Today I visited the city where my offending pastor works. Our family is traveling in the area and my husband had a business meeting in the city, so I tagged along and met a dear friend for lunch. My friendship with “Victor” began six years ago at the church where my abuse took place. Victor endured a different kind of betrayal: he felt a strong call to ordained ministry, but our pastor refused to consider him. Victor is transgender, and that put him outside the pastor’s comfort zone. Devastated, Victor left the church and moved back to the city where I met him today. His old friends were thrilled to see him again, and his new pastor embraced and supported his call to ministry. The church paid his way through seminary. By the end of this year, God willing, Victor will be ordained an Episcopal deacon. I could not be more pleased and proud.
Victor lives a full day’s drive from my home, so I only see him once a year. Every time we get together, I see so much evidence of growth and healing. Every year, Victor lives more fully into his vision of God’s call, and he sees the same progress in me. When we meet, we talk about our families and our work — his service to the church and the poor, my work on this issue. We try to focus on how God is working in our lives now, and not on the bad stuff that happened then. But since we both suffered at the hands of the same church and pastor, inevitably we spend time revisiting those events.
Victor confirmed my belief: my complaint profoundly affected my pastor’s career. On the day I filed my complaint, “Pastor Kevin” had been a finalist for one of the most prestigious posts in our denomination. My complaint forced him to withdraw his candidacy. Two years later, he settled for a place leading a mid-sized urban parish — a respectable job, but a definite step down from the prominence he had enjoyed in our hometown. Still, when I learned of his new job, I felt betrayed anew. Why would any church call a pastor with a recent record of sexual misconduct, unless he or the bishop had concealed or minimized the offense? Worse, he would now have access to a fresh crop of vulnerable women. So I did the only thing left in my power: I wrote to his new bishop and vestry, his search committee, and the other clergy in his new parish. I told them of his record, identified myself as the complainant, and said, “Your new pastor may have repented and reformed. But if he is still a risk, your awareness will create a safer environment.” After that, I had to let it go. I wasn’t completely at peace, but I had done all I could.
Since Victor and my offender now work in the same city, I figured they must have crossed paths. But when we met, Victor told me, “I never see him.” Relieved, I started talking about the work I’m doing now. We were sitting in the garden courtyard at Victor’s church. “Kevin’s actions changed the course of my life,” I said to Victor as I gestured toward a patch of dirt covered in dead leaves. “But in the work I’m doing now, he is no more important than one of those leaves.” And it’s true. His actions got me started in this work, but the church’s systematic indifference is what motivates me now. In my work, this man is utterly peripheral. In fact, I make it a point to know as little as possible about his current life. I try to think of him as a long-dead historical figure, or as a character in a novel.
But as Victor and I were parting today, he confessed he actually had seen Kevin a couple of times. He said Kevin no longer looks or acts like a rising star, and he said enough to give me a vivid image of the man Kevin has become since I left his church. This was unsettling. I hadn’t wanted to know anything about his life. Now it’s harder for me to dismiss him as a work of fiction: I can picture the current Kevin (older, heavier, sadder) in my mind. In a way I wish I hadn’t heard Victor’s words, because I don’t want to think of my offender at all. And yet in another sense my mind is more at ease. It’s harder to imagine him seducing a vulnerable parishioner. I have more confidence that I really have made the church safer.
Healing from trauma is hard. Denying Pastor Kevin’s existence may not have been healthy, but it was better than the obsessive, vengeful thoughts I had harbored for years. But now I need to take the next step: I need to acknowledge that this man still lives, works, feels, plays, and perhaps even grows in wisdom and grace. I don’t want to know him or connect with him in any way, but I am strong enough to release him from the prison of faux-nonexistence in my mind. And for the sake of his congregation, I’m strong enough to pray for his healing.