Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Archive for May, 2014

Teresa Pecinovsky and #YesAllWomen

The massacre at Santa Barbara triggered a twitter campaign, #YesAllWomen. (This triggered another campaign, #NotAllMen; you can read this excellent response by Presbyterian pastor-in-training Chris Chatelaine-Samsen on the Sojourners website.) Riding the #YesAllWomen wave, blogger Rachel Held Evans published a guest post by Vanderbilt divinity student and clergy sexual abuse survivor Teresa K. Pecinovsky. Teresa tells a story of abuse of power, first by her minister/professor/mentor, and then by the university that employed him. When her offender began sending personal emails, she thought she was safe because he was a minister. (“He wouldn’t do anything to hurt me, right?”) When he sent a sexually explicit email, Teresa cut off the relationship, but the trauma continued to haunt her. Her institution offered therapy to both her and her offender — but they paid for his PhD, while they turned her away from their seminary.

You can read Teresa’s account here. She writes beautifully, and there’s not a physically graphic word in the story — but I’m still going to offer a trigger warning. If, like me, you were the victim of a skillful emotional seduction and an institutional silencing, Teresa’s story may bring up painful memories. But since she was brave enough to write it, I can be brave enough to read it and share it.

I salute you, Teresa K. Pecinovsky, for the courage you showed in stopping the abuse, reclaiming your life, and sharing your story to encourage other survivors.

Model Policy vs What Really Happens

In my earlier survey of denominational online resources, I missed a valuable offering from The Episcopal Church: a Model Policy for the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation of Adults. The church began developing this resource in 1999 after discovering that not a single Episcopal diocese had an effective policy to prevent sexual exploitation. By 2006, every diocese was required to develop such a policy, and to help congregations in developing theirs.

As far as I know, my congregation still didn’t have a policy in 2009 when I was preparing to file my complaint. They seemed to lean half-heartedly on the diocesan policy, which leaned half-heartedly on the Model Policy. For instance:
* The Model Policy limits the number of counseling sessions to “no more than 4 or 5 on any particular life issue.” My diocese raised the limit to 6 sessions per life issue. My pastor chose to interpret that as “6 sessions per year,” for years without end, and he told me we could ignore that limit if we needed to. Between meetings, he maintained the intimate connection by engaging me in a constant, highly personal, sometimes flirtatious email conversation. None of the policies mentioned email.
* The Model Policy requires pastoral offices to have an unobstructed window on the door and businesslike furniture: no “couches, loveseats, beds, or futons.” Our diocesan policy required windows but said nothing about furniture. My pastor’s office had a windowless wooden door — always closed for our meetings — and a big beige sofa.

My diocese was not the only one to fall short of the mark. When Erik Campano tried to report a soon-to-be-ordained priest for sexual abuse in 2011, not one but two dioceses failed him. The abuse took place in Paris; his abuser was ordained in New York; but neither the European nor the New York diocese gave him justice. The bishops of both dioceses, and eventually even the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, found no evidence that Erik had ever been in a pastoral relationship with his abuser. Yet the Model Policy — which these top church leaders should have read — makes clear that any clergy person who administers a sacrament already has a pastoral relationship with the recipient. Erik’s abuser did far more than that: she sat with him in the church and heard his deepest anxieties. She prayed for him the way a priest prays for a penitent. She quoted to him the same spiritual writers that my offender quoted to me. She cared for him pastorally, and she used that care to seduce him sexually.

What point am I trying to make? That churches fail to live up to their own standards? That they ignore their own rules with impunity? Yes — but also, that churches occasionally try to do the right thing. The authors of the Model Policy worked hard to create a resource to make the whole church safer.

What can survivors do? We can educate ourselves about our church’s policies, and we can hold those standards up when church leaders try to take shortcuts. We may not get the results we want, but by shining a bright light on procedural and ethical sloppiness, we can make it harder for the church to ignore its own laws.

P.S. Happy birthday to this blog! I started it a year ago today.

An Open Letter to Miles McPherson

First things first: I believe Taylor Peyton. 

Peyton, now 20, began abusing drugs at the age of 14. By the fall of 2013, she was estranged from her Ohio family, had been through multiple rehabs, and had a record for drug possession. After a trip to a San Diego hospital for alcohol poisoning, Peyton ended up on David Powers’ doorstep — literally. Powers (54) and his wife Tina owned ABC Sober Living, with several homes in San Diego. The women’s recovery house was full, so Powers invited Peyton to move in with him and his wife. According to the complaint, almost immediately he asked her if she could feel the “sexual tension” between them. Over the next four months, Powers escalated his attacks. In January, in the backyard of one of his properties, he sexually assaulted her.

Now Peyton and five other ABC Sober Living clients or staffers have filed a lawsuit against David and Tina Powers, ABC Sober Living — and The Rock Church, one of the nation’s fastest-growing evangelical megachurches. (June 13 update: seven more women have joined the lawsuit, bringing the victim total to 13). You see, until this story broke, David Powers had been the leader of the Rock Recovery Ministry. The Rock Church often referred its members to Powers’ treatment facilities; they offered scholarships to help people attend Powers’ programs; in 2009 they honored David and Tina Powers as “Rock Heroes.” Powers required all of his residential clients to attend the 90-minute Sunday worship service at The Rock. David Powers was not a pastor, but it’s hard to imagine that these women didn’t see him as a Rock Church spiritual leader and even a kind of savior. The lawsuit spells it out: each of these women “has suffered and continues to suffer spiritually.”

The story, which Buzzfeed broke four days ago (trigger warning for predatory grooming and sexual abuse), is making news around the world, but it is happening right here in my town. David Powers’ office is less than a mile from my home. When sexual/spiritual abuse happens practically in my front yard, I can’t stay on the sidelines. Since The Rock Church’s staff directory doesn’t include an email address for their celebrity pastor, I’m publishing my thoughts as…

An Open Letter to Pastor Miles McPherson

Dear Pastor Miles,

I am glad The Rock Church is temporarily removing David Powers from leadership of the Rock Recovery Ministry. Even if this is a defensive posture in response to the recent lawsuit, the church’s decision sends a message to potential abusers: The Rock Church will not protect or defend sexual predators.

Regardless of the outcome in this case, I hope The Rock Church will go a step further. When a ministry leader is accused of sexual misconduct, it’s not enough to remove that person from leadership. The church also needs to make sure the abuse doesn’t happen again. To protect your congregation from abuse and your church from legal risk, The Rock should:

1. Thoroughly review all ministries that serve children or vulnerable adults, whether inside or outside church walls. Ensure that all ministries follow safe church practices to minimize the risk of abuse.

2. Establish a reporting mechanism for sexual misconduct. Publish regular notices that define sexual misconduct and abuse, and tell church and ministry attendees how and to whom they can report concerns.

3. Establish a process for responding to claims of sexual misconduct. The process should minimize trauma to complainants, hold offenders accountable, and protect the congregation from further harm.

4. Educate The Rock’s congregations about sexual abuse in a spiritual environment: what it is, what it does to victims, and how The Rock Church’s ministers are working to prevent it.

5. Require all ministry leaders to attend training in healthy boundaries and sexual ethics. Many ministers may believe that it is okay to pursue a romantic relationship with a ministry member. They may not understand how damaging those relationships are to all parties.

The Rock Church may find these resources helpful.
The FaithTrust Institute offers training and educational materials to help churches respond to and prevent sexual abuse in all environments.
The Hope of Survivors offers training and educational materials on clergy sexual abuse/misconduct, and ministers directly to victims and survivors.

As a survivor of sexual misconduct in a church environment, I now work with national leaders to make churches safer. I am very familiar with this issue and with the best resources for churches. I would be glad to answer questions or offer any support as The Rock Church responds to these events.

With best regards,

Catherine Thiemann

Journals of Trauma


In these journals, I spent three years trying to understand my relationship with my offender. I covered nearly 1200 pages with ink, but I didn’t gain any clarity until after I left my church. With near-daily encounters at the church office, and within a congregation that worshipped him, it was impossible to think clearly.

After I stopped journaling in 2010, I kept these records thinking one day I might write the whole story. But in four years, I’ve never been able to bring myself to read them again. I didn’t even like walking past the shelf where they sat. Just looking at that stack made me feel tense and sad — but I didn’t dare get rid of them. What if those journals held insights that might help me or others?

Last Saturday I finally got clarity. Those books hold nothing but confusion and pain.

That afternoon, I destroyed them.

Since then, I have felt positively buoyant.

One more step in healing.

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