to be in control at all times," he said. "I was a rigid and minimally involved father, and a distant partner to my wife. Even though I stayed married with a family, I lived my life mostly alone."

Ellison quit his job as a lumber wholesaler and moved his family to Ashland in 1999.

"I've had five different major careers in five different cities and have moved my family to 18 different homes," he said.

Ellison increasingly turned to mood-altering substances to cope. He eventually became "a full-blown alcoholic and drug addict," he said.

Over 80 percent of child abuse victims are or have been addicted to alcohol or drugs. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, said Mish.

Ellison said the invisible victims of child sexual abuse are our collective family members. We go to church with them. We sit on boards with them. We stand in line at the grocery store with them. We see them at the gym.

"You do not see that most of us are totally incapable of something as basic as trust of another human being," he said.

Three years ago, Ellison's teen grandson was experiencing emotional difficulties in the aftermath of a divorce. Ellison realized that to help his grandson, he would have to face his own fears.

Ellison's first step toward reclaiming his soul was telling another minister about his past abuse. His next step was finding a counselor who specializes in helping victims of sexual abuse.

"I went to counseling for three months before I could actually say I was sexually abused by my minister and name him as a predator," said Ellison.

Six months later Ellison filed a formal complaint with the church that led to his abuser being defrocked.

"But it was obvious to me the church still didn't get it," Ellison said.

He filed a lawsuit with the church and settled out of court. The frustrating experience included a fair amount of revictimization, said Ellison. His suit was settled in mediation for an undisclosed amount — as well as a couple of private meetings with the church bishop.

"I believe that (the bishop) and I laid the groundwork for more understanding between the church and future victims, as well as the beginning of some concrete programs where the church will play a major role in increasing awareness and educating members about child sexual abuse," Ellison said.

Ellison continues to work to heal himself and his relationships with his family members.

He also wants to change the legal system to "make it easier for the victims and harder on the perpetrators," he said. Last year, Ellison told his story publicly for the first time when he testified before the Oregon Senate Judiciary Committee. Last week, he spoke before the Jackson County commissioners. On Wednesday, Ellison will speak at a noontime rally in Medford's Vogel Plaza sponsored by the Jackson County Child Abuse Network.

"My goal is to make a difference," Ellison said. "I have made a commitment to myself that I am willing to be the face of male sexual abuse victims."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

Randy Ellison of Ashland recently addressed the Jackson County Commissioners about his experience with child abuse. - Bob Pennell