Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Archive for January, 2014

Hiding Behind the Collar

For most of my life, I was a voracious reader. I loved a good story; I could get lost in a book for hours. That changed about a decade ago. Was this loss connected to my church trauma? Perhaps. To enjoy the pleasure of reading, we need to feel deep down that we deserve it. A lingering sense of shame can get in the way of “deserving.”

But I have found a book that may unlock the joy of reading once again. I ordered Catherine Britton Fairbanks’ Hiding Behind the Collar because it looked like a good fit for the Survivors’ Bookshelf. I didn’t expect it to be such a page-turner. I got lost in this book for hours, and when I finished I went back to page one and read the whole story again. Was it because I could see myself in her story? Like Fairbanks, I grew up with the exquisite liturgy of the Episcopal Church. Like Fairbanks, I trusted the wrong priest at a vulnerable time in my life and was silenced and ostracized for reporting his harmful behavior. Our stories have a lot in common — but our similarities alone can’t account for the sheer pleasure of turning pages in Fairbanks’ skillfully rendered tale.

Catherine Britton Fairbanks met her exploitive priest in spring of 1997. She filed a complaint against “Leanne” a year later, and she spent the next 18 months trying unsuccessfully to navigate the mazelike Episcopal clergy discipline process. By the time she published her story two years later, she had gained enough distance to see her offender’s true colors. But she was still close enough to remember how it felt, and to bring us along on that journey.

It is a journey that will feel all too familiar to survivors. No matter what denomination we come from, no matter what our offender’s age or gender, or whether we were married, or whether we “consented” — no matter what the specifics of our story, we all know how safe and cherished our exploiters made us feel at first. We know how our defenses were taken away and our vulnerabilities exposed, layer by layer. We know what it felt like to be “special,” to be our pastor’s healer and secret-keeper, and we know far too many of our pastor’s secrets. We know the red flags we ignored, the too-close hugs, the escalation of intimacy, the role confusion (pastor or friend? pastor or lover?), and the need to hide all of this from the congregation. We know the hot-and-cold, close-and-distant games, the constant fear, the spiritual confusion and despair and loss of faith.

And if we tried to alert the church, we know how confusing that process was, and how impossible it was to get our questions answered. We know what it felt like to be silenced, ignored, and discredited. We know the twist of reality that made our pastor’s actions “OK” or “just an indiscretion” and made us the problem instead — or we know what it felt like to be blamed for “ruining” a good pastor’s career. We know how other clergy turned away so it became almost impossible to get pastoral support (or a job, if the church was our livelihood) anywhere. We know the pain of lost friendships, perhaps almost every friendship that gave our life meaning.

But, like Catherine Britton Fairbanks, we also know the strength of our own voices and the resourcefulness of our minds and bodies. Because Hiding Behind the Collar was published so soon after the abuse, the book ends at a point before Fairbanks’ healing really begins. After she published her book, Fairbanks became a leader in the movement to end clergy sexual abuse. She served as an advocate for many survivors from her denomination. Today, she finds healing through art. Her book may have ended — but her story, and her journey of healing, continues.

The Institutional Crisis of Silencing and Cover-up

Yesterday, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago released several thousand documents on sexually abusive priests. The documents focus not on the abuse itself, but on the way bishops and cardinals systematically protected sexually abusive priests.

The Catholic Church gets most of the media on this subject, but they hardly have a monopoly. Clergy sexual abuse happens in all faith traditions, and so does institutional cover-up. Just as some congregations are led by serial predators, some dioceses (conferences, synods, districts, etc) are led by serial silencers. The church with which I’m most familiar — the Episcopal Church — seems every bit as committed to silence as the Catholic Church. I’ve spoken with several survivors of Episcopal clergy misconduct in the past several months. All of our offenders are still in active ministry. In none of our cases did the church disclose the truth to the affected congregation(s). And I don’t for a minute think the Episcopal Church is the only bad apple in the non-Catholic barrel.

In November of 2012, the Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune delivered a lecture at the Vanderbilt Divinity School titled “Wolves in Shepherds’ Clothing: The Institutional Crisis of Clergy Sexual Abuse.” In this talk, Fortune focused on the re-victimization that happens when church leaders cover up the truth about cases of clergy sexual abuse. “The default position of many institutions is to enforce silence and secrecy… in an effort to protect abusers and minimize scandal,” she says. “Yet the real scandal is the profound contradiction between the institutional response and the values, teachings, and precepts of the faith community.” Of victims and survivors, she says, “All they are asking is that we be true to our own stated values and precepts.”

And finally: “[Victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse] don’t expect perfection from their faith leaders. They accept our humanity, our foibles, our mistakes and even our misconduct, even when they suffer from it. What they cannot accept and do not deserve is incompetence, cover-up, corruption, blame, and betrayal by the institution that supposedly holds individual leaders accountable.”

Please take the time to watch this important talk and share it with your church leaders. The lecture itself is about 35 minutes long, and worth every minute.


Forgiving Like Nelson Mandela

Survivors: raise your hand if you’ve ever been told to “forgive and forget,” “move on,” or “let bygones be bygones.” Wow, that’s almost everyone in the room. OK, now raise your hand if church leaders added the Nelson Mandela guilt trip. You know, “Nelson Mandela forgave his jailers, so why can’t you drop that grudge?”

In other words, we should forgive like Nelson Mandela.

What would this look like? A lot of writers are asking this question. A few of them are getting it right, most notably Marie Fortune in her recent blog post, “Forgiveness Revisited.” But most people seem confused about what forgiveness means. Early in my journey, I thought “forgive” meant “reconcile” and even “trust again” (big mistake). Later, I thought it meant “stop being angry.” I tried, but I only succeeded in driving my anger inward. Only when I read Frederick Keene’s essay “Structures of Forgiveness in the New Testament” did I understand: forgiveness is not a simple emotional shift. Forgiveness is a concrete transaction, and it can only be offered from a position of power. (I explore that issue here.)

Then why do religious leaders, especially Christian leaders, keep telling survivors to forgive? Could it be they have a vested interest? Could it be that our demand for justice threatens their comfort, their job security, or even the world as they know it?

And what should we think about preachers who harp on forgiveness while ignoring the underlying justice issues?

“Let me say a brief word about the death of Nelson Mandela,” said a preacher I once knew. I am quoting from one of his recent sermons, but I’m paraphrasing enough to conceal his identity. “On the day after he was released from prison, Mandela was asked about the suffering he had endured. His answer? ‘Let bygones be bygones.’ If he had asked for vengeance, he might have triggered a revolution. Mandela chose instead to offer forgiveness. So let me ask this — what grudge or grievance are you clinging to this morning? What prevents you from forgiving as Mandela did, and freeing yourself and the other? Let bygones be bygones.”

What misguided beliefs can we find in my former pastor’s message? Does he believe that it is nobler to forgive than to insist on justice? That when survivors demand justice, we are simply “holding a grudge?” That victims of injustice can “free” ourselves and our oppressors by “letting bygones be bygones?”

Of course I am stretching a point. I know that’s not what he believes. It’s not what any sensible preacher believes, but it seems to be what a lot of preachers want us to believe. But here’s what those sermons don’t tell us. By the time Nelson Mandela offered those words, he had already changed the world. The revolution was nearly over. White leaders, all the way up to the president, had been courting Mandela’s favor for years. Apartheid was already unraveling. White South Africans, massively outnumbered, knew that their days in power would soon end, and they were terrified that the violence they had long inflicted on black citizens would now come back on them. Mandela knew that the only way forward was through peace, and the only way to peace was to calm white fears. So he urged forgiveness — but he never urged passivity. He challenged black South Africans to live peacefully with their white neighbors and to stay in the fight. “We cannot win a war,” he told them, “but we can win an election.”

Survivors of clergy abuse will never win a war against the church; most of us are afraid even to stand up and name our experience. We cannot win a war, but with the power of our voices we can change the church. Indeed, this is already happening. In the United States alone, the Catholic Church has released more than $1 billion of resources to victims of abuse. Pope Francis has launched a commission to address the issue worldwide. Organizations like SNAPThe Hope of Survivors, and the FaithTrust Institute have helped thousands (millions?) of victims find healing, and have trained thousands of faith leaders on prevention and response. A growing number of churches have policies, however inadequate, to prevent abuse. The revolution is far from over, but we are making progress.

And so, today I forgive like Nelson Mandela. I renounce any right to revenge against the priest who abused my trust or the bishop who silenced my voice, and I urge my fellow survivors to do the same. Revenge only brings more pain. It is justice that brings healing. So I will continue to seek justice, for myself and for other survivors. I will continue to use my voice, tell my story, and build up and strengthen my fellow survivors. I will work until the work is done, and here is how I’ll know: when calling committees are given the tools to screen out would-be predators, when seminaries train ministers to deal with their own and their congregants’ sexual feelings, when pastors refrain from counseling beyond their call or training, when victims of clergy sexual abuse receive justice and compassion in response to our complaints, when offenders accept full responsibility even to the point of giving up their ordained ministry, when wounded congregations are told the truth and given a chance to heal, and when all survivors’ voices are honored.

Until that day, I will continue the long walk toward justice.

My Offender Speaks *

* NOTE: This is a work of imagination. I learned last week the specific lies my offender told after I left the church, and to whom. “Pastor Kevin” has never spoken or written publicly about this matter. But if he did, and if he were honest, this is what he might write.

Dear friends,

Four years ago, Catherine Thiemann filed a complaint of sexual misconduct against me. I don’t mind sharing her real name, because she has openly identified as the complainant. After Bishop ______ closed the case, she talked with some of you, her most trusted friends. After you heard from her, you came to me with very reasonable concerns. As you visited my office one by one, I shared what happened from my perspective. I set your minds at ease, but I have not slept an easy night since. I didn’t tell any outright lies, but I chose my truths so carefully that I made you believe a lie. In short, to protect my reputation, I destroyed hers. I know that some of you shunned Catherine as a direct result of my testimony to you. Words cannot convey the shame I feel today. In an effort to make amends, I am setting the record straight.

Here is what I have told some of you: “Catherine Thiemann told me she was attracted to me. My biggest mistake was not ending the pastoral counseling relationship once she revealed her attraction.”

Here is what actually happened: Catherine did reveal these feelings, but her words could never be construed as a come-on. At the beginning of the fourth year of our pastoral relationship, she acknowledged that “transference” had developed. She knew that her feelings might mean an end to the pastoral relationship. At that point, I should have referred her to another counselor. Even better, I should have done so years before. By meeting every two months for years on end, we were within the letter of the bishop’s guideline, but our meetings violated the spirit of that law. I took advantage of Catherine’s ignorance of the law because I wanted the relationship to continue.

When Catherine revealed her feelings by email, I invited her to meet with me to discuss them. At our next meeting, two months later, I was the one who brought up the subject. Obviously shy on this topic, Catherine answered my questions with scant “yes” or “no.” Undeterred, I went on. I told her that from the beginning, I had been attracted to her as a woman. I told her that if we were both single and I weren’t her priest, I would be asking her for a date. When she left my office, I think we both felt strong emotion.

A week later, I heard back from her. She reminded me that after three years of pastoral counseling, I knew exactly how vulnerable she was. She said that my words had put her emotional and spiritual health at risk. And she ended the pastoral counseling relationship. I asked if we could continue meeting as “partners on the spiritual journey.” She said we could consider it, but not until many months had passed.

I knew she was right, but my strong feelings overcame my better judgment. A few weeks later, I invited Catherine to co-author a book with me. I told her we could meet as often as necessary to move the project forward. That spring, we met nearly every week. I had intended to work on the book during my sabbatical. But as summer approached, I became concerned about Catherine’s feelings for me. On the last day before my sabbatical, I told her I had changed my mind and would not be working on the book that summer. I was hoping that she would give up on the project, and that is what she did. But she was justifiably angry. She had already done a great deal of work to get the book started.

I came back from sabbatical refreshed and renewed. Catherine kept a chilly distance. I felt guilty about having withdrawn a project that had been important to her, but even more I still felt shame over having expressed my sexual feelings for her a year earlier. I wanted to help with her healing, so I created what seemed like the perfect job, and she accepted. Catherine worked for a year at St. ______’s as the Associate for Peace and Justice Ministries. We were proud to have her representing the church in our community. You can read about all she accomplished in our church’s January 2010 Annual Report.

I don’t know why Catherine waited two years to file her complaint. But I do know that when she spoke, she spoke the truth, and that she took action out of her concern for other women. I had already acknowledged to her that she was part of a pattern in my life. She felt she saw that pattern continuing with specific women at St. ______’s. Indeed I had seen some of those women for pastoral counseling over many years. I pray that I didn’t cause harm to any of them. I no longer offer long-term pastoral counseling to anyone, man or woman. I now abide by the spirit as well as the letter of the law.

It pains me to write these next words, but a full accounting demands them. When some of you visited my office, I gave you the impression that Catherine was emotionally disturbed. If there was any truth to that, I understand that my behavior was the cause. If you doubt Catherine’s character or stability, I refer you to her immense contribution toward our church’s mission while she was here, and to her role as a leader in our city’s social justice work ever since.

I wish I’d spoken this truth four years ago. But Bishop ______ chose to handle the matter confidentially. I couldn’t have spoken publicly without directly disobeying my bishop. Even more important, I didn’t want to cause my dear wife any more pain than she already felt. I regret that I didn’t show more courage.

All this is history, of course; the damage is long done. Catherine has severed ties with the Episcopal Church, and I doubt she will change that decision. I doubt that any of the shattered friendships will be rebuilt. I tell this truth today not to change the past, but simply to correct the record and clear her name. Catherine Thiemann does not deserve the hostility she has received from our church. Today, I take full responsibility.


______ +

A Surprising Tool for Healing

I try to resist making New Year’s Resolutions, but it’s hard to resist the clean slate of a new year, and the chance to write a better story on it. On the last day of 2013, I discovered a tool for healing well outside my usual hunting ground for resources.

Many survivors find the holidays challenging. I’m no exception. I live with an anxiety disorder that the church trauma made much worse. I can manage it most of the year with medication and good self-care. But over the Christmas break, my anxiety spiraled to alarming levels. On the 31st of December, I woke up determined to find a solution. I figured the TED Talks would have something for me, and I was right. Video game designer Jane McGonigal, who suffered a concussion that left her bedridden and suicidal, developed a game to motivate her to recover. She shares her story and the SuperBetter game in this engaging video.

I’m using SuperBetter to become less anxious. Others have used it to recover from depression, quit smoking, improve their fitness, heal from physical illness, and more. It sounds almost too good to be true, but it’s based on solid science and common sense. SuperBetter rewards us for doing things we would already be doing if we could get out of our own way. Left to my own devices, I might not have drunk that glass of water, called my parents just to say hi, or got out of my chair to look out the window. Those actions sound trivial on their own, but over time they build habits of mind and body that lead to a happier, healthier life.

The key, says McGonigal, is resilience, which helps us heal faster from trauma and injury. SuperBetter sets out tasks that build physical, emotional, social, and mental resilience. Survivors are all-too familiar with the long-term harm that trauma can cause. But how many of us know that trauma can help us grow stronger? McGonigal didn’t just want to get better from her concussion. She says, “I wanted to get SuperBetter.” She wanted to come out stronger and healthier than she had ever been.

It might seem strange to read about an online game on a survivor blog. But just as I’ve shared the books that have helped in my recovery, I’m sharing this game — which by the way, is completely free. It has already made a positive difference in my life. I’ve made good choices that I might not have otherwise made. After only three days, I already feel more confident and hopeful.

The bottom line: keep your eyes open. You never know where you’re going to find the key that unlocks the next stage of healing. Who would think that a technologically challenged 50-ish survivor would find hope in an online game? But there it is. God works in mysterious ways. Here’s to healing, wherever we find it.

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: