Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Ten Years Later

For the past few months, I’ve been dealing with a huge, difficult family situation. It takes most of my physical and emotional energy. I’ve had almost none for this blog. I feel bad about neglecting the cause, but in a way this is good news. Finally there’s something in my life big enough to take my mind off my old trauma. For several weeks, I haven’t thought about my former priest, bishop, or church at all.

Until a few days ago, that is. For most of last week, mental images of the scene of abuse — my former pastor’s office — kept flashing into my mind. I couldn’t figure out why, until I looked at the calendar. Ah, the power of anniversaries! Our first “pastoral counseling” session happened almost exactly ten years ago. One day after church, “Pastor Kevin” invited me to make an appointment to talk to him. I met him in his office on October 15, 2004. We spent most of the hour talking about spiritual matters; he later told me he loved the fact that I cried. He loved seeing me vulnerable. As we were wrapping up that meeting, he invited me to make another appointment.

And he said, “We’ll have to watch the sexual dynamic.” When I looked startled, he explained: “The man-woman thing.”

It was a red flag big enough to cover a football field. But I was so desperate for hope that I chose to ignore it. I made another appointment, and then another and another. Eventually he made his sexual feelings clear. When I finally got my head clear, I turned him in and left the church. But it was a long process. I didn’t file my complaint until January of 2010.

For women and men still in the grip of abuse, healing can seem like an impossible goal. Just getting free of abuse can seem impossible. I’m sharing my ten-year timeframe for two reasons. One, to acknowledge what a long journey it is. “Pastor Kevin” groomed me for three years before he sprung his trap. It took me two more years to build up the strength and courage to file a complaint. Five years after leaving my church, I can finally call myself healed.

But I’m also sharing my timeline to give hope. Healing from clergy sexual abuse is a long journey, but it does move forward. In my long journey, I could never see even a week ahead but I could always see the next step, and I just kept taking those steps. Ten years after my pastor drew me into his web, I stand free and strong and healed.

I call this post “Ten Years Later.” That’s also the title of a book by Hoda Kotb, published last year by Simon & Schuster. In Ten Years Later, Ms. Kotb profiles six people who faced a series of catastrophic challenges: illness, abuse, grief, addiction, job loss. Ten years later, each of them has forged a bigger and better life from their hard experience. Ten years later, I’ve done that too.

For readers who are still living with abuse: I promise you can do it too. But don’t think ten years ahead just yet. Don’t even think a week ahead. The journey toward freedom happens one step at a time. To get there, just keep doing the next right thing.

For readers who have freed yourselves from abuse: what were some of the most important early steps on  your journey? If you’ll share them in the comments, you may encourage and inspire others.

Shepherds Protecting Shepherds

The Sunday before last, I was so focused on listening to the bishop, speaking my truth where I’d been shunned, and not harming or betraying the complainant, that I barely paid attention to what my former church’s new pastor was saying.

When the bishop called “Pastor Nancy” forward to speak about the complaint against a pastor at her church, what did she say? Did she talk about how hard the experience was for the complainant? Or for Pastor X’s wife and family? Or for the congregation?

No. She talked about how hard it was for CLERGY to see the church holding their colleague accountable.

When Nancy mentioned the Episcopal Church’s new Title IV canon, which spells out the process for responding to misconduct, did she praise the church for adding new protection for victims of clergy misconduct? Did she thank the bishop for being faithful to the canons in the way he sought justice in this case?

No. She talked about how hard the new Title IV is on CLERGY.

Pastor Nancy isn’t alone in her worries. In a 2012 article published by Episcopal Digital Network, a lawyer for the church said, “In terms of what it’s done to clergy rights it’s more than a disaster,” and that the new law gives “incredible power to bishops to get rid of priests.” Most of the commenters seem to agree.

What that article doesn’t say: some priests need to be shown the door. Richard Blackmon’s 1983 doctoral thesis, “The Hazards of the Ministry,” found that 12% of Protestant clergy surveyed admitted to sexual intercourse with a parishioner. And what about the ones who don’t admit it? And what about the ones who sexualize their pastoral relationships without physical contact? That happened to me, and nearly seven years later I’m still trying to heal. I claim the title “survivor” because many of us literally don’t survive after sexual misconduct by a minister.

And Pastor Nancy thinks this is hard on CLERGY?

In April, I learned of a complaint of sexual misconduct against another minister at my former church. Earlier this month the bishop resolved the matter: the offender will retire and leave the church. He’ll no longer have license to serve as an ordained minister in my former denomination. Letters from the bishop and the offender were sent to the congregation. The bishop’s letter said this: “To be available to any who wish to be in conversation with me about this, I will be present after the 10:30 a.m. worship service on Sunday, August 31.”

I very much wish to be in conversation with the bishop about this! So this morning, for the first time since December 2009, I attended the Sunday service at my former church. It hurt to be there — it literally hurt. Halfway through the service I realized I ached all over, as if I had just run a marathon. I chose not to receive communion, but I did sing, and the music was glorious.

And then I strode into the middle of the social hour crowd to get a cup of coffee.

And then I walked into the Great Hall for the forum. I sat at a table in the back of the room with an older couple. The woman told me, “I think the bishop should have kept it quiet. I don’t know any of the facts, but I think he should have handled it privately.” The man said, “I don’t know the facts either, but I’ll find out — I’m having lunch with ‘Pastor X’ on Friday.” The woman said, “I don’t know the complainant. I wonder how old she is?” (“Why does that matter?” I asked.) The man said, “Some people are just so quick to take offense and complain.”

These were Pastor X’s people. As it turned out, the whole room was filled with Pastor X’s people. They were angry, and some of them got ugly. But the bishop showed courage and leadership from beginning to end. I haven’t always felt kindly toward him — we’ve definitely had our conflicts — but today I feel nothing but gratitude.

The bishop started by acknowledging the anger in the room — toward the offender, and toward himself, and toward the complainant. Next he promised to stay as long as we needed him. “No matter how long this takes,” he said. “I’ll be the last person to leave.” He spent the next fifteen minutes explaining the church’s complicated process for handling complaints. He said he could not discuss the complaint itself, nor the evidence, nor anything about the complainant. “I really try to do the right thing,” he said. “The great fear is not that we won’t get it perfectly right, but that we’ll get it perfectly wrong. So I strive to get it approximately right.” He said we were having this meeting because “there are no secrets in a healthy church.”

Let me repeat the bishop’s extraordinary words: “There are no secrets in a healthy church.”

The bishop had already seen me in the audience. He must have wondered what I intended. He may have wondered if I would expose the secret of my complaint and the admission of guilt from my offender. But I was only here to listen. Before I said a word, I wanted to hear the bishop, and hear the congregation’s response.

The bishop opened it up for questions. The “People’s Warden” was the first to speak. “Why didn’t you figure out a way for Pastor X to stay?” she pleaded. “I’ve heard from so many people about this. Everyone loves him. Why couldn’t he stay?”

The bishop was firm. “I wish this had never occurred, but it did. Something happened that was wrong, and someone was hurt, and there needed to be a response,” he said. “When we know the respondent it’s much harder because of all the good things we know. If we just had the facts in front of us, and we remove the knowledge of the respondent’s identity, it becomes a lot easier.”

The next question, from a man I’ll call Mr. Arrogant, began, “Since the Lutheran Church exonerated him…”  … and then the beginning of a long, grandstanding diatribe. (I cannot be objective about this man; he was one of the people who harmed me directly after my ordeal).

The bishop stopped the question right there. “The Lutheran church didn’t exonerate him. They simply found that the incident didn’t rise to the level that would trigger their disciplinary process.”

Mr. Arrogant tried to keep grandstanding, but the bishop held his ground. Then the man sitting next to Mr. Arrogant (I’ll call him Mr. Bully; he’s the one who posted an accusation on my Facebook wall) spoke up. “This is just like McCarthyism!” he said. “This is just a smear campaign against Pastor X!” A third man (I’ll call him Mr. Knee-Jerk) spoke of the “accusations” that “destroyed” Pastor X’s reputation.

The bishop stood firm against all of it. Any time he heard inflammatory language (e.g. “McCarthyism”), he nipped it in the bud. “Look at the first letter I sent,” he demanded. “Do you see the word ‘accuse’ anywhere in it? I simply stated the facts: that there had been a complaint, and that I was putting the respondent on administrative leave, without prejudice. I am not going to share the facts of the case with you, because then you all would do your own jury work. And for better or worse, that’s what you hired me to do.”

