Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Archive for October, 2013

Progress in Australia! Can It Happen Here?

I have a dream… that one day, national leaders from all faith traditions will gather to solve the problem of clergy sexual abuse.

I have a dream… that these leaders will include survivors in their work, listening to our voices and learning from our experience.

I have a dream… that they will enlist ordinary clergy and congregations in this work, finally aligning all of our interests and creating real solutions.

Friends, are you sitting down? This is not a dream! This gathering actually happened in Australia, and has happened since 2004. The Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune just spent three weeks “down under” as the guest of the Safe Church Project of the National Council of Churches in Australia. She led trainings in Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne and keynoted the Safe As Churches? conference in Sydney. (Imagine your denomination inviting Marie Fortune to keynote a convention! At this year’s national gathering of the UCC, I couldn’t even find one workshop on safer churches, much less a keynote address.)

Marie Fortune has worked with churches in Australia since the late 1990s. Ten years ago, she began to notice “efforts across denominations to put policy and procedures in place to address complaints of clergy misconduct.” This year, she was thrilled to see 180 people from a variety of faith traditions gathering to learn, strengthen relationships, and plan for an even greater future.

Something good is happening in Australia. I still get chills watching an address by the Australian Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, last June. As his army investigated allegations of sexual abuse and harassment, Morrison gave the strongest possible message to his troops. If I shared all the words I admire, I would be quoting his entire speech. You owe it to yourself to watch General Morrison’s message.

We need a David Morrison. Obviously the church is not an army, so what we really need is an army of David Morrisons: individual church leaders who will stand up, speak boldly, and unite with other leaders. I hope every U.S. bishop and judicatory leader will read Marie Fortune’s Australian trip report, pick up the phone, and call a colleague in another faith tradition.

We often pray for the church “that we may all be one.” Is there any issue that calls for Christian unity more than this one?

Why Does Healing Take So Long?

“Isn’t it time to move on?”

As survivors, we hear this question all the time: sometimes directly, more often in silence and a change of subject. Our loved ones may have many reasons for not wanting to talk about it. Maybe our experience triggers memories of sexual offenses that they have endured, or that they have inflicted on others. Maybe they don’t want to know the harm that their beloved pastor or church caused in our lives. Maybe they genuinely want the best for us and genuinely believe that we won’t heal until we can “leave it all behind.”

Whatever their reasons, they can’t understand why it takes so long for us to heal, and they get frustrated. I get frustrated too. When I reported my pastor in January 2010, I knew I was in for a few rough months, but I figured life would be back to normal by summertime. But that summer, I was still in treatment for an eating disorder brought on by the abuse. Nearly four years later, life still isn’t back to normal. I have gained substantial wholeness, but my previous “normal” is gone forever. My new “normal” is wrapped around scars. And four years later, the pain sometimes still feels fresh.

Why does healing take so long? Here are some of my thoughts.
1. On a pain scale, clergy sexual abuse is near the top. The Rev. Pamela Cooper White calls CSA “soul stealing.” Dr. Martin Weber, president of the board of The Hope of Survivors, served as a police chaplain for many years. At a survivors’ gathering two years ago, Dr. Weber told us about going with police officers when they had to notify next-of-kin. He would sit with the bereaved through the first shock of grief and loss, often in the middle of the night. Even after witnessing these searing scenes, he says he has never seen greater suffering than he sees in victims of clergy sexual abuse.
2. Our wounds may be invisible, but they are deep. I have a brave young friend who fell last summer while climbing a difficult rock cliff. “Cassie” may be tied to a wheelchair for life. How insulting would it be for me to insist that she “move on” and “put it behind her”? Yet that is what CSA survivors hear. Having struggled for years to “move on,” and having watched other survivors do the same, I have come to believe that our experience is the emotional and spiritual equivalent of falling off a 35-foot cliff.
3. We lose community. If we report our offending pastors, we are most often silenced and ostracized. If we quietly leave our churches, we become the butt of gossip. Even our most loyal friends may walk away when they realize the price they pay for standing up with us. We must face the most painful and confusing experience of our lives — alone. For many of us, the loss of community is more traumatic than the abuse itself.
4. Beyond the spiritual and emotional pain, we may have tangible losses. Survivors of clergy sexual abuse may lose our marriages. We may become estranged from parents or siblings still loyal to the church. If we worked for the church, we may lose our livelihood. If the abuse happened in seminary, we may lose our sacred calling. We may fall into addictions. The emotional damage may make us unemployable for months or years. We may suffer permanent changes to our health. We may even attempt suicide. (Please, if you have considered suicide, click here for hope and help.)

