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.