Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Archive for July, 2014

Irene McCormack Jackson: Strong Survivor

Remember Irene McCormack Jackson? Last summer, she was the first of 19 women to publicly accuse then-Mayor Bob Filner of sexual harassment. Ultimately she won: the mayor resigned, and she received enough money to cover therapy and lost salary. But she also had to give up the job she loved, step away from her career, and heal.

A year after her public ordeal, she is back as a strong survivor. I was thrilled to hear Irene sharing her wisdom with KPBS reporter Peggy Pico this morning. Here’s some of that wisdom:

1. Reporting is hard…
When Irene realized the mayor had other victims too, “I had to do something that made an impact, but I had to do it wisely. I couldn’t come out and talk about… the mayor of the 8th largest city in the country and just make an allegation and expect it to go someplace. His power was amazing. He could do anything. I fully expected him to [ruin my career] if I did something. [I couldn’t go to Human Resources because] the Mayor of San Diego manages HR… There’s really no safe sanctuary when you’re working for the Mayor of San Diego.”

2. … but we do it anyway, to protect other victims.
“I did this for the other women that I thought it was happening to. A lot of it had to do with watching young women come into the office to give a presentation to the mayor and then suddenly being pulled into his private office, and then them coming out two or three minutes later, looking a little bit shocked.”

3. We pay a high price, even when the facts vindicate us.
“It was very difficult, having [my] career interrupted like it was. I had this whole plan, I was going to work for the mayor of San Diego, work for the city I loved. Oh my gosh, I was so happy going into that job. Then all of a sudden it was like the train fell right off the track.”

4. To survive, we need LOTS of support.
“You have to have a really good set of friends, or family, or a group or pack of people who will support you the whole way. It’s not an easy thing to do, and you have to do it wisely. You have to understand that if you poke at somebody who has a lot of power, they tend to slap back.”

5. In the end, we have no regrets.
“There’s been a couple of times [I’ve regretted it.] It was very difficult. But in the long run I have not regretted it. I did it for the other men and women who have issues with people who are very abusive of their power.”

I’m so proud of this brave woman from my city, and so happy to see how strong and whole she is today. May her journey give hope to all of us.

Grooming: What it Is, What it Does

The day I left my church, I had only one goal: to get enough distance to turn in “Pastor Kevin.” For five years he had been my priest, my spiritual director, my counselor, my crush, my betrayer and offender, my stalker (not in a legal sense, only in the sense that he wouldn’t let me be; he kept finding ways to keep me within reach), my book partner, my mentor, and my boss. He was a central presence in my life, and my feelings for him were complicated. Even when I had come to despise him, I still felt some tenderness. To build the strength to report him, I had to distance myself completely.

When I finally gained the strength to make the call, I thought my distancing efforts had served their purpose. But as the months went by, as I lived in a world outside his influence, I began to see through his lies. Had I seduced him? No. Had he cared for me or even seen me as a person? No. He had been attracted to me “as a woman,” “from the beginning,” and all his actions had stemmed from that harmful impulse. Holding my memories up to the clear light of day, I believe he subjected me to years of predatory grooming. He never touched me, but he could scarcely have done me greater harm if he had.

What is grooming, and why does it cause so much harm?

Forensic psychologist Michael Welner names six stages of grooming in child sexual abuse. The Hope of Survivors’ former board chair, Dr. Martin Weber, describes how clergy offenders use exactly the same process. “It starts with grooming the victim into thinking she is special — at first to God because of her talents, and then later to the pastor because of her sweetness or beauty. Such flattery may cement an emotional bond between the victim and her pastor/predator… The victim may be groomed so skillfully, and manipulated so totally, that she may even initiate sex with the pastor… This often happens in a counseling environment, where he discovers the secrets of her previous abuse and then exploits those vulnerabilities.”

But grooming does more than break down our defenses. It also breaks down our sense of self. We stop trusting our own instincts. We begin to confuse abuse with love, abuser with God. We absorb the abuser’s cognitive distortions. If he thinks we seduced him, we come to believe it. If he thinks he “did nothing,” we feel shame for overreacting to “nothing.” Experts at a U.K. clinic believe that grooming itself is harmful, with or without sexual assault, and that the harm begins with the first exposure to the offender’s distorted attitudes.

