As I write this series of essays on Marie Fortune’s Elements of Justice-Making, I’m learning where my wounds still exist, and this is a deep one. When I filed my complaint, my former church did very little to protect the vulnerable. Instead, they protected a minister with an admitted pattern of boundary issues. Of all the ways the church betrayed me, this may have been the most painful.
After my pastor made his feelings plain, I struggled for more than a week with overwhelming confusion, fear, and grief. When my mind finally cleared, I told him I would no longer meet him for pastoral counseling. I didn’t want to damage his ministry, so I told him I wouldn’t report him. He sighed with relief. He seemed genuinely sorry he had hurt me. He acknowledged he had betrayed my trust. He kicked himself for being “careless,” and he told me that I was part of a pattern of “beautiful women” whose boundaries he had ignored. Stunned, I demanded, “You knew you had a pattern, and you knew you were attracted to me, and you didn’t take steps to protect me?” He quickly clarified the “pattern”: only one woman. A different church. No physical violation. I needed to believe in my pastor’s basic goodness, so I chose to believe his words. I decided to trust him again, but this time more cautiously. I refused pastoral counseling, but a month later I accepted his invitation to share a writing project. That led to another betrayal. When I confronted him again, he assured me he was turning over a new leaf. No longer would he offer pastoral counseling to any woman he found attractive. I was thrilled to hear these words. I believed that my firm “NO” had made him a better minister, and had made my church a safer place for women.
I decided to trust him again, but more cautiously still. He created a staff position for me. Knowing I would be reporting to a different minister, I accepted his offer. I loved the work, and I was sure I had healed from my pastor’s sexual breach, but in truth I had only covered up the wound. It was a training film that finally opened my eyes. The movie “Not in My Church” depicts a minister who sexually abuses three women at his church. One of those women could have been me. I watched the film with growing horror; afterward in the bathroom I dissolved in tears. With effort, I pulled myself together to sit through the rest of the training. I hid my swollen eyes behind sunglasses.
Let me be perfectly clear: as far as I know for certain, my pastor breached boundaries only with me and the woman at his previous church. But over the next few months I kept my eyes open, and I saw far more than I expected to. I’ve shared some of my observations on this blog. As the evidence grew, the truth began to dawn on me: my silence could be putting others at risk. I made the hard decision to report my pastor. I began to build the courage.
During this time, I saw “Joyce” for counseling at an office a few blocks from my church. She supervised the pastoral counselors who worked at my church, so I assumed she knew my pastor. It was hard to talk about this decision with Joyce. She seemed incredulous that I would take the risk of reporting a popular minister. I tried to explain: “If I remain silent and he harms other women, then I’m as much responsible as if I had inflicted that harm myself.” She acknowledged my courage, and she almost seemed awed. But the day after I met with the bishop, she asked me, “Couldn’t you have just quietly left the church?” Even she seemed to want to protect him.
The day I filed my complaint, I learned of the death of a hero: Miep Gies, who had helped hide Anne Frank from the Nazis. For two years, Mrs. Gies smuggled food to the families in the Secret Annex. After the Nazis discovered them, Miep Gies saved Anne’s diary. She could have been executed for those acts. But she knew that if she didn’t help the Franks, she would face a lifetime of sleepless nights. “Permanent remorse about failing to do your human duty,” she said, “can be worse than losing your life.”
For two years I had kept my pastor’s secret. Like many victims of sexual offenses, I still felt affection for this man. You might even say I loved him. He was still the spiritual leader of my church; I desperately needed to admire and respect him. After I came to terms with my experience, I kept my secret out of fear. Even if the church believed me, I would lose the friendship of people who were dear to me. So what finally led me to turn him in? I saw vulnerable women at risk. I needed the church to protect them. I had to speak, regardless of cost, or I would have faced a lifetime of sleepless nights.
In a different church in a different part of the country, survivor “K” reported her abuser for the same reason. While in college, she had endured vicious sexual abuse by the pastor who had led her summer high school youth ministry. When she reported him, she wrote, “I asked for nothing from this church other than Darryl’s removal from any work that places him with vulnerable populations.” Sadly, her church failed her. She had given the bishop solid evidence of abuse, including sexually explicit emails from her abuser. The man denied nothing. Yet the day after the bishop confronted him, he was back at work at the youth ministry. Two weeks later, the bishop ended Darryl’s career as a UMC minister, but he failed to alert the other ministers in his area. Later, another Methodist church invited Darryl to lead a Bible study. “Why was my little request too little for the UMC?” asks K. “Why does my life and the trauma sustained from this man not matter?”
When I first met with my bishop, he told me he needed to decide whether to disclose the investigation to the church. I had given him plenty of reason to suspect there might be other victims: my observations of my pastor during my time on staff, his grooming-style pattern with me, and his own admission of weakness for “beautiful women.” How did my bishop weigh the pros and cons? Did he yield to entreaties from the pastor? Did he decide that the chance of learning the truth wasn’t worth damaging this pastor’s reputation? I will never know. My pastor once told me a story of a congregant at his former church, a defrocked minister whose first victim’s complaint had brought dozens more “out of the woodwork.” If there were other victims “in the woodwork” at my church, the bishop will never know.
I met with the bishop one more time to hear his decision. He gave me a letter outlining his judgment against my former pastor, and he told me that they would both be required to disclose this judgment to any future employer in the church. I had hoped the bishop would share the outcome with the congregation, but he opted to keep it quiet. Still, I trusted that any future employer would know about his record. But two years later, my former pastor was chosen from a large pool of candidates to lead a thriving church in another city. I felt sick, and I felt terrified for the women in his new church. Again, I felt a duty to protect them. So I took the only action in my power: I sent a note to his new church leaders. After that, I had to be at peace. I had done all I could.
Survivor “K” did the same thing. Her bishop never told the other leaders of the youth ministry that Pastor Darryl had sexually abused a former client. So K wrote to those leaders. One of them wrote back, “Why are you telling us this?” K responded in her blog: “Because it’s your responsibility to protect others. Even if you don’t believe me, I know you will think of what I said before you let another youth member be alone with this man.“
These reflections have dredged up painful memories. Struggling with these thoughts the past few days, at night I’ve had troubling dreams. If “protecting the vulnerable” is part of the process of justice, then I did not receive justice. The church failed to protect other congregants. They failed to reach out to other potential victims. They failed to protect me from the congregation’s backlash. But they bent over backward to protect the man I accused.
And yet — I will never regret speaking up. If my actions saved even one woman from my fate, I did not sacrifice in vain.