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.