Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Archive for December, 2013

Why the Church Needs Trials

Last month, in a widely covered trial, the United Methodist Church gave the Rev. Frank Schaefer a 30-day suspension for officiating at the wedding of his gay son. Last Thursday, when he refused to give up his clergy credentials, the church defrocked him.

The next morning, New Jersey Bishop John Schol offered a heartfelt statement of support for Frank Schaefer. His voice breaking with emotion, Bishop Schol spoke his sorrow to gay and lesbian Methodists in the Greater New Jersey Conference. He told them, “There are many people in the United Methodist Church who care about you, love you, and are very sad about what’s happened.”

I applaud Bishop Schol’s compassionate message to LGBT people, and I salute his courage in standing up for his defrocked colleague. But I could not disagree more with the central point of his message: “I do not believe that trials are helpful to our church.” Schol says we need to follow the example of the early church, who “knew how to be in conversation and bring wise people together to hear and listen.” He said, “I would like to see trials within the United Methodist Church stopped.”

I couldn’t disagree more. As painful as church trials can be, they are an important element of justice. If the church replaces trials with informal huddles of “wise people,” offenders will find it easier to manipulate the process. Far too often, offenders choose to resign quietly so they can avoid a trial. Without the publicity of a trial, offenders can continue to prey unchecked; they just have to find a new church to prey in.

The congregation also pays a price for secrecy. When a pastor takes sexual advantage of a vulnerable congregant, the congregation receives a wound. Without disclosure and a healthy process, this wound can fester for years, or even for generations. In pain, the congregation often turns against the victim: blaming her, shunning her, and multiplying her trauma manyfold.

Victims pay the highest price of all. Most of us only report our abusers when we realize that other women (or men or children) are at risk. I paid a high price for reporting “Pastor Kevin,” but I would have paid that price to protect even one woman. Most victims feel the same way. If our abusers remain at large, then we have sacrificed for nothing.

I hope Bishop Schol will reconsider his position. A fellow survivor, whose complaint Bishop Schol handled earlier this year, has written about her experience. In addition, I have posted a letter in response to his message. I hope he will read my letter and take it to heart. As church, we need a process to resolve conflict and to protect the most vulnerable. Without trials, the church will always be at the mercy of the most skilled manipulator in the room.

The Return of Light

Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. The church will celebrate Christmas this week, and we are not the only faith tradition with a major holiday near the solstice. Jews celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. Zoroastrians celebrate Yalda, the birth of the god Mithras. Scandinavians celebrate the return of the light on St. Lucia’s Day (the very name “Lucia” means light). Hindus in the U.S. celebrate the birth of the god Ganesh during the five days of Pancha Ganapati. Zuni and Hopi Indians mark the solstice with the Soyal ceremony. In a few weeks, people in many Asian countries will celebrate the lunar new year. All over the world, people find ways to mark the end of the growing darkness and the return of the light.

Survivors of abuse have many ways to mark the end of darkness: the day we said “No” to abuse. The day we left an unsafe environment. The day we realized we would never have to see our offenders again. And we have many ways to mark the return of the light: the day we felt safe telling our story to someone. The day we felt safe in church again. The day we felt God’s presence returning.

I am lucky: I’ve felt all of those milestones of light. There are some milestones I may never see, but I can celebrate those I have. I celebrate every little way my life is better than it was. I celebrate every victory, no matter how small. And I build hope, one victory at a time.

Darkness doesn’t last forever. The light will always return. Even a tiny candle will overcome darkness. When you walked away from your abusive minister, you lit a candle against darkness. If you found the strength to report the abuse, you lit another candle. When you took charge of your own healing and began to seek the resources you needed, you lit another one.

When the sun comes up tomorrow, it won’t look much different from today. Where I live, we’ll will only have two more seconds of daylight tomorrow. But the next day will have five seconds more, the day after that eight more, the day after that ten more. Every day, the light grows faster. May our hope grow in the same way: every day a little more, until one day it shines like the sun.


Five days ago in this blog, I opened the story of the darkest time of my life. I intended to keep telling that story here: how I built the strength to report my pastor, how I survived a bewildering and frightening church investigation, and what I learned about human nature afterward (it wasn’t pretty.) I thought I was ready to tell this story. But as I began sketching out my next post, my mood got darker and darker. Finally, lying in bed yesterday at five in the afternoon, wondering why bother with anything, I had a moment of clarity: “Stop writing.”

At least, stop writing that story.

Self-care may be the most important part of healing from abuse. But to many survivors, self-care is a foreign concept. Abuse leaves us uncertain of our own worth — or worse, certain of our worthlessness. We trusted our abusers, and they turned us into tools to gratify their own pleasure, rage, or ego. If they failed to see our worth, how can we? To make matters worse, many of us lived with abuse long before our clergy offenders laid eyes on us. That’s what made us vulnerable in the first place. (I am lucky in that respect; my family was imperfect but loving, and they remain my greatest source of strength and hope.)

For many survivors, just recognizing that we deserve love is a miracle. Even when we begin to see our value, self-care can be a struggle. This creates a vicious cycle. We can’t heal unless we take care of ourselves, and we can’t take care of ourselves until we feel worthy of care, and we don’t feel worthy until we begin to heal. How do we break this chain? Maybe by asking not “What do I deserve?,” but instead, “What do I need?”

Curled up fetal in my bed, what did I need? Clarity, most of all — and whether I “deserved” it or not, I got it. Out of the fog of depression, I heard my own clear voice: “What patterns of thought and action brought this on? Name them and change them.” So I did. Here are the patterns I decided to change.

* I’m breaking my exercise slump with new goals that are challenging but doable.
* Instead of obsessively turning to computer solitaire to soothe my anxiety, I’ve started knitting again. Even better, I’m knitting for people I love.
* I’m spending more time in my garden. Even ten minutes a day outdoors makes a difference.
* I’m looking at a recently broken friendship from a different angle. I was a good friend to “Diana,” and there’s plenty of evidence I’m likable even if she has walked away. I’m allowing myself to grieve, and I’m not letting the broken friendship define me.

And most important…
* I’m not writing about those terrible months until I’m ready. I was trying to process painful material in a public forum; I need respite from that process. Do I “deserve” a break? Who cares? I’m taking it.

What do you need? Not “what do you think you deserve,” but what do you need? If your big needs seem out of reach, what small kindness can you do for yourself today?

Finally, a request. If prayer is available to you, please pray for other survivors. If you know another survivor of clergy sexual abuse, pray for her or him. If you don’t, then pray for all the survivors you don’t know. Together, we are healing from one of the most isolating wounds in human experience. If you are able, please pray for your sister and brother survivors. And if you are able, feel the community praying for you.

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.

Survivor’s Bookshelf Update

Looking for stocking stuffers for yourself or a survivor in your life? Check out the recommendations on the Survivor’s Bookshelf, now updated with these three new titles.

When Pastors Prey: Overcoming Clergy Sexual Abuse of Women, edited by Valli Boobal Batchelor. Published in April 2013, this book gathers essays from familiar U.S. leaders like Jimmy Carter, Diana Garland, Marie Fortune, Martin Weber, Pamela Cooper-White, and Samantha Nelson, along with an astounding collection of voices of survivors and advocates from Africa, Southeast Asia, Europe, and Australia. Clergy sexual abuse is a worldwide problem, and this book brings leaders together for a worldwide response.

Sexual Misconduct in the Church: Understanding how often it happens, why it happens, and what to do when it does. This 2008 collection is of limited value to survivors of pastoral sexual misconduct: the articles are brief, dated, and somewhat superficial. But it is a good resource for survivors of sexual harassment in a religious workplace. Female clergy who have experienced sexual harassment may also want to download the article Silent Sufferers, published by the Baylor University School of Social Work.

Responding to Clergy Misconduct: A Handbook by the Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune and others, published by the FaithTrust Institute. An effective response to clergy sexual abuse will help the victim heal, help the congregation deal with the pastor’s betrayal, prevent abuse by holding offenders accountable, and protect the church’s resources. This book is an invaluable resource for judicatory leaders and church leaders — but it’s also great for survivors. It helped me understand exactly how my church added to my trauma in their response to my complaint. Clarity can be painful, but it ultimately moves us toward greater healing.

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