“Just had lunch with a colleague from St. _____’s,” wrote my friend “Karen” in an email last week. “She told me that the membership recently received a letter about ‘Reverend X.’ A charge of sexual misconduct has been brought against him. Because he is Lutheran, that denomination is doing the investigation. My friend said it was a very informative — and shocking — letter.”
Shocking indeed. When I was at St. ______’s, Reverend X was one of our most respected and popular teachers. The truth is, I adored him. We all did. Rev. X is brilliant, erudite, insightful, warm, down-to-earth, and funny as hell. I don’t want to believe that this man is capable of abusing anyone’s trust the way “Pastor Kevin” abused mine. I don’t want to believe it — but I do believe it. I know that ministers with a sterling public presence can do great harm behind closed doors. I know how rare false complaints are, and how hard it is for victims to come forward. I know what a heavy decision it must have been for this man’s victim. I grieve that this kind of abuse continues at my former church, and I grieve for the immense pain of Rev. X’s victim.
But while I grieve, I also celebrate. It seems my former church is making progress. The “informative and shocking” letter to the congregation came from the same bishop who totally concealed my complaint four years ago. He had allowed my offender to stay on the job throughout the investigation; now he is suspending Rev. X from all ministerial duties while the Lutheran church investigates the complaint. On one hand, I feel bitter and envious. The bishop’s secrecy caused harm that still affects my life today. How I wish he had handled my complaint with this kind of transparency! On the other hand, I rejoice in the signs of progress. If the bishop made these decisions on his own, without pressure from the Lutheran church, then it seems he has learned from my painful experience. I pray that is true. Transparency is essential not only for the victim’s sake, but also for the congregation’s. It’s impossible to heal around a dangerous secret.
Transparency is essential — but it isn’t enough to protect the victim from harmful gossip. In the bishop’s letter, which I have not seen, I hope he said something like this:
“Complaints of sexual misconduct are among the most difficult concerns that church leaders have to deal with. No matter how fair the church’s response, there will be pain on all sides. I ask you to pray for the Lutheran church leaders who will investigate the complaint against Rev. X.
“I also ask you to pray for the complainant, who showed enormous courage in bringing this complaint. Without prejudicing the investigation, I can assure you that she is a person of good character, committed to the welfare of this church. She is still struggling to understand the events that led her to raise a concern, and now she must endure the difficult process of the church’s investigation. If you discuss this matter with other members of the congregation, please show utmost respect and compassion toward the complainant.
“I ask you to pray for Rev. X. Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, we can acknowledge Rev. X’s enormous contribution to the life of this congregation. He has agreed to cooperate fully with the investigation.
“Finally, please pray for yourselves as a congregation. Pray that your leaders, including your bishop, will seek God’s guidance as we take steps to heal this wound to our community. Pray that we can avoid the temptation to pretend these events never happened. Pray that we can learn from this painful experience, and that in our healing we can be a light to other churches.”
Finally, a word to the victim. If you are reading these words, please know that you are not alone. Know that what happened was not your fault. Know that I will be praying for you, without ceasing. If you need more direct support, you are welcome to contact me. You’ll find my email address here. If that’s a little too close to home, I understand. In that case, please consider The Hope of Survivors. They can connect you with a volunteer counselor who understands the experience of clergy sexual misconduct.
Above all, have hope. Many, many of us have healed. I promise: you will heal, too.