In Florida, a woman has told how she was raped by her church deacon at the age of 8, having his baby at 9, and was forced to marry him at 11.
Sherry Johnson was just 8 years old when she was first raped by her 18-years-old church minister. While her parents and sisters were out at church the deacon will sexually abuse her by letting himself into her home and raping her.
“All you had to do was walk down the steps from the church and you’d walk into our kitchen, And that’s where he raped me. I woke up with him on top of me,” she said. “Many times.”
Too young to comprehend what exactly happened to her, Johnson turned to her mother for help.
“I didn’t understand what really took place, I did tell my mother,” she said. “I had no idea what words to really use, the only thing that came to mind is, I remember, I said, ‘Mom, the deacon messed with me.”
Expecting comfort and action, unfortunately, her mother refused to believe her and even told the church congregation that her daughter was a liar.
“She said, ‘no he did not. He doesn’t do that kind of stuff,” Johnson recalled telling her unconvinced mother about her horrifying experience. “I said, ‘Mom, he did, and she told me, that’s not true. My mom, for some reason, seemed to blame me for what happened.”
It then turned out to public humiliation as Johnson’s mother spread false rumors about her.
“She told other people that I was fast,” Johnson said. “She would get up in that church and tell all the members ‘don’t believe my daughter. I was a sacrifice to cover up what he did.”
Johnson felt mortified. But more so, disappointed. She thought about running away but had no idea where she would go.
In the following months, Johnson found herself isolated and discovered that her abuse led to pregnancy.
When social workers were called to her house, her mother pressured her to keep the father’s identity a secret. Her mother sent her away with the minister and on their way from Tampa to Miami, he pulled over and raped her again while she was seven months pregnant.
Thousands of miles away from home, with her rapist’s custody, Johnson gave birth without her mother even showing up to visit her and her new granddaughter.
“Was it horrifying having a child so young?” Johnson said. “Yes it was, it was devastating. It was a situation in my life that I didn’t know exactly what to do, I was still a child myself.”
Courtesy of Crime and InvestigationThen two years later, Johnson was forced to marry her rapist in the same church she had attended her whole life. Her mother even made the wedding cake, dress, and veil.
“Then I was forced to marry my rapist at the age of 11, I found a little bit of security in the marriage because my mother told me to do it – so I thought there must have been something OK with it,” Johnson said.
A judge had refused to issue a marriage license between an 11-year-old and a 20-year-old so her own mother drove to a neighboring county so the ceremony could take place.
“The state of Florida failed me. The school knew. The hospital knew. The doctors knew. The courts knew. Nobody protected me – not one person. Not one.” Johnsons miserably said.
After the mock wedding, Johnson was pregnant every year. Becoming a mother of 6 at the age of 16.
The deacon vanished and was even sent to prison for not paying child support. Johnson tried to file for a divorce but she couldn’t go forward with it because she was under 18.
Finally, Johnson got help from a solicitor who took her case, and she was completely free from the rapist deacon.
She continued her life receiving her high school diploma and being a mother of three more children, Johnson finally got her college diploma at age 55. She was always honest with her kids about what happened to her when she was young and how she came to have them.
“I am a mother of nine children. I am a grandmother of 34 grandchildren. I’m a great-grandmother of three children, with one on the way. And I’m grateful for that,” Johnson said. “It was hard, but I endure.”
“The most grateful thing that I say is happening for me right now is to be able to talk about what happened in my past, to be able to help others,” she added. “I was raped, and not only that, I was forced to marry my rapist at the age of 11.”
Johnsons now works tirelessly to make Florida the first state to ban child marriages. She spent the last five years urging the lawmakers to pass a bill banning child marriage as she had once suffered, and a big thanks to her, the state has since banned marriage under the age of 17.
“I ended up in a situation where it wasn’t easy to get out of, and that’s one of my reasons for doing what I do,” she said, describing her efforts to ban child marriages under age 16 and had plenty of support but it was stalled in the Florida House in 2014.
She is getting newfound support for a new bill that is sponsored by Florida State Senator Lauren Book, also a victim of child abuse.
Book and Johnson are working on new legislation which would ban child marriages completely under age 18.
“When the bill passes, I want the community to know this has happened, I just want ideas,” Johnson said. “This is all so new to me.”
“My children, they are very proud of me coming forth. They’d say, ‘Go for it, Mom. Do what you feel like you need to do. I’m happy for you,” Johnson said. “I consider myself a voice for the voiceless.”