So what can we tell our friends and families? If they are secretly carrying baggage as victims or perpetrators of sexual offenses, we may need to just give them time to come to terms with their experience and ours. If they are so loyal to our offending pastor or church that they feel they can’t support us in our healing — well, there’s nothing we can do about that. We can be grateful for the other ways those people are a blessing in our lives. And if there are no “other ways,” we may need walk away from those friendships.

But the people who genuinely love us want to help us heal; they just may not know how. Here are some things we can tell them.
1. “Just by listening, you are helping me.” Our friends may want to offer tangible help. If we have husbands, they may want to “fix” our pain. We need to tell them how much it means to us when they are willing to simply listen.
2. “What I need now is …” a hug. Or a Bundt cake. Or a friend’s presence in a scary situation (my husband came with me to meet with the bishop in 2010; my friend S. came with me when I visited my former church last week). We can name our specific needs and boldly ask our friends for help. The chances are, they will love the feeling of being needed.
3. “I don’t know how long healing will take or what it will look like, but I am committed to healing.” Share the steps you are taking to recover: therapy, prayer, healthy friendships, twelve-step programs for addictions, meditation, singing, knitting… and ask your loved ones to help you see when any of these pursuits gets out of hand. Believe it or not, it is possible to knit too many scarves.
4. Finally, “I promise I won’t be this sad forever.” While you are saying these words to your family and friends, say them to yourself. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about emotions, it’s that they don’t stand still. What I’m feeling now I won’t be feeling even an hour from now. Some hours it gets better, sometimes worse — but over time, as we discover new resources, new ways of coping, and new people whom we can trust, it does get better. My friends tell me that they see me growing more whole every year.

We can never go back to the person we were before the abuse; we can only go forward. We will never trust anyone as unquestioningly as we once trusted our abusive pastors, and that’s a good thing. As we learn to discern whom we can trust, and for what, we can form friendships with more realistic expectations. And when we do find someone whom we can trust with our deepest hopes and fears, we’ll know exactly how blessed we are.

 

Working With the Law: Making CSA Illegal

A few months ago, I was talking with my dad about my work on this issue. I told him that in many states, pastors can go to prison if they have sexual contact with a congregant. I could see the skeptical look on his face.

“You seem surprised, Dad,” I said. “Why?”

My dad asked, “Why is it the state’s business who a priest has sex with?” In other words: what’s wrong with a little canoodling between consenting adults?

The problem, of course, is “consent.” It’s hard to say “no” to someone more powerful than yourself. And if you can’t say “no,” your “yes” has no meaning, especially when the “yes” is won by emotional manipulation and deceit. My former pastor gained my trust, and eventually my romantic feelings, by feigning interest in my soul. If he had been open about his lust from the beginning, I never would have given him the time of day. But by the time he spoke, I was completely dependent on his pastoral care. It took me nine days to get the clarity of mind to say, “No.” That one word took all my strength, and ultimately I couldn’t make it stick.

I didn’t share all this with my dad; I just said that the power differential made meaningful consent impossible. Aha! I could see the light coming on. My dad said, “So it’s like when psychologists sleep with their patients!” Exactly right. The Hippocratic Oath prohibits sex with patients, and in all fifty states, a therapist can lose his or her license for being sexual with a patient. In many states, that therapist can end up in prison. And in 13 states (Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin) and the District of Columbia, the fiduciary duty law applies to clergy who offend sexually within a pastoral counseling relationship. The National Organization for Women supports efforts for legal reform in all states.

I’m not a lawyer, so I was glad to find a paper explaining the legal issues on the resources page of the Baylor clergy sexual misconduct study. If you’re curious, you can dive into some of these links. Sexual Misconduct of Clergypersons with Congregants or Parishioners — Civil and Criminal Liabilities and Responsibilities (Helge and Toben) is not easy reading, but it offers a deeper understanding of state laws on clergy sexual misconduct. In 11 of the 13 states, CSM is illegal only when it arises from a formal therapeutic counseling relationship. Only Texas and Arkansas criminalize clergy/congregant sex per se. The Texas law, like an earlier Minnesota law, refers to “the clergyman’s professional character as spiritual advisor.” That clause in the Minnesota law was struck down on the basis of church/state entanglement, and the Texas law still faces challenges. In contrast, the Arkansas law never mentions religious practices; it only requires that the clergyman be “in a position of trust or authority over the victim,” using that trust or authority to engage in sexual activity. The Arkansas law has so far stood up to all challenges.

Even as you read these words, the advocacy team at Predatory Pastor is trying to get clergy added to Virginia’s Fiduciary Code and Criminal Statutes. Jim Wright makes a clear supporting argument on his Crossroads Junction blog. I hope you will join me in signing this petition.

And if you are a lawyer interested in getting something started in California, let’s talk.

 

 

Waiting For My Bundt Cake

My friend Sandy blogs about her son’s drug addiction. “If Joey were dying a slow death from cancer, the world would reach out with comfort,” she writes. Instead, the world see Joey’s addiction as a moral failure — his and his family’s. Sandy finds healing by raising her voice to end the stigma of addiction. She says, “We’ll know we’ve succeeded once comfort is baked into Bundt cakes, as it is for every other disease.” In the meantime, Sandy struggles in loneliness.

I have also known loneliness. During the hardest part of my journey — filing my complaint, waiting for justice that never came, watching friends pull away one by one — I was offering support to a friend whose daughter was battling leukemia. Whenever Gail posted updates on CarePages, dozens of us sent messages of love and support. I knitted a cap for Sydney’s little bald head, and then I taught her how to knit for herself. I wouldn’t have traded places with Gail for anything, but I envied her circle of care. I envied it bitterly! There is no CarePages for clergy sexual abuse. People respond to cancer with Bundt cakes, knitted caps, and love notes, but they respond to clergy sexual abuse by turning their backs and walking away. Almost every time I told my story, I lost another friend. Finally, I just stopped talking. While I was helping Gail survive her ordeal, I was trying to survive my own — but I couldn’t ask her for support. I couldn’t even tell her I was suffering.

Losing community may be the hardest part of the CSA victim’s journey. I expected to lose a few friends, but I was utterly stunned by what happened. In a matter of weeks, I turned from a respected church leader into a nonentity. In the silence from my beloved community, I felt as if I had drowned unseen in a crowded swimming pool. The water closed over my head, I was gone without a ripple, and no one even raised a cry. It was as if I had ceased to exist, or perhaps I had never existed at all. During these awful months, I had a weekly appointment with a therapist who worked near my old church. I parked several blocks from her office so I could walk along the boulevard on which my friends drove to work. Did they see me as they drove? Could they see my pain? I was pale as a cadaver, gaunt as a famine survivor, hollowed empty by trauma. Why would I want them to see me this way?

Honestly: all I wanted was to be seen at all. I wanted to know that I still existed. Maybe that’s why I joined a new church so quickly: I needed to be real again. Once there, I clung to every bit of evidence: an elderly man who greeted me by name every Sunday. Receiving my official church name tag. My face in the congregational photo (scroll down to see it here. I still look for myself every time I see that picture. It still thrills me to find my face in that beautiful crowd.) By now, the evidence is overwhelming: I am not alone any more. I am real, and I’m part of a very real community.

