Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Last month I shared an open letter from Geraldine Stowman to Jim Daly, president of para-church mega-ministry Focus on the Family. Professor Stowman objected to a recent FOTF broadcast that minimized the harm of clergy sexual abuse by casting it as mere “marital infidelity.” In nearly 40 years of operation, FOTF has never identified CSA as a problem on its own. When they mention it at all, they call it “adultery,” “an affair,” or “sexual indiscretion.”

Inspired by Professor Stowman, I sent my own letter to Jim Daly:

Please insist on a strong distinction between “affairs/adultery” and clergy sexual abuse. An affair, or sexual consent, can only happen between two people of equal power. This is never the case between a minister and a congregant or church staffer. We hold our ministers in such high respect that there’s no possibility of meaningful consent to a sexual relationship. A minister cannot have an “affair” with a congregant. If he allows the relationship to become sexualized, he is guilty of a harmful abuse of power. Many victims lose their marriages, their health, their faith, or even their lives in the wake of a pastor’s abuse.

Two weeks later, FOTF’s Jeremy Hill responded on Daly’s behalf:

We appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts regarding our recent broadcast featuring Dave Carder… We could tell from what you wrote that you speak to the problem of clergy sexual abuse from personal experience, and we want to assure you that we would never wish to diminish the significance of this issue. At the same time, we feel we should explain that this broadcast wasn’t intended to explore the topic of abuse. Instead, Mr. Carder offered the story that opened this program simply as background in explaining what drives his encouragements for married couples to guard themselves against sexual infidelity. Furthermore, this radio show was excerpted from a presentation given by Mr. Carder to a broad Christian audience; it was not directed at members of a specific demographic.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Plenty. With help from the insightful Professor Stowman, I offer this translation. Here’s what Focus on the Family is really saying.

Thanks for writing, little lady! Since your perspective is jaundiced by your experience as a survivor, let me help you understand our work more objectively. We aren’t trying to diminish the importance of this issue. Instead, by consistently refusing offers from ministries like The Hope of Survivors, Tamar’s Voice, Advocate Web, and the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute to appear on the show, we flat-out deny that the problem exists at all.

It goes without saying that this broadcast wasn’t intended to explore the topic of clergy sexual abuse, because NONE of our broadcasts have ever explored this topic. We are confident that our “broad Christian audience” wouldn’t be interested. When we say we want to help couples guard against sexual infidelity, we aren’t talking about the couples whose marriages are threatened by predatory ministers, nor are we interested in helping inexperienced ministers understand the risk of transference and counter-transference in their counseling.

In short: don’t waste your breath trying to tell us anything. We don’t care, and we’re not listening.

Survivors are finding their voices! I’d like to share three resources that I discovered last week.

“My Voice Back” was created by the parent of a survivor. The website offers a resource list, denominational policies, and a blog to support survivors and educate the public about clergy sexual abuse. Readers may recognize some of their own feelings in the essay that begins, “I went to church today. And today I sat through the whole service without a panic attack.”

I’ve already written about progress in Australia. An Australian survivor recently created a Facebook page with some great resources. If you’re on FB, please join me in “liking” Clergy Sexual Abuse of Adults Australia Community.

Survivor “Shamelessly Shayna” has created a powerful video about her experience of clergy sexual abuse. She was victimized first by her youth pastor and then by church leaders who protected her offender. You can find her message here. Her charming blog, Zoetic Cherry Blossom, beautifully illustrates how we can blossom as we heal from abuse.

Fellow survivors: if you haven’t yet participated in the Baylor University study of church response to clergy sexual misconduct, please do so today. The deadline has been extended for a few more days. Baylor is looking for female survivors over 18 who were at least 16 when the abuse took place. The survey is totally anonymous. Participants may choose to be interviewed about their experience, but this is completely optional.

You can read more about this study here.

You can take the survey here.

Thanks to all who have participated, and thanks to all who will take the survey this week. The Baylor study will help churches respond to clergy sexual misconduct in a way that promotes healing for all.

Is clergy sexual misconduct primarily about sex? No — it’s primarily about power. CSM happens when a pastor exploits his or her power over a congregant. But most Christian leaders focus on sex, and assign equal or greater blame to the victim. Take the parachurch ministry Focus on the Family. FOTF recently re-aired an interview between their president, Jim Daly, and “affair recovery and prevention expert” Dave Carder. (You can listen here and here.)

Dave begins with a lurid story of his respected senior pastor “running off” with a woman from his congregation. Shaken to the core by this betrayal, Carder ended up charting a new career. For the past 30 years he has tried to understand what causes marital infidelity.

