I used to belong to a large church in a large denomination with a powerful central hierarchy. Clergy reported through a chain of command to the head of the church. Every deacon, priest, and bishop, nationwide and beyond, followed the same canon law. The canon included a rigorous and widely respected process for handling complaints of sexual misconduct.
When ostracism forced me to leave, I chose a church in a denomination at the opposite end of the hierarchy scale. In my new congregation, we make the decisions about every area of church life. We choose our pastor, manage our finances, structure our staff, and plan our outreach, and we do it all through our elected council and by direct vote. When it comes to misconduct, we handle all but the most serious disciplinary concerns within the congregation.
When I made this move, I spoke with a friend from my old church, one of the few who still acknowledged me. “You have to be careful,” she warned me. “In our church, at least we have a mechanism to hold clergy accountable. Where you are going, you’ll be at the mercy of the congregation. If you have a complaint and you don’t like the way they handle it, you have nowhere else to go.”
Apparently, I’m now in the Church Where No One Can Hear You Scream.
The reality isn’t so black-and-white, of course, but my friend has a point. My congregation has a well-considered Safe Church policy, but the highest court of appeal is the senior pastor. If he* makes sexual advances to a congregant, she* is invited to report it… to him. There’s no hotline, no suggestion box, not even a trail of bread crumbs to lead her to a higher authority. Unless she is extraordinarily brave and resourceful, she must either live with the abuse or silently leave the church. Even if she manages to figure out the system, her complaint will be handled by a mostly untrained team of clergy and laypeople. The process will almost certainly traumatize her further.
Why would any woman choose a church that offered such scant protection? Why, in particular, would I choose this church over one that held clergy to such high account?
It turns out that the process wasn’t so cut-and-dried at my old church either. After I filed my complaint, the church could definitely hear me scream, and it terrified them. They took extraordinary measures to protect themselves against my suffering. The bishop asked me not to contact any leaders, lay or clergy, during the two-month investigation, even while my offender remained on the job. “Congregations act like family systems,” he wrote in an email. “In this kind of situation, your benign actions could create unintended consequences.” When it was over, I learned that he had decided to handle my complaint “pastorally” and “confidentially.” He acknowledged that my priest had sexualized the pastoral relationship, but he didn’t consider the offense serious enough to invoke canon law. He had disciplined the offender privately, and he would not be informing the congregation.
“Really?” I asked. “Then as a courtesy, I need to let you know that I intend to talk to my friends. I need them to understand why I’m leaving.”
I could see his face visibly pale. “If you start talking to people,” he warned, “you could lose control of the information.”
Control? With hierarchical duct tape over my mouth, ripping it off and telling my story was the only control I had left. I began reaching out to the people to whom I had been closest, and I know the church could hear me because of what happened next. Friends dropped my acquaintance. Clergy spurned me in public, even clergy from other congregations. When I contacted national headquarters to find out why the canons had been ignored, I had to make the inquiry through a third party. All she was able to glean was that no one in headquarters would speak directly with a victim. Since then, I have reached out to my former church on this issue at least half a dozen times. In all those years, I’ve received exactly one response: “Thank you for your note and good luck in your future endeavors.”
When it comes to victims’ voices, church structure doesn’t matter. A congregational church can silence the victim by failing to provide a path to justice. A hierarchical church can silence the victim by marshaling its resources against her voice. Either way, the victim loses.
The good news: for the most part, the harm is unintentional. Most church leaders are people of good intent. When my former denomination strengthened their misconduct canons and added new protections for victims, a well-respected priest wrote proudly of the “transparency and accountability” that her church practiced. If she was blind to the reality on the ground, it wasn’t her fault. When honest leaders don’t see the impact of clergy sexual misconduct, it’s only because they’ve never met a survivor who is willing to tell her story.
And that is why I’m here. My voice, once silenced, is now strong. When leaders listen, my voice becomes my power.
I have no power in my former church at this point. What would I say to them anyway? On paper, they already have a strong process. But I’m excited about the opportunity to work with my new church. When I have spoken openly as a survivor, my voice has been heard and honored. I’m now in the homework stage. How does the congregational process work? What kind of complaints get escalated, and how? What kind of support do victims receive? How do victims find these resources? Most important, whom do I need to reach to start this conversation?
Stay tuned, friends!
* I refer to offenders as “he” and victims as “she” to reflect reality. Nearly all cases of clergy sexual misconduct involve a male offender and a female victim.