Forgiving my Grandfather, a Pedophile

This could be another stream of consciousness post, so please bear with me. I am also going to be general, purposefully, with some of this. I’d been meaning to write this for awhile, but the sexual abuse scandal enveloping Penn State implored me to do so finally.

I first heard about the scandal on Twitter while watching the Nebraska vs Northwestern game. I read the story and immediately I could not focus on the game. All I could think of were the children who had their lives (allegedly, although indicted by a grand jury) shattered by Jerry Sandusky. I was also upset by the apparent negligence shown by various leaders at Penn State University. Upset is not a strong enough word, I was enraged. There was a reason I was feeling enraged.

This past spring, my grandfather passed away on my mom’s side of the family. This might be a surprise to many of you since I didn’t talk about his death, let alone ever mention my grandfather. A standard line of mine was that I grew up without grandfathers. In one sense, this is true. Both my grandfathers’ lives impacted mine deeply. This is a post about the grandfather that affected my life more adversely.

What I believe to be my earliest memory is me pretending to be asleep. I’m in my bedroom at the house I grew up in on Chicago St, here in Omaha. I had been napping. There is commotion in my room, and for some reason I keep my eyes shut. My grandfather is in the room, as well as some of my cousins from that side of the family. How long had they been in there? Who was in there first? No idea. I just pretended to sleep as they then tried to rouse me awake. They all left the room, and I waited for the quiet. Once it was still, I got up and left the room to join everyone else downstairs.

I don’t have happy memories when it comes to the few interactions I did have with my grandparents. I remember people being tense, and nervous, at how my grandparents might perceive things we did.

I don’t recall being sit down and told of how my grandfather molested children, but at some point I just knew. I knew that some family members had been molested by this figure they thought they could trust.

I witnessed closely the damaging effects of my grandfather’s actions toward his own family. Thirty plus years later, I still witness them. Thirty plus years later, I still deal with them. And, I was not one that was molested by my grandfather. I was one of the youngest cousins on that side of the family. I was fortunate.

My parents divorced when I was eight years old. As I grew up, one of the individuals I blamed was my grandfather. Fair or not, as it related to my parent’s divorce, I still blamed him. I thought he was one of the individuals that helped sow the seeds of my parent’s divorce.

We stopped interacting with my grandparents when I was still young. I wasn’t sure why, but I later found out there were a few reasons for this. People in my family started confronting them, which was incredibly hard and courageous for them to do with their own family.* Also, a court order had been issued that my grandfather was not allowed to be around his grandkids unless a competent adult was with him, and his wife, my grandmother, was not considered to be a competent adult in that situation.

*People desperately want to believe the best when it comes to their family. And, it can take a long while for someone, who was a victim, to build up the courage to take the first step in addressing such evil.

My grandfather admitted to over sixty different counts of molesting children. Some children were molested repeatedly. There were more. He never saw jail time. He got probation.*

*Updated 9:08 PM – I edited this paragraph to make it a bit more clear.

My grandfather was a professor, a leader at his church, and a well-respected person in his community.

I don’t have a lot of memories, interaction or close relationships with people on my mom’s side of the family. It’s like my grandfather’s life was a bomb that blew us apart. Some of us survived better than others. I was one of those that survived better.

When I was eighteen, there was not an individual I thought I hated more than my grandfather.

I started following Jesus around my eighteenth birthday, the summer of 1994.

In the early part of 1995, I was praying and in the midst of my prayer I prayed angrily about my grandfather. It was not the audible voice of God, but it was one of the clearest things I can recall God saying to me.

“You need to forgive your grandfather.”

I was shocked. I didn’t know what to say in response. After a few seconds, I realized I needed to do it.

In no way was it about minimizing what my grandfather did. It was about me. It was about the anger and hate I had toward him, that was beginning to consume me.