And yet I still sometimes find myself thinking like a refugee, living in constant protection against the next disaster. I skip church when I feel it becoming too important. I keep a distance from anyone who reminds me, no matter how remotely, of someone from my old church. I even look for reasons to back out of the women’s group that helped me find my soul again. But am I not just cheating myself? Cleaning out my files today, I found a little folded card with the emblem of my church on the outside. Inside, these words: “This is to certify that Catherine Thiemann has been received into full membership of Mission Hills United Church of Christ.” Full membership! Not “temporary asylum,” not “legal permanent visitor,” not “foster child until we change our minds.” I have been accepted into FULL MEMBERSHIP. I need to absorb this gift. It’s time to let the refugee go. It’s time to unpack, put the suitcase away, and move in.

We still have a long way to go before we erase the stigma of clergy sexual abuse. I still don’t talk about it with most of the people in my life, just as Sandy can’t talk about her son with most people. But one word at a time, we will end the stigma and elicit compassion for our fellow sufferers and survivors. And when we do, I’m going to enjoy that Bundt cake.

The Shelf of Shame: A Book to Avoid

Here’s one for the Shelf of Shame: John Thoburn and Rob Baker’s Clergy Sexual Misconduct: A Systems Approach to Prevention, Intervention, and Oversight (Gentle Path Press, 2011). I’m always interested in finding new materials for the Survivor’s Bookshelf, so I bought this title last month. Unfortunately, the editors focus on the needs of clergy and their families to the exclusion of victims. Worse, with sentences like this one, they seem to hold victims responsible for their own pain: “Both pastors and dioceses may find themselves sued civilly because of a pastor’s sexual conduct toward parishioners, even if that sexual behavior is between consenting adults.” (Emphasis mine. Withering scorn also mine.)
You can read my review here. I had fun writing it; I hope you enjoy reading it. If you find it helpful, please vote! I want Amazon to keep my review up as a warning to survivors who might otherwise see this book as a potential resource in healing.

New Leadership at Vanderbilt Divinity School

Vanderbilt has a new dean of divinity! The Rev. Dr. Emilie M. Townes is only the second woman ever to hold this position. She will be the first African-American dean at the Vanderbilt Divinity School, the first lesbian, and almost certainly the first dean to have gotten a whole set of encyclopedias thrown out of her elementary school library. Two years into her goal of reading every book in the library, Emilie Townes came to the “S” volume of the encyclopedia. In the entry on slavery, she found “cartoonish and offensive caricatures of black folk eating watermelon. Stereotypes of smiling black folk working in the field with tattered clothes. A monstrous cavalcade of sambos and mammies and pickaninnies.” Shocked nearly speechless, 10-year-old Emilie brought the book to her teacher and the librarian. “All I could do was open the page and say, ‘This is not right.’ ”

The educators agreed. They threw out the offending encyclopedias even before the new set arrived, and Emilie Townes has been changing the world ever since. In her first address as dean, Townes asked the Vanderbilt audience, “How many versions of that ‘S’ volume do we have in our academic disciplines? In our churches? In our communities?”

Indeed! If Protestant Christian seminaries produced an encyclopedia, what would we find in the entry on clergy sexual abuse?
* Would the entry focus on the abuse of children in the Roman Catholic tradition, and say (like the Pharisee in Luke’s gospel), “Thank God we are not like that”?
* Would it speak of “affairs” between pastors and their congregants, staff, or junior clergy?
* Would it paint victims as sexually voracious or mentally unstable seductresses?
* Would it shrug off the damage in victims’ lives as the inevitable result of their own weakness?
* Would it warn future pastors to protect themselves against false reports by vengeful congregants?

