Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Archive for September, 2013

Stepping Forward in Healing

A picture is worth a thousand words, so today I’ll just share my Facebook post. This is a big step forward in healing. Actually, lots of steps! ūüôā

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“Several years ago I was a serious runner, then trauma happened and running became part of an eating disorder. In recovery, I chose to give it up, I thought forever. Now, three years later, I am thrilled to be running again: not to win races, not to lose weight, but just for the pure joy of moving and being outdoors. Lace ’em up!”

Rejecting Shame. Claiming Our Voices.

Last night in my women’s group, “Celeste” talked about her 12-step work. Now in Step Four, she is writing an Inventory of Resentments. In the first column: whom does she still resent? In columns two and three: what did they do, and how did it impact her? Finally, in the fourth column, what role did she play in the harm she experienced?

Celeste paused and looked down at her feet. She sighed. Then she lifted her gaze. “I’ve never told you this,” she began, “but I was molested by a teacher when I was 14.” Celeste’s mother had one discussion with the school, but she refused to discuss it at home. To deal with the pain and shame, Celeste sought religion. She started attending her best friend’s church, and she met with a minister to confess her sins. When she “confessed” that her teacher had been sexual with her, the minister said the words, “I forgive you.”

“I forgive YOU??” Maybe thirty years ago, clergy weren’t mandated reporters of abuse. But today, if that minister didn’t tell authorities that a teacher had sexually abused a girl in his care, he would be criminally liable. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way in three decades, and so has Celeste. Even though her 80-year-old mother still calls the abuse “the event that you refer to as ‘molestation,’ ” Celeste is able to put the shame where it belongs. In her Inventory of Resentments, Celeste can write her teacher’s name, describe the event, and rage all over the page if she wants. But in the fourth column? “I’m leaving it blank,” she says. “I know I had no role in that event.”

This morning, writer/survivor Kerri (of the Kerri Chronicles) reposted a remarkable essay called “shameless by an author who blogs as¬†slhouchin. The essay opens:¬†“If I began telling you a story about how I was mugged, robbed, had my identity or car stolen, I would not worry about you judging me. The weight of blame would sit on the shoulders of the criminals. If I told you how my friend’s elderly relative was murdered after she answered the door to a salesman, you would not tell me how she was to blame for opening the door… But if I were to tell you how I am a survivor of sexual assault, I would be fearful.”

Like SLHouchin, I am still fearful today when I talk about clergy sexual misconduct. I am afraid that if I tell my story to anyone who doesn’t fully understand how it can happen even to strong women and men or how it impacts our lives (and 99.9% of the human population don’t understand these things), my listeners might think that I invited the abuse, or that I over-reacted, or that I made the whole thing up. In other words, that I’m a slut, a nut, or a liar. I’m not¬†afraid of the church’s attempts to silence me — in fact that makes me want to tell my truth even louder. But when I tell my story today, I’m telling it to people who are important in my life now. I don’t want to lose community again. That risk is always present, and it makes me afraid. Every time I tell my story, I have to push past that fear.

SLHouchin writes,¬†“I am conditioned to tell my story with an apology, with shame, with accountability for my part in his violence.” But she says,¬†“I am not ashamed for surviving. I am not ashamed for calming down, letting him finish, and smiling as he got into his car” or for “the last words I said to him ‘We’re cool.'” She continues, “I do have real shame in my life for the pain that I have caused other people. I have shame for my mean girl phase in high school. I am ashamed for the times in my life where I held my tongue instead of speaking the truth. I am ashamed that I do not speak this truth louder.”

My brave friend Fernando is now speaking out about a rape that he endured a few months ago. I use Fernando’s real name to honor his courage. Like me, he is speaking openly. Unlike me, he is telling his story fearlessly. He has a large following on social media, and he is using this platform to stand up publicly as a survivor, to raise awareness about sexual assault, and to give courage to other victims and survivors. Like SLHouchin, Fernando refuses to bear the shame that we sometimes place on the shoulders of rape survivors. Like Celeste, Fernando knows he played no role in his own violation.

SLHouchin tells about a Canadian teen who tragically took her own life after surviving a brutal rape and social bullying. “At 15, I felt the guilt too,” she writes. “I thought of taking my own life.” For most of her adult life, Houchin kept silent for reasons similar to mine. But now, she says, “Survivors dying by their own hand makes my silence so utterly selfish.”

And that is why I write and speak.¬†My voice (by which I mean “my courage”) is small yet, but it is growing. Every time I tell my story, every time I identify openly as a survivor of clergy sexual misconduct, my voice grows a little stronger. I couldn’t have done this three and a half years ago — I needed to heal before I could risk being ostracized again. But now I’m ready. I’m grateful to all my survivor friends, whether they were children or adults when they were victimized, whether their abuse involved physical force or sick-sweet persuasion, and whether they have told a thousand people or just one. You all give me courage. I hope I can give a little back to you.

Primary Emotions

Is anger a primary emotion? Or is it secondary, layered over a primary feeling like sadness or fear? And what’s the difference anyway? I started exploring these questions when I read K’s latest post, “True Emotions.”¬†¬†Here’s what I learned: primary emotions arise in response to events in our lives. When our primary response makes us anxious, we turn to other feelings. Men who feel sad or fearful may show anger instead. Women rarely do. We’re taught that our anger is dangerous. What do we call an angry woman, after all? Shrew. Harridan. Bitch. So what happens to the anger that women don’t express?¬†We turn it inward. We cut ourselves, starve ourselves or poison ourselves with drug or drink rather than lashing out at the ones who really deserve it.

I discovered this truth two years ago, just before Christmas. Nearly two years into recovery from the horrible events at my former church, I was feeling hopeful and confident again. Then out of the blue, I found myself thinking of suicide. When these thoughts intensified, I went to see my doctor. He listened to my story, then he told me: “Suicide can be murder in disguise.”

I thought about this for a minute. “Do you mean instead of mentally jumping off a bridge, I should imagine pushing someone off it?” I asked him. The doctor grinned his agreement. So for the rest of the season of Advent, whenever I felt sad or hopeless, I imagined shoving “Pastor Kevin” off the tallest bridge in our city and watching him take that long drop into the bay. By Christmas, I felt as peaceful as if I had spent weeks in prayer and good works.

I’m still angry with Kevin, and I’m still disgusted with the church leaders who seemed deliberately blind to Kevin’s behavior toward women.¬†But what about the bystanders?¬†Specifically, what about “Melinda”? The bishop appointed¬†Melinda¬†to be my chaplain while he investigated my complaint. What a relief! I wouldn’t have to educate anyone from scratch. Melinda¬†was our regional trainer for clergy abuse prevention, and she already¬†knew me well. I sent her a copy of my complaint, and I asked her to confirm the time for our Friday meeting. Meeting day came and went with no response. A week later, I still hadn’t heard from her. I began to worry: was this about Eileen? My complaint was primarily against Kevin, but my associate pastor Eileen was also in the hot seat. Her response had made church even more dangerous for me. I still remember exactly what she wore and where she sat when she spoke the harsh words: “You should have known better.” I can still see the anger in her face. Worse, she tried to dissuade me from reporting. She told me that if I did, I would “lose control” of the information.

Melinda admired and adored Eileen, as did most of the clergy in our diocese. I sent Melinda another note, telling her how hard it was for me to hold disloyal feelings toward her friend, and hoping she could still serve as my chaplain. Melinda’s words confirmed my worst fear: “I don’t know if I think I’m your best choice as chaplain.” It wasn’t that she didn’t believe what I had written about Eileen; she wrote: “I do, actually.” But that knowledge made her “a bit uncomfortable.” She was “at a personal loss” about how she could help me now. She wrote, “I’m sorry I’m not the right choice, but I hope we can continue to be friendly.” She suggested having “a cup of coffee now and then.”

Coffee was not what I needed. Abandonment by my chaplain was definitely not what I needed, but at that point I was too traumatized to engage in conflict. I let Melinda off the hook and went through the process alone. My bishop offered to find a replacement, but I knew Melinda had been my best hope.

So how do I feel toward Melinda today? Do I feel angry? Hurt? Betrayed? Yes, of course. I had a right to expect Chaplain Melinda to set aside her personal discomfort for a greater duty to the church, so of course I feel betrayed. But when I think about Melinda as a person, I only feel disappointment and pity. I’m disappointed that she wasn’t the person I thought, and I pity the weakness that cost her an opportunity to make a difference.

And this is where the writing gets hard. The truth is, I feel something more dangerous than pity or disappointment. I feel contempt for Melinda.¬†I despise the choice she made. Instead of compassion and hope, she offered me “a cup of coffee now and then.”¬†She had a chance to make a lifesaving difference and possibly a safe place in the church where I had taken my earliest steps in faith, but she chose to retreat to her gal-pal relationship with Eileen.¬†Did I make Melinda’s retreat too easy? Of course I did. I’m sure I felt anger, disgust, and contempt right away, but I couldn’t afford to burn one of the few bridges I had left in that church. And yet what a useless bridge she was!¬†Last year, I ran into her at a public event. She feigned warm concern; I feigned friendly gratitude. She didn’t deserve the truth, and I doubt she could have handled it.

In healing, and in my writing, I try to focus on the positive. When I interact with the people who hurt me or failed to protect me, I try to take the high road. But if this blog is to be useful at all, I need to be transparent even with dangerous feelings. Even at the risk of burning bridges.

Finding Strength, Hope and Healing

For some survivors, writing is how we heal. But while I was keeping my pastor’s dark secret, writing was almost impossible. How can I describe the weight of holding that secret? I don’t even have the courage to try right now; it was a terrifying, sickening, and confusing time that lasted far too long. I will just say that the secret permeated almost every waking thought for years. I had the terrible duty to guard my pastor’s reputation and honor, and the only way I could do it was through silence. But the secret wanted OUT. If I tried to write, the terrible secret found its way into almost line. To protect the secret, my writing turned to mud (dense, obtuse, opaque) and then dried up altogether. Years after I left my church, I finally found the courage to begin talking. Once I did, words started flowing like water.

It is the rare survivor who has the courage to write while she is still facing her demons. Even more rare: a survivor who writes so fearlessly that she almost pulls you into her world, even while she is still facing the horrors of victim-blaming and ostracism. Survivor “K” reported her pastor just this summer. He left ordained ministry only weeks ago. And yet she has the clarity of mind to write — and not merely a catalog of events. She shares with stunning transparency her struggles with trust and betrayal, loss and grief, despair and hope, anger, faith and emptiness.

K has given me permission to share her blog. As you read, please consider these suggestions and warnings:
* Start at the beginning. Scroll to the earliest post and read your way forward. The newer reflections will make most sense if you know the facts of K’s story.
* Trigger warning: the Aug 19 post titled “How My Experience with Clergy Sexual Misconduct Started” contains an account of sexual abuse.
* Trigger warning: the Sept 5 post titled “Don’t Call Me Brave” contains a description of self-harm.

K writes about abuse and betrayal, but she also writes about honor, compassion, and courage — and strength, hope, and healing. I’m honored to share her words here.

One Step Back

Healing from clergy sexual misconduct is two steps forward, one step back. And then it’s three steps forward, one step back. And then four, and then five, and eventually you have so much forward momentum that you stop going back at all. You’re healed! You’re whole again. You can never pick up where you left off, but your new life is good. You are stronger than you ever were before.

Except when you’re not.¬†And those moments can come out of nowhere.

At a church meeting a few days ago, one of the ministers proposed an idea to help the congregation understand “stewardship” more comprehensively. But before the words were even out of her mouth, my lizard brain took over. I had once been victimized by a priest who twisted meanings. For a time, he had me convinced that “a sexualized pastoral relationship” and “God’s healing grace” were the same thing. Now, when I see clergy doing anything that remotely resembles rewriting meanings, I panic. My fear took over that meeting and filled the room. We got nothing done. Everyone went home dispirited.

The next morning, I realized I’d been reacting not to the reality in the room, but to my traumatic memories. That really shook me up. I didn’t know I could still be triggered so easily. Worse, it had happened in front of some of the church’s most respected leaders. I sent a note of apology, and I explained the triggered memory. But the uneasy feeling remained. I felt shaky and out-of-control, and I didn’t feel safe staying on that committee. A day later I resigned.

Was I overreacting? Yes, of course, and I knew it. But I couldn’t even control that. And that triggered another flashback: associate pastor “Eileen” cringing as I walked into her office.¬†When I had first talked to Eileen about “Pastor Kevin’s” behavior, she gave me a lot of support. But when he returned from sabbatical two months later, things began to change. During my last year at the church, Eileen seemed more and more wary of me. The last few months, I saw her cringe every time I walked toward her office. That hurt, a lot. But I knew how damaged I was at that point. Eileen knew it too, and it must have made her feel afraid and helpless. And who knows what Kevin had said to her? I could hardly blame her for wanting to avoid me.

Eileen’s reaction is partly why I left. I couldn’t stay at a church where even the clergy were afraid of me. I needed a clean slate. At my new church, the pastor gave me a full year to heal before he asked me to take on anything. Three years later, I’ve done a lot and established myself as a leader. I was confident I was ready to serve on this committee. But now I’ve revealed this huge unhealed wound, and I’m reacting so fast that no one has time to respond. I’m acting not from my strong self, but from an ancient wound. In my mind, I play an endless loop of Eileen cringing.

I shared this story with another survivor. She advised me to stay on the committee if that’s what I really wanted to do. “It can be a learning experience for you on how to keep your emotions in check and figure out how to respond to triggers,” she said. “It can also be a growing experience for those on the committee to think about a larger context and learn more about the ways in which they interact with their congregation. It sounds like you may be able to challenge them to think differently.” She is right, and I now regret acting with such haste. But panic is a powerful thing.

