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.