Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Archive for June, 2014

I’m published in The Christian Century!

I’m proud to have an essay in the upcoming issue of The Christian Century. Along with other readers, I answered a query on “Risk.” I wrote about how frightened I was to join a new church after being ostracized by the old. As my readers know, my risk paid off. I now belong to a healthy, supportive congregation in which I’ve done substantial healing. My story, beginning “I sat on the edge of a rear pew and clung to my ten-year-old son,” is the eighth of ten in this series.

Thank God for women and men of faith who take risks for the sake of truth, compassion, and justice.

A Great Victory for One Survivor

“Ocian in view! O! The joy!”
— journal of William Clark, on reaching the mouth of the Columbia River.

On a cold November day in 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark rejoiced to see the Pacific “Ocian.” After eighteen months and nearly four thousand miles of hard travel through uncharted territory, this was a great victory. The Corps of Discovery had failed in their primary goal — discovering a shipping passage across the continent — and they still had a cold wet winter and year’s return journey ahead of them. Even so, there’s no doubt that their expedition’s greatest day was November 7, 1805. The U.S. Mint even created a nickel to commemorate the moment.

Every long journey has these buoyant moments. No matter how discouraged and fatigued we are, journeyers get new courage from the miracles and victories along the way. Even with all the new stories of clergy abuse and institutional silencing, I’m constantly encouraged by the small triumphs in the lives of my fellow survivors, and by the support of our allies.

And last week, one survivor accomplished something so great that I feel like Captain Clark. “O! The joy!”

***

Last summer, “Anonymous Girl” filed a complaint against the United Methodist minister who led a service trip for youth groups in his region. A week later, her bishop sent her an email: “Over the weekend, Rev. ____ submitted his clergy orders to my office. This means that he has resigned as a clergy person.”

“Just like that,” reflected Anonymous Girl, “in a week’s time the process was over. It happened quickly and I got what I wanted: this person will not work in a ministerial role in the United Methodist Church with vulnerable populations.”

But it wasn’t over. The hard work of healing had only begun.  Anonymous Girl spent months struggling with emotional pain and with questions about her own role in the abuse. The abuse had not been her fault, but like most survivors she felt she must have done something to cause it. Severely traumatized, she spent most of the winter actively planning to end her life. What was it that gave her the strength to stay? Was it when she found out that a local Methodist pastor had invited her defrocked abuser to lead a Bible study in his church? Did she decide to stay so she could finish what she had set out to do — to keep vulnerable people safe from the man who had exploited and abused her?

Whatever the reason, the world is a safer place because Anonymous Girl is here. A few weeks ago, she was stunned to learn that her abuser would lead the same service project again. Even worse, she learned that several churches had already signed up. Did she feel angry and betrayed? You bet. And did she fight back? Yes, she did. She began by emailing the UMC’s General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. The previous head of the GCSRW had helped Anonymous Girl with her original complaint, but she had never met the new leader. So she had to summon up the courage to tell her story one more time.

After a week, she hadn’t heard back, but she didn’t give up. She sent a stronger letter. This time, the GCSRW reached out to Anonymous Girl’s bishop. The bishop was also slow to respond — and again, Anonymous Girl didn’t give up. She sent the bishop an articulate, respectful email to let him know that at the end of June, she would send a letter to every youth minister in the Conference. She would attach not only the evidence of her own abuse, but the letter the bishop had sent to her, sharing the fact her abuser was no longer a UMC minister.

Finally, the bishop broke his official silence. He sent a letter to every UMC pastor whose church had signed up for the service project. He told them that the leader of the project “admitted to having an inappropriate relationship with a young person” who participated in the project. While I don’t like the language — the bishop should have said, “he admitted to sexually abusing a young person” — I like the results. After the bishop sent his letter, Anonymous Girl’s abuser withdrew his offer to lead the service project. By insisting on justice, and speaking up with courage and resolve, Anonymous Girl has made all the youth in her Conference safer.

Anonymous Girl has discovered another truth: her abuser may not have cared about the project after all. You see, he didn’t just step away from the project. He cancelled it altogether. He seems to have seen this service project only as a way to get access to vulnerable youth. If he cared about the project, she writes, “he would have stepped down and allowed it to continue without him. He could have helped someone else take the leadership role.” But she also knows: whatever the value of the project to the youth and the community, it carried too high a cost. She rejoices that the project was cancelled “not because I want to see the project fail, but… because I know the man who hurt me will not be given the option to hurt other youth in the same way.”

This kind of victory is rare. For every triumph of justice against clergy sexual abuse, we hear dozens of tales of abuse, silencing, and victim-blaming. With near-daily bad news, it’s easy to lose hope. But then this amazing thing happens. Against all odds, a solitary victim, still struggling with the trauma of abuse, speaks with so much power and clarity that the whole church hears. A bishop finds his voice. A predator loses access to victims. A whole group of young people will not be this man’s victims.

And every survivor who hears this news stands up a little taller. Anonymous Girl’s victory is a victory for all of us.

Survivors Awaken A Powerful Media Outlet

I’m on the road this week with my home-schooled son, so it’s been hard to keep up with the news. But I can’t miss the furor around one story. A few days ago, Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal published a former youth minister’s account “My Easy Trip from Youth Pastor to Felon.” The author wrote about his predatory sexual assault on a teenaged girl as if he’d enjoyed an extramarital affair with a consenting adult of equal power.

The online community of survivors and survivors’ families and allies spoke up in strength. Here are three of the best responses.
* An anonymous survivor writes, “I am the other side of the coin.” She writes, “Just like the youth pastor in that article, [my abuser] made me believe it was a consensual relationship. He made me believe I wanted it just as much as he did.” She adds, “These things? They do not happen by accident. A youth pastor does not accidentally become ‘friends’ and later ‘sexual partners’ with a female minor from his church. A 40+ year old does not accidentally find himself actively and relentlessly pursuing a 15 year old.”
You can read her courageous account here.
* Suzannah Paul makes a strong claim that Christian “purity culture” protects abusers and harms victims by reframing pastoral sexual abuse as a sin against sexual purity, in which “victims are rendered ‘impure’ and at fault alongside their abusers.” She writes, “Leadership Journal allows a convicted child abuser a platform to manipulatively frame this as a story of personal selfishness and infidelity without one word about molestation, statutory rape, sexual grooming, or the abuse of power.”
Suzannah’s message is superb, and you can read it here.
* Tamara Rice speaks directly to the editors. She asks, “Did you ask [the victim’s] family for permission to let this predator tell it this way? Did you ask his wife (his former wife?) for permission to let him tell it this way? Did you consider getting perspective… from ANYONE who is a victim here?” She suggests a warning that this pastor should have offered: “If you find yourself attracted to one of your students, get out of youth ministry ASAP and get yourself into counseling… YOU ARE CONTEMPLATING A SEXUAL CRIME.”
You can read Tamara’s excellent post here.

Without time to comb the internet this week, I don’t know whether anyone has made the point that just as children and teens are never to blame for the predatory sexual abuse committed against them, neither are adult victims to blame. Even if we believe we are consenting to our pastors’ predation — indeed, even if we believe we are initiating the connection –we are not to blame. I was a middle-aged woman when my powerful pastor targeted me. I’ve already shared the story of how he took advantage of my vulnerability when I sought spiritual guidance. Because I stopped the abuse before it became physical, he was able to frame me as an emotionally unstable parishioner whose sexual advances he responsibly turned down. But the truth is: he abused his power, pure and simple. Even if I had allowed him to violate my physical boundaries, the blame and shame would have been his, and his alone.

***

Thankfully, the Leadership Journal has taken down the offensive and harmful post. In its place, they share an unreserved apology for posting a story that focused on the predator’s losses while ignoring the far greater harm to the victim. They will offer any revenue from the post to Christian organizations that work with survivors of sexual abuse.

By speaking our truth, the community of survivors and advocates has turned on one more light. The Leadership Journal now knows who we are and what we stand for. They owe much to the courageous souls who called them to account. If they want to repay the debt, they can open their pages to our voices, to our stories and to our call for safer churches.

***

NOTES:
*  Heather Celoria (Junia Project, June 17) offers an excellent reflection on the decisions of the Leadership Journal both to post the article and to take down the post. The Junia Project website is a great resource for understanding and deconstructing the patriarchal mindset that makes it so easy for male clergy to abuse female congregants with impunity.
* The first link in my essay now leads to the complete original article (my original link did not). I have also captured all the text in the article as a Word file. If the link stops working, send me an email and I’ll send you the article. The Leadership Journal is rightfully ashamed and embarrassed of having published the story, and they may hope that by taking it down they’ve made the controversy go away. But the story is evidence, and we can’t let it disappear.

How to Screen Out Potential Offenders

Rule #1 in preventing clergy sexual abuse: don’t hire offenders. But how can we tell who they are? Many potential offenders don’t even know themselves, and those who do are hardly going to share their dark truth with a hiring committee.

Last month I highlighted a resource of The Episcopal Church, a model policy aimed at preventing sexual exploitation of adults. The policy includes a sample interview that could identify potential offenders. It’s an excellent tool that could help all faith communities, so I’m sharing it on this blog. The interview starts soft but eventually gets to hard questions about the candidate’s professional, civil, and criminal record. To encourage truthful responses, interviewers may want to begin the interview by saying, “We’ll be doing a standard background check, of course, but these questions will help us understand better how you might handle challenging situations as our pastor.”

According to the Church Pension Group of the Episcopal Church, here are the questions that could help protect congregants and staff against clergy sexual exploitation.

1. Please tell me about the last time a member of your (congregation, youth group, office staff, etc.) demanded too much of your time. How did you handle that?

2. Please give an example of a time in your work or volunteer history when you thought the policies were too rigid. How did you handle that?

3. Please describe a time when you felt a special bond or friendship between yourself and a member of your (congregation, youth group, office staff, etc.).

4. Please give an example of a “boundary violation.” Has that ever happened to you, or has anyone ever said that you violated a boundary of some sort?

5. Has disciplinary action of any sort ever been taken against you by a licensing board, professional association, ecclesiastical body or educational or training institution? Have there been complaints against you that did not result in discipline? Are there complaints pending against you before any of the above-named bodies? If yes, please explain.

6. Have you ever been asked to resign or been terminated by a training program or employer? If yes, please explain. 

7. Have you ever had a civil suit brought against you about your professional work or is any such action pending? Have you ever had professional malpractice insurance suspended or revoked for any reason? If yes, please explain.

8. Have you ever been charged (formally or informally) with any ethics violations, sexual exploitation, sexual abuse or sexual harassment? Are any such actions or complaints pending against you? If yes, please explain.

9. Are you now or have you ever had sexual contact or attempted sexual contact (sexual intercourse of any kind, intentional touching, or conversation for the purpose of sexual arousal) with any person you were/are seeing in any professional context or in a pastoral relationship (i.e. parishioner, client, patient, employee, student)? If yes, please explain.

10. Are you now or have you ever been involved in the production, sale, or distribution of pornographic materials? If yes, please explain.

11. Have you ever had a restraining order, injunction, order for protection or the like issued against you? Have you ever had your parental rights restricted, suspended or terminated or have any of your children ever been in foster care? Have you ever been accused of domestic violence? If so, please explain.

These questions, and the entire model policy, were developed by the Church Pension Group and the Nathan Network for The Episcopal Church. Please note that commercial use of this sample interview, or of the Model Policy, is prohibited by the church’s copyright. To order copies or for more information, please visit the CPG website.

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: