“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.