So how do I make lemonade from these lemons? First, remind myself that I’m safe. My new church is a loving and resilient community. They know my dark story and still they have embraced me. Second, get past the shame of having blown up at that meeting. Walk into church on Sunday knowing that those people still care for me. Third, learn from this experience. Learn to recognize panic in its earliest stages. When it comes, sit quietly and ask myself if I’m really in any danger. Take slow, deep breaths until I feel safe again.

I didn’t expect to still be learning this lesson nearly four years after I left my church. But there it is, fellow survivors: this journey is a long one. I’ve taken an unexpected step back. Now, I’m ready for the next twenty steps forward.

Forgiveness: the Real F-Word

My friend “Deborah” was raised by mixed-faith parents: Jewish father, Christian mother. As an agnostic adult, Deborah remained fascinated by her parents’ faith traditions. She occasionally attended my former church, and she had great admiration for my pastor. She met with him at least once in his office.¬†When I reported my pastor, Deborah was shaken. She asked me, “But aren’t Christians supposed to forgive?” I don’t remember how I responded in that traumatized state, but apparently it was enough to end the friendship.

I did try to forgive my pastor, many times. His abuse consisted of a long period of grooming and two serious betrayals of trust. A mere two weeks after the first event, he “repented” and I “forgave” him. I struggled for more than a year to forgive the second event, and ultimately I could not. I now realize I never really forgave at all. I whitewashed the offense because I so desperately needed to think well of him, and to be at peace with him.

What is forgiveness, anyway? I have really struggled with this issue. Christianity promotes radical forgiveness. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells Peter to forgive a sinning brother “not seven times, but seventy times seven.” Christian culture pushes forgiveness so hard that even my agnostic-Jewish-Christian friend pressed me to forgive. But who benefits when a victim forgives her abuser? Does forgiveness free the abuser from sin? Does forgiveness free the victim from pain? Or does forgiveness free the community from the hard work of justice and healing?¬†I suspect it is mostly the latter. That’s why in the context of clergy sexual abuse, I consider “forgiveness” the real F-word.

Even so, I continue to struggle to forgive my offending pastor. Marie Fortune and Joretta Marshall’s “Forgiveness and Abuse: Jewish and Christian Reflections”¬†(Routledge, 2004) has been helpful in this effort. Whenever I feel shame about my Christian unforgiveness, I take courage from the fact that the Jewish tradition (the root of Christianity, after all) demands that the offender first make full reparation. What’s more, the Jewish tradition recognizes that for some sins, reparation is impossible. My former pastor can never restore my reputation from the false words he spoke about me afterward.

And yet, I continue to try to forgive. I continue to try to understand forgiveness. That’s why I was glad to learn of the FaithTrust Institute’s¬†free webinar next Tuesday.¬†The Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune will lead a discussion titled¬†“Violence and Trauma: What Does Forgiveness Really Mean?” I’ve joined several FTI webinars, and I highly recommend them. It’s easy to sign up. The technology is simple even for digital immigrants like me. Best of all, it’s completely anonymous. I’ll be there, and I’ll share the insights here. I hope you’ll consider joining this important event.

Thank You, Bishop Katharine

On August 15, I sent a letter to the Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. This morning, I received her extraordinary response:

Dear Ms. Thiemann,

My apology for the length of time this response has taken.  I have been out of the office for the last several weeks.

I deeply regret your own injury by sexual misconduct in this Church and the response thereto.  I am very much aware of how deep the pain and how difficult healing can be.  As Christians and Episcopalians, we seek healing for the whole creation and we also continue to fall far short of God’s dream for that healing.

I will have a conversation with Bishop Whalon, and hope that he will respond constructively to your request.  In regard to your second request, the Title IV process is under review, and I hope that the next General Convention will attend to some needed revisions.

May you know God’s healing grace in your own life, and continue to be a minister of healing for others.  I remain

Your servant in Christ,

Katharine Jefferts Schori

What makes Bishop Katharine’s letter so remarkable?¬†To heal from clergy sexual abuse, victims need to be heard and believed. We need our pain acknowledged, we need compassionate care, ¬†and we need to know that other vulnerable people will be protected. Most of all, we need to be vindicated, cleared of the cloud of accusation and innuendo, and held blameless for the abuse we suffered.¬†For me,¬†Bishop Katharine’s letter rings every one of those bells. And she makes no excuses; she simply expresses sorrow for the pain of this one victim. Do you know how seldom a religious leader responds with this much grace? My friend “Jane,” a survivor from another mainstream denomination, shook her head in wonder and said, “This just doesn’t happen.”

Well, now it has. I’m profoundly grateful on my own account, and I’m more hopeful for the Episcopal Church than I have been for a long time. I pray that Bishop Katharine will have the impact she hopes for. I will eagerly follow both stories, and I’ll share important developments here.


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