Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Archive for July, 2013

Transparency vs. Secrecy: Learning from San Diego

“The mayor is not to meet with women alone at city facilities.” When San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith made this extraordinary request, he built in accountability. He got  agreement from the mayor’s attorney, his deputy chief of staff, and the chief of police. And because he announced the ban publicly, we — the mayor’s constituents — can also hold him accountable. This safeguard protects women from becoming future victims and protects the city against unnecessary legal exposure.

After I filed my complaint, my church leaders put in the same safeguard, but with no accountability that I could see. They asked my pastor not to meet privately with women until they resolved my complaint — but unfathomably, they made no announcement. So how did the women on staff (including his secretary and our associate pastor) find out that they could no longer meet alone with the boss? What did his secretary tell the women who asked for meetings with the pastor? Did my pastor end up hanging a “No Girls Allowed” sign on his door?

The San Diego County Sheriff has announced a hotline for women to report sexual harassment by the mayor. Two — no, wait, make that three — alleged victims have now come forward publicly with complaints against Mayor Filner. A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department confirms that additional calls have already come in.

My church set up no hotline and made no announcement.

While I was still meeting regularly with my former pastor, he told me a story. One of his previous congregants had been a defrocked minister from a different denomination. According to my pastor, once this man’s church announced the first sexual misconduct complaint against him, “women came out of the woodwork.” In all, nearly 30 victims came forward. When I filed my complaint, I remembered that story and fully expected that my church would announce the investigation. I genuinely believed that other women would come forward, and that the long nightmare would end for all of us. Instead, the church insisted on secrecy. If there had been other victims, and if they were as terrified as I was, the church would never learn their names. These women would never come forward on their own.

By announcing the ban against meetings with women and the hotline for new complaints, San Diego’s leaders are standing with victims and protecting the city against its greatest threat: a powerful and abusive mayor.

By insisting on secrecy and silence, my former church stood with their shining star pastor and protected the institution against its greatest threat: me. I hope they are watching as the drama unfolds in San Diego. And I hope they are taking notes.

Thank You For Your Courage

“Thank you for your courage.” These were the first words my church leader said when I came to him with a complaint against my pastor. Several weeks later, the forensic psychologist leading the investigation said the same affirming words: “Thank you for your courage.”

These are the words that San Diegans should say to the women who have come forward with complaints against Mayor Bob Filner. Instead, I see people attacking the victims: demanding their names and the details of their abuse, accusing them of overreacting (though not once those details started coming out),  and blaming them and their supporters for harming the career of a great progressive leader.

I still remember the heart-racing, night-waking, gut-storm of terror I felt when I decided to report my pastor for sexual misconduct. Even when I understood that his actions had been an abuse of power, even when I came to fear for other women, I struggled for months before I made the decision to turn him in. It took even longer to build up the courage to make the call. I was terrified that my testimony could end a gifted preacher’s ministry, that my words could break the congregation’s heart; and that some of my friends could even turn against me. My overwhelming fears triggered a full-scale eating disorder, but as it turns out I wasn’t afraid enough. If I had known how bad it would get, I might never have come forward. And yet all I was risking was my place in my beloved church.

Filner’s alleged victims are risking far more. By accusing a powerful leader, these women risk their paychecks, their career paths, and their place in public life. They will be called (or perhaps have already been called) sluts, nuts, liars, and lackeys of the opposition. When the first victim’s name is made public and the TV crews set up in her front yard, her family will pay a price that none of us can begin to imagine.

If this scandal ends Bob Filner’s career, his supporters may grieve a great leader. All of us may grieve the harm to public discourse, the awful power of temptation, and the awful temptation of power. Grief may lead us into times of anger, but we can’t turn our anger on the victims. They have already suffered enough.

In Genesis, we read about the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah. Sexual assault carried enormous shame in ancient cultures, and often the shame landed on the victim. Dinah’s brothers placed it where it belonged: on the man who had raped their sister. The violence in the payback scene is extreme, but that’s how stories were told in those days. Seas parted on command; floods covered even the highest mountains; men lived hundreds of years; and Dinah’s brothers killed not only the rapist but every man in his city. Whether Dinah and her brothers are historical figures, the story is true a thousand million times. How many women were violated in ancient (and modern) days? How many men defended their families’ honor? And of those men, how many put the shame where it really belonged? Dinah’s brothers got it right — not just for their sister, but for all of us.

To Bob Filner’s unnamed accusers: no matter how this story ends, I will always look up to you as heroes. You are paying an enormous price to make the world safer for your sisters in public life. From the bottom of my heart, dear brave women: thank you for your courage.

The Truth Has Set Me Free

My new church walks in a big civic parade every summer. My former church marched in the same parade. When I was there, I loved this annual ritual. I was always proud that with nearly a hundred marchers, my church fielded the biggest contingent of all.

I left the church just before Christmas in 2009. In a final generous gesture to my pastor, I waited until after the holidays to file my complaint. By springtime, the investigation was over, his guilt had been swept under the carpet, and my ostracism was well underway. Still in treatment for anorexia and trauma, I entered my new church in a state of terror, but I was determined not to let my fears get in the way of my faith. As the weeks passed, I gained health, began sleeping better, and started feeling safer in church. When summer rolled around, I thought I was strong enough to risk being on the parade grounds again. I didn’t know how much protection I could expect from my new church — after all, they didn’t know my dark truth yet — but any protection was better than none.

So, on parade day in 2010, disguised with a big hat and sunglasses, I made my way to my new church’s assigned spot. With horror, I recognized the streamers, banners, and hundredfold forces of my old church, staged right next to us on the same short block. For two excruciating hours, I ducked a constant stream of the purple-shirted army. Rather than risk one more cruel encounter, I hid — no, literally cowered — on the curb between our two glittery convertibles. Those were two of the longest hours of my life. I had night terrors for weeks afterward.

Thankfully, for the next two years, the parade organizers staged us several blocks apart. But this year, once again, the two churches were staged on the same block. What a difference three years makes! Far from hiding, this time I strolled confidently past the mass of purple shirts. I was a stranger to most of them, but I did see a few familiar faces. Among them: three friends who had been dear to me. I smiled and greeted them warmly and they returned the welcome. I spent the next hour catching up with my old friends and introducing them to my new. In contrast to the terror of 2010, this was nothing less than a miracle.

Why am I so much stronger this year? Because I am known and loved for who I am: a friend, a helper, a gifted organizer and writer — and a survivor of clergy sexual misconduct. In my new church, I have support even (or perhaps especially) from the people who know my story. I get strength from my women’s “Journeying Together” spiritual group, from my online writers’ clan, and from the small but growing community of fellow CSM survivors. I still think carefully before I share my story with someone new. But except for the backlash that drove me out of my former church, so far all I’ve had is blessings. And now with this blog, I’m sharing my story with the world.

When I decided to speak and write openly as a survivor, I only thought of helping future victims. Now, the blessing has come back to me. The truth has set me free.

Church Bullying

Church bullying.

It is such a powerful force, even now. It has been three years since I left my church and reported my pastor for sexual misconduct. In those three years, I’ve restored my health, my faith and my marriage. I’ve joined a healthy church, built new friendships, and found my voice as a survivor. I’ve rediscovered the blessings of home and family, I’m leading a local effort on a justice issue, and I’m even writing again! I am stronger than I ever was before. “They” have no power to hurt me any more.

But they may still have the power to silence.

My former church is searching for a new pastor. My pastor’s abuses were never disclosed, but the grapevine knew anyway. The congregation still lives with the toxic secret that forced me out. When I tried to break the silence, the backlash sent me into hiding. I’ve had no contact with my former friends since I left, but I know my story still lives. When I went to a memorial service last fall, several leaders openly snubbed me. All these years later, my presence still makes waves. The secret still has power.

I looked at the roster for the pastoral search committee and saw some familiar names. I had been close to a few of the members, especially with one whom I’ll call Roberta. Last night, I drafted a note to Roberta: “Kudos for serving on the search committee again! I know how hard you worked on the last search.” I continued, “You may be aware that because of the previous pastor’s record, the new pastor will need to respond to broken trust. This is true even though the congregation was never informed about the pastor’s misconduct, or perhaps especially so because of the toxic effect of secrets and hearsay.” I shared some helpful resources (After Pastor Churches  and FaithTrust Institute ) and offered to meet for coffee, to talk about this or just to catch up on each other’s lives.

Then… I hovered over the “send” button.

Then… I asked my husband to read it.

Then… I started questioning my own motives. Was I doing this for my own sake? I have other ways to resist the powers of silencing — this blog, for one. Was I doing it for the good of the church? If so, did I have any hope that they would hear me? Would they finally acknowledge and deal with their pastor’s betrayal, or would they continue in a happy sham of ignorance?

I still haven’t sent my note to Roberta. I may never send it. Am I still being cowed into silence? Or, knowing that I would likely be ignored or worse, am I practicing wise self-care?

Church bullying takes many forms. My soft-spoken friend “Alyssa” belongs to a church now dealing with a controversy. At a recent meeting, Alyssa pointed out that the opposition deserved a fair hearing. Based on the reaction in the room, she might as well have lit a grenade. Even as I write these words, she faces immense pressure to backpedal and apologize, and it may be too late even for that. She may already be marked as a traitor. If this courageous woman wants to keep her job, groveling might be a reasonable choice.

I know what Jesus would do. The question is, what should Alyssa do? What should I do?

Praying to Grandmother God

Last Friday at the UCC General Synod, I attended a workshop that addressed one of the proposed resolutions: “Oppose Actions Seeking to Undermine the Status of Women in Society.” The Rev. Loey Powell, now the Executive Associate to the head of the United Church of Christ, and formerly the Executive Director of the UCC Coordinating Center for Women in Church and Society, led the discussion. Since the resolution would lead to concrete actions, Powell spoke mostly of the concrete impacts of gender bias. But amid all the practical talk, she shared a nugget of universal truth: language matters. In particular, it matters how we talk about God.

As a child, I thought of God as an all-male trio. The only language controversy was whether to capitalize the H in “He.” As an adult, I’ve been slow to adjust to gender-inclusive language. When a priest at my former church referred to the Holy Spirit as “She,” I was tickled, but also a bit scandalized. When another priest offered an alternative “inclusive language liturgy,” I was curious, but not enough to actually attend the service. I loved our traditional liturgy. I sometimes quietly substituted “God” for “He” during the worship service, but I wasn’t ready for any big changes. I didn’t see the harm in building a liturgy around male pronouns.

I discovered the harm the hard way.

When we call God “He,” we subtly connect holiness with masculinity. We project the message that men are more like God, or that God is more like men, or sometimes even that God finds women baffling. In one shopworn joke, God grants a man a single wish. The man asks for a bridge to Hawaii. God asks him to try again, and please be more practical this time. “Well then,” says the man. “I wish all men could understand our wives. I want to know how she feels inside, what she’s thinking when she gives me the silent treatment, why she cries, what she means when she says nothing’s wrong, and how I can make a woman truly happy.”

God replies, “You want two or four lanes on that bridge?”

When my former pastor told this joke in a room full of mostly women, I’m ashamed to say that I laughed. All of us did. We laughed not so much because the joke was funny, but because the most powerful person in the room had told it. To be sure, clergy may not always feel powerful. But while we are subtly communicating men’s Godliness and God’s maleness, we are doing the same thing with clergy in a hundred unsubtle ways. Clergy have special titles, wear special symbolic garments, and have special license plates. They lead our most sacred rituals, interpret our holy scriptures, and open doors (into hospitals, prisons, and private homes) that most of us can’t. We sometimes refer to clergy as men or women of God. Even their college degrees are more godlike than ours: who but a minister would hold a Master of Divinity?

All these differences, real and symbolic, give religious leaders more power, and more potential to abuse their power. When we call God “He,” we put male clergy on an even higher pedestal. We put adult and teen women, who are the primary target of wandering or predatory pastors, in even greater danger. The problem is, we are so accustomed to the power differential that we may not even notice it any more. When I joined my former church, I was a highly educated and accomplished feminist, well into my fifth decade of life. I thought I was as powerful and close to God (or as powerless and confused) as anyone. So when my charismatic head pastor invited me to see him for spiritual counseling, I didn’t even think about the power differential. I thought only about the clarity differential: I was spiritually confused and needed someone to help me clear things up. He was a brilliant preacher with a seminary education. Other than that, I thought we were equals. I could not have been more wrong. I couldn’t see the immense power that language and symbol conveyed upon my pastor. I thought I was looking to another human being for insight. Now, I can see I was dazzled by the trappings of rank and gender. I was flattered that this important minister wanted to discuss God and Life with me! His gender made him even more important in my eyes, and it set the stage for transference and harmful abuse of power.

It matters what words we use for God. We will never eliminate the clergy-laity power differential, but we can narrow the gap between men’s and women’s power in church. After my immediate crisis had passed (meaning: after the abuse, silencing, ostracism, and eating disorder were behind me), I set out to do just that. It was time to rebuild my shattered faith. My new congregation used wholly inclusive language, but many of my new friends still instinctively used “He” when they talked about God. I still found myself envisioning a masculine entity when I tried to pray. Because a male pastor had targeted me specifically as a woman, I found myself putting up walls against a God I saw as male. Eliminating “He” and “Him” wasn’t enough: I needed to come up with words and images that made me feel safe with God again.

That is why I now always think of God as “She.” I take great pleasure in praying the Psalms this way: (“She reached down from on high, she took me; she drew me out of mighty waters; she delivered me from my strong enemy.”) Artworks depicting the Creator (or even the Christ) as a woman move me to tears. I’m not under any delusion; I know that God doesn’t have breasts and a uterus any more than She has a penis. I’m not trying to say that God is a woman, or that I am closer to God because I am a woman, or that God finds men alien or second-class in any way. I’m only trying to balance the scales a little.

I have immense respect for my sisters and brothers who pray to Father God. I hope they will have the same respect when I pray to Mama God, Auntie God, or Grandmother God. I use these images not only for myself, but for all my sisters (and perhaps my brothers too) who feel disenfranchised when the church prays to a solely male God.

Dr. King had a dream, and I do too. I have a dream that one day, our prayers and hymns and Scripture translations will be judged not by the gender of their pronouns, but by their faithfulness to the living God, in whose image we are all made; the God in whom there no longer is, nor ever was, male or female. Then, and only then, will we be free.

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