Every survivor makes her own choice about privacy. I now choose to speak and write publicly under my real name, but along my journey I have taken every position on the spectrum. First I told no one, then I told my husband, then my associate pastor, then the leader of a survivors’ ministry, then my two closest friends at church, and finally the church leaders. The process took nearly two years. When ostracism drove me out, I started the cycle over. It was months before I told a single soul at my new church. Three years later, I am more comfortable talking about it. “Survivor” is not the first word my friends think of when they see me, and it will never be the first word I say during fellowship hour. But in my work against clergy sexual misconduct, “Survivor” is my most important identity. I have found my voice, and I’m proud to stand up and use it.
Each survivor follows the path that feels right to her. Most stay under cover. My friend “Betty,” whose support was so helpful during my crisis, lives in a close-knit community with a strong stigma against sexual scandal. She chose not to file a complaint against her abuser. “Lisa,” a church consultant and boundary trainer, works tirelessly to make churches safer, but she rarely shares her survivor status. She never reported the Sunday School teacher who abused her as a teen. Four “Jane Does” from Iowa not only filed complaints, but testified in court and sent their pastor/abuser to prison last year. These women closely guard their privacy; they didn’t speak their names publicly even at a gathering of survivors. But their willingness to be in the spotlight made justice possible.
At the other end of the spectrum, survivors Jan Tuin and Samantha Nelson tell their stories openly. Jan began her ministry by writing her story under a pseudonym; Samantha has always spoken in her own name. Today, Jan and Samantha operate ministries (respectively, Tamar’s Voice and The Hope of Survivors) for other victims and survivors.
My friend “SurvivorGirl007” runs the blog on The Hope of Survivors website (you can find the blog under the “Need Answers?” tab on the THOS website). I asked her about her work against clergy sexual abuse. “My husband and I have spoken twice,” she said. “We spoke at a benefit concert in South Carolina. I had promoted it heavily on local Christian radio stations, but there were still very few people there. There is such shame connected with clergy sexual abuse that no one wanted to be associated with it, even if they had never been a victim. So we ended up speaking mostly to the praise band.”
SurvivorGirl007 and her husband also provided support to a victim in another state. They showed the THOS powerpoint on clergy sexual abuse to the church elders and spent a day with them, helping them understand the issue. “I wish we’d had that kind of support!” she exclaimed.
I asked how she chose her pseudonym. “SurvivorGirl was obvious,” she said. “I’m a survivor of cancer as well as clergy sexual abuse. But there are a lot of SurvivorGirls out there. I chose the numbers 007 because they were part of my abuser’s email address. In essence, I survived double-oh-seven. I think my pastor chose those numbers because he saw himself as a kind of secret agent. Now I’m the secret agent, but for good, not evil.”
SurvivorGirl007 lives in a community where there is a particularly strong taboo against sexual scandal. As a result, she and her husband have lost their church community not once, but twice. Although her name was kept confidential during the proceedings, they left their old church because they were too uncomfortable to return. Within a year of joining a new church, their new pastor had to resign because of sexual misconduct. When this happened, SurvivorGirl007 and her husband began educating the congregation, using THOS materials. “At first there was a lot of interest and support for our efforts to build awareness,” she said. “But by the end of the year, they had ostracized us” — not for reporting sexual abuse, but merely for trying to raise awareness about the issue.
Despite these painful experiences, SurvivorGirl007 continues to work against clergy sexual abuse. Her pseudonym gives her the safety to speak out boldly. I am proud to stand alongside SurvivorGirl007 in the struggle for justice and healing. You can follow her blog here.