Unfortunately, he makes no distinction between a genuine affair (marital infidelity involving two people of equal power) and the exploitation of a vulnerable congregant by a pastor. When Carder surveyed 4000 ministers, he found that 21% had been “sexually indiscreet.” What a euphemism! The words make a dangerous abuse of power seem like a parlor game.

Thankfully, FOTF has sharp listeners like Professor Geraldine Stowman of Minnesota State University Moorhead. After hearing these programs, Stowman composed an Open Letter to FOTF President Jim Daly. She has allowed me to share her letter here. She says, “I think he needs to hear from survivors,” and I agree. If you feel moved to contact President Daly, you can reach him at Ofcpres@fotf.org.

Here is Geraldine Stowman’s letter.

 An open letter to Jim Daly, President, Focus on the Family

If Focus on the Family were serious about helping clergy “guard against inappropriate intimacy,” you and your broadcast experts would stop putting pastors who make sexual contact with congregants in the same category as Christians who commit adultery with peers (FOTF broadcasts on April 14 and 15, 2015,  “Friendship or Flirtation? Danger Signs for Couples.”)

While Dr. Dave Carder’s advice about “Friendship or Flirtation” could be helpful in peer friendships, it is harmful and misleading to characterize pastoral sexual contact with congregants as “affairs,” as Dr. Carder did in his lead anecdote about his former senior pastor “who ran off with another woman in my church.” The same characterization occurred when you, Dr. Daly, linked the discussion of “affairs” to the 21 percent of clergy surveyed that admitted being “sexually indiscreet.”

In at least 13 states and the District of Columbia, it is a felony for clergy to have sexual contact with anyone to whom they are offering “comfort, aid or spiritual advice in private.” In some states, this does not have to be a “formal” counseling relationship, and consent is not a defense. Clergy who meet regularly with congregants — perhaps before church or after choir practice — to privately discuss emotional or personal concerns are bound by the same laws as psychotherapists.

Why are states moving to criminalize clergy sexual contact with adult congregants? Because churches (and mega-ministries) are not holding pastors responsible for the damage they inflict on people under their care. Clergy are “helping professionals” similar to doctors and therapists.  When they step out of their helping role to enter a sexual relationship with a congregant, they inflict psychological and spiritual harm, committing what Dr. Mark Laaser, a former clergy-offender, calls “authority rape.”

The harm to congregants can occur regardless of whether the pastor is a serial predator or a first-time offender who was “blindsided” by his attraction to someone under his care. Properly trained clergy know that emotions — positive and negative — often emerge in counseling relationships, and they have procedures in place to help them debrief. If they have not been trained to deal with those emotions, they should not be offering “comfort, aid or spiritual advice in private.” And if they’re one of the 37 percent of clergy surveyed by “Christianity Today” who describe Internet pornography as a “current struggle,” they should not offer private counsel to anyone.

 As Christians, we have a biblical mandate to honor our elders, especially those who are preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17). That mandate also heightens the influence preachers have over their congregations. Clergy must recognize that the honor bestowed on their role can push congregants to do things they would not otherwise do. Sadly, pastors who abandon their roles as spiritual leaders to have sexual contact with congregants are not just abusing the congregant. They are abusing Jesus Christ, his church, and every individual who has looked to him or her as a spiritual leader.

Scripture charges us to hold our teachers more accountable (James 3:1) and to publicly reprove them as a warning to others (1 Timothy 5:20). If a pastor sexually abuses a minor, does the church reprove him by saying he had “an affair”? If an elder rapes his daughter, does the church ask him to step down for “adultery”?

If Focus on the Family, Dr. Carder, and you are serious about wanting to save clergy from being “blindsided” by moral failure, you need to stop labeling these betrayals as “affairs.” Clergy have instant, intimate access to people in their congregations, particularly those going through crises, and they have a sacred duty to protect that trust—always!

After Dr. Diana Garland, Dean of Social Work at Baylor University, finished her national survey on clergy sexual misconduct in 2009, an interviewer from National Public Radio asked her, “What would stop this?”

Garland answered, “Education is the way, and I think this begins with (all) of us, to start using language that describes what’s happened. When a religious leader has a sexual relationship with a congregant, it’s not an affair. It’s abuse of power, power that we have all given a leader as a community. So changing our language would be an important way for us to begin to have these conversations, then, about how we can protect both our leaders and our congregants.”

Sincerely,
Geraldine Stowman, Adjunct Faculty
School of Communication and Journalism
Minnesota State University Moorhead
Moorhead, MN

When Do We Stop Hurting?

I’m in conversation with a survivor who has just reported her abusive minister. This brave woman wakes every morning to the familiar chill of fear. She pushes all day through the thick muck of depression, and is eaten up worrying about the strain on her family and her marriage. She asked me this week, “After you reported, was there a time that you began to feel better?”

The answer, of course, is Yes. There have been many of those times in the five-plus years since I reported “Pastor Kevin.” Two weeks after I left my church, two weeks before I filed my complaint, I suddenly realized I never had to deal with Kevin again. I never had to sit in his office and hear his smooth lies; I never had to hear him preach; I never had to be in the same room with him ever, ever again. No matter what hell lay ahead, I was finally free of the most dangerous man I had ever known.

In the first year after I reported, I found the courage to join a new church. That didn’t make me feel better right away; in fact I felt terrified for the first year. But little by little, I found friends whom I could trust. I let a whole year pass before I joined my first committee. Since then, I’ve been entrusted with leadership roles and even with a chance to preach a guest sermon. “Being useful” has been important to my growth, but that first quiet year of healing was vital.

In the second year, my former church made me whole financially. At the time I filed my complaint, my bishop had offered to pay for counseling. I declined, not realizing how profoundly harmed I was. When I finally had to enter treatment for anorexia, I realized I needed to accept the bishop’s offer. I retained an attorney not to “sue the church” as some feared, but to negotiate a settlement that would help me restore my health. Besides financial restitution, I also asked for specific actions that would ensure a safer church. Our negotiations took nearly a year, but the church agreed to most of my requests. It was another big step forward in healing.

In the third year, the bishop invited Marie Fortune to speak to clergy and laypeople. I learned about this event completely by accident, but thank God I learned in time to attend. That day, I heard Marie tell the bishop and a room full of priests that clergy misconduct should always be disclosed. The same year, Pastor Kevin moved to a church in a different city (good riddance!), and I led a major campaign in my city on a social justice issue. I never could have done this before. Sorrow and healing had made me stronger — but I still hadn’t shared my story outside my small “circle of trust.”

In the fourth year, I finally began to speak. In the space of a few days in May of 2013, I “came out” as a survivor of CSM to my church council, to several dozen local pastors and chaplains from my new denomination, and to a nationwide gathering of clergy at a FaithTrust Institute training. As I sat in the airport waiting for my flight home, I drafted the first post for this blog. Through my blog, I’ve met women and men who share their stories with immense courage, putting themselves at risk of retribution and retraumatization. They do this not to heal themselves but to protect others. They have inspired me more than words can express.

In the fifth year, two things happened. First, my bishop got irritated by a post on my blog. He sent a note through our attorneys asking me to “bring this whole episode to a close.” I responded with a series of essays on Marie Fortune’s Elements of Justice-Making. Writing these essays, my voice grew stronger, and I began reaching many more people. The second great event: I learned of a complaint against another priest at my former church. I reached out to the complainant in a blog post. She found my words and graciously invited me into her journey, and that led me back to my former church. At an unforgettable meeting, the bishop courageously faced an angry congregation, explaining that their beloved “Pastor X” would not be coming back. He protected the survivor and spoke with compassion about the harm she had suffered. The justice he gave to this woman, I felt as a gift to me as well. Her experience has changed the way I see my former bishop. His actions are helping her heal, and I am grateful.

I’m now in the sixth year of healing. I’ve slowed my pace in the sacred task of advocacy; I’m now tending to family issues that I ignored far too long. But as I step back, I see others stepping forward. Some of the survivors whom I met on this journey have become powerful advocates for change in the church. And Baylor University, who published their landmark study on clergy sexual misconduct in 2009, is now studying how churches respond. Adult women survivors, you still have time to take part in this confidential, anonymous survey. You can find the invitation here.

In all these moments of “feeling better,” did I ever feel fear and grief? Did I ever despair of getting better? Of course. Healing from clergy sexual abuse is a long and difficult journey. I moved forward with strength when I could; I rested when I couldn’t move forward; I sought support from friends at every stage. This journey has changed me. I am not the person I was before. My faith is deeper. I know myself better than I did. I am stronger, I am braver, I am more resilient than I was.

And so, dear friend, will you be. And whether you share your story with many people, or only with your family and your church leaders, know this: your voice will make a difference. It is already making a difference.

