Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

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.

I’m proud to have an essay in the upcoming issue of The Christian Century. Along with other readers, I answered a query on “Risk.” I wrote about how frightened I was to join a new church after being ostracized by the old. As my readers know, my risk paid off. I now belong to a healthy, supportive congregation in which I’ve done substantial healing. My story, beginning “I sat on the edge of a rear pew and clung to my ten-year-old son,” is the eighth of ten in this series.

Thank God for women and men of faith who take risks for the sake of truth, compassion, and justice.

“Ocian in view! O! The joy!”
— journal of William Clark, on reaching the mouth of the Columbia River.

On a cold November day in 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark rejoiced to see the Pacific “Ocian.” After eighteen months and nearly four thousand miles of hard travel through uncharted territory, this was a great victory. The Corps of Discovery had failed in their primary goal — discovering a shipping passage across the continent — and they still had a cold wet winter and year’s return journey ahead of them. Even so, there’s no doubt that their expedition’s greatest day was November 7, 1805. The U.S. Mint even created a nickel to commemorate the moment.

Every long journey has these buoyant moments. No matter how discouraged and fatigued we are, journeyers get new courage from the miracles and victories along the way. Even with all the new stories of clergy abuse and institutional silencing, I’m constantly encouraged by the small triumphs in the lives of my fellow survivors, and by the support of our allies.

And last week, one survivor accomplished something so great that I feel like Captain Clark. “O! The joy!”


Last summer, “Anonymous Girl” filed a complaint against the United Methodist minister who led a service trip for youth groups in his region. A week later, her bishop sent her an email: “Over the weekend, Rev. ____ submitted his clergy orders to my office. This means that he has resigned as a clergy person.”

“Just like that,” reflected Anonymous Girl, “in a week’s time the process was over. It happened quickly and I got what I wanted: this person will not work in a ministerial role in the United Methodist Church with vulnerable populations.”

But it wasn’t over. The hard work of healing had only begun.  Anonymous Girl spent months struggling with emotional pain and with questions about her own role in the abuse. The abuse had not been her fault, but like most survivors she felt she must have done something to cause it. Severely traumatized, she spent most of the winter actively planning to end her life. What was it that gave her the strength to stay? Was it when she found out that a local Methodist pastor had invited her defrocked abuser to lead a Bible study in his church? Did she decide to stay so she could finish what she had set out to do — to keep vulnerable people safe from the man who had exploited and abused her?

Whatever the reason, the world is a safer place because Anonymous Girl is here. A few weeks ago, she was stunned to learn that her abuser would lead the same service project again. Even worse, she learned that several churches had already signed up. Did she feel angry and betrayed? You bet. And did she fight back? Yes, she did. She began by emailing the UMC’s General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. The previous head of the GCSRW had helped Anonymous Girl with her original complaint, but she had never met the new leader. So she had to summon up the courage to tell her story one more time.

After a week, she hadn’t heard back, but she didn’t give up. She sent a stronger letter. This time, the GCSRW reached out to Anonymous Girl’s bishop. The bishop was also slow to respond — and again, Anonymous Girl didn’t give up. She sent the bishop an articulate, respectful email to let him know that at the end of June, she would send a letter to every youth minister in the Conference. She would attach not only the evidence of her own abuse, but the letter the bishop had sent to her, sharing the fact her abuser was no longer a UMC minister.

Finally, the bishop broke his official silence. He sent a letter to every UMC pastor whose church had signed up for the service project. He told them that the leader of the project “admitted to having an inappropriate relationship with a young person” who participated in the project. While I don’t like the language — the bishop should have said, “he admitted to sexually abusing a young person” — I like the results. After the bishop sent his letter, Anonymous Girl’s abuser withdrew his offer to lead the service project. By insisting on justice, and speaking up with courage and resolve, Anonymous Girl has made all the youth in her Conference safer.

Anonymous Girl has discovered another truth: her abuser may not have cared about the project after all. You see, he didn’t just step away from the project. He cancelled it altogether. He seems to have seen this service project only as a way to get access to vulnerable youth. If he cared about the project, she writes, “he would have stepped down and allowed it to continue without him. He could have helped someone else take the leadership role.” But she also knows: whatever the value of the project to the youth and the community, it carried too high a cost. She rejoices that the project was cancelled “not because I want to see the project fail, but… because I know the man who hurt me will not be given the option to hurt other youth in the same way.”

