Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Books for the Journey

Dear readers,

Four years ago I posted a list of books I’d found helpful in the journey of healing. I still have most of those titles, but I’m ready to let them go. If you are still struggling to understand what happened to you, or struggling with any aspect of healing, take a look at my reading list. Send me an email with your address and the title of the book you’d like to have (you may want to add a second choice just in case), and I’ll put it in the mail as a gift for your healing journey. 

In solidarity,

Catherine

Kudos to Princeton Theological Seminary! Their Institute for Youth Ministry recently invited six leaders to submit responses to the topic on clergy sexual abuse in youth ministry. The series, “Pastor or Predator? Sexual Misconduct in Youth Ministry.,” was published this week. 

Here are the highlights. To read the whole essay, just click on the author’s name.

Linda Crockett says that the church often shortcuts justice by urging survivors to forgive too soon. As a result,  “victims carry the burden of shame that rightfully belongs to the offender.” Crockett urges the church to help young people recognize the red flags of sexual abuse. Although youth programs often each about the dangers of substance abuse, “we shy away from frank discussion about sexual offenders and how they operate. … We don’t tell them most offenders are not strangers, but people in our families, churches, neighborhoods, schools, and sports clubs.” 

Sharon Ellis Davis shares for the first time that “my Black Church experience also includes my being the victim of childhood sexual abuse by ‘men of God.’” She says, “It was the secret I was determined to hold onto no matter how much this abuse had negatively impacted my life choices… I could not, and I would not go against the ‘men of God.’ “ Ellis Davis only began to heal when she found a wise, compassionate listener who was willing to be a holder of her long-kept secret. As she healed, she was able to become a holder for others’ secrets as well. She reminds youth leaders that “many times we are… called to be holders” even if we “may not have adequately dealt with [our] own childhood victimization and are now forced to remember while providing care for others.

Hillary Scarsella writes, “Sexual abuse and assault are silencing.” She explains: the offender and the religious institution work hard to silence survivors, but survivors also silence themselves because of the stigma surrounding the experience of sexual assault. “We need to make it our regular practice to talk about sexual violence accurately, sensitively, and often,” she says, “because talking about abuse and assault has a significant degree of power to prevent and stop both.” The kind of speech we need, says Scarsella, “is the kind that believes and respects victims and survivors, the kind that empowers youth to love and protect their bodies.”

Justin Holcomb offers biblical encouragement to survivors dealing with the stages of aftermath of sexual abuse. He assures survivors that “what happened to them is not their fault. They are not to blame. They did not deserve it. They are not responsible for what happened to them. Nobody had the right to violate them… They were sinned against.” To survivors who despair of ever healing, Holcomb reminds them, “God promises a hope and a future.”

When Wes Ellis was in the 7th grade, his “funny, likeable” youth pastor inspired him to go into youth ministry. In college, Ellis was devastated to learn that this minister had sexually assaulted several young woman who had been Ellis’ friends in youth group. Ellis offers a clear, challenging theological response to clergy sexual abuse. “For me to come to terms with my own story,” he writes, “is to accept that the person who was eventually imprisoned for sexual misconduct… was the same person who mentored me, cared for me, and helped me to find my calling. He was not a monster, but a human being like me. … In recognizing his actions as sin… I am forced to face the sin of which I myself am capable.” At the same time, Ellis urges readers to “not treat this as an abstract philsophical problem or a problem of mere policy, but as a real human experience.”

I am honored to be the sixth voice in this series. I share the case study of a young woman who became suicidal when the church tried to silence her complaint against a youth minister, and I offer a series of steps the church must take to protect the young people in its care, including age-appropriate boundary training for youth and regular, vigorous discussions of this topic by the adults in the congregation.  

As I researched my piece, I discovered two great resources. 

1. Author and clergy spouse Sabrena Klausman has a wonderful piece entitled “Dangerous Volunteers: Understanding Signs of Sexual Abuse in Youth Ministry.”  She says the church MUST do a better job screening, monitoring, and training the clergy, staff, and volunteers who work with youth.

2. Tim Challies spells out “6 Reasons Why Sexual Predators Target Churches.”  It’s not a hopeful essay. Challies points out the deeply rooted structural issues that put children and teens at risk in just about any church. But it’s required reading for anyone who wants to solve the problem.

Professor Karen Swallow Prior of Liberty University recently asked a question on Facebook: “What do you wish people knew/understood about experiencing sexual assault?”

From the flood of responses, Dr. Prior gleaned ten lessons. We need to know that sexual assault can happen in families, in church, and in public places; to young children, adults, and men. Women or children may be the abusers. Healing can take a lifetime. Finally — and this is why I’m sharing the article here — the church has the power to heal or harm in its response to survivors. 

I know this to be true: my churchmates shunned me after I reported the misconduct, my offender told lies about me, and the bishop tried his hardest to silence me. But I received healing from the good people at my new church, and through the work of the brave priest who led the effort to create a healing service at St Paul’s. I’ve seen this harm/help duality in the lives of other survivors as well.

The first nine lessons in Prior’s article contain the actual words of survivors, describing their experiences. Readers still dealing with this trauma may want to skip straight to lesson ten. I’ll put that lesson in my own words. For churches to be a place of healing for survivors of sexual assault, they must:
1. Listen. Take the survivor seriously. Don’t discount her words. Let the survivor tell his story as many times as he needs to.
2. Don’t blame the survivor. Don’t ask what she was wearing, what he’d been drinking, whether she resisted, whether he reported the assault, or any question that might hint it was the survivor’s fault. Tell the survivor directly, as many times as she or he needs to hear it, “What happened to you was not your fault.”
3. Develop resources for survivors who approach the church for help: counseling or referrals, Bible studies for healing, preaching and teaching on ethics of sex and sexuality.
4. Most important, churches need to create a culture in which full respect is given to people often marginalized by society: children, women, the elderly, the disabled, the poor, immigrants, people of color, queer people, and so on. The church needs to see God in the face of everyone who walks in the door. This vision needs to be lived fully and clearly by church leaders.

You can find the full article here. Thanks to the survivor who shared it with me. Thanks to my readers who will share it with their church leaders.

Last summer, I posted a story about “Lisa.” As a teen and young adult, Lisa endured years of vicious sexual abuse from then-Rev. Darryl Duer, who led a weeklong summer service camp for UMC youth in New Jersey. When Lisa finally filed a complaint, Duer lost his ministerial credentials, but he kept his fan club. A handful of his colleagues secretly kept bringing their youth to Duer’s camp. No matter how many times Lisa raised the red flag, nothing seemed to change, but she persisted. She was relentless. Just days before the 2016 camp, Lisa learned that the same three ministers were bringing their youth groups yet again. I ran this story just before camp began, and this open letter to Bishop Schol just after the youth groups came home. 

At the same time, Lisa took actions of her own. During camp week, Lisa posted a blunt, direct comment in response to an article by Bishop Schol on the conference’s Facebook page. He was out of town, but he arranged for a telephone meeting with Lisa when he returned. In that meeting, Bishop Schol told Lisa that it hadn’t been his choice to let Duer walk away quietly. He’d wanted Duer to submit to the church’s judicial process, but Duer refused and turned in his UMC credentials. At that point, the bishop no longer had any power over him. This put Bishop Schol’s actions in an entirely new light. Lisa had spent three years believing that Schol had just looked for the easiest way out. She asked him, “Why didn’t you tell me that at the time?” My best guess is that church lawyers forced the bishop to keep the victim in the dark — an all-too-common church policy that ironically increases their risk of being sued.

The bishop promised Lisa that he would meet with the three ministers who had gone to Duer’s camp. Lisa gave him permission to share a series of text messages sent to her by Duer — messages full of graphic, obscene, exploitive sexual content. The day after that meeting, Bishop Schol reached out to Lisa. He told her that he’d had “very frank and forthright” conversations with the clergy, and that when those meetings were over, “it was clear… that the churches would not be advertising or participating in” Duer’s camp going forward. 

But Bishop Schol wasn’t done. He also promised to call all UMC clergy in Greater New Jersey to a mandatory meeting early in the new year to discuss clergy misconduct complaints, and Lisa’s complaint in particular. 

Last Wednesday, that meeting took place. On Thursday, Bishop Schol sent Lisa this extraordinary letter:
“Yesterday I met with 446 clergy from Greater New Jersey to talk about two clergy matters. One was [the summer service project] and your treatment by a former clergy person. I did not share your name but I shared your story. I also had the clergy read the text messages. It was a conversation that impacted our clergy. Clergy wanted to know how you were doing, how we were supporting you. Also several clergy came to me and other clergy have reported that since the meeting other clergy have talked with one another about how they have also been a survivor. We also prayed for you.”

A few weeks earlier, Bishop Schol had told Lisa, “The pain and sacrifice you have made will lead to a better United Methodist Church in New Jersey. You have certainly helped me to be a better bishop.”

THIS IS WHAT JUSTICE LOOKS LIKE! But in Lisa’s case, justice took far too long. Dozens of youth group participants were exposed to danger during the three summers the ex-Rev. ran his secret camp. The additional trauma to Lisa (beyond the original abuse, the isolation and shunning and character assassination by Duer’s fan club) nearly ended her life. Lisa’s long wait for justice was one of the final straws for me; it is one of the reasons I’m stepping away from church, but that’s a story for another post.

Even so — this is justice. Bishop Schol’s remarkable letter to Lisa is a textbook-perfect response to clergy sexual misconduct. He acknowledges the victim’s pain; he tells the whole truth to the whole church; he brings their love and concern back to her; he thanks her for making them a better church; and he promises that he’ll push the church to be better still: “I will be convening a group … to create a clergy and lay leadership ethics policy and program designed to educate leaders…, to build on the support system we have begun [for] survivors, and to do more preventative work.” 

Thankfully, the UMC is already on task. Bishop Schol can find excellent tools for this work on the UMC’s Sexual Ethics website, including a superb guide to helping the congregation heal

I’m feeling grateful today — for Bishop Schol’s long-awaited actions that will make the church safer, but more than that, for Lisa’s courage and persistence. Today, she is the survivor awakening the church.

Nearly seven years into recovery, my experience no longer feels like a crisis. The trauma marked the end of life as I knew it, but it was also a new beginning. Some of the things I lost were things I needed to lose, like my naive idealism, my tendency to mistake friendliness for friendship, and my blind loyalty to a particular denomination. I have a clearer sense of the dark side of human institutions now, and of human limitations including my own. 

Nevertheless, even in the new normal, even with the closure I reached after my offender was defrocked, I still struggle. I need to find a way to integrate this experience into the whole arc of my life. A few weeks ago, I found a resource for that work: a webinar called “End of Life Needs of Survivors.” The FaithTrust Institute invited the Rev. Dr. Sarah Rieth, an Episcopal priest and chaplain at a retirement community in North Carolina, to share her wisdom for caregivers. I may not be a chaplain or social worker; I may not be at the end of life; but I can still use Sarah Rieth’s insights in my healing. So can we all. Here are the steps we can take. 

1. We need to stop asking ourselves “Why can’t I put this in the past?” It’s an insulting question for survivors. Haven’t we been trying to do that all along? If we could have put it in the past, we would have, but this experience was too big. It changed the course of our lives. We are different people because of it.

2. Instead of trying to forget, we need to integrate those memories, to weave them into the narrative arc of our life. We need to look at how life has unfolded since the trauma, and by what means, and through what strengths, we have rebuilt our lives. We need to discover the threads of grace in all of this. Where was God, including the God incarnate in human helpers, during the abuse? Where was God when we were trying to heal? 

3. Our early spiritual formation, or others’ distortions of scripture, may get in the way of healing. If God (or a powerful adult in our lives) was a punishing taskmaster, we may still be hanging our heads, awaiting the blows or harsh words. If we thought of God as a loving protector, we need to reconcile that with the fact that one of God’s ministers exploited us. To engage that dissonance, we may even need to speak angry words at God. Do we have favorite Bible stories or verses, and can we put those to use in understanding our stories? (Mine is the story of Esther, whose courage in speaking up for her people gave me the courage to report my abusive priest).

4. Childhood experiences with abuse leave an indelible imprint. They can make us doubt our own worth; they make us more vulnerable to abuse as adults. Predators specifically target this vulnerability, because they know we’re less likely to fight back. Therefore, we need to understand our church trauma in the context of these earlier traumas. 

5. Reflecting on these experiences may be painful and frightening. While we’re doing this work, we need to be gentle, loving, and non-judgmental with ourselves. We need to insist on our truth even if others have not believed us. We need to affirm our own courage, especially if we choose to invite another person to help us with this work.

6. According to the psychologist Erik Erikson, at each stage of life we have unique developmental tasks. In infancy and early childhood, we must learn how and whom to trust. During our working years, we strive to leave a meaningful footprint on the world. In retirement, we look back at the wholeness of our lives. Have we lived with integrity? Have our lives been worthwhile? Do we still matter if we’re no longer needed in our former roles? If trust has been broken at any stage of our lives, we may need to return to the earliest task. If we’re still struggling with memories of abuse during our elder years, it may be harder to reach a satisfactory closure. The more we’re willing to engage with this work now, the more likely we’ll face our waning days (in fact, all our days) with peace.

7. Even if we don’t choose to do this work, circumstances may force us to face the questions. If we overcome addiction, we may uncover the feelings that we used the addiction to numb. Incipient dementia may unlock barriers to our memories and feelings. The death of an abuser may free us to think or speak words that were dangerous while he/she lived. Facing death, we may feel a spiritual urgency to resolve our memories. 

8. One key task is to look honestly at the cost of the abuse. What choices did we make as a result? What choices did we find ourselves unable to make? How did our choices affect our lives? As we ask these questions, we may want to think about the areas of health, relationships, family, vocation, and faith. 

9. Another key task: find the threads of grace. Who or what enabled us to survive and rebuild our lives? Who knew about the abuse; who helped us as we made decisions to save ourselves and perhaps report our abusers? As Mr. Rogers says, who were the helpers? If it was “only” God who gave us strength, how did God show God’s self to us?

10. A third key task: what qualities did we discover within ourselves that enabled us to survive and live the lives we’ve lived? As hard as it is for survivors of abuse, we need to own our victories, name and claim our strengths, honor our courage and our persistence.

11. Sarah Rieth shared the concept of the “context wheel.” We draw a simple bicycle wheel, then write a difficult truth in the central hub, for example “I encouraged my pastor’s attentions” or “I allowed my pastor to touch me sexually.” These words will seem stark and even damning, but the context can help us heal from shame and regret. In the areas between the bicycle spokes, we write words such as, “I was vulnerable because of my troubled marriage.” “I needed my pastor’s approval to move forward in discernment.” “He wasn’t just my pastor; he was also my boss.” “I didn’t want to believe he had sexual intent.” “I thought of him like a father.” And of course, “I trusted him.” We need to understand the context that made us so vulnerable, so unable to protect ourselves. We need to look at this context — and our actions, and our abuser’s actions too — through the loving eyes of God. 

12. Finally, reconciliation. I don’t mean reconciling interpersonally with our abuser; that is rarely possible and almost never helpful. But we might think of other relationships that need to be reconciled. We might ask ourselves what resentments we need to let go of? And whom we might need to forgive? And for what — and from whom — we might need to seek forgiveness?

Readers who want a more complete look at these concepts can view the “End of Life Needs of Survivors” webinar. Survivors may want to share this resource with their pastor, counselor, or spiritual advisor. 

Healing the Congregation

“Lisa’s” saga* continues: she’ll be speaking with Bishop Schol next week. To prepare him for their meeting, Lisa sent him a resource that should already be close to his heart: a document that spells out the highest standard for responding to clergy misconduct in the United Methodist Church.

“After Clergy Sexual Misconduct: A Process for Congregational Healing” is that document. Based on guidelines drafted by Episcopal Bishop Chilton Knudsen, the process was developed in 2006 by the Rev. Dr. Bonnie Glass MacDonald, a UMC deacon. The document may be ten years old, but it was new to me, and in all my years of advocacy, I have never seen a better resource for helping congregations heal.

Why does the church need this resource? As MacDonald says, “In situations of crisis or misconduct, congregations often … want to put the crisis behind them as soon as possible. But experience has shown that ignoring the intense feelings that naturally occur after a violation will cause more trouble in the long run.” She reports that after an event of clergy misconduct, congregations often descend into fearful conflict. Factions form, pastors turn over quickly, and the church loses energy, focus, hope, and members. Without intentional healing, this cycle can last many years, and may repeat itself with new acts of misconduct. For the sake of every member of the church, both present and future, “each congregation must be helped to deal openly with the misconduct.”

Note that word: openly. Incidents of clergy misconduct cannot be swept under the carpet. The church’s response must be confidential enough “to protect fair process and avoid additional harm to victims,” but the basic facts must be shared with clergy, church staff, lay leaders, and congregants. Why? Because ultimately, there are no secrets in a congregation. If leaders try to whitewash an event of pastoral misconduct, the facts will morph into cancerous nodes of rumor, accusation, and innuendo, and those cancers will destroy the church. 

“The Process for Congregational Healing” helps leaders handle each step of their response, from the staff meeting to the congregational letter to (ultimately) the congregational meeting. The document spells out how to support the victim, what behaviors to expect from the accused minister, and how to speak with the youth and children of the church, who need to be included even if none of them was directly harmed. 

What happens when congregations don’t go through an intentional process of healing? They may become suspicious, angry, depressed, fractious, highly reactive, hopeless, and fixated on matters of human sexuality. Far from shining the light of the kingdom of God, these congregations become a toxic burden to the denomination.

I’m sharing this resource for clergy and churchgoers of all faith traditions. I recommend all my readers look at the UMC’s Sexual Ethics site. If only all faith traditions cared enough to develop resources this robust and thoughtful! More to the point: if only UMC leaders cared enough to consistently use the wisdom from their own denomination.

* See Lisa’s story here, my open letter to Bishop Schol here, and Bishop Schol’s excellent response here

Dear Bishop Schol,

The UMC youth groups have returned from the JUNE Project led by disgraced former minister Darryl Duer. It’s too late to protect these kids, but it’s not too late to safeguard the future.

In 2013, you received “Lisa’s” complaint against Darryl Duer for clergy sexual misconduct. You judged rightly that Duer was unworthy to be a minister in the UMC, but you judged wrong when you let him go quietly. Secrecy may have been easier in the moment, but look at the danger you have brought on your congregations. At least three of your ministers continue to give Duer access to their youth groups. If any of those young people are harmed, their parents could claim that you knew of the danger and failed to warn them. 

In 2014, when Lisa learned that Darryl Duer was still running the JUNE Project, she contacted you to ask you to keep UMC youth from attending. You sent a note to three of your ministers, telling them that that a former camp participant had made a serious, substantiated complaint against Duer. In response, he canceled that summer’s camp, but he was back in business the very next summer. At least one of your ministers, Pastor Brian Neville of Hillsdale, brought his youth group in 2015. Here’s their slide show, including a big, clear photo of Darryl Duer. 

You claim that you continue to monitor and warn others about Duer. Really? Did you not know that your ministers are still working with him? If you look at Facebook you can see that Hillsdale UMC participated in the JUNE Project again last week, and that St Peter’s of Ocean City was there too. St Peter’s has re-labeled the project as “Hope Rescue Mission,” but it’s the same camp. One of the photos clearly shows Duer in a leadership role. Gibbsboro UMC may or may not be at the camp, but they are still big fans of Darryl Duer. Pastor Rob Lewis proudly lists “JUNE Project” in his staff bio as one of his leadership roles, and he invited “Pastor Daryl Duer” (sic) to speak at the church’s potluck breakfast worship on July 3.

In short: by failing to give clear warning, you have put countless young people in danger.

Since Mr. Duer no longer has credentials in the UMC, I understand that you can’t stop him from running his service project. But you can communicate the truth clearly to all of your ministers, all of their congregations, and the parents of all the young people who have ever participated in the JUNE Project. And the truth is that Darryl Duer sexually abused a former camp participant. He did so by exploiting his power as minister, his knowledge of her life history, and her trust in him as a minister. He does not deserve the trust of young people or their parents; he is a dangerous man.

When Lisa filed her compaint, she did it for one reason: to save other young people from what happened to her. She has never asked anything of the church but to keep Duer away from its youth. In 2013, you wrote a letter to clergy about a former pastor implicated for misuse of funds. You could have — you should have — written a similar letter to clergy warning them about Darryl Duer. With his offense, it wasn’t mere dollars at stake, but human lives.

Please, Bishop Schol — it’s not too late to do the right thing. 

Yours in Christ,

Catherine Thiemann


Update, August 7: this newspaper account confirms that Gibbsboro UMC also brought a group to Duer’s camp.


Update, January 2017: Bishop Schol’s excellent response.

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