Being “out” as a survivor of clergy sexual misconduct in a room full of clergy was scary. We were together for a three-day training on “Teaching Healthy Boundaries.” These leaders were committed to creating safer churches, but even they didn’t fully understand. Even after decades of smart hard work, church remains treacherous ground for the vulnerable. Clergy members still turn a blind eye to their colleagues’ errant behavior. Laypeople still refuse to see their pastors’ faults. Victims are still blamed, silenced, and ostracized, and I had to bring these unwelcome truths forward.
There was one truth that even I didn’t have the courage to bring forward. To make room for grace and restoration, the church often tries to draw a bright line around touch. Indeed, there are degrees of physical violation from “none” to rape, and degrees of damage from “none” to suicide, but these scales can’t be correlated. No one can predict the impact of any violation on any vulnerable person. But when a victim of “touchless” misconduct files a complaint, she is often dismissed or ignored. As a generic misconduct survivor, I had a voice in this group. As a “touchless” survivor, I was afraid I might be laughed out of the room. I have three solid years of healing, but by the end of the second day, I felt like I was on thin ice again.
In the aftermath of trauma, survivors may feel as though the whole world is made of thin ice. We harbor quite realistic fears: that we will be blamed or accused of lying, that we will be ostracized at church, that we will lose our jobs, our families, our health, our will to live, or even life itself. Recovering from this state, and struggling with some of these losses, I learned to identify the physical sensations of fear. I developed an arsenal of ways to make myself feel safe again. I spent a year in a virtual cocoon. I took enough bubble baths to fill a small lake. So when being “out” at this training got scary, my instincts cried, “Retreat!”
That evening, I took a long walk while a chorus of doubts played in my head. Had I taken this step too soon in my healing? Should I be doing this work at all? I felt enormous tension between taking a risk for the sake of truth and witness, and finding emotional safety. The church needs the truth and witness of survivors. Most laypeople and clergy are blind to the reality and impact of sexual misconduct, because most survivors live deeply closeted lives. We have experienced profound betrayal in the sanctuary of God. If we reported the abuse, we were further betrayed by the church’s response. Most of us just want to build lives worth living again, but when we are silent, the church remains happily blind. Blindness makes no demands. Seeing requires hard choices and sacrifice. Change cannot happen until the church is willing to see.
That is why I have chosen to stand up publicly as a survivor. I feel called to help the church see. I still hold the memories of the price I have already paid for standing up: the circled wagons, the isolation, the sense of fractured life. Losing community so brutally felt like a kind of death. Yet three short years later, in the space of a single week, I came out as a survivor to a room full of local clergy from my denomination, to the members of my Church Council, and to this nationwide interdenominational group at the training. I credit the strength I gained in healing and the hope I now have as a member of a healthy church. I believe that my voice can make a difference. Even so, I still choose my audiences carefully. At the end the second day of training, I wondered if I had made the right choice.
While my fearful chorus wailed, I strolled a quiet section of a shared bike/pedestrian trail. A cyclist rode past. In the warm evening light, I read the words on his jersey: “Courage Classic.” Courage! I decided to claim this word as a message from the divine. I told myself I was walking the Courage Classic, literally on my long trek around the lake, and metaphorically in my work as a survivor/advocate. Both journeys call for a balance between effort and rest; both demand careful judgment about risk and safety. Now, with “Courage” in my heart, I remembered all my resources: the lessons I had learned in healing, the support of church and family, and my own gifts and strengths. The final miles of the walk seemed shorter. The next day, the response of the group affirmed my initial judgment. It had not only been safe for me to come out, it was vital to the work we were doing together. When I shared my final insights as a survivor, I knew I had been deeply heard.
Sitting in the airport that afternoon, surfing the web and waiting for my flight to board, I googled the words I had seen on that cyclist’s jersey. The Courage Classic, I learned, is a grueling three-day cycling event that raises funds to provide services for abused children and their families. “When you ride the Courage Classic,” said the website, “you are helping to stop the cycle of abuse in your community.
And so I am. As I walk my own Courage Classic, I am helping to stop another cycle of abuse. The work itself is part of a cycle: it was the abuse that brought me into this work. But this cycle is different. This is not a cycle of abuse, always coming back to the same point, but a cycle of justice and healing moving ever forward. Along with my colleagues in training, I hope for a day when all faith communities are safe for the vulnerable, and when all clergy offer compassionate and respectful care to every person in their congregations, and especially to themselves. Through the steadfast work of clergy, survivors, and our allies, each rotation of the cycle will bring us one step closer to the dream. By taking a risk for the sake of truth and witness, our voices, in brave chorus, can bring that day around.