Or would it tell the truth?
Clergy sexual abuse happens in every faith tradition.
* Experts estimate that 95% of clergy sexual abuse victims are adult or teen women.
* The landmark Baylor study of 2009 showed that nearly 1 in 30 churchgoing women (or seven survivors in an average-sized congregation) have endured sexual advances from clergy as adults.
* When a pastor initiates or encourages a sexual connection with a congregant, it is never an affair. It is abuse. The clergy/lay power differential makes meaningful consent impossible.
* Congregants may develop crushes on their pastors, but pastors need to remember that it’s not about their attractiveness as men (or women). It is about their power as clergy, their perceived spiritual superiority, and their apparent willingness to listen and care.
* Clergy sexual abuse causes profound emotional and spiritual damage even to victims who start out healthy and strong. Worse, predatory pastors target the already wounded. Some victims never recover. Every single survivor is a living, breathing miracle.
* Of course each claim should be investigated, but false claims are rare almost to nonexistence. As I shared here, a pastor is more likely to be struck by lightning than to be falsely accused of clergy sexual abuse.

Emilie Townes challenged her audience. “How many versions of that ‘S’ volume do we have?” she asked. “And how can I and others model what my teachers did, and provide others with larger and more accurate visions of who we are, and how we can be, in the household of God?”

Vanderbilt Divinity School is on the right track. Last fall, the school invited the Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune, founder of the FaithTrust Institute, to deliver the Carpenter Lecture, “Wolves in Shepherds’ Clothing: The Institutional Crisis of Clergy Sexual Abuse.” When religious institutions invite Marie Fortune to speak, it is always a good sign: she is fearless. She pulls no punches. I hope that Emilie Townes will continue to include strong voices like hers in the dialog at Vanderbilt. Even more important, I hope she will include the voices of survivors.

I have great hope for Emilie Townes. She has already spoken clearly on this topic. Vanderbilt Divinity School and its partner, The School of Theology at Sewanee, together graduate more than 100 new Masters of Divinity every year. These men and women will eventually lead churches and judicatories. They will have the power to harm or to help their congregants, to hide behind institutional self-protection or to challenge it boldly, to silence the voices of victims or to learn from them and heal the church.

Dear Rev. Townes: the community of survivors are looking to you with hope. Will you grab these future leaders by the ears, look them in the eyes, and demand that they take seriously their call as caretakers and protectors of God’s flock? Will you give them a larger vision for what the Church can be? Will you blaze a trail of leadership that invites all divinity deans to follow?

We are looking to you with hope.

Forgive My Abuser? It’s Biblically Impossible.

After years of fruitless attempts to forgive my former pastor, I’ve finally figured out why I can’t do it. According to the Bible, it is impossible.

“What?” you ask. “Didn’t Jesus tell us to forgive seventy times seven? Doesn’t the Lord’s Prayer ask us to forgive? And doesn’t that prayer imply that if we don’t, God won’t forgive us?”

Yes, all that is true. But I finally understand what forgiveness meant in Jesus’ day. In Structures of Forgiveness in the New Testament, Frederick Keene explains it all. According to Keene, the New Testament authors used three Greek words to mean “forgive.” Here are what those words meant to them:
1. Aphiemi: To leave behind (“They left their nets and followed him,” Mark 1:18 and Matthew 4:20); to cancel a debt (“The master of that slave released him and forgave him the debt,” Matthew 18:32); to release from bondage (“He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,” Luke 4:18); or to pardon sins (“Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven,” Luke 7:47).
2. Charizomai: To be generous. Paul uses this word to convey God’s boundless generosity (“He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us,” Romans 8:32). Luke uses it in the sense of forgiving debts (“He canceled the debts for both of them,” Luke 7:42).
3. Apoluo: To dismiss or divorce; to release a spouse from the obligations of marriage. This word appears only twice in the New Testament, both times in Luke 6:37c.