This kind of victory is rare. For every triumph of justice against clergy sexual abuse, we hear dozens of tales of abuse, silencing, and victim-blaming. With near-daily bad news, it’s easy to lose hope. But then this amazing thing happens. Against all odds, a solitary victim, still struggling with the trauma of abuse, speaks with so much power and clarity that the whole church hears. A bishop finds his voice. A predator loses access to victims. A whole group of young people will not be this man’s victims.

And every survivor who hears this news stands up a little taller. Anonymous Girl’s victory is a victory for all of us.

I’m on the road this week with my home-schooled son, so it’s been hard to keep up with the news. But I can’t miss the furor around one story. A few days ago, Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal published a former youth minister’s account “My Easy Trip from Youth Pastor to Felon.” The author wrote about his predatory sexual assault on a teenaged girl as if he’d enjoyed an extramarital affair with a consenting adult of equal power.

The online community of survivors and survivors’ families and allies spoke up in strength. Here are three of the best responses.
* An anonymous survivor writes, “I am the other side of the coin.” She writes, “Just like the youth pastor in that article, [my abuser] made me believe it was a consensual relationship. He made me believe I wanted it just as much as he did.” She adds, “These things? They do not happen by accident. A youth pastor does not accidentally become ‘friends’ and later ‘sexual partners’ with a female minor from his church. A 40+ year old does not accidentally find himself actively and relentlessly pursuing a 15 year old.”
You can read her courageous account here.
* Suzannah Paul makes a strong claim that Christian “purity culture” protects abusers and harms victims by reframing pastoral sexual abuse as a sin against sexual purity, in which “victims are rendered ‘impure’ and at fault alongside their abusers.” She writes, “Leadership Journal allows a convicted child abuser a platform to manipulatively frame this as a story of personal selfishness and infidelity without one word about molestation, statutory rape, sexual grooming, or the abuse of power.”
Suzannah’s message is superb, and you can read it here.
* Tamara Rice speaks directly to the editors. She asks, “Did you ask [the victim's] family for permission to let this predator tell it this way? Did you ask his wife (his former wife?) for permission to let him tell it this way? Did you consider getting perspective… from ANYONE who is a victim here?” She suggests a warning that this pastor should have offered: “If you find yourself attracted to one of your students, get out of youth ministry ASAP and get yourself into counseling… YOU ARE CONTEMPLATING A SEXUAL CRIME.”
You can read Tamara’s excellent post here.

Without time to comb the internet this week, I don’t know whether anyone has made the point that just as children and teens are never to blame for the predatory sexual abuse committed against them, neither are adult victims to blame. Even if we believe we are consenting to our pastors’ predation — indeed, even if we believe we are initiating the connection –we are not to blame. I was a middle-aged woman when my powerful pastor targeted me. I’ve already shared the story of how he took advantage of my vulnerability when I sought spiritual guidance. Because I stopped the abuse before it became physical, he was able to frame me as an emotionally unstable parishioner whose sexual advances he responsibly turned down. But the truth is: he abused his power, pure and simple. Even if I had allowed him to violate my physical boundaries, the blame and shame would have been his, and his alone.


Thankfully, the Leadership Journal has taken down the offensive and harmful post. In its place, they share an unreserved apology for posting a story that focused on the predator’s losses while ignoring the far greater harm to the victim. They will offer any revenue from the post to Christian organizations that work with survivors of sexual abuse.

By speaking our truth, the community of survivors and advocates has turned on one more light. The Leadership Journal now knows who we are and what we stand for. They owe much to the courageous souls who called them to account. If they want to repay the debt, they can open their pages to our voices, to our stories and to our call for safer churches.


*  Heather Celoria (Junia Project, June 17) offers an excellent reflection on the decisions of the Leadership Journal both to post the article and to take down the post. The Junia Project website is a great resource for understanding and deconstructing the patriarchal mindset that makes it so easy for male clergy to abuse female congregants with impunity.
* The first link in my essay now leads to the complete original article (my original link did not). I have also captured all the text in the article as a Word file. If the link stops working, send me an email and I’ll send you the article. The Leadership Journal is rightfully ashamed and embarrassed of having published the story, and they may hope that by taking it down they’ve made the controversy go away. But the story is evidence, and we can’t let it disappear.

Tag Cloud


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 59 other followers

%d bloggers like this: