I am very sorry to share the news of the death of a saint. My dear friend, and one of my most important supporters as I healed, was Father Joe Frazier. I learned of his death yesterday. Please pray for his partner John and for the church community that loved him. If all ordained ministers were like Father Joe, the church would be a different and better place.
Archive for March, 2014
Helen Watson lost her son to suicide in 1999, but in truth she had lost him nine years earlier. A visiting priest had invited Peter, then 15, to spend the night in the rectory along with some of his friends. According to Mrs. Watson, Peter came home a different child. He developed violent behavior problems, turned to drugs and alcohol, and began disappearing for long periods. Finally, he told his mother that Father Paul Ryan had sexually abused him. But he felt responsible for the abuse, and he couldn’t live with the shame. Fourteen years after Peter took his own life, the parliament of Victoria, Australia issued a report on an official inquiry that had led to the arrest of several priests, including Paul Ryan. Victims and their parents had tried unsuccessfully for years to report one of those priests. Advocates called the report a “vindication for victims,” or proof that they had been telling the truth about a terrible danger, and that the church’s indifference had ruined more lives.
That is the ultimate vindication: to have the whole world learn that You Were Right! You were reporting a Genuine Danger! The church should have listened to you! That is the most powerful sort of validation — but it is also the most painful. I wish my former churchmates believed me; I wish they had seen the danger I saw. But it seems the only way to open their eyes would be to show them more victims. I would rather stay an outcast all my days than see my former pastor harm even one more woman.
There is another path to vindication: the church could tell the truth. My bishop told no lies, but he let secrecy and silence proclaim my offender’s innocence. The investigator thought I’d be relieved that the bishop wanted to handle my complaint “confidentially.” I asked, “But surely if he finds a credible offense, he won’t sweep it under the rug?” When I met with the bishop for the last time, I learned he really did intend to keep the matter quiet. I gave him the courtesy of a “heads up”: I told him I needed to tell my friends why I was leaving the church. Even then, the bishop held his ground. There would be no disclosure. Two weeks later, I had only talked to three or four people when a harsh wave of ostracism drove me underground and into silence.
Without the other elements of justice-making — truth-telling, acknowledging the violation, compassion, protecting the vulnerable, accountability, and restitution — there can be no vindication. Even if we receive partial justice, if we are not vindicated we cannot free ourselves from the shame of being the scapegoat.
If the church will not vindicate us, we must vindicate ourselves. How can we do that?
Contact the CSA/CSM survivors’ networks. Early in my ordeal, I described my experience to Jan Tuin of Tamar’s Voice. She affirmed that I was a victim of clergy sexual misconduct. After I had left my church, I connected with Samantha Nelson of The Hope of Survivors. She also affirmed me, and she encouraged me to attend the Hope and Healing conference. At that conference, every speaker told us, some more than once: “This was not your fault.”
Read the literature. It was Peter Rutter’s Sex in the Forbidden Zone that opened my eyes about my experience. Two great articles affirmed it: Diana Garland’s “When Wolves Wear Shepherds’ Clothing” and Pamela Cooper White’s “Soul Stealing.” Reading about clergy sexual abuse and misconduct has helped me understand my experience. These books and articles taught me how CSA/CSM happens and how to escape from it, heal from it, prevent it, and support other victims and survivors. I’ve listed some of these resources on the Survivor’s Bookshelf. The FaithTrust Institute offers a more extensive bibliography.
Connect with survivors of any kind of abuse. As we listen to people who share our experience, we learn to stop blaming ourselves. Early in my healing journey, I found strong support in a treatment group in an eating disorders clinic. None of the other patients had experienced CSA/CSM, but many had experienced other kinds of abuse. We discovered what we had in common, and we helped each other heal. Survivors with addictions (one of the consequences of abuse) may find healing in a twelve-step group. Most cities have support groups for adults who have survived abuse within their intimate relationships, families of origin, or religious communities. Don’t overlook the survivors who may already be in your life. As you share your story with trusted friends, you may find them confiding in you.
Learn to honor our own voice. Or, Learn to hear the voice of God within us. Trust our feelings. Trust our judgment. Trust our gut. When we squelched our misgivings about our offenders’ behavior, we made ourselves vulnerable to abuse. As survivors, we learn to hear and heed our inner voice. We learn to say “No” with more confidence. We learn to step away from dangerous situations. And we learn defend ourselves — in the court of our own conscience — against lies and unfair attacks. We no longer accept condemnation from people who don’t know the facts. We know what was done to us. We know what was taken from us. Even if we were coerced into “consenting,” or even if we were manipulated into making the first move: we know! And we know how we tried to protect ourselves and others. Most of us will never have a Victorian Parliament on our side — but ultimately, we don’t need it. We know.
Those are the steps to vindication, but it’s a long process. I know I told the truth to my bishop (and so does my offender; his testimony matched mine almost exactly.) I know I acted not to harm the church, but to save it. My conscience is clear. I have the respect of my new church community and of a widespread network of survivors. And yet I keep telling my story, as if I’m looking for a judge who can free me from the shame — of what? Of other people’s misinformed judgment against me?
Yes. Healing is a long journey.
“I’ll pay for your therapy.”
My bishop spoke those words when he handed me the letter spelling out his judgment against my former pastor. I told him “Don’t worry, I can take care of myself;” I changed my mind when I found I needed weeks of nearly full-time treatment for anorexia. When I told the bishop I needed his help, he kept his word. He and his attorney treated me with respect throughout our negotiations, and he provided the resources I needed to restore my health. The terms of the settlement are confidential, but I don’t think the church would mind my sharing its existence, and my gratitude for the health I now enjoy.
So when I saw the word “restitution” in Marie Fortune’s Elements of Justice-Making, I mentally checked that item off. The church may not have offered me everything on that list, but they did offer restitution. Or did they? I’m learning that there’s a lot more to restitution than money. I’m grateful for the money and for the other actions the church took to move my healing forward. But there’s more they could have done — and it isn’t too late.
Here’s what I’ve learned about restitution.
Restitution IS NOT…
1. Charity for the victim. Charity disempowers its recipients, ignores the question of justice, and allows the giver to feel complacent and generous. But we don’t call ourselves generous when we pay off a debt — and restitution is simply a debt. When a minister of the church harms a congregant, he or she creates a debt that the church must pay.
2. Punishment for the offender. When I make a car payment, I’m not being punished; I’m just making things square. I took on the debt voluntarily when I borrowed money for a car. When the church pays restitution to a victim of abuse, no one is being punished. The church is simply making things square.
3. A way of erasing the damage. Restitution moves us toward healing, but the experience of broken trust remains. No amount of restitution can undo the past. Even with restitution, most of the journey of healing is still ahead of us. The church must respect each survivor’s right to walk that journey as she or he needs to.
1. Making things fair again. Restoring a loss. Repairing damage. Redressing a wrong. Squaring accounts. Setting things right. Making amends. Cleaning up our own mess. “Restitution” is just a fancy word for one of the most basic human experiences. Even small children know what justice feels like.
2. A way of healing all parties, not just the victim. Restitution restores or creates healthy relationships, frees the victim to move forward with healing, and gives the offender (or the offender’s institution) a deeper understanding of justice and a deeper commitment to protecting the vulnerable.
3. Hard work. It’s easy to write a check. True restitution involves patience, respect, humility, courage, persistence, and willingness to sit with uncomfortable feelings.
Restitution helps restore…
1. The victim’s tangible losses. Clergy sexual misconduct can trigger serious medical problems. Many victims can’t afford treatment on their own. Monetary restitution can help with those needs.
2. The victim’s intangible losses such as reputation, ability to form relationships, sense of belonging, faith in the church, and sense that God cares or exists at all. The church can address these wounds by listening, grieving with the victim, speaking truth, finding support within the community, and creating stronger safeguards against abuse.
3. The institution’s moral wholeness. Earlier on this blog, I wrote about Nelson Mandela’s role in bringing about a peaceful end to apartheid. The Restitution Foundation takes that work to the next step. In the spirit of ubuntu, the founders of the Restitution Foundation realized that white South Africans could never be whole if their non-white brothers and sisters still struggled with the wounds of poverty and injustice. In South Africa, restitution is the tide that lifts all boats.
Restitution is made of…
1. Money: enough to pay for the therapy and medical care to heal the wounds of abuse. Money empowers the victim to make her own decisions about treatment, and it shows the church is serious about caring for its victims. The money must be offered with no strings attached. Some settlements include a non-disparagement clause; some churches try to enforce that clause as a gag order. This is bad religion (would Jesus silence a victim of abuse?), bad PR (churches that silence their victims don’t fare well in the media), and bad judgment (it makes survivors angry and it gives us more to talk about).
2. Listening. “Make no mistake,” says the Restitution Foundation. “Listening can be hard. We do not like to be made uncomfortable or confronted with our complicity in another’s oppression.” Perhaps this, as much as anything, is why churches silence their victims: our stories confront them with their complicity in our abuse. But as uncomfortable as these conversations are, they are essential to restitution and justice. We need the church to listen to us, lament with us, and reform the structures and cultural norms that have made abuse possible.
3. Truth-telling. If secrecy and lies destroy the victim’s reputation, the truth needs to be spread at least as widely as the lies. Belated truth-telling will never fully repair the damage (remember the story of feathers in the wind), but it is still worth doing. Four years later, I have no hope of ever restoring the lost friendships, and no wish to be part of my former church — and still I would welcome an open disclosure of truth from the bishop. If he cares about my healing, telling the truth is the most important thing he could do. Liturgy can be a way of truth-telling; one survivor shared her church’s liturgy here.
Restitution is hard work because…
1. Each situation is unique. There is no “one size fits all.”
2. The church has to give up power and the right to dictate the rules of engagement. The fact is, each party has something to offer that the other needs. The church has resources to address victims’ losses. Victims and survivors have wisdom to offer the church, and something more: we can offer our forgiveness. Restitution can set all of us free.
3. The church must face its demons. Abuse doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Where are the flaws in screening, training, and oversight of ministers? How does the church enable abuse of power and privilege (of clergy over lay, male over female, experience over youth, etc)? Is the church sacrificing vulnerable people to an idol of its own image? As victims and survivors speak, these stories will emerge. Church leaders will be tempted to walk away and reject these painful truths. But once the restitution process has begun, a rupture will only cause more harm to the victim. Jesus stayed on the hard road to Jerusalem; the church must do the same.
For readers who want to understand restitution more deeply, I strongly recommend the work of the Restitution Foundation. The Theological Mandate for Restitution is a good place to begin.
Early in my career, I managed the business services in a large corporate sales office. During my first year, my office failed the business audit. I told my manager, “I understand you’ll need to drop my ranking.” He said, “No, I’ll drop Bill’s ranking instead.” Bill was a supervisor who reported to me; he had worked in that office for more than 20 years, and he had hired my manager. While I was glad to hold onto my ranking, I also felt a little insulted. Did my manager expect so little of me that he couldn’t hold me accountable for my own failure?
What does it mean when someone holds us accountable? Literally, it means they count on us. The landlord can pay the mortgage because we pay the rent on time; the host can plan the dinner because we have RSVP’d; our manager can trust the reports because we run our business with proper controls. The Notre Dame football team gets this: they end each breakdown with a unison shout of “Count on me.” But in church settings, bad theology can muddy the water. When we ask the church to hold our offenders accountable, they urge us instead to forgive. When we talk openly about our experience (which some of us do as a way of holding the church to account), they accuse us of vengeful bad-mouthing.
It’s time to clear up some misperceptions. Here are my 1-2-3’s of accountability: what it is and what it isn’t, why it’s hard, why we need it, and how survivors can help.
Accountability IS NOT…
1. A failure to forgive. Pope John Paul’s would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, remained behind bars for nearly two decades after the pope forgave him. Both men understood that Agca was still accountable to the state. (Note: forgiveness is complicated for survivors of clergy sexual misconduct. See my reflections here and here.)
2. Punishment or public shame. Accountability may feel like punishment to the offender, but most measures aren’t punishments in the strict sense. The church may require the offender to take part in therapy or addiction treatment, or they may suspend or limit his or her ministry as part of protecting the vulnerable. The congregation may not need to know about therapeutic matters, but they absolutely must be informed about limits on their pastor’s ministry.
3. Revenge. Victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse rarely have any say in how our offenders are held accountable, so revenge plays little or no role in the offender’s experience of accountability. To be sure, many of us fantasize about revenge; with my therapist’s encouragement I envisioned deeds I would never enact in life. But what we really want is not revenge, but a chance to heal through justice.
1. Owning our mistakes. Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll was caught plagiarizing in his book Real Marriage, and his Mars Hill Church admitted to buying a spot for that book on the New York Times Bestseller list. What did Driscoll do in response? “He owned up,” says blogger Ray Ortlund. Not only did Driscoll apologize, but he instructed his publicist to stop using the “New York Times Bestseller” status. Even more significantly, Driscoll agreed to stay off social media for the rest of the year, using the time to reset his life, rebuild his family relationships, and renew his work as the pastor of Mars Hill Church.
2. Accepting the consequences. I tried to do this when my office failed the audit. Jesus did this by submitting peacefully to his arrest and crucifixion, knowing they were the consequences of preaching that had threatened the powers-that-be.
3. Learning from our failures. Minister and counselor Mark Laaser struggled with sexual addiction early in his career. He learned from his own pain and his victims’ wounds, and he overcame his addiction. Now, with his wife Debbie, Laaser leads the Faithful and True ministry for men and women struggling with the same problem. In an interview with the National Association for Christian Recovery, Laaser talks about what he has learned on his journey.
Accountability is hard because church leaders worry about…
1. Money. Leaders may fear the financial impact of a public scandal. When a pastor is fired or openly held accountable for a sexual offense, the church may see a short-term drop in attendance and giving. But leaders should take the long view. Within the Catholic Church, secrecy (which allowed predator priests to harm many more victims) has so far cost more than $2 billion in the U.S. alone.
2. The offender’s feelings. Leaders often form friendships with the pastors who serve in their congregations. Being closer to the offender’s pain than to the victim’s, leaders may be tempted to cut a deal to keep the offense a secret. Church leaders must maintain a level field! If they wouldn’t offer a secret deal to the victim, they shouldn’t offer one to the offender.
3. The church’s image. Leaders fear that a public scandal will harm the church’s image, especially if the offender is well-known. But a congregation will recover far sooner from a transparent response to pastoral offense than to a cover-up. When faith leaders lie to their communities, they destroy the trust on which community stands.
Offenders need to be held accountable…
1. To rescue them from situations where they can’t control their behavior. In Healing the Wounds of Sexual Addiction, Mark Laaser says that sexually addicted clergy may feel “afraid and ashamed” when they are caught, but they also feel relieved. Some may even “slip up and do things that reveal their secret” because they know they can’t control their behavior on their own.
2. To free them from the burden of a secret that can literally make them sick.
3. To show respect. When church leaders ignore a pastor’s sexual offenses, they give the subtle message, “We can’t expect anything better from you. You aren’t worth the effort it would take to heal you.”
Victims and survivors need our offenders held accountable…
1. To acknowledge the violation: not only that the pastor violated our sexual boundaries, but that his or her actions harmed us. To affirm that the church will not accept that kind of behavior from its ministers.
2. To protect the vulnerable, either by removing a pastor’s access to the congregation or by sharing the facts openly with the congregation in a way that supports the victim.
3. To affirm that we matter to the church. To affirm that the church will stand up for us when we are wronged, even by one of their own.
Congregations need to see errant pastors held accountable…
1. To keep the church safe. We need to know that the man or woman in the pulpit won’t harm us or our friends or family members.
2. To acknowledge the congregational wound and begin the process of healing. When a pastor violates sexual boundaries, his or her sin wounds the whole congregation. Clergy sexual abuse is never really a secret. A few people may find out or at least suspect the truth. This can lead to jealousy, gossip, and broken trust even before the matter is openly discussed. A toxic secret can destroy a community. If the church openly acknowledges a failure in leadership, they can restore trust and give the congregation a chance to rebuild.
3. To show compassion for survivors of sexual assault, no matter where or when it happened. Even when survivors don’t make ourselves known within congregations, we are here. In an average-sized congregation of 400 people, dozens may have experienced sexual abuse or assault. Look at the statistics:
* Nearly one in five women in the U.S. have survived sexual assault.
* Experts believe that between 8% and 20% of adults were sexually abused as children.
* One in 30 women has endured an unwanted advance from a member of the clergy as an adult.
Whether we share our secrets or not, survivors need to know that our church is a safe place, and that church leaders will keep it safe by holding offenders accountable.
Can survivors hold the church accountable? YES! We can…
1. Educate ourselves about the nature of clergy sexual abuse: how and why it happens, how the church should respond, and how the church can reduce abuse within its walls.
2. Work to strengthen our congregation’s policy and procedures if we belong to a church.
3. Tell our stories, to one trusted friend or to the world. The more of us claim our voices, the more the world will join us in demanding justice.
As I write this series of essays on Marie Fortune’s Elements of Justice-Making, I’m learning where my wounds still exist, and this is a deep one. When I filed my complaint, my former church did very little to protect the vulnerable. Instead, they protected a minister with an admitted pattern of boundary issues. Of all the ways the church betrayed me, this may have been the most painful.
After my pastor made his feelings plain, I struggled for more than a week with overwhelming confusion, fear, and grief. When my mind finally cleared, I told him I would no longer meet him for pastoral counseling. I didn’t want to damage his ministry, so I told him I wouldn’t report him. He sighed with relief. He seemed genuinely sorry he had hurt me. He acknowledged he had betrayed my trust. He kicked himself for being “careless,” and he told me that I was part of a pattern of “beautiful women” whose boundaries he had ignored. Stunned, I demanded, “You knew you had a pattern, and you knew you were attracted to me, and you didn’t take steps to protect me?” He quickly clarified the “pattern”: only one woman. A different church. No physical violation. I needed to believe in my pastor’s basic goodness, so I chose to believe his words. I decided to trust him again, but this time more cautiously. I refused pastoral counseling, but a month later I accepted his invitation to share a writing project. That led to another betrayal. When I confronted him again, he assured me he was turning over a new leaf. No longer would he offer pastoral counseling to any woman he found attractive. I was thrilled to hear these words. I believed that my firm “NO” had made him a better minister, and had made my church a safer place for women.
I decided to trust him again, but more cautiously still. He created a staff position for me. Knowing I would be reporting to a different minister, I accepted his offer. I loved the work, and I was sure I had healed from my pastor’s sexual breach, but in truth I had only covered up the wound. It was a training film that finally opened my eyes. The movie “Not in My Church” depicts a minister who sexually abuses three women at his church. One of those women could have been me. I watched the film with growing horror; afterward in the bathroom I dissolved in tears. With effort, I pulled myself together to sit through the rest of the training. I hid my swollen eyes behind sunglasses.
Let me be perfectly clear: as far as I know for certain, my pastor breached boundaries only with me and the woman at his previous church. But over the next few months I kept my eyes open, and I saw far more than I expected to. I’ve shared some of my observations on this blog. As the evidence grew, the truth began to dawn on me: my silence could be putting others at risk. I made the hard decision to report my pastor. I began to build the courage.
During this time, I saw “Joyce” for counseling at an office a few blocks from my church. She supervised the pastoral counselors who worked at my church, so I assumed she knew my pastor. It was hard to talk about this decision with Joyce. She seemed incredulous that I would take the risk of reporting a popular minister. I tried to explain: “If I remain silent and he harms other women, then I’m as much responsible as if I had inflicted that harm myself.” She acknowledged my courage, and she almost seemed awed. But the day after I met with the bishop, she asked me, “Couldn’t you have just quietly left the church?” Even she seemed to want to protect him.
The day I filed my complaint, I learned of the death of a hero: Miep Gies, who had helped hide Anne Frank from the Nazis. For two years, Mrs. Gies smuggled food to the families in the Secret Annex. After the Nazis discovered them, Miep Gies saved Anne’s diary. She could have been executed for those acts. But she knew that if she didn’t help the Franks, she would face a lifetime of sleepless nights. “Permanent remorse about failing to do your human duty,” she said, “can be worse than losing your life.”
For two years I had kept my pastor’s secret. Like many victims of sexual offenses, I still felt affection for this man. You might even say I loved him. He was still the spiritual leader of my church; I desperately needed to admire and respect him. After I came to terms with my experience, I kept my secret out of fear. Even if the church believed me, I would lose the friendship of people who were dear to me. So what finally led me to turn him in? I saw vulnerable women at risk. I needed the church to protect them. I had to speak, regardless of cost, or I would have faced a lifetime of sleepless nights.
In a different church in a different part of the country, survivor “K” reported her abuser for the same reason. While in college, she had endured vicious sexual abuse by the pastor who had led her summer high school youth ministry. When she reported him, she wrote, “I asked for nothing from this church other than Darryl’s removal from any work that places him with vulnerable populations.” Sadly, her church failed her. She had given the bishop solid evidence of abuse, including sexually explicit emails from her abuser. The man denied nothing. Yet the day after the bishop confronted him, he was back at work at the youth ministry. Two weeks later, the bishop ended Darryl’s career as a UMC minister, but he failed to alert the other ministers in his area. Later, another Methodist church invited Darryl to lead a Bible study. “Why was my little request too little for the UMC?” asks K. “Why does my life and the trauma sustained from this man not matter?”
When I first met with my bishop, he told me he needed to decide whether to disclose the investigation to the church. I had given him plenty of reason to suspect there might be other victims: my observations of my pastor during my time on staff, his grooming-style pattern with me, and his own admission of weakness for “beautiful women.” How did my bishop weigh the pros and cons? Did he yield to entreaties from the pastor? Did he decide that the chance of learning the truth wasn’t worth damaging this pastor’s reputation? I will never know. My pastor once told me a story of a congregant at his former church, a defrocked minister whose first victim’s complaint had brought dozens more “out of the woodwork.” If there were other victims “in the woodwork” at my church, the bishop will never know.
I met with the bishop one more time to hear his decision. He gave me a letter outlining his judgment against my former pastor, and he told me that they would both be required to disclose this judgment to any future employer in the church. I had hoped the bishop would share the outcome with the congregation, but he opted to keep it quiet. Still, I trusted that any future employer would know about his record. But two years later, my former pastor was chosen from a large pool of candidates to lead a thriving church in another city. I felt sick, and I felt terrified for the women in his new church. Again, I felt a duty to protect them. So I took the only action in my power: I sent a note to his new church leaders. After that, I had to be at peace. I had done all I could.
Survivor “K” did the same thing. Her bishop never told the other leaders of the youth ministry that Pastor Darryl had sexually abused a former client. So K wrote to those leaders. One of them wrote back, “Why are you telling us this?” K responded in her blog: “Because it’s your responsibility to protect others. Even if you don’t believe me, I know you will think of what I said before you let another youth member be alone with this man.”
These reflections have dredged up painful memories. Struggling with these thoughts the past few days, at night I’ve had troubling dreams. If “protecting the vulnerable” is part of the process of justice, then I did not receive justice. The church failed to protect other congregants. They failed to reach out to other potential victims. They failed to protect me from the congregation’s backlash. But they bent over backward to protect the man I accused.
And yet — I will never regret speaking up. If my actions saved even one woman from my fate, I did not sacrifice in vain.
Com*pas*sion: Deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it. From Latin com*pati, to suffer with.
Along with other members of my new church, my family is marking Lent by limiting our food budget to the amount a SNAP participant spends. The foods I used to take for granted (avocados, grapes, cake mix) now seem like luxuries. In the grocery store, I have to make hard choices. It’s a fiction, of course; we have plenty of money for food. But in our small way, we’re suffering with our low-income neighbors, and we’re learning concrete ways to help them.
The day after I filed my complaint in 2010, my beloved grandparents fell on a moving escalator. While I was surviving emotional trauma, I was helping them survive a catastrophic physical trauma. My grandfather died that summer; my grandmother and I kept each other going. She lived almost to her 99th birthday. When she was strong enough, I told her my story. We suffered together, and we healed together.
When my other church friends distanced themselves, “Diana” took me in. I cried on her shoulder for months. I talked about nothing else, for months. She saw me at my pale and ragged worst — for months. She didn’t experience my ordeal, but she hurt because I hurt. She suffered with me, and her compassion helped restore me to life.
I’ve walked the journey toward death with four people whom I loved. I couldn’t take the last step with them, but I could be with them in those frightening final months. When I was in the deepest pain, that’s what Diana did for me. That is what we need from the church: we need you to be willing to suffer with us. We need the church to see our pain and respond to it. In the months after I filed my complaint, I tried literally to make my pain visible. On Tuesday mornings, I took the long way to my therapist’s office. I walked several blocks along my church’s grand boulevard during the morning commute. Gaunt and hollow-eyed, I embodied the pain I felt. I wanted my friends to see it. It was a desperate measure, but I desperately needed compassion.
To be fair, my bishop tried to offer compassion. He thanked me for my courage. He told me that what happened wasn’t my fault. He told me I would have to separate from my church during the investigation, but he offered me a chaplain for spiritual support. I believe he did his best, but there was too much he didn’t understand. Can I blame him for his ignorance? On one level, yes: it was his job to know that stuff. On another level, no. He’s only human, and he’d only been bishop a few years when this happened. My complaint may have been the first one he ever had to face. If he harmed me with rookie errors, maybe he felt bad about it. I can forgive an honest mistake.
And I can offer to help him understand. I did that two years ago, when I sent him my notes on how to offer better support to victims. Here, I’ll reframe my suggestions to be more generally useful.
1. Church leaders, please educate yourselves about trauma. Talk with people who have survived trauma. Read Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery. By the time a victim comes to you with a complaint, she or he is already deeply traumatized. Above all else, you don’t want to cause more trauma.
2. Learn about clergy sexual misconduct: how it happens, what it looks like, and how it affects the victim. The Hope of Survivors and the FaithTrust Institute are great resources. You can find more helpful readings on the Survivor’s Bookshelf.
3. Seek support for the victim. Make responsible disclosures at the right time. If you limit the accused pastor’s ministry, even temporarily, the congregation needs to know. When you speak, remind the congregation that the accuser is suffering, and that she or he deserves their compassion. Remember: the congregation may still turn against the accuser. Do all you can to prevent a shunning; it can cause even more harm than the original abuse.
“Compassion” has been a challenging topic. It’s hard to write about compassion when I’m still reeling from a threat, but Jesus calls us to be compassionate in all circumstances. As I reflect on compassion, I realize I have some to offer to the bishop.
Dear Bishop _____: I am sorry if my writing distresses you. I write to heal, not to harm. Healing can be painful; I pray that any pain I’ve given you is the kind that heals. You needn’t worry that my words will harm your reputation. First, I don’t have as much influence as you think. On a good day, maybe twenty people see my blog. Most of my followers are people who have watched me heal. Aside from my parents, very few Episcopalians follow my blog. Second, readers come here not to learn about my experience, but to understand and heal from theirs. With all due respect, they don’t care who you are.
But I feel the most compassion for my fellow survivors. I don’t presume to know their pain and loneliness; all I know is the pain and loneliness I felt. I know what it felt like to be shamed, despised, and thrown out like trash. Then, I needed someone to stand with me. Now, with these words, I stand alongside my sister and brother survivors. When I write and speak with my real name, I reject not just my shame but all of our shame.
On behalf of all survivors of clergy sexual misconduct and abuse, I call on the church to have compassion and let us speak. When you silence our voices, you cut us off from the very people who can help us heal. We will never have the power of the institutional church. Our only power is our voice, and you must protect that power. With it, we can heal ourselves and others. And if you will listen, we can heal the church.
In the 1944 thriller-mystery film Gaslight, Charles Boyer’s character tries to convince Ingrid Bergman’s character that she has gone insane. His best-known technique, and the one from which the film gets its name: gaslighting. Boyer secretly dims the gas lights in their home. When Bergman comments that the lights are flickering, he tells her that she’s crazy. She comes to believe it.
Psychoanalyst and author Robin Stern defines gaslighting as “the systematic attempt by one person to erode another’s reality. This is done by telling them that what they are experiencing isn’t so.” Gaslighting usually takes place within a romantic relationship, she says, but it can also happen between friends, family members, and work colleagues. All it requires is “a gaslighter, who needs to be right in order to preserve his own sense of self and his sense of having power; and a gaslightee, who allows the gaslighter to define her sense of reality.” (You can find this passage on page three of Stern’s book The Gaslight Effect.)
I want to make it clear that the church did not gaslight me. On the contrary: by acknowledging my former pastor’s violation in writing, the bishop concretely affirmed my experience. But now that seems to be unraveling. On this blog and elsewhere, I have used the term “sexual misconduct” to describe my former pastor’s actions. The bishop’s attorney now says, “It would be incorrect to imply that __________ ever concluded there had been clergy sexual misconduct.” Is the church attempting to gaslight me after the fact?
A year and a half after the bishop closed my case, I sent him a letter with thanks for his helpful actions, and I suggested ways that his process could offer better support to people like me. Among my bishop’s most helpful actions: the letter that he handed me on March 15, 2010. Although it focused only on the words my former pastor spoke on a single day (which I have described here), and it ignored the earlier behavior that I now see as red flags, the bishop’s letter affirmed that a member of the clergy had harmed me by violating my boundaries. Although the bishop didn’t ask me to keep that letter confidential, I have always considered those words to be holy ground. I won’t share the letter, not even here, not even to show why I was so sure that the bishop had labelled my former pastor’s behavior as “sexual misconduct.” The bishop may now disagree with that term, but we both know what was in the letter.
In Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman describes what often happens after “traumatic events of human design.” After a human-originated trauma, bystanders cannot remain neutral. They have to choose whether to stand with the victim or the perpetrator. The victim demands compassion and empathy; the perpetrator demands only that bystanders go on with their lives. “Silence and secrecy are the perpetrator’s first line of defense,” says Herman. “If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens. … After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it on herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on.” Is my church now saying, “It never happened”?
I’m about to describe an out-of-print book by Judith Rowland titled “Rape: The Ultimate Violation.” Because the church is sensitive to how I describe my experience, I want to be perfectly clear: my former pastor did not physically harm me in any way. He never violated my physical boundaries, not even once. But Rowland’s work is still relevant to this discussion. In her book, she describes the symptoms of “rape trauma syndrome” (sleeplessness, weight changes, nightmares, isolation, fearfulness, poor job performance, etc). Even in the absence of physical evidence of rape, courts have begun to see these symptoms as evidence that “something happened.”
Could there also be “clergy sexual misconduct trauma syndrome”? The Hope of Survivors lists the consequences of abuse as “fear, grief, anger, anxiety, shame, guilt, low self-esteem (self-respect), self-abuse, suicide, eating disorders (anorexia or bulimia) depression, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and a host of physical illnesses and symptoms, damaged ability to relate to others and to God, trust issues, etc.” Even without a physical violation, I suffered most of the symptoms on this list. Is that not evidence that serious harm happened? If no violation occurred, why would I still be so focused on this issue? If my former pastor hadn’t nearly stolen my soul, why would I spend my time thinking and writing about such a painful subject? Honestly, I don’t want to be doing this work. I want to be traveling, gardening, painting, enjoying my family, and writing about happier things. I want to feel comfortable sharing my writing with my family and friends, but because people are so uncomfortable with this subject, I can’t share this blog with most of the people I know. I don’t do this work for fun; I don’t do it for revenge (my God, life is too short for revenge!) I do it to heal myself, to heal others, and because I can’t ignore the call of God.
When the church refuses to acknowledge the violation, one of two things may happen. The victim may come to doubt her own experience — or she may start fighting like hell. She may refuse to be gaslighted. She may insist on holding to her truth.
My bishop is now offering to set the record straight publicly. If he does, I hope he tells the whole story. I would like to know: if it wasn’t clergy sexual misconduct, then what was it that nearly destroyed my health, my marriage, and my faith?