Please notice! The NT authors never used “forgiveness” to mean “swallowing your anger” or “pretending it didn’t happen.” Forgiveness was not an emotion but a transaction. Masters could cancel their servants’ debts. Jailers could release their prisoners. Husbands could free their unhappy wives to go back home. Jesus could pardon a woman’s sins. In other words, forgiveness meant letting someone off the hook.

So, whom can we let off the hook? Only our equals or those over whom we have power: an employee who needs the day off, a friend who owes us money, a spouse asking for a divorce. Who can let us off the hook? Only our equals or superiors: a boss when we need the day off, a friend to whom we owe money, a spouse who agrees to a divorce. We cannot forgive someone who has power over us. Looking up the chain of command, forgiveness simply has no meaning. We cannot let a more powerful person off the hook because we never had them on the hook to begin with. Dying on the cross, even Jesus had no power to forgive his executioners. “Father, forgive them,” he said to the One who did.

In a clergy/congregant relationship, the pastor always holds the power, with one small exception. Between the first chargeable instance of clergy sexual abuse and the victim’s promise of silence, the victim has the power of disclosure. When my pastor made his sexual interest clear, I had to decide what to do about it. For nine excruciating days, he knew I had the power to turn him in. In his terror, he promised to repent and I promised not to tell. I didn’t undergo an emotional change (as in “what you did was OK”); I simply agreed to a transaction. In exchange for his “repentance,” I would protect him from the church’s justice. But eventually I saw that there were other parties to this transaction. Other women were at risk, most of them even more vulnerable than I was. I knew that I owed more to my sisters than I did to my boundary-crossing pastor. Once I recognized my debt, I had no choice but to break my promise. When I did, I rendered my “forgiveness” null and void.

And yet I have still felt the pressure to forgive. Why? While Jewish theology puts the burden of forgiveness on the offender (from the Talmud: “A transgression a man has been guilty of toward his neighbor, Yom Kipur cannot atone for, until he has appeased his neighbor”), Christians still broadly misunderstand forgiveness as a “make everything OK” panacea. To understand why, let’s look at who is involved when one person offends against another. The victim and perpetrator, obviously — but also, an invisible third party. Clergy sexual abuse (like child abuse, elder abuse, spousal/partner abuse, and virtually every kind of abuse) occurs within community. The community itself is the third party to abuse. Whether congregants witness clergy sexual abuse or not, they are de facto bystanders.

In Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman describes the bystander’s dilemma. When one person causes trauma in the life of another, Herman writes, “all the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing… The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.” Hmmm. If you were a bystander, which would you choose? To make it worse, bystanders don’t have access to the facts, only to the perpetrator’s version of the facts. Victims are almost always silenced, discredited, or exiled, often all three. As a result, most bystanders shun the victim, attack her, or assign her the burden to forgive. This only adds to her trauma.

And who reaps the benefit when the victim “forgives”? The perpetrator escapes justice, the bystanders go back to their lives — and the victim is left holding the bag. It can be a heavy bag indeed. The burden is made heavier by the oft-repeated suggestion that “forgiveness” will bring about “healing.” Marie Fortune calls this a cruel hoax for victims, and I agree. When I too quickly “forgave” my pastor, I opened myself to two more years of his harmful behavior. When I said “enough!” and demanded justice, my healing finally began.

I cannot forgive my pastor, but that doesn’t mean I am trapped in a prison of my own making as some would suggest. Far from it! I liberated myself when I walked out of the prison of his lies. I liberate myself today by telling my story in a way that I hope will awaken the church. Because I chose justice, I can choose to confront him in person or to estrange him completely. I can choose to build a life of advocacy around my experience or to walk completely away from the issue. I can choose to tell my story or withhold my story, and I have full freedom to make that choice anew with every circumstance. All these choices are mine, but only because I chose justice. It’s up to him to forgive me for that, or not — it makes no difference to me.

Because I AM FREE.

You can read my reflection “Forgiving Like Nelson Madela” here.

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