Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Archive for December, 2013

What Was Your Moment of Truth?

How do you know when you’ve reached the end of the road? In an abusive/ seductive relationship with your minister, what is the moment of truth that gives you the strength to leave? Four years ago this week, that moment came for me.

In January of 2008, after three years of skillful grooming, “Pastor Kevin” expressed his sexual intent to me. When my head cleared nine days later, I ended our pastoral counseling relationship and began the long journey of trying to make sense of what had happened. But for the first two years of that journey, I was so close to Kevin that I couldn’t see clearly. He kept me close with offers that he knew I couldn’t refuse. In April of 2008, he invited me to write a book with him. (I’ll share that failed project in another post). In December of that year, he created an unpaid staff job for me, leading the congregation’s social justice efforts. Under my pastor’s constant influence, I could not see clearly what he was doing to my soul. I became convinced that our connection was God-ordained.

I began my job in January of 2009, and I loved everything about it. I was thrilled to have such a prominent role in such a widely respected church. I reported not to Kevin, but to our associate pastor, Eileen. She had insisted on this, because by then I had told her confidentially what he had done. In April of 2009, I attended sexual ethics training with new staff members from several congregations. The film “Not In My Church,” in which a fictitious pastor seduces a seminarian, the church secretary, and a vulnerable young immigrant, finally opened my eyes. In tears, I was forced to claim the dreaded name “victim.” I was forced to give Kevin an even more dreadful name: “predator.” For the first time, I began asking myself whether I should report him. It boiled down to one question: was I his only victim? If there were others, I couldn’t stay silent. I prayed to God: “I need a clear sign.”

Whether or not God sent signs, I saw far more than I expected: Kevin and “Veronica” exchanging an oddly intimate gesture in front of me. “Emily” coming out of Kevin’s office in tears, dressed to the nines, gushing how much she loved him. Kevin acting nervous when “Debbie” came to the church office. The normally sensible “Natalie” giggling girlishly as she approached his door. Kevin going to pretty “Julie’s” new home to bless it in person. Kevin inviting “Jill” to visit his office to discuss her husband’s work woes. Kevin calling “Kay” at home to console her for her husband’s work woes.  The lovesick look on “Lisa’s” face as she approached the communion rail. And there was more… I still feel sick when I think of all I saw.

In October of 2009, I visited my daughter at college. On the long flight to New York, I journaled my frustrations with the job, and my fears about my emotional well-being. While I was there, I made a decision. On the flight home, I wrote a letter of resignation, giving two months’ notice. On Monday morning, I handed Eileen a copy of the letter. Later in the day, Kevin walked into my office. I handed him the letter. He didn’t have his glasses, so he grabbed mine off my desk and put them on — always without boundaries! I had to read the letter to him. My decision clearly took him by surprise.

I never regretted the decision. That day, I began to clear out my office, taking one or two things home every day. But as the weeks passed, I began wondering if I could avoid the constant exposure to Kevin and still continue to do this important work. In November, I stopped into his office with a work-related question. He answered it. I was struck by the injustice: he seemed to be doing fine, but I felt more impaired than ever. On my way out of his office, I paused, turned, and spoke. “It’s great that you’ve been able to move on,” I told him. “But two years later I’m still not whole, and I have no idea how I’m going to get there.” His eyes opened wide. “Two years!” he exclaimed. He repeated an earlier promise: “But you don’t have to worry about me repeating that behavior.”

“I know you won’t repeat it with me,” I said. “But it’s not me I’m worried about now.” I told him what I had seen over the past year while I worked there: a constant stream of women visiting him in his office, including two who lived at least an hour away. He protested, “But I’m not attracted to any of them!” I had named “Debbie’s” hometown, so he grabbed onto that story. He had counseled her through her divorce, but he had never asked her to stop visiting even after she got back on her feet. “I don’t find her attractive at all!” he spluttered. He then told me that when he had last visited her town, she had champagne sent to his hotel room. “Who am I?” he asked in all seriousness. “James Bond?” He didn’t explain how she knew where to send the champagne.

On the first of December, 2009, I asked Kevin and Eileen for a meeting. We scheduled it for Wednesday of the following week. Over the next several days, I turned my guest bedroom into an idea lab. With a pad of giant post-it charts and a handful of colored markers, I brainstormed lists of problems, needs, opportunities, values, ideas, obstacles, and options. I drew circles and arrows and lists and diagrams. For four days, I was a caffeine-fueled one-woman consulting firm, trying to redesign a job I never should have taken in the first place. I came up with an action plan and a set of goals, which I put on three neat charts.

Wednesday arrived. I rolled up my charts and drove to work. At three in the afternoon, I walked into Kevin’s office. He and Eileen sat in the soft beige armchairs; I took the corner of the matching couch — the counseling couch. I posted my charts on his office walls and I walked them through my thought process. Here is how we can make it work, I said. Here is how I can continue to serve our church and still get the separation I need.

If I had met with Kevin alone, he would have been sweet and seductive. If I had met with Eileen alone, she would have acknowledged how her boss had harmed me. But in the room together, they had to keep their masks on. Kevin had to feign detachment and annoyance; Eileen had to feign total support for her boss. In front of the other, neither could afford to show sympathy toward me. Every idea I put forward was dismissed out of hand.

I walked back to my office and packed up the last of my belongings. In the gathering dusk, I made my way home. Michael was in the kitchen, getting dinner started. He looked inquiringly at me; I gave him a brief recap of the meeting. In frustration, I asked, “How many times am I going to let these people make me feel this bad?”

He said to me, “You know…,”

And I said, “I know.”

In that moment, Hope took her last breath.

I set the table; our boys joined us for dinner; I cleaned up afterwards alone. I stayed up most of the night putting up the Christmas tree in a futile attempt to escape the pain. I don’t remember ever feeling so sad in my life. I was sad not only because I was leaving a church that was everything I’d ever dreamed a church could be, but because I knew what was coming next. As long as I stayed at that church, I could never report my pastor’s offense. I had too much to lose. By leaving, I had cleared away the last barrier.

How It Turned Out

Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 6.59.35 AM

The photo may be blurry, but the memories are clear and indelible. I’m still recovering from a long day of travel and a lot of emotion, but I’m also elated for my friend, the church, and myself.

And… I learned exactly how I felt about seeing my offender. Here’s how it went down.

I took an early flight yesterday, so I had lots of time in the city. Over a bowl of soup in a downtown food court, I thought about what I would do if I saw my offender at the service — or worse, if he saw me. What would I do if he approached me? What would I say if he spoke to me? I rehearsed all the possibilities; I felt ready for anything. I stopped dreading the encounter. I didn’t look forward to the possibility, but I felt ready. After lunch, I walked three blocks to one of the city’s great public squares, where I sat for an hour watching people: skaters circling a tiny ice rink under a brilliant blue sky; a man on the soapbox giving his testimony of healing from abuse; an earnest choir of homeless people singing songs of hope. Happiness seemed to fill the world — or at least that one city block. For me, it was an hour of pure bliss.

I walked eight more blocks to the cathedral. Inside, I looked waaaay up front (the place is as long as a football field) and saw the deacons-to-be rehearsing with the bishop. I walked quietly to a place where I could see without being seen. There was Victor, looking grand with a new haircut. I heard Monica’s voice, so I knew she was there. I didn’t see my offender at first. Then I looked to the pews on the right — and there he was. He looked thinner than I expected and he had new frames on his eyeglasses, but it was definitely him. He hadn’t seen me. I was still in the shadows well behind him. In that moment, I knew exactly how I felt about seeing him. My palms went damp. My intestines turned to water. I went downstairs to find the restroom. I briefly thought about hiding in there until the service started, but I remembered that was the restroom Monica would use. I went back upstairs, huddled among the tourists in the back of the church, and waited for my heart rate to return to normal.

Does this sound like an overreaction? Yes, of course it is — that’s why they call it hypervigilance.

I became aware the rehearsal had ended. Guests were beginning to arrive; it was time to find my place. I chose a seat on the far end of the fifth pew on the left. I looked through the printed program. I made conversation with the man seated next to me.  I opened a prayer-book and tried to read the psalms. Then I looked over to where I had last seen Kevin. Now he was standing; he was walking back to his pew, facing me directly — and IT WASN’T HIM. I did a double-take. I did a triple-take. I stared until I was fully convinced this was the same man I had seen earlier, and it wasn’t Kevin. Relief flooded through me. He might still show up, but I wasn’t too worried. He had never enjoyed hanging out with other priests. As the long train of clergy filed in, I looked at every face, and he was not there. I felt jubilant.

Well — this blog may be about my experience, but the day was about Victor. The ordination service was perfect in every way; no one does liturgy like Episcopalians. The five deacon candidates were charged with their duty to serve God’s people; they were read their vows; they knelt before the bishop; they were robed in their chasubles and stoles; they received their Bibles; and finally they stood before us, ordained into the sacred order of deacons. By that time, I had made my way to the front. As the new deacons received their thunderous applause, Victor spotted me. Our eyes connected. Neither of us could stop smiling. This victory had been a long time coming. At our former church, he couldn’t even get a spot on the altar guild. Now, he was standing next to the bishop in a grand cathedral, robed in glorious red. Now, if that old altar guild wanted to talk to him, they would have to call him Reverend.

I thought it couldn’t get better than this. Then, during the Eucharist, it was Victor assisting the bishop with the liturgy. At the end of the service, it was Victor who dismissed the congregation with the words, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” The bishop could have chosen any of the five new deacons, and he chose Victor. In this grand and glorious ceremony, my friend held the highest place of honor.  To see Victor shine so brightly, I would have been willing to face ten Kevins. (But I’m glad I didn’t have to!)

Risking an Encounter With My Offender

Tomorrow I’ll be traveling to see my friend “Victor” ordained as an Episcopal deacon (you can read more about Victor here). I’ve been looking forward to Victor’s ordination for years. On his journey to the diaconate, he has overcome barriers that would have deterred most of us. Besides being a transgender man, Victor has a serious chronic illness, and he lives in such extreme poverty that his tiny SRO is the finest home he’s had in years. Yet none of that stopped him from answering God’s call.

One thing almost stopped him, though. In my former church, “Pastor Kevin” was the gatekeeper for the process. Any church member who sensed a call to ordained ministry had to get a “yes” from Kevin before taking the next step. When I felt a vague call to serve the church, Kevin suggested I consider becoming a deacon. (I’m glad I chose not to enter the process; it would have given Kevin even more power and presence in my life.) In one of life’s cruel injustices, Victor’s strong and genuine call got a flat “No.” “It’ll never happen,” said Kevin. “The church isn’t ready for a transgender deacon.” Thankfully, Kevin was wrong. When Victor moved back to his former hometown, he found strong support from his church.

Ironically, some of that support now comes from Kevin’s wife. After she and Kevin moved to Victor’s city, “Monica” was appointed to the committee on ministry. She helped oversee Victor’s discernment process, and she is now one of his biggest cheerleaders. And — I will likely see her at the ordination. As you might expect, Monica is no fan of mine. Judging from how she acted toward me after I filed my complaint, I would guess Kevin threw me under the bus to save his marriage. But that doesn’t matter. Even if she spurns me tomorrow, I will always be grateful for the way she has supported Victor.

A more pressing question: will I encounter Kevin? I haven’t spoken with him in the four years since I left my former church (I’ll be writing about that anniversary in a few days). On three occasions, I spotted him from a distance at public events. Those sightings always upset me, and that’s why I was so glad when he moved out of my city. But I am stronger now. Even knowing that I might see him tomorrow, I’m not afraid. When I walk into that church tomorrow, I will carry the collected strength of the survivors’ movement. I don’t know what will happen, but I am not afraid.

And yet it took me months to decide whether to attend, and weeks to decide what to wear — as if my outfit will matter to anyone but me! Last week I frantically scoured my closet and the stores for clothes that would make me look friendly yet unapproachable, bold yet unobtrusive, attractive yet sexless, powerful yet invisible. Miraculously, I found an ensemble that works. More to the point, it makes me feel safe. I told my husband, “This outfit is my armor.”

If I’m seeking safety in a suit of clothes, I guess I have to admit: “I’m not afraid” is a bit of a bluff. Frankly, I am afraid. I don’t know what will happen, and I don’t know how I will handle it. But I do know I’m stronger than I was. Tomorrow afternoon, I will walk into that church as if I belonged there. I will walk in as if I were an honored guest. Because to Victor, I am.

Surviving, Healing… and Christmas

“We are never alone,” said my pastor in his sermon yesterday. We were (are) reeling from the sudden death of a beloved congregant on Thanksgiving morning. “John” leaves behind a wife, two young daughters, and us. We will never make sense of John’s death. All we can do, our pastor said, is gather together, create a safe place for John’s family to grieve, and hold one another. We did that literally during the prayers. Across every pew, friends and strangers held hands for solace. In the prayers, Pastor Scott repeated the comforting words: “We are never alone.”

For survivors of clergy sexual abuse, those words may ring false. For us, the hardest part of the experience is that we go through it alone. We pull away from our friends to protect our terrible secret. We wait in lonely exile while the church investigates our complaint. Afterward, we watch friends turn away one by one until finally we stand alone. If we’ve been in church for any length of time, we know how God’s people respond to crisis: with hot dishes, phone calls, and prayer. But in our greatest hour of need, we get nothing but cold shoulders.

And then time passes. We begin to heal.

And then Christmas rolls around. Every time we walk into a store, every time we turn on the radio, every time we open the mail, the songs and sights trigger our memories of Christmas at the church we loved. A flood of grief swamps us. If we have found a new church, we eventually come to love the new traditions, but the first year the differences only remind us of what we have lost.

The good news: even this pain heals. Four years later, I can finally sing the familiar hymns without my throat closing in grief. More than that, I can sing them with genuine joy. How did I get here? Partly, just the passage of time. In three Decembers at my new church, I’ve been able to lay down new memories over the old. Now, those songs remind me not of the church that cast me out, but of a church where I feel safe and loved. In addition to building new memories, I used time-honored practices to heal: acknowledge the loss. Be patient with yourself. Find friends who are willing to listen. Practice good self-care in eating, drinking, exercising, and sleeping.

I’ve also built healing with a few specific practices. I’ll share them here; perhaps they’ll be helpful to you.

I nurtured my spirit. We were all abused in a spiritual setting. All of us care about things of the spirit, even if the idea of being in church repels us. I’m one of the lucky ones who found a healthy church after abuse, and I’ve been able to build spiritual practices in a wholesome, safe environment. But I also nurtured my spirit outside of church. With my camera, I’ve trained myself to notice beauty, and now I see it almost everywhere I go. If you’re not a photographer, you might get the same sense of awe when you hold a newborn baby, watch a great performance in athletics or music, read a brilliant mathematical proof, open the hood of classic muscle car… you get the picture. Beauty is everywhere. When you find it, let it fill you completely.

You can also nurture your spirit by doing nothing at all. Judy Sorum Brown’s poem “Fire” speaks beautifully to those empty spaces in our lives.

I took breaks. I used to be pretty obsessive, so it has taken me a long time to learn this lesson. When I attached myself to an idea or goal or relationship, I chased it like a dog chases a car. For a year after I left my church, the shunning was all I could think about. But in healing, I’ve learned how to step away from these thoughts. For example: I normally think about this blog every day. If I’m not publishing, I’m working on my next post. But during Thanksgiving week, I turned my mind to other things: getting the guest room ready for my son. Planning the big family dinner. Doing a jigsaw puzzle with my mom. I have a good family, so for me, taking a break meant being fully present to them. For other survivors, taking a break might mean dancing with friends, painting a room, or taking a long walk in a beautiful setting.

Two caveats. First, not all escapes are healthy. Be good to yourself when you choose your distraction. At the same time, don’t beat yourself up for every bad choice you make. Every day is a new day. We walk the journey of survival one day at a time.

Second, obsessive thinking may be a symptom of PTSD. When we’re recovering from trauma, stepping away from obsession isn’t as simple as just taking a hike. If you think you may have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, please see your doctor or mental health professional. Treatment works — I am living proof.

I marked my progress. At the end of the first year after I left my abusive church, I accepted a friend’s invitation to do a year-end life review. On New Year’s Eve 2010, I spent a couple of hours thinking about these questions:
* What did I learn this year?
* What did I achieve?
* For what/whom am I grateful?
* What worked for me this year? What didn’t?
* How did I spend my time?
* What was the best thing I created?
* What books did I read; what shows did I watch, what music did I hear, what art did I see?
* What goals did I meet, and what goals did I fail to meet?
* What are my goals for the coming year?

At the end of 2010, all my lessons were hard ones about human cruelty and apathy. But I had met my goals: I reported the abuse, and I made it through the year. As bleak as it was, my 2010 review gave me a benchmark. The next year, I could see astonishing levels of healing and growth. Every year, I’ve had the same feeling: “I can’t believe how far I’ve come in a year.” I am already looking forward to this year’s review; I know I will have made more progress than I thought possible a year ago.

Finally, I remembered that feelings are temporary. When the pain of loss seems too heavy to bear, remember that you won’t feel the same in an hour. Emotions are partly biochemical. Events (death, injury, betrayal) trigger the hormones we need to survive. Think of the adrenalin in the “fight or flight” response. When the flood of emotion ebbs, when your body and brain settle down after a wave of hormones, you will feel different. Maybe still sad or angry, maybe depleted and exhausted, but not with the same level of pain. Feelings change simply because our bodies are dynamic organisms, and life is always moving forward. You can read more about the science of grief here.

My prayer for you: that you will be able to hear your own voice over the din of holiday noise. That you will know when a practice is working for you, and stay with it; that you’ll abandon without guilt the ones that aren’t helping. And that by this time next year, you’ll be in a better place than you can even imagine today.


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