Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

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.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Which came first, the seductions of a predatory minister or the victim’s fractured marriage?

My husband and I separated last month. We’re still married, we’re getting along, we’re not seeing other people, we’re parenting cooperatively and we’re supporting each other as well as we can. We have family dinner once a week. We touch base every day, even if it’s only about logistics. For a separated couple, we’re on very good terms. But we are not together, and it’s not clear whether we’ll ever be together again. We’re giving it a year before we make any decisions.

What role did clergy sexual abuse play in this breach?

“Pastor Kevin” didn’t cause the tension in my marriage, but he definitely noticed it. How could he miss the pretty-ish woman sitting alone in the second pew and wiping tears during every Sunday service? I felt invisible in that big congregation; now I understand that my distress made me very visible and interesting to my pastor. I kept my distance out of sheer respect — he was the powerful leader of one of my city’s most important congregations — but eventually (and unwittingly), I gave him an opening when I confided my spiritual struggles after a Sunday service. At his invitation, we began to meet. A year and a dozen “pastoral counseling” sessions later, during a particularly stressful time in my marriage, I ran into my pastor outside the church office. He looked at my face and knew something was wrong. He asked me, “What’s the trouble?”

I started to answer, then stopped. Did I really want to tell another man about my troubled marriage? It didn’t feel right to me — but he pushed right past that boundary. As I hesitated, he prompted me for an answer: “File under…”

“Marriage,” I finally responded.

“Aaaah,” he sighed. “I’ve seen that coming. Why don’t you make an appointment to see me.”

Thus began the escalation. At our next meeting, Pastor Kevin encouraged me to talk about the pain and fear and loneliness I felt at home. With a predatory clergyman, there was only one way this road could go.

So which came first? Did the tensions in my marriage make me more interesting to my pastor? Yes.

Did my pastor’s attentions make more tension in my marriage? Most definitely yes.

My husband has always been leery of organized religion. Twelve years into our relationship, when I returned to my Christian faith, I set off a storm whose waves have never really settled. By the time I met Pastor Kevin, “religion” was well-established as a conversational minefield between us. Unlike me, my husband never trusted Kevin. From the first time they met, my husband saw him as a self-centered opportunist. Later, when Kevin was actively grooming me toward seduction, my husband was at his wits’ end. But what could he say? He felt if he tried to warn me against my pastor, I would hear it as an attack on my faith — and he may have been right. All he could do was watch the train wreck happen, and once it happened he was suddenly living with a traumatized woman. He had no idea how to deal with my frantic grief and fear, or my eating disorder spinning out of control, or the new shape of my body once I started treatment. In short: while I was still trying to recover from the train wreck at church, I now had a wreck at home too. Our marriage never really recovered from those awful months. We got back on our feet as a couple, but trust had been shattered.

And now we are living apart.

If I had never met Pastor Kevin, would I still be living with my husband? Or were our problems so deeply entrenched that the church crisis was only the last straw? I will never know.

I want to be clear: I am not saying that my pastor ruined my marriage. He didn’t do us any favors, but I was aware of being unhappy long before I met him. So why am I talking about my marriage on these pages? Because I know I’m not the only survivor with whose marriage has been affected by clergy sexual abuse. Some survivor couples use the pain to build stronger marriages, but I suspect that most of us don’t. Most of us (and I’m including our spouses) don’t know how. By the time we understand our own pain, we’ve caused too much pain for our partners.

When I write a story of pain, I try to include a note of hope. If there’s hope in this story, it’s this: survivors know how to get through hard times. Compared to the multiple traumas of my pastor’s abuse of power, the church’s attempt to silence me, and the total loss of community through ostracism, marital separation is a cakewalk. I’m not saying it’s easy, only that it’s easier than what I’ve already been through. And that I know how to live with sadness and uncertainty while my husband and I walk through this year, waiting and hoping for the right answer to emerge.

Four years ago I attended The Hope of SurvivorsHope and Healing Conference in Indianapolis, IN. Eighteen months after I reported my abusive pastor and left my church, I was still so wounded that for most of the conference I sat in the back row and wept. But I heard the beautiful words, “This was not your fault” not once but many times, from every speaker at the conference. Telling my husband about the conference later, I couldn’t speak these words without tears.

A year later, I attended Hope and Healing again. What a difference a year made! This time I was strong enough to participate and connect with other survivors, and I was healed enough to enjoy the beauty of the host city. Early on the last morning of the conference, I walked to the edge of Omaha and crossed the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge just to touch Iowa soil. The previous year I’d been too traumatized to take interest in my surroundings. Now, I was ready to enjoy life’s simple pleasures again.

I have good news for my fellow survivors! The Hope of Survivors is now taking registration for Hope and Healing 2015, to be held on Sunday, February 15 in Northglenn, CO. I urge all survivors who live within a reasonable drive (the conference is just north of Denver) to consider attending. Clergy sexual abuse is an intensely isolating experience. Most of us remain deeply in hiding as we heal; few of us have the opportunity to be with others who understand this experience. If you live anywhere near Northglenn, please consider attending. Spouses are more than welcome, because they need healing too. When Samantha and Steve Nelson share their story, survivors and spouses alike will find common ground.

If you don’t live near enough to attend, please keep the conference in your prayers that day. In return, I will pray for you.

Toward hope and healing!

UPDATE as of January 29: The organizers decided to cancel this event, which was part of a three-day series of talks and workshops on clergy sexual abuse. Samantha Nelson writes, “There are not very many registrants for this conference (unlike normal) and I suspect it is because it is a holiday weekend, it’s winter in Colorado, and it’s taking place in a church (which scares off some victims).” The events of February 13-14 will take place as scheduled. For survivors who need support, please consider visiting The Hope of Survivors’ Renewal Center.

Last winter I wrote about the healing that comes when we tell our stories. For a year and half I’ve shared parts of my story on this blog. As I’ve written, and as readers have responded, the healing has been immense.

This morning I learned of an exciting book project. Three authors — bestselling novelist Robyn Williams, television news journalist Isabel Esteviz, and certified life coach Sheila Taylor — have joined forces on a book project that they call “Deception in the Pews.” The authors have put out a call for survivors’ stories. Here’s how they describe the book:

“Deception is alive and well in today’s churches. It is global, non-denominational and multicultural. No matter what your spiritual beliefs are, sheep are being led to slaughter. Faith has diminished and too many lives have been shattered by those eager to prey upon the unsuspecting. If you or anyone you know has ever been victimized by someone in church leadership, we would like to tell your story in the upcoming book, Deception in the Pews.

“This ground breaking book explores the hidden dangers and sexual deviances that exist within churches worldwide. Deception in the Pews reveals the pain, anguish, and despair felt by many who have suffered abuse at the hands of those who promised to shield them spiritually. Regardless of your spiritual affiliation, we want to hear your heartfelt stories to bring awareness to real-life issues of greed, immorality, and abuse in the church.”

The authors are looking for heartfelt, first-person stories of all types of abuse in the church. In addition to the story of abuse, they want to know the outcome: did you return to that church (or any church)? Are you still healing?

The deadline is February 1. The maximum word count is 1500. It’s OK to use a pen name. If your story is chosen, you’ll receive a stipend of $150. You can find full story submission guidelines here.

I’ve met some amazing people through this blog, I’ve heard stories of unbelievable betrayal by the church, and I’ve seen monumental courage among survivors. Your stories could be powerful tools of healing for other survivors. If you decide to share your story (which I hope you will), I pray it helps you take the next step forward in your own healing.

Earlier this year I wrote about the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. Yoder spent decades sexually abusing women at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. He had enough power to effectively shut down the seminary’s investigation of his victims’ complaints. One of his victims, Carolyn Holderread Heggen, worked tirelessly to overcome the official silence and organize a victims’ movement. Last year, the women created a liturgy of truth and reconciliation that culminated in a eucharistic meal served by seminary leaders. It was a lovely symbol, but it was not the justice that the victims were rightly demanding.

Now, finally, justice has come. This is what I’m talking about:

The Mennonite Quarterly Review will devote its January 2015 issue to the topic of sexual abuse within the Mennonite Church, with a focus on the events surrounding John Howard Yoder. The church is releasing an e-book along with the print edition. Interested readers will be able to order it through the church’s online store as well as Amazon and other mainstream outlets.

The AMBS board met in October and approved this statement.
      As an AMBS Board, we lament the terrible abuse many women suffered from John Howard Yoder. We also lament that there has not been transparency about how the seminary’s leadership responded at that time or any institutional public acknowledgement of regret for what went so horribly wrong. We commit to an ongoing, transparent process of institutional accountability which the president along with the board chair initiated, including work with the historian who will provide a scholarly analysis of what transpired. We will respond more fully once the historical account is published. We also support the planning of an AMBS-based service of lament, acknowledgement and hope in March 2015.

Finally, and most importantly, AMBS leaders are planning a weekend of healing events for the primary victims and the community on March 21-22, 2015. The schedule will include “an intimate gathering of truth-telling, reflection and prayer for those who were victimized and those who are bearing witness to the experience of others” and a service of “Lament, Confession, and Hope” for Yoder’s victims, members of the AMBS community, and their families. The AMBS board is committed to cover costs for travel and lodging for anyone victimized by Yoder.

For full details from the Mennonite Church, read the original press release.

For updates on this important story, please visit (and subscribe to) the blog “Our Stories Untold.”

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?

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