A man in the back of the room (I’ll call him Perry Mason) gave a little speech about burden of proof and types of evidence. “The highest type of evidence is material evidence,” he said. “Was any material evidence presented in this case?”

Material evidence? Of a verbal violation?? Generally the only evidence in these cases is the damage in the victim’s life. I sat silently, steam coming out of my ears. Thankfully, the bishop kept a cooler head. “I’m not going to speak to the evidence,” he said. “In this instance, it was a different denomination that looked at the evidence.” But he pointed out that in cases of church discipline, “Clergy don’t have the same civil rights as you and I do in the courts.”

A woman to my right asked, “Why couldn’t this have been handled in your office as a conversation between the two parties?”

The bishop said that it is almost never helpful to make the complainant come face to face with her offender. He said if he had done that in this case, “I would be committing a Title IV violation.”

A man walked forward from the far corner of the room. “I’m a new congregant,” he said. “I don’t know any of the people or the facts, but I do know that the church doesn’t just throw out people who cause harm. There are people in this church who fought against civil rights, and there are people who fought against gay rights, and they’re still part of the church. We forgive them and we keep them in the family. Why can’t we do that here?”

The bishop responded. “The complainant is part of this process,” he insisted, “and the complainant deserves justice. Clergy take vows to be obedient to the canons of the church. When we do something contrary to those vows, there has to be a response.”

A woman (I’ll call her Mary) raised her hand. “I’m not officially a member of this congregation,” she said. “I’m not even Episcopalian. I’m a Catholic theologian. But my husband attends this church, and I consider it my home too. So I hope you’ll hear what I’m about to say. You all are telling the bishop you wish he would have kept it a secret. You all are wounded because a priest you love is now gone. But look what happened within my church. Because bishops didn’t have the courage to disclose, but instead sent predator priests quietly away to other churches, look how many children’s lives were destroyed. We need transparency! Your bishop may not have gotten this perfectly right, but the bishops in the Catholic church got it perfectly wrong.”

Many years ago, as I sat at my first meeting of the bishop’s Diocesan Council, he said, “I want to hear your voices. I don’t want you to silence yourself even if you’re going to say or ask something controversial. Follow the urging of the Holy Spirit here. If you have something to say and your heart is pounding and your hands are sweating at the idea of saying it, that’s the Holy Spirit — and you need to say it.”

As I sat listening to Pastor X’s defenders, and to the bishop’s insistence on justice, and to Mary’s call for transparency and truth, my heart started pounding a mile a minute. I knew it was time to speak.

And the bishop did the most courageous thing of all: he saw my raised hand, and he called on me. My voice was shaking, and I was awkward and inarticulate, but I managed to convey a few words of truth. I thanked the bishop for the courage to disclose and to stand in front of a hurting congregation, absorbing their pain and anger. I acknowledged the pain in the room. “Pastor X was beloved,” I said. I thanked Mary for reminding us how important transparency is — and I used the bishop’s own words, “There are no secrets in a healthy church.” I told the gathered crowd, “I hope this won’t be the end of the conversation. I’m not a member of this congregation any more, but I hope the conversation continues.” And I turned to the bishop and said once more, “Thank you.”

The bishop began to move toward closure. “What this was not,” he said, “was an effort to convince you that I’m right. What this is is about being in church. The church, like our Savior, has been wounded.” We heal, he said, by coming together.

The bishop invited the church’s new priest-in-charge to speak. She told us, “This is an especially difficult issue for clergy. The new Title IV is much more strict. Anyone who has been ordained for a decade or more has probably done something that could raise a complaint.  We see this process and we think, ‘That could have been me.’  It sometimes feels unfair to clergy — but to be fair, that’s what we signed up for when we took our vows.”

She then turned to the bishop. “Some people have asked me if we can celebrate Pastor X’s legacy by having a farewell party for him.”

GOOD LORD. A PARTY?? For a man who has caused so much harm to a vulnerable congregant???

The bishop spoke sense. “The church should not be doing that. We have a complainant who has been hurt. The minister has admitted fault, and this is part of the consequences.”

A woman to my right spoke up. “I appreciate this forum,” she said. “I’m glad you gave us a chance to speak. Now we do need to move on.”

“Yes,” said the bishop. “In the fullness of time.”

He said sadly, this will not be the last complaint he’ll adjudicate as a bishop. And then he promised that he will always disclose the truth, and he’ll always invite the congregation to work through their pain together with him.

The bishop was true to his word. He stayed as long as we needed him — nearly two hours. I don’t know if he was the last to leave, because I was one of the first. Even four years later, it still takes courage just to be in the room with some of those people.

So, did the bishop get this meeting “approximately right?”


He got it perfectly right.

When the bishop handled my complaint four years ago, he erred by insisting on secrecy. He can never undo that decision, and he can’t undo the harm he caused me as a result. But because of his courage today, he has restored a piece of my faith in the institutional church. He heard my voice. Even though he didn’t always like what I was saying, he listened. He couldn’t offer healing to me, but his courage makes healing possible for the next victim at my church. Because I suffered and the bishop heard my voice, another injured woman received better justice.

Today, I took another mile forward in my journey toward peace.

The Christian Century is getting serious about clergy sexual misconduct, or so it would seem from their current cover article, “Theology and misconduct.” It covers the story of John Howard Yoder, the legendary Mennonite theologian and sexual abuser. He was investigated for abuses he committed in the 1980s and 1990s; he died in 1997. Fifteen years later, two academic authors (Ruth Krall of Goshen College and Barbra Graber of Eastern Mennonite University) published articles about Yoder’s abuse. Finally last year, the Mennonite Church USA formed a committee to study Yoder’s abuse and the church’s response.

John Howard Yoder is best known for his writings on Christian pacifism. He opposed not only physical violence but anything that violates “the dignity or integrity of some being.” He wrote, “As soon as either verbal abuse or bodily coercion moves beyond that border line of loving enhancement of the dignity of persons, we are being violent.” Yet he spent years violating the dignity of his victims at a Mennonite seminary, then twisting his own writings to keep leaders from holding him accountable.

The authors ask, “Do Yoder’s violations of his own theological claims undermine the content of his theology? Do his sins disqualify him from the major role he has played in modern Christian thought?” A few paragraphs later they answer their own question. No, they say: “Because God providentially uses the fallen for good.”

So what? I don’t care whether Christians still read Yoder’s work; I want to know the church did for his victims.

In the 1980s, many of Yoder’s victims told their stories to Marlin Miller, the president of the seminary where the abuse took place. Eventually Miller had a “substantial collection of files,” but Yoder managed to drag the proceedings on for years. One victim, Carolyn Holderread Heggen, tried to organize a victims’ movement, but Miller refused to put her in contact with the others, citing “confidentiality.” (See Marie Fortune’s insightful distinction between confidentiality and secrecy). Heggen eventually prevailed with the support of another Mennonite leader, and her “Dear Sisters” letter brought the group together. They gathered for two days, created a composite story, and outlined eight steps they wanted the church to take. Together they read their story aloud to a group of Mennonite leaders, asked them “Do you believe us?” and requested their eight reforms.

What eight steps did Yoder’s victims request? How did the leaders respond? Unfortunately, we will never know. The CC article ends with the leaders offering a eucharist-like dinner of soup and bread to the gathered survivors. The final sentence, from Heggen’s testimony: “They served us, and it felt like a holy time of communion together.”

That’s very touching and sweet. It’s a lovely liturgy. But again, so what? Theology, schmeology; liturgy, schmiturgy. What about the practice of Christianity? If we aren’t working to create justice and wholeness for the real people the church has harmed, what good are our ideas and symbols?

Remember Irene McCormack Jackson? Last summer, she was the first of 19 women to publicly accuse then-Mayor Bob Filner of sexual harassment. Ultimately she won: the mayor resigned, and she received enough money to cover therapy and lost salary. But she also had to give up the job she loved, step away from her career, and heal.

