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MUNSTER — Tamiko “Tammy” Grace told The Times last week it was the grace of God that allowed her to forgive the former church employee she said molested her when she attended First Baptist Church in the mid-1970s.

Grace, a 44-year-old mother of three children, said she was molested when she was 5 years old by A.V. Ballenger, a former church deacon convicted in March 1993 of molesting a 7-year-old girl in 1991 during a Sunday School class at the Hammond church.

Grace shared her story with The Times as part of the No More Secrets campaign, which was created by the North Township Trustee's Office to bring attention to the issue of child sexual abuse in Indiana. 

The Times is a partner in the campaign, among other local nonprofits, law enforcement and media organizations. 

Participants in the campaign will discuss child sexual abuse this week with students at schools in Hammond, Whiting and East Chicago. A symposium on child sexual abuse will be held March 18. 

Grace was one of three women who testified they were abused as children by Ballenger at the former deacon's sentencing hearing in June 1993, according to The Times archives. 

Grace told The Times last week that Ballenger groped her repeatedly when he was a school bus driver for the church.

“I didn't know it was wrong," she said. "I was so young, I just thought it was love.”

Ballenger maintained his innocence at the sentencing hearing and claimed the women, one of whom was his own niece, testified for sympathy and attention, according to the archives.

Grace said she instead testified due to the guilt she felt for not coming forward sooner. She was 22 years old and had a young child when she finally reported the incident to authorities. She feared she could have saved other girls from abuse if she had reported it sooner.

“This was my chance to make the wrong right,” she said.

Ballenger was sentenced to five years in prison, court records state. The 81-year-old now lives in Alabama, according to the state's sex offender registry. He could not be reached for comment.

Grace said she struggled for years to deal with the shame she felt as a result of the molestation, but she attended therapy and continued to find strength in God.

She said her favorite Bible passage was Ephesians 6:12: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

“There are bad people in churches. There are bad people in schools. There are bad people that live next to us,” Grace said. “But there are good.”

Grace said it was that goodness in the world that allowed her to forgive Ballenger.

“I had compassion,” she said. “And I know that compassion I had came from God. The same compassion he has for us when we do wrong.”

Grace said despite her forgiveness, the abuse impacted her relationship with her own children. Grace said she was overprotective — her two sons were not allowed to spend the night at their friends' houses and she asked her daughter constantly if she had been touched inappropriately, which once caused an incident of false reporting.

She said she was eventually able to balance her own fears with her children's need for independence, but she insisted more parents needed to talk with their children about sexual abuse.

“This issue is so hush-hush,” she said. “I think its really important that children are taught. No child should have to live with this secret, and feel bad, or feel inadequate at such a young age, because of this.”

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Lake County Courts and Social Justice Reporter

Steve covers Lake County courts and social justice issues for The Times. The UW-Milwaukee graduate joined The Times in 2016 after reporting on criminal justice in New Mexico and Wisconsin.