I just spent three days at a FaithTrust Institute training, “Responding to Clergy Misconduct.” I learned how the church can respond in a way that promotes justice and healing for all — or not. As a result, I finally understand what my former church did for me and to me. Clarity brings healing in the long term, but in the short term it feels like a ton of bricks. By the end of the second day, I felt as if I’d hauled those bricks a Roman mile. My whole body felt bruised. Is this what injustice feels like?
Here are some of the ways a church can guarantee a lawsuit.
“Assume that your job is to protect your organization from the complainant.”
“Allow your lawyer or insurance company to drive the response process.”
“Don’t follow your policy. Use an informal process.”
The FaithTrust Institute offers a full guide for how to be sued and lose, and an even fuller guide to doing it right. When churches seek the best outcome for survivors, they also create their own best outcome. To avoid a lawsuit, churches should create and follow a fair process, using steps like these:
“Respond promptly to complaints. Meet with the complainant. Thank her/him for coming forward.”
“Assume that the complaint is made in good faith and that the accused is innocent until the complaint is adjudicated.”
“Offer an advocate or support person to both parties.”
I need to give my bishop credit for doing some things right. He phoned me as soon as he received my email. He opened an hour in his calendar the very next day. When we met, he thanked me for my courage. He assured me, “This was not your fault.” He said right up front that he wouldn’t even attempt a face-to-face reconciliation. He didn’t offer me an advocate, but he did appoint a chaplain… and that’s where it began to fall apart. He failed to prepare “Chaplain Melinda” for her role. When I reached out for support, Melinda found herself unwilling to serve. (I’ve already shared that story here.) When she defected, I had to carry the burden alone.
The bishop left my offender in place while he asked me to avoid any contact with clergy or church leaders until the investigation was complete. He informed me when he had appointed the investigator (another good move, by the way; “Dr. Jones” was skilled, fair, and compassionate), but otherwise he left me in the dark for two long months. When I met with the bishop again, I learned that rather than following the process described in church canons, he had created an ad hoc “pastoral response” (pastoral to whom?). He refused to share the terms he had imposed on my offender. He refused to inform the congregation.
How would my life be different if the bishop had taken steps like these?
“Offer an advocate to the complainant.”
“Explain the process and give the complainant and accused a copy of your policy and procedures.”
“Communicate with all parties involved about the process, findings, and decision.”
Instead of two months of terrified isolation, I might have had support from my church community. I might not have taken the terrible plunge into anorexia. I might still have stayed with that faith tradition; I might today be supporting the bishop’s work with my skills, efforts, and dollars.
I didn’t end up suing my church, but I did hire an attorney to get the resources I needed. I was simply too impaired to represent myself, or even to know what I needed. To minimize the chance of further trauma, I kept my request simple. I asked for only enough to cover my out-of-pocket medical and therapy costs, along with a few non-monetary actions. Even so, my church paid dearly for their agenda of self-protection.
I never got the justice I really needed. Since the church never disclosed the result of the investigation, my offender was free to defame me with impunity. But a year after the contract was signed, I found myself in a small room with the bishop and his second-in-command, a dozen priests (most of whom knew me well), and Marie Fortune of the FaithTrust Institute. At the bishop’s invitation, Marie had flown to my city to teach the church what clergy sexual misconduct is, and how to respond for good or ill. In that room, for the first time ever, I stood openly and publicly as a survivor. While my bishop stared down at the table, I asked Marie whether it was ever okay for the church to conceal a confirmed instance of clergy misconduct. She looked at the bishop, took a deep breath, and said, “No. It should always be disclosed.” I watched as the bishop pretended he hadn’t heard her. I watched as he stood up and countered the very words he claimed not to have heard. But I know that the bishop heard this truth, and he knows I know he heard, and the truth is forever established.
One way a church can buy trouble: impose a gag order on the complainant. My contract held all parties to a standard non-disparagement clause. That was fine with me; I knew I could tell my story without disparaging anyone. I willingly concede my offender’s good qualities (strong preaching, personal charisma, low golf score) even as I tell the truth of how he abused his power to harm me. But the bishop seems to have understood “non-disparagement” to mean “silence.” When I learned that my offender had been called to lead a prestigious parish in another city, I notified his new bishop of the recent offense on his record. Afterward, my bishop’s attorney sent me a note of warning. I pointed out that I was only disclosing the facts that my bishop had already promised to disclose.
Worst of all: the bishop asked me to sign a settlement that let my offender completely off the hook. I signed the contract, the bishop signed it, the senior lay leader signed it, our attorneys signed it — but my offender didn’t. His name didn’t even appear in the contract. Where is the justice in that?
I’m not complaining, though. Leaving the church of my childhood faith was hard, but now I have the privilege of seeing how the Holy Spirit moves in a very different kind of church. I’ve found immense healing in my new church home in the UCC. And now, thanks to what I have learned from the FaithTrust Institute, I’m equipped to make my church a safer place for all.
The FaithTrust Institute offers “Responding to Clergy Misconduct” training twice a year. Their invaluable “Responding to Clergy Misconduct” handbook is available year-round. Dear readers, won’t you share this news with your faith leaders? Churches often fear that if they give an inch to victims, they’ll lose everything. But in fact, when church leaders seek to meet the real needs of victims, they win too. When churches see victims and survivors not as a threat but as an important voice of truth, everyone wins. A justice-seeking agenda is the rising tide that lifts all boats.