A year after her public ordeal, she is back as a strong survivor. I was thrilled to hear Irene sharing her wisdom with KPBS reporter Peggy Pico this morning. Here’s some of that wisdom:

1. Reporting is hard…
When Irene realized the mayor had other victims too, “I had to do something that made an impact, but I had to do it wisely. I couldn’t come out and talk about… the mayor of the 8th largest city in the country and just make an allegation and expect it to go someplace. His power was amazing. He could do anything. I fully expected him to [ruin my career] if I did something. [I couldn't go to Human Resources because] the Mayor of San Diego manages HR… There’s really no safe sanctuary when you’re working for the Mayor of San Diego.”

2. … but we do it anyway, to protect other victims.
“I did this for the other women that I thought it was happening to. A lot of it had to do with watching young women come into the office to give a presentation to the mayor and then suddenly being pulled into his private office, and then them coming out two or three minutes later, looking a little bit shocked.”

3. We pay a high price, even when the facts vindicate us.
“It was very difficult, having [my] career interrupted like it was. I had this whole plan, I was going to work for the mayor of San Diego, work for the city I loved. Oh my gosh, I was so happy going into that job. Then all of a sudden it was like the train fell right off the track.”

4. To survive, we need LOTS of support.
“You have to have a really good set of friends, or family, or a group or pack of people who will support you the whole way. It’s not an easy thing to do, and you have to do it wisely. You have to understand that if you poke at somebody who has a lot of power, they tend to slap back.”

5. In the end, we have no regrets.
“There’s been a couple of times [I've regretted it.] It was very difficult. But in the long run I have not regretted it. I did it for the other men and women who have issues with people who are very abusive of their power.”

I’m so proud of this brave woman from my city, and so happy to see how strong and whole she is today. May her journey give hope to all of us.

The day I left my church, I had only one goal: to get enough distance to turn in “Pastor Kevin.” For five years he had been my priest, my spiritual director, my counselor, my crush, my betrayer and offender, my stalker (not in a legal sense, only in the sense that he wouldn’t let me be; he kept finding ways to keep me within reach), my book partner, my mentor, and my boss. He was a central presence in my life, and my feelings for him were complicated. Even when I had come to despise him, I still felt some tenderness. To build the strength to report him, I had to distance myself completely.

When I finally gained the strength to make the call, I thought my distancing efforts had served their purpose. But as the months went by, as I lived in a world outside his influence, I began to see through his lies. Had I seduced him? No. Had he cared for me or even seen me as a person? No. He had been attracted to me “as a woman,” “from the beginning,” and all his actions had stemmed from that harmful impulse. Holding my memories up to the clear light of day, I believe he subjected me to years of predatory grooming. He never touched me, but he could scarcely have done me greater harm if he had.

What is grooming, and why does it cause so much harm?

Forensic psychologist Michael Welner names six stages of grooming in child sexual abuse. The Hope of Survivors’ former board chair, Dr. Martin Weber, describes how clergy offenders use exactly the same process. “It starts with grooming the victim into thinking she is special — at first to God because of her talents, and then later to the pastor because of her sweetness or beauty. Such flattery may cement an emotional bond between the victim and her pastor/predator… The victim may be groomed so skillfully, and manipulated so totally, that she may even initiate sex with the pastor… This often happens in a counseling environment, where he discovers the secrets of her previous abuse and then exploits those vulnerabilities.”

But grooming does more than break down our defenses. It also breaks down our sense of self. We stop trusting our own instincts. We begin to confuse abuse with love, abuser with God. We absorb the abuser’s cognitive distortions. If he thinks we seduced him, we come to believe it. If he thinks he “did nothing,” we feel shame for overreacting to “nothing.” Experts at a U.K. clinic believe that grooming itself is harmful, with or without sexual assault, and that the harm begins with the first exposure to the offender’s distorted attitudes.

What kind of distortions live in the mind of a sexual predator? The Willows Clinic in the U.K. lists them on pages 7-10 of this report. Here’s a summary:
* Euphemistic labeling. Rape becomes “horseplay.” Sexual touch becomes “hey, I’m a hugger.”
* Denial of memory, intent, or facts. “I can’t believe she interpreted my words that way.”
* Moral justification. “How else am I supposed to have a love life?”
* Blaming the victim. “She seduced me.”
* Blaming external factors. “My wife doesn’t have sex with me.”
* Shrugging off the harm to the victim. “She was a mess before I ever knew her.”
* Offense-minimizing comparisons. “At least I didn’t have 30 victims like that other guy.”
* Unrealistic optimism about chance of reoffending. “You can trust me; I won’t do it again.”

