Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Archive for October, 2013

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 harm they have endured or inflicted on others. Maybe they don’t want to hear bad news about their pastor or their church. Maybe they genuinely believe that “moving on” is the key to our healing.

Whatever their reasons, they can’t understand why it takes so long for us to heal, and they get frustrated. I get frustrated too.

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 in 2011, 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. We lose community. If we report our offending pastors, we are 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.
3. 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? We may need top give them time to come to terms with their feelings. Some will ultimately support us; others will not. We may need to let go of friendships that no longer serve.

For the people who genuinely love us want to help us heal, here are some things we can tell them.
1. “Just by listening, you are helping.” Our friends may want to offer tangible help, or to “fix” our pain. We need to tell them how much it means when they simply listen.
2. “What I need now is …” a hug. Or help with meals or errands. Or a friend’s presence in a scary situation, like a meeting with church leaders or a visit to a new church. We can name our needs and ask our friends for help. They may be grateful just to feel we need them.
3. “I don’t know how long healing will take, 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 an hour from now. Some hours it gets better, sometimes worse — but over time, as we discover new resources, coping skills, and trustworthy friends, it does get better.

We can never go back to who we were before the abuse; we can only go forward. We will never trust anyone as unquestioningly as we trusted our exploitive pastors, and that’s a good thing. As we learn to discern whom we can trust, 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.

 

 

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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