What kind of distortions live in the mind of a sexual predator? The Willows Clinic in the U.K. lists them on pages 7-10 of this report. Here’s a summary:
* Euphemistic labeling. Rape becomes “horseplay.” Sexual touch becomes “hey, I’m a hugger.”
* Denial of memory, intent, or facts. “I can’t believe she interpreted my words that way.”
* Moral justification. “How else am I supposed to have a love life?”
* Blaming the victim. “She seduced me.”
* Blaming external factors. “My wife doesn’t have sex with me.”
* Shrugging off the harm to the victim. “She was a mess before I ever knew her.”
* Offense-minimizing comparisons. “At least I didn’t have 30 victims like that other guy.”
* Unrealistic optimism about chance of reoffending. “You can trust me; I won’t do it again.”

Under the influence of predatory grooming, we come to believe those things too. The damage is worse if the grooming happens over a long period and/or multiple stages of life, if the predator is a family member or otherwise central to our lives, or if previous abuse has damaged our sense of self.

How do we get free? We start by walking away, leaving our church if we have to. We seek support from people who understand what grooming does to body and soul. And we wait for time to pass. Two weeks after I left my church, I suddenly realized, “I never have to see him again.” But it was months before I could see his manipulations for what they were, and even longer before I could see that the leaders at my former church enabled his behavior with their own dysfunction. What helped me the most? Joining a healthy church whose pastor was a man of integrity, humility, and compassion. Sometimes we don’t know we’ve been in a sick system until we finally find a healthy one.

Finally, a few words of encouragement to victims and survivors trying to get free from the toxic effects of predatory grooming. These are not my words, but the great poet Mary Oliver’s. In her poem The Journey, you might recognize your own path to freedom.

“Can You Help Us?”

Survivors of abuse, consider these questions.
*  What if your abuser were the most revered leader not just in your church, but in your whole community?
*  What if you believed your religious leader had the power to curse you if you didn’t keep silent?
*  What if the abuse happened in an environment where sexual assault was so common, and community response so inadequate, that even victims’ advocates recommended keeping silent?

Welcome to life on Native American reservations. The 2013 congressional debate on the Violence Against Women Act highlighted some terrible statistics. A Native American woman is at least twice as likely to be raped as an average woman in the U.S., and her assault is less than half as likely to be prosecuted. Although only a handful of native healers violate their traditions’ ethical codes, their abusive acts have a devastating impact on victims and their families. Sadly, in some native communities, it’s rare to find a woman who hasn’t experienced sexual violence.

At a conference last March, a young Navajo pastor reached out to Steve and Samantha Nelson, leaders of The Hope of Survivors. He told them about the abuse in his community and about how helpless he felt. He asked them, “Can you help us?”

This isn’t the first time an isolated community has reached out to The Hope of Survivors. In 2012, a pastor in Hawaii’s Seventh-Day Adventist Conference asked for THOS’ help dealing with child sexual abuse by a Christian educator. Through seminars, sermons, and counseling, Samantha and Steve helped the congregation understand sexual abuse, recognize their own wounds, and begin the process of healing. The Nelsons spoke to parents, and then to their children, about how to recognize and prevent sexual abuse in and out of the church. Pastor Keala’s letter to the Nelsons leaves no doubt: where religious or spiritual sexual abuse exists, The Hope of Survivors can make a difference.

This September, The Hope of Survivors will make a difference in the Navajo community in the Monument Valley of Utah. “There is great need among the Navajo,” says THOS Vice-President and CEO Samantha Nelson. “For many Navajo, even within the church, abuse is rampant among many family members and among spiritual leaders. It is much like what we experienced with Hawaiian natives. Abuse is taken for granted. Some leaders seem to consider it a right.” The Hope of Survivors will bring to the Navajo the same resources that made such a difference in Hawaii.

Besides their work with communities, the Hope of Survivors also helps individual survivors via email and telephone counseling and at their Bedford, IA Renewal Center. They facilitate far-reaching research and awareness projects such as the annual “Enough is Enough” Clergy Sexual Abuse Awareness & Prevention Campaign. And this fall, they will partner with Baylor University on a follow-up to the landmark 2009 Clergy Sexual Misconduct Study. All survivors will be invited to take part in the study’s online survey; watch for updates on this blog.

In other words: The Hope of Survivors makes a difference. They have helped many victims become survivors, and they have saved countless others from becoming victims in the first place. They do this work on grants from philanthropic organizations and on the freewill donations of people like us — but the resources are never enough to meet the need. They’ve had to say “no” to other native communities, at least for now.

If the plight of the Navajo communities moves you, or if you just want to help an organization doing critical work to prevent clergy sexual abuse, I hope you’ll join me in supporting the work of The Hope of Survivors.

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