“Debbie Cole—Leinster, Ireland,” Ensign, September 2019
Debbie was sexually assaulted in 1989 at age 19. Determined that this event would not ruin her life, Debbie (shown with her daughter) has relied on her faith as she has worked as a volunteer helping other victims of sexual assault and campaigning for legislation to help protect others from sex offenders.
Leslie Nilsson, photographer
The day after the assault, some friends of mine asked if I would like some alcohol to help me through the situation. I had been a member of the Church for little over a year, and I wasn’t active at the time. But something in me knew that if I drank any amount of alcohol, I would become dependent on it.
When my mind cleared after a few days, I decided that this assault would be a moment in my life, but it wasn’t going to ruin my life. I went through the court case. I remember shortly before the sentencing, people had told me that the man who had assaulted me was a good man from a respectable family and that this assault was so out of character for him. They said he had made a mistake due to drinking alcohol and he was so remorseful that he couldn’t live with himself for what he had done. They convinced me to ask the judge to be lenient with him.
On the day of sentencing, I gave my victim-impact statement and told the judge that the man had simply made a mistake while drunk and that I thought he should get psychiatric help rather than a prison term. The judge thanked me and, due to my statement, he sentenced the man to only six years in prison. After this, I tried to get on with my life. I got married and had children.
Sometime in 1997 or 1998, I got a phone call informing me that the man was back up in the papers. He had been released from prison and had assaulted three other women. This news brought everything back to me. I felt somewhat responsible because I spoke up for him.
The guilt I felt caused me to suffer from depression. I was a strong member of the Church at that time, but it was still hard. My head was so confused that I couldn’t always hear the still, small voice. Priesthood blessings helped me because I was able to better understand what my Father in Heaven wanted me to know at that time. I know I was able to get through this because I had the gospel in my life.
Years later, when a good friend of mine took her own life, I decided to do some fundraising for a suicide bereavement group. One day I got a phone call from one of the group coordinators. She said there was another volunteer opportunity and my name just wouldn’t leave her mind.
She asked if I would be interested in volunteering as a support worker for a rape crisis center. As a support worker, I would meet with victims, talk them through what was going to happen, and tell them about the importance of counseling. I would also just be a support to them and their families. I told the woman that I felt the reason my name kept coming to her mind was because of what I had been through. I received the training and worked as a volunteer support worker for a couple of years.
This experience was so rewarding for me. Each time I would get the call to go to the crisis center, I always said a prayer. I would say, “Heavenly Father, You know this person, You know what she has been through, and You know what she needs to hear. Please let me be an instrument in Your hands to help them hear what they need to hear.”
As I helped victims work toward recovery, I would tell them that they had a choice. I would say, “Are you going to stay a victim or be a survivor? Some days you’ll feel that power is taken from you, but you can take the power and control back by not letting the memory of the event destroy who you are. That is how you become a survivor.”
Sometimes victims are not ready to go to counseling for a long time, but I would always encourage them and tell them that it is so important to go when they are ready. I always tried to make sure that a person who walked in as a victim would walk out as a survivor. On my way back home, I always thanked Heavenly Father for allowing me to be of some small help to others. This gave me the strength to move forward in my own life.
After some time, I heard that the man who assaulted me had been released from prison again and had assaulted another woman. I thought, “This can’t keep going on.” I decided I needed to do something to try to change the law to have harsher sentences for repeat sex offenders. I came up with a proposal for Ireland’s minister for justice to implement. Officials from the minister’s office declined my proposal. They said the laws at the time were adequate.
I decided to start a media campaign to gain support for my proposal. I’m grateful for the past 30 years of Church membership because I have given many talks and lessons, which gave me skills for public speaking and the confidence to write the emails, make the phone calls, and knock on doors for the campaign. I worked with journalists on television, radio, and newspapers. They were great. They ran the story and did it justice. They were true to the story and true to the campaign, and this kept the issue in the public eye.
I also worked with a local politician who helped me formulate another proposal that gained enough support. After much work, the bill finally passed on January 16, 2019.
While campaigning for this new law, I became emotionally exhausted at times. I had to tell my story so many times and try to hold it together during TV, radio, and newspaper interviews. It wore me down, and I could feel at times the weight of everything coming in on me. I could feel a kind of darkness around me and dark thoughts come into my mind. I felt like I could not make a difference and sometimes asked myself why I was even trying. At those times, prayer, scripture reading, and ministering to others helped me so much. I have such a strong testimony that prayer works. If it weren’t for prayer, I would have collapsed mentally years ago. I also went to my branch president for priesthood blessings. I’m grateful to Heavenly Father for putting the right people in my path to help me.
I’ve found great comfort in attending the temple and being an ordinance worker. This helps me feel the love our Savior feels for His Saints on both sides of the veil. In the past eight years, I have also learned that when you receive a prompting, you don’t wait around to act on it. A scripture that has helped me most in life is 1 Nephi 3:7: “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded.” My life has been so blessed by obeying this principle.
The adversary will try to convince us we are not good enough or smart enough, but with the help of our loving Father in Heaven and our Savior, we are good enough, we are smart enough. I know that whatever I have to face, They are never going to leave me to cope on my own.
It is so difficult to try to explain how it feels to experience sexual trauma to someone who has not been through that trial. An experience like this will always be with you—it will never go away. There will be days when something will trigger the memory and you’ll feel that your power, your confidence, and your safety are taken from you.
At those times, the only thing I can do is get on my knees and talk to my Heavenly Father. I know without a shadow of a doubt that He hears and answers my prayers. I have a divine heritage, and this gives me the strength to carry on when life gets hard.
Also, knowing that my Savior loves me gives me hope and focus. I love what Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has said: “It is not possible for you to sink lower than the infinite light of Christ’s Atonement shines” (“The Laborers in the Vineyard,” Ensign, May 2012, 33). The Savior can help us no matter where we are or what we are going through. I look to Him for an example of what to do in tough times.
It takes a lot of work to move forward after a traumatic event, but it is possible because of Jesus Christ. I’m grateful for Him and His gospel. My life has been blessed in so many ways.