Under the influence of predatory grooming, we come to believe those things too. The damage is worse if the grooming happens over a long period and/or multiple stages of life, if the predator is a family member or otherwise central to our lives, or if previous abuse has damaged our sense of self.

How do we get free? We start by walking away, leaving our church if we have to. We seek support from people who understand what grooming does to body and soul. And we wait for time to pass. Two weeks after I left my church, I suddenly realized, “I never have to see him again.” But it was months before I could see his manipulations for what they were, and even longer before I could see that the leaders at my former church enabled his behavior with their own dysfunction. What helped me the most? Joining a healthy church whose pastor was a man of integrity, humility, and compassion. Sometimes we don’t know we’ve been in a sick system until we finally find a healthy one.

Finally, a few words of encouragement to victims and survivors trying to get free from the toxic effects of predatory grooming. These are not my words, but the great poet Mary Oliver’s. In her poem The Journey, you might recognize your own path to freedom.

Survivors of abuse, consider these questions.
*  What if your abuser were the most revered leader not just in your church, but in your whole community?
*  What if you believed your religious leader had the power to curse you if you didn’t keep silent?
*  What if the abuse happened in an environment where sexual assault was so common, and community response so inadequate, that even victims’ advocates recommended keeping silent?

Welcome to life on Native American reservations. The 2013 congressional debate on the Violence Against Women Act highlighted some terrible statistics. A Native American woman is at least twice as likely to be raped as an average woman in the U.S., and her assault is less than half as likely to be prosecuted. Although only a handful of native healers violate their traditions’ ethical codes, their abusive acts have a devastating impact on victims and their families. Sadly, in some native communities, it’s rare to find a woman who hasn’t experienced sexual violence.

At a conference last March, a young Navajo pastor reached out to Steve and Samantha Nelson, leaders of The Hope of Survivors. He told them about the abuse in his community and about how helpless he felt. He asked them, “Can you help us?”

This isn’t the first time an isolated community has reached out to The Hope of Survivors. In 2012, a pastor in Hawaii’s Seventh-Day Adventist Conference asked for THOS’ help dealing with child sexual abuse by a Christian educator. Through seminars, sermons, and counseling, Samantha and Steve helped the congregation understand sexual abuse, recognize their own wounds, and begin the process of healing. The Nelsons spoke to parents, and then to their children, about how to recognize and prevent sexual abuse in and out of the church. Pastor Keala’s letter to the Nelsons leaves no doubt: where religious or spiritual sexual abuse exists, The Hope of Survivors can make a difference.

This September, The Hope of Survivors will make a difference in the Navajo community in the Monument Valley of Utah. “There is great need among the Navajo,” says THOS Vice-President and CEO Samantha Nelson. “For many Navajo, even within the church, abuse is rampant among many family members and among spiritual leaders. It is much like what we experienced with Hawaiian natives. Abuse is taken for granted. Some leaders seem to consider it a right.” The Hope of Survivors will bring to the Navajo the same resources that made such a difference in Hawaii.

Besides their work with communities, the Hope of Survivors also helps individual survivors via email and telephone counseling and at their Bedford, IA Renewal Center. They facilitate far-reaching research and awareness projects such as the annual “Enough is Enough” Clergy Sexual Abuse Awareness & Prevention Campaign. And this fall, they will partner with Baylor University on a follow-up to the landmark 2009 Clergy Sexual Misconduct Study. All survivors will be invited to take part in the study’s online survey; watch for updates on this blog.

In other words: The Hope of Survivors makes a difference. They have helped many victims become survivors, and they have saved countless others from becoming victims in the first place. They do this work on grants from philanthropic organizations and on the freewill donations of people like us — but the resources are never enough to meet the need. They’ve had to say “no” to other native communities, at least for now.

If the plight of the Navajo communities moves you, or if you just want to help an organization doing critical work to prevent clergy sexual abuse, I hope you’ll join me in supporting the work of The Hope of Survivors.

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