Dear friends,

Please read this important letter from Dr. David Pooler of Baylor University, which issued the landmark study on clergy sexual abuse in 2009. Baylor is now studying how churches respond when victims report sexual abuse or misconduct by religious leaders. You may have already received an invitation to participate in the survey through The Hope of Survivors. If you are a woman over 18, and you experienced clergy sexual abuse at age 16 or after, I hope you will participate in the survey. Your experience could help many others. Although the study is limited to adult women, the results may lead to healthier outcomes for all victims and survivors.

Here is Dr. Pooler’s letter:

Your experience as a survivor of clergy sexual misconduct matters to us. This is an invitation to participate in a national study conducted by Baylor University so we can better understand these experiences. This important project is funded by Hope of Survivors and the Grant Me the Wisdom Foundation. It is hoped that this research will provide information about how churches and denominations can better respond to people who have been abused by a church leader. 

If you are a woman who is 18 years or older and the abuse occurred at age 16 or after in your life, we want you to participate. There are questions about you, your church, and the ways your church did or did not support you. Below is the link to an anonymous Internet survey. We are not asking for information that can personally identify you. Your involvement in this research is critically important. Thank you in advance for considering this opportunity. Please note: This survey could take up to 30 minutes, so please set aside some dedicated time to work on it. We hope that you will benefit from knowing that your responses will help generate new knowledge and awareness around this important issue.

To take the survey click the following link:

https://baylor.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_exotRD9c2AtSt6J

Feel free to forward or share this link with other survivors.

Sincerely,

David Pooler, Ph.D., LCSW
Associate Dean For Baccalaureate Studies
School of Social Work
Baylor University

I thought the nightmares were behind me, but I had another one last week. I dreamed that a counselor had violated my sexual boundaries in a way that he could deny and I could never prove. I moved through that dream in a state of frozen fear. I knew I should file a complaint, but I also knew what would happen: I’d be called liar, seductress, madwoman, or all three. In despair I asked, “Again?”

Of all the stages in the process of clergy sexual abuse, this one may be the most grueling. Even if the abuse has ended, we still live with a terrible secret. Often, the people we count on for support (our families, our friends at church) are threatened by our story. Instead of comforting us, they blame us, or they tell us to hush up, move on, and “forgive.”

It’s a wonder any of us finds the courage to speak the truth.

For my readers who are about to take this step, I offer my prayers, my gratitude and admiration, and a few lessons from my experience. I learned some of these lessons the hard way; perhaps you won’t have to.

1. When you meet with your church’s intake officer, bring a friend or spouse for support. Their presence will give you strength, and they’ll remember details that you miss. Ask them for a ride: you may be too emotionally charged to drive safely before or after the meeting.

2. Remember that the abuse was NOT YOUR FAULT, even if you believe you gave consent. My bishop said these words almost as soon as I walked into his office. I hope you hear the same words from your church. Even if you don’t, know that these words are true. The abuse was absolutely, positively not your fault.

3. Prepare a written statement, but don’t bring it to the meeting. Writing the statement will help you tell your story more clearly. During the meeting, you may get a better understanding of what information the church needs. By waiting until after the meeting, you’ll have a chance to expand and clarify your statement before submitting it.

4. Ask your church officer for a copy of the policy and procedures they’ll be following. Ask how long the process will take. Ask what will happen next, and when. Ask about the range of possible outcomes. Ask how the church will keep you informed. Ask whom you should contact if you have questions.

5. You will need support while the church investigates your complaint. Ask the church to refer you to a counselor right away. Even during a brief investigation, the stress can take a toll on your health. My church’s investigation took only two months, but it was enough time for a borderline eating disorder to flare out of control, requiring months of expensive treatment. Getting support now could protect you from a life-threatening crisis.

6. Debrief with your support person as soon as the meeting is over. Ask them to stay with you, calm you, and help you understand what was said in the meeting. Ask them if you can call them in a few days (or sooner) to talk about it again. Let them know how grateful you are for their support, now and in the months ahead.

7. Prepare for a time of painful and unsettled emotions. The church will respond imperfectly, your offender may try to discredit you, cherished friends may turn against you. I wish I could offer words that could ease this pain. All I have is this: speaking the truth will eventually bring healing and growth beyond what you can imagine today. But meanwhile you need to survive this painful experience. Build good habits of self-care: eat well, attend to health concerns, and be gentle and patient with yourself. Now is the time to reach out to friends whom you trust. Don’t isolate — connect. It may save your life.

To readers who have already survived this process: I hope you’ll share your wisdom in the comments.

To all readers: please lift a prayer for those who are about to embark on this journey.

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