There are a number of Bible passages that address this, but I’ll refer to a few.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
-Matthew 6:14-15 (ESV)

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”
-Matthew 18:21-22 (ESV)

“Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
-Matthew 18:32-35 (ESV)

I wasn’t sure how to go about forgiving my grandfather. There isn’t a formula to follow. So, I made plans to drive to the town he lived in and find him. At the time, I hadn’t seen him in almost a decade. I wasn’t sure I could recall what he looked like. Heck, I had no idea where he lived in that town.

I didn’t tell anyone in my family what I was doing because I knew it would upset a lot of people. I knew that my reasoning for forgiving my grandfather would not be understood by some, and be mocked by others. I kept it quiet.

The drive to the town went faster than I thought it would. When I got to the town, I got a phone book and looked up his address. I then spent two to three hours driving around town. I found his house early on, but I wasn’t sure what to say. I kept driving around.

Finally, I went to their house. It was smaller than what I remembered as a kid. I can’t recall if I knocked or rang the doorbell, and I can’t recall who came to the door first. I was quickly face to face with my grandfather, though. He looked agitated, but also a shell of the man I remembered him to be. This is due to my last memory of him being when I was younger. Everyone is big when you are younger. But also, in the subsequent years I had thought of him as this monster, which he was. To see him at the moment was to realize how…small he was. Not just physically, but in every aspect. Until that point, I had no idea how he’d respond and part of me wondered if he might try and attack me in some way. After seeing him I knew there was nothing this guy could do to me. If he did try anything stupid on me, he’d regret it.

This was the man that ruined the lives of many, and here I am on his doorstep. Willingly.

“Hi, I’m Robert Murphy your grandson.”

I was ushered inside. Both my grandparents were beyond shocked to see me. I explained why I was there. I did not absolve them of their past actions. I did not minimize the horror they inflicted upon others. I did not say they won’t have to face an account for the harm they caused. I told them of the hatred and anger I had toward them, and I forgave them.

They cried and embraced me.

I felt numb. It wasn’t a happy feeling that washed over me. I didn’t trust them, and I doubt I ever would in this life. I wasn’t reconciled with them. We didn’t make up for lost time. My grandfather was a sexual predator, a pedophile, who targeted children. My grandmother stood by and allowed this to proceed while children’s innocence were stolen and shattered. I was careful in my words so they would not get the wrong idea. How they would choose to interpret it was beyond my control.

We had lunch at a local restaurant, talked some more, and then I drove home. That was the last time I saw either of them. I received a few letters from them, but it had been almost fifteen years since I last had any kind of contact with them.

Did I do the right thing? I wondered on the drive home. I realized I did, but also realized that I thought something would happen within me. Nothing did at that moment. Instead, it was gradual. The hatred I had inside me, toward them, didn’t consume me anymore. My thoughts were not consumed by my grandfather. Vengeance fell to the wayside. Justice did not fall to the wayside, though. The victims deserve justice. Anger is still there at times. I am still sickened by their actions.

Sadness also emerged. It was more evident for the people that were hurt, but also for my grandparents. I am not sure how to describe it. As my wife pointed out to me, what were the factors that caused my grandfather to become the monster he became? At one point, he was a young boy full of life and innocence.

Was it for my grandparents, or more for me, that God asked me to forgive them? Again, I think it was more for me.

Later that year, 1995, I started to inform people what I had done. I encouraged forgiveness and talked about the motivation behind what I had done. The reaction from many family members, on that side of the family, was not positive. In one sense, I could understand their disappointment and anger. Despite my best attempts at trying to explain what I had done, it didn’t register. They thought I was taking the “forgive and forget” approach with my grandfather, which I was not doing. How could I forget what this man had done to my family? How could I forget what he had done to children? Trust and reconciliation did not happen in that moment I forgave my grandfather, and it probably wasn’t ever going to happen.

I was told I didn’t understand because it didn’t happen to me, that I had no idea what/who I was dealing with, who am I to do this, that I didn’t know all the details, that my experiences didn’t measure up to theirs, that I was young, that I was not an experienced Christian, that I could learn a thing or two about love and forgiveness, that I didn’t love certain members of my family by forgiving my grandfather, that I was foolish, that I am in the wrong for thinking others should forgive my grandfather…I was told a lot of things. Aggressive and passive aggressive acts, and words, toward me.

My response? Respond in love and grace as best as any teenager could who was new to Christianity. I hadn’t experienced the abuse that others did, and I can understand why some would think I’m clueless.

Could I have told my family in a better way? Looking back, I wish I could’ve. At the time, though, I don’t think I could’ve handled it any better. More importantly, the command to forgive would still be there even if I had experienced the Hell that others did.

I am still heartbroken for all the people my grandfather hurt over the years. I am still upset that justice was not served.

Forgiveness is incredibly difficult at times. There are people I’d much rather hurt than forgive, but Jesus is quite clear that we are to forgive. We are to not withhold forgiveness. It’s much easier to tell someone else to forgive when it doesn’t affect you. It’s hard when it does affect you, or your friends and family. It was not easy doing what I did, and then encouraging others to do so.

Forgiving my grandfather was one of the most difficult things I’ve done.

As a Christian, you’d think forgiveness would be obvious, but it isn’t.* A pastor told me, who was aware of the details with my grandfather, that in this situation he would never forgive unless my grandfather came to him in repentance. When I heard this, back in 1995, I was stupefied by the statement since it came from a pastor.

*There are a lot of misconceptions about forgiveness, especially amongst Christians. I like this blog post about ten things forgiveness isn’t.

It’s been almost seventeen years since I forgave my grandfather that first time. I’ve had to forgive him, and my grandmother, many more times since then. I still deal with aftershocks of what he did, and I wasn’t even sexually abused. My wife and sons deal with them indirectly as well. I still get enraged over what he did and the lives he stole from others.

Very few things enrage me more than stories of children being the victims of sexual abuse. What occurred at Penn State University, with sexual abuse of children and leaders not doing more to stop it, disgusts me. I’m more sensitive to it now for a variety of reasons. One being having seen its damaging effects up close and personal.

Some family, who were once angry at me, have told me they understood why I did what I did. They’ve since forgiven my grandfather. They haven’t forgotten what he did, though. There wasn’t reconciliation. There was forgiveness. I’m amazed at how some of them have bravely come forward, and lived the productive lives they have. They’ve worked hard to break the cycle of violence.

As a grandson/nephew/cousin, and more, I pray continually for my family. I prayed for my grandfather while he was still alive. I pray for my family that they can continue to overcome the evil my grandfather (and grandmother) inflicted upon them.

As a father, I’m over-protective when it comes to my sons now. Well, over-protective by today’s standards. When other adults or kids are around, and I don’t know them, I keep my kids within sight. I know how quick it can be for something bad to happen, so I do my best to make sure that can’t happen. The boys still do not play outside by themselves. I pray for my sons constantly, and when I do one of the things I pray is that they’d be protected from abuse. Too much? I don’t think so.

As a pastor, I’ve had people share with me their own stories of being sexually abused. I’ve listened a lot. I get emotional with them. I’ve counseled. I’ve prayed with them. I hear a lot of these stories when I’m the on-call pastor. Lots of single mothers dealing with abuse from family, or ex-spouses, and they are doing what they can to survive and protect their kids.

As a man, when I’ve shared my story of overcoming addiction, it has been a catalyst for others to share their own story. I’ve been humbled by what others share with me, their stories of being abused by family members. I’m humbled, and grateful, that my story of overcoming addiction, and my story of forgiving my grandfather, has been used by God to help others break free from darkness, sin, and shame, no person should even have to think about.

The amazing thing? Jesus’ willingness to forgive people like my grandfather. Jesus dying for people like my grandfather.

Even more amazing to me? Jesus forgiving me, and dying for me, despite my sins.

Thanks for reading.

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