Clergy sexual misconduct: one survivor's voice

Final reflections

I’m walking away from this work. It’s not that the work is finished; the church is still unsafe for vulnerable people. Whether the church knows it or not, they need the voices of survivors more than ever. Thankfully many survivors are now speaking their truth. When one of us needs to stop, another survivor steps in to run the next leg of the race. I’ve worked alongside some of today’s most effective victims and survivors. I no longer have any hope in church (I don’t belong to any church and likely never will again), but I have hope in the leaders I’ve met. If there’s any hope for the church at all, it’s because of these good people.

With love and thanks to all who have supported me in five years of writing.

 

What is the role of forgiveness in the church’s response to clergy sexual abuse? Why do some victims feel pressured to “forgive” and “move on” before they are ready? What does the church stand to gain — and what do they stand to lose – by putting forgiveness first?

For any faith community, these questions are important. For Christians, the questions can feel like a matter of spiritual life or death. Many Christians see forgiveness as the foundation of their religious faith. When Christians hear the words of Jesus – “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” and “If you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” – they wonder whether failure to forgive will exclude them from God’s grace.

Forgiveness is never easy after a serious violation; it can take years of struggle and prayer. Yet in the case of clergy sexual abuse, the church often translates Jesus’ challenging ideal into a kind of cheap grace, for reasons that have nothing to do with the real grace of God. Offenders may seek forgiveness so they can avoid the consequences of their behavior. Bishops and other leaders may wish to forgive so they won’t have to punish a colleague who may have also become a friend. Congregants may try to forgive so they don’t have to think ill of a beloved minister. If a victim feels an urge to forgive, it may be out of misplaced loyalty to her offender, or she may hold the desperate hope that quick forgiveness will lead to quick healing. If the church causes further harm while responding to her complaint, she may try to forgive them out of the same sense of loyalty and desire for healing.

These “gains” – offenders escaping justice, church leaders and congregants ducking hard questions – can inflict a devastating toll on the church. The push for quick forgiveness puts the victim at further risk and may put other vulnerable people at risk as well. When congregational or denominational leaders attempt to suppress an uncomfortable truth, they deny the wounded congregation a chance to heal. Secrecy and innuendo can lead to widespread distrust among the congregation: distrust of clergy, lay leaders, fellow congregants, and especially the victim. As a result, the congregation may shrink in attendance, giving, and community influence. The next pastor to serve this damaged community will likely fail and may become collateral damage as well, sickened by the stress of serving a congregation whose wounds were never tended.

After an instance of clergy sexual abuse, a rush to forgiveness causes vastly more harm than good. This is why many victims of clergy sexual abuse think of “forgiveness” as the real “F word.”

If not in forgiveness, then how should the church respond to clergy sexual abuse? First by seeking truth, administering justice, and seeking healing for all parties. Only then are questions of forgiveness and reconciliation appropriate.

Seek the Truth

The church, through the bishop and/or investigative body, must begin by seeking truth. In response to the alleged victim’s complaint, the alleged offender has a duty to provide a truthful response. But what offender would willingly admit, even to themselves, a truth that could end their careers? In Trauma and Recovery, Dr. Judith Herman writes,

“In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens. To this end, he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization. After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it on herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on.”

To victims of clergy sexual abuse, these words describe a painfully familiar phenomenon. The church cannot simply take the accused minister at his or her word. They must vigorously and impartially investigate all reports of harmful behavior by clergy.

The congregation also needs the truth. In all circumstances, they need to know as soon as a complaint has been lodged against their minister, and as soon as the matter has been resolved. While the complaint is being investigated, the bishop should place the accused minister on administrative leave to prevent him from using the “same predictable apologies” to create an environment hostile to the complainant. It is rarely necessary to advise complainants to lie low; by this point, most are too traumatized to participate in congregational life.

Administer Justice

For the alleged offender, justice is straightforward, albeit rarely easy. The governing documents for most denominations (for example, the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church) spell out a detailed process and an equally detailed range of consequences for offenders. If an investigation confirms the facts of the complaint, consequences may include temporary leave, loss of position, lost of ordination credentials, or even – depending on the laws where the offence took place – criminal proceedings.

For the victim, justice is less clearly defined. Church laws governing response to clergy sexual abuse typically focus on outcomes for the accused minister; the church seems to forget that holding the offender accountable is only half the job. Yet the victim needs justice too. In Is Nothing Sacred: The Story of a Pastor, the Women He Sexually Abused, and the Congregation He Nearly Destroyed, the Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune describes the process of justice-making from the victim’s perspective:

  1. Truth-telling: Church leaders must seek truth and share it in a timely manner with the congregation and any other stakeholders, in a way that protects the victim’s identity and privacy.
  2. Acknowledging the violation. If the investigation confirms that the minister has harmed someone in his or her care, the church must name it abuse and condemn it as wrong.
  3. Compassion. The church must listen empathetically to the victim. Since institutions can’t truly “listen” (only people can), the church should appoint a supportive individual to this role.
  4. Protecting the vulnerable. The church must take steps to prevent further harm to the victim and to protect other individuals who may be at risk of harm.
  5. Accountability. The church must confront the offender and impose sanctions impartially, regardless of the offender’s status in the church or community.
  6. Restitution. The church can share the burden of responsibility for what has happened by offering tangible restitution, such as payment for therapy. The church can affirm the victim’s importance in the congregation – which is one of her most critical needs – through acts of symbolic restitution, such as liturgies of healing or of congregational penitence.
  7. Vindication. The victim needs to be openly cleared from any sense of blame or shame for what was done to her. Since blaming and shaming of victims often originate in the congregation, vindication should also happen in this context.

Few church communities achieve perfect justice in the face of injustice. But if the victim can see a genuine effort on the part of the church, “approximate justice” may be enough to allow healing to begin.

Heal All Parties

To support victims as they heal, the church should make a conscientious effort to enact all of the elements of the justice-making process. Unfortunately, “paying for therapy” is often the beginning and end of the church’s offer of resources. While money is important, it falls far short of what the victim needs for healing. Among her greatest losses is the support of friends in her church community. The church must make efforts to reconcile these broken relationships.

The congregation will need support to process their pastor’s betrayal of trust. Whether the pastor stays or leaves, the congregation has sustained a wound. As reluctant as churchgoers may be to talk about what happened, these conversations are essential for restoring the congregation’s health. The church should identify – and pay for – the resources to help the congregation through this challenging process.

The offender and their family may need healing, but their needs should never take precedence over those of the primary and secondary victims, including the congregation.

Forgiveness: The Choice Belongs to the Victim

It can take years for a victim of clergy sexual abuse to come to terms with what was done to her, and even longer to understand what forgiveness would mean in the context of her experience. Each victim has a unique experience of violation as well as a unique life history, personality, set of relationships, and resources for healing. Each victim will have a unique path to recovery from the trauma of clergy sexual abuse. Whether, when, and how to forgive are decisions that belong entirely to the victim. Church leaders and congregants do not need to know whether the victim has forgiven her offender, and they have no right to suggest that she should.

A better question for the church to ask would be, “Can you forgive us?” Victims consistently report that the church’s response causes a great deal more damage than the original abuse. This includes institutional abuse (denial of harm, suppression of truth, etc.) as well as individual acts of unwelcome or unkindness. Although it is entirely the victim’s choice whether to forgive the church or not, church leaders nonetheless have a role to play in the process: to acknowledge harm done, offer amends, and express a hope for forgiveness.

Individual congregants, or the congregation as a whole, may attempt to forgive the offender and restore him to leadership. A robust congregational healing process can help them distinguish between forgiveness, which can coexist with justice, and denial, which stops justice in its tracks. Whether forgiven or not, offenders should never again have access to their target population. They should never be invited, in any capacity, back into the community in which they caused harm.

The Church Should Focus on Reconciliation

Instead of focusing on forgiveness, the church should put its efforts into reconciliation – not between victim and offender, but between the victim and her church community. Clergy sexual abuse throws victims into a crisis that many describe as the most painful and frightening experience of their lives. Yet in their hour of greatest need, victims almost universally suffer a violent loss of support from their church communities. Isolation and ostracism are the rule, not the exception. Most victims leave their congregations in the aftermath of reporting. Many leave church entirely; some lose their faith altogether. Yet years later, they still grieve the friendships they lost. Healing can never be complete for these victims; likewise, their departure leaves congregations incomplete.

The church has an opportunity to stop this tide of loss. By seeking truth, doing justice, allowing victims to forgive (or not) on their own terms, and repairing broken relationships between victims and congregations, the church can bring about healing. It won’t happen quickly, and it won’t be easy, but real grace is never quick or easy. Instead of cheap grace, the church must strive for a grace that is worthy of the God they claim to serve.

Three New Resources

Dear friends, I am happy to share three new resources for survivors. 

Not in Our Church has informative and inspiring articles on topics from awareness to prevention to healing. The writing is good, and the website is gorgeous. Well worth a visit.

The Miller Spotlight features new reflections from former Baptist missionary Dee Ann Miller, the author of the classic How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct (1993, Prescott Press).

Survivors Standing Tall gives survivors a place to tell their stories through words, images, music, or any creative format. The creator of this site, Barbara Graber, edited the survivors’ resource website Our Stories Untold from 2013-2017.

Confidentiality vs Secrecy

In the task force, we were talking about the difference between confidentiality and secrecy. Here’s how I understand it:

Confidentiality protects the complainant. It gives her* the power to decide when, where, and to whom her story is told.
Secrecy protects the institution. It gives the church the power to silence the complainant, or to discredit her if she insists on speaking.

How can a church protect the complainant without keeping secrets from the congregation? With transparency. Share the basic facts (we received a complaint, we’re investigating, we’ve put the pastor on leave, here’s what we learned, here’s what we’re doing about it) as soon as they are known. Don’t share the complainant’s identity or the details of her complaint. Do respect her right to share those things herself.

* or him. Men and boys can be victims too.

 

 

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. 

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. 

%d bloggers like this: