Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Ten Years Later

For the past few months, I’ve been dealing with a huge, difficult family situation. It takes most of my physical and emotional energy. I’ve had almost none for this blog. I feel bad about neglecting the cause, but in a way this is good news. Finally there’s something in my life big enough to take my mind off my old trauma. For several weeks, I haven’t thought about my former priest, bishop, or church at all.

Until a few days ago, that is. For most of last week, mental images of the scene of abuse — my former pastor’s office — kept flashing into my mind. I couldn’t figure out why, until I looked at the calendar. Ah, the power of anniversaries! Our first “pastoral counseling” session happened almost exactly ten years ago. One day after church, “Pastor Kevin” invited me to make an appointment to talk to him. I met him in his office on October 15, 2004. We spent most of the hour talking about spiritual matters; he later told me he loved the fact that I cried. He loved seeing me vulnerable. As we were wrapping up that meeting, he invited me to make another appointment.

And he said, “We’ll have to watch the sexual dynamic.” When I looked startled, he explained: “The man-woman thing.”

It was a red flag big enough to cover a football field. But I was so desperate for hope that I chose to ignore it. I made another appointment, and then another and another. Eventually he made his sexual feelings clear. When I finally got my head clear, I turned him in and left the church. But it was a long process. I didn’t file my complaint until January of 2010.

For women and men still in the grip of abuse, healing can seem like an impossible goal. Just getting free of abuse can seem impossible. I’m sharing my ten-year timeframe for two reasons. One, to acknowledge what a long journey it is. “Pastor Kevin” groomed me for three years before he sprung his trap. It took me two more years to build up the strength and courage to file a complaint. Five years after leaving my church, I can finally call myself healed.

But I’m also sharing my timeline to give hope. Healing from clergy sexual abuse is a long journey, but it does move forward. In my long journey, I could never see even a week ahead but I could always see the next step, and I just kept taking those steps. Ten years after my pastor drew me into his web, I stand free and strong and healed.

I call this post “Ten Years Later.” That’s also the title of a book by Hoda Kotb, published last year by Simon & Schuster. In Ten Years Later, Ms. Kotb profiles six people who faced a series of catastrophic challenges: illness, abuse, grief, addiction, job loss. Ten years later, each of them has forged a bigger and better life from their hard experience. Ten years later, I’ve done that too.

For readers who are still living with abuse: I promise you can do it too. But don’t think ten years ahead just yet. Don’t even think a week ahead. The journey toward freedom happens one step at a time. To get there, just keep doing the next right thing.

For readers who have freed yourselves from abuse: what were some of the most important early steps on  your journey? If you’ll share them in the comments, you may encourage and inspire others.

Comments on: "Ten Years Later" (6)

  1. M.E. Dunham said:

    The most important and valuable step I took–nineteen years ago–was calling a female pastor on the staff at my church. She was our part-time pastor of evangelism while also working on her PhD. I had gotten to know her well enough that I felt I could trust her. Strong, wise, and compassionate, Pastor Kelly was just the right person to contact.

    I phoned her and told her I needed a pastor (and wanted her to be my pastor), because our senior pastor no longer could be. When I told her about my experiences with him (which I was calling “an emotional affair”), she wisely advised me, “You need to prepare yourself to learn that he has been saying and doing the same or similar things with other parishioners.” She was so right. She subsequently stood by me and advocated for me in countless meetings with our synod staff and Bishop. She did the same for others abused by the same male pastor.

    Three years earlier, I had begun seeing a psychologist. I was glad I had that psychologist to talk to, but the female pastor at my own church ended up being the person who lifted me out of my confusion, depression, and desperation. She connected me with resources and with experts in pastoral sexual misconduct. Two immensely helpful books she handed to me on that first day I phoned her for help were: Marie Fortune’s “Is Nothing Sacred?” and Peter Rutter’s “Sex in the Forbidden Zone.” I wish I had read them three years earlier.

    • Thank you, M.E. Dunham — this is a helpful story, and you are so blessed to have had Pastor Kelly in your life. I’ll share my most important step too. I also reached out to a female pastor on staff, but that wasn’t the most