Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Broken and beautiful: that’s what we are. Broken and Beautiful is also the title of a new book by CSA survivor Kristal Chalmers and her mother, Eileen Peters. Chalmers and Peters introduce their story by describing the Japanese art of kintsugi: “Instead of discarding a beautiful bowl that has been broken, they use gold to repair it, creating a vessel that is unique and even more valuable.” Rather than seeing breakage as something to hide, Kintsugi artists treat the breaks as part of the history and identity of a ceramic work. 

The same is true for us. Our wounds and healing become part of who we are. 

I’m highlighting this superb book for three reasons.

First, Kristal Chalmers describes her experience of abuse through two lenses at once. She shares what she felt at the time, but she also shares her current understanding of what happened. At the time, Kristal took her offender’s alternating warmth and coldness to heart; she believed what he told her about herself; she even blamed herself for the abuse. Two years later, she writes, “I know that he’d crossed a moral and professional boundary and had been grooming me for many months.” It took Kristal a great deal of time, study, and strong, loving support from her family and others, to reach this level of clarity. At the end of each chapter, Kristal and Eileen add their notes “for further reading,” sharing excerpts from some of the most important non-academic writings about clergy sexual abuse.

Second, Broken and Beautiful looks at CSA through the lens of spiritual warfare, a unique perspective among the survivor accounts I’ve read. Some readers may be unfamiliar or even uncomfortable with this perspective. In my rational mind, I question whether we’re really surrounded by demons and angels, but I’ve had enough personal experiences that I remain open to the idea. After all, who’s to say spiritual warfare isn’t real? The authors’ words helped me see trauma bonding in a new light:

“…the Bible speaks of soul ties when it talks about souls being knit together, or becoming one flesh. A soul tie … ties two souls together in the spiritual realm. Godly soul ties can draw a married couple together and knit their hearts to each other. Ungodly soul ties can cause a beaten and abused woman to attach to a man from whom, in the natural realm, she would run. In the demonic world, unholy soul ties serve as a bridge between two people through which evil can pass.”

In this light, Chalmers shows how a specific method of prayer freed her from this bond. 

“I [asked] God to forgive and cancel any ground or permission I had given over to Satan. I declared that the demons had no right in my life and commanded them to leave. I claimed the victory that Jesus’ death had won on Calvary, and immediately felt freedom!”

Third, the book doesn’t just recount the experience of abuse and shunning, it gives equal time to the arduous process of grieving. It was two years before Kristal Chalmers was able to journal again, but once that door was opened, the words poured out. In the sixth chapter, Kristal shares some of her words from the first three months of journaling, two years after she left her church. We follow her chaotic emotions, we remember our turbulent feelings even after many years of healing, and we feel a little less alone. “Can’t seem to get the grief or sadness or bewilderment out of my mind,” Kristal writes at one point. Another day she writes “I want to … cry, eat, and watch Netflix until bed…”; another day she writes “I keep having dreams,” even a dream about zombies. But she also writes, “When I look back now, I see that it was the beginning of freedom” and “I can’t end [a journal] entry without being grateful for God has done. Come and see what God has done!”

Indeed, come and see what God has done! You can find Broken and Beautiful on Amazon or on Eileen’s and Kristal’s website, MyVoiceBack.com. The Kindle edition includes live links to the resources on their website. 


Christmas can be difficult for anyone; it can be especially painful if you are dealing with current abuse by a religious leader, or if you’re healing from that abuse. If you are struggling, please know that it will get better. More important, the world is going to need you, your voice, and your story. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please seek support from someone you trust, or call a hotline for help. Readers in the U.S. can call 1-800-273-8255. Canadian readers can call 1-833-456-4566; UK readers can find help here; Australian readers can find help here.

 

Moments after revealing that NBC had fired Matt Lauer for “inappropriate sexual behavior,” Savannah Guthrie asked her “Today” co-host Hoda Kobt, “How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly?” 

Guthrie didn’t have an answer. I don’t either, but I can tell you stories of how my former churchmates tried to reconcile those opposing ideas. Most of those stories ended with “she made it up,” “he couldn’t have done those awful things,” “she’s not right in the head,” or all three. We all have stories like that. So yesterday, when I learned that a woman I used to trust had helped spread the rumors against me, I chalked it up to “same ol’ same ol’.” 

But yesterday I added a new kind of story. Walking to a meeting in a different part of town, I unexpectedly ran into a former churchmate. I had enjoyed working with this man on several projects, and I still hold him in high regard. I greeted him; we spoke briefly. My meeting had already begun, so I couldn’t linger in conversation. I knew I had caught him off guard, so I sent him an email this morning. I said I was glad to have seen him; I offered congratulations on happy events in his life. 

Keep in mind that this man had been close to my offender. He could have dismissed me with a cursory “great to see you too,” or he could have ignored my email altogether. 

But that’s not what he did.

Instead, he thanked me for the work I am doing on this issue. He wrote, “You are helping to make the world a bit more just and a bit more safe for our girls and millions of others. And I can only imagine the price you have paid and the pain you have endured along the way.” He closed his email with a picture of his children and these words: “On their behalf, thank you.”

How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they’ve behaved badly? It seems to me that this man has found the finest path. He didn’t try to choose between me and my offender. He didn’t trash one of us to show loyalty to the other. I have no idea how he would be with my offender, but in my presence, he showed respect and compassion. He spoke of justice and a safer church. I can think of no finer reconciliation.

Never sign an NDA

Harvey Weinstein is in the news, as are dozens of his victims. Today, the Washington Post shines a light on one of Weinstein’s self-protective tactics: the NDA, or Non-Disclosure Agreement.  This week, actress Zelda Perkins broke hers. “I wanted to publicly break my non-disclosure agreement,” she said. “Unless somebody does this, there won’t be a debate about how egregious these agreements are and the amount of duress that victims are put under.”

Thank you, Zelda Perkins! Non-Disclosure Agreements reveal the institution’s true goals: not to heal the victim, but to protect the offender. I’ve always known this truth. I knew I couldn’t heal without telling my story. When I settled with the Episcopal diocese, I agreed not to disparage my offender, and to keep the terms of the settlement confidential — but I steadfastly maintained the right to talk about my experience. 

It seems NDAs are so ubiquitious, in the church just as in Hollywood, that everyone assumed I must have signed one. When I started talking openly about why I’d left St Paul’s, my new pastor asked me, “Are you allowed to say these things?” Even worse: the bishop who co-created and signed my settlement apparently assumed it contained an NDA. When he learned about my blog, he had his attorney send a threatening letter to my attorney (I wrote about it here)  If I didn’t “bring this whole episode to a close,” the letter warned, the bishop would make a public statement denying my experience.

I stood my ground then, and I stand it now. It’s my story, and I have a right to tell it. In fact, survivors need to tell our stories  to seek justice, protect others, and heal our souls. When we were negotiating my settlement, I told my attorney that I would never agree to keep silent about my experience. I had no problem agreeing to keep the terms of the settlement confidential, and to refrain from disparaging (legally, “making a false and injurious statement about”) my offender, but I insisted on my right to tell my story. I have kept my word; I’ve spoken and written nothing but the truth, and I even protected Scott’s identity on this blog until after my bishop had told St Paul’s the truth about him. 

Don’t allow the church to silence you. Don’t sign an NDA. Hold fast to your right to tell your own story. 

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.

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