Sherry Johnson was raped by the deacon of her local church when she was just nine years old. She was the daughter of the assistant “church mother” and her stepfather was the assistant pastor at an Apostolic Christian church in Tampa, Florida. The deacon who sexually abused her was 18.
He had entered her home while her mother and sisters had gone to church. “All you had to do was walk down the steps from the church and you’d walk into our kitchen,” Johnson explained. “And that’s where he raped me. I woke up with him on top of me. Many times.”
Johnson told her mom about what had happened and pleaded with her to help her understand what she had gone through. Even though she was young, she knew something was amiss. But her mom ignored her and didn’t even believe her. Shockingly, she told the church that Johnson was a liar.
“I was a sacrifice to cover up what he did,” Johnson recalled. She said at that moment she wanted to run away from home. But she had nowhere to go and she was just nine years old. And then, to make matters worse, she found out that she was pregnant months after being sexually abused by the deacon.
Social workers got involved but Johnson couldn’t tell them who the father of her baby was as she was frightened. Her mom had also told her that she should keep it a secret in order not to ruin her family name. Johnson was later sent away with the deacon who raped her again while they were making their journey from Tampa to Miami. The young girl was seven months pregnant at the time.
While staying with the deacon thousands of miles from home, she gave birth in a hospital. Her mother did not even visit her or her new baby, Johnson said. At 11, she was forced to marry her rapist, who was now 20. Her mother made the wedding cake, dress and even a veil for her. Johnson said she found “a little bit of security” in the marriage because her mother told her to do it. “So I thought there must have been something OK with it,” she said.
But after the marriage, the deacon started tormenting her — emotionally and physically. And anytime he got her pregnant, he would leave her and then come back after the baby was born to impregnate her again. By age 16, Johnson had six children.
Eventually, the deacon was jailed for failing to pay child support. Johnson tried to start divorce proceedings but she was not able to because she was under 18. Later, she was given special dispensation and divorced the deacon at 17. Johnson went on to marry twice, and in both marriages, she was abused. But she had three more children and about five years ago, she finally got her high school diploma at age 55.
Now a mother of nine children and a grandmother of more than 30 grandchildren, she has been fighting to end child marriage in the United States. Her children, who know about what she went through when she was young, have been giving her all the support she needs.
Although most states in America require one to be at least 18 years old to marry, some have exceptions that allow children under 18 to get married. Most states require a minor to have parental consent, the approval of a judge or to be recognized as adults (i.e. emancipated minors) for them to get married. Consequently, as of December 2017, 25 states allowed minors to get married if they meet their state’s exceptions.
According to The U.S. Sun, Johnson’s work and that of others compelled the state of Florida to pass a bill to increase the minimum age for marriage to 18, with exceptions for 17-year-olds who are pregnant or with parental consent.
“I want to help all the other young girls so they won’t have to go through what I’ve been through,” said Johnson, who has since forgiven her abusers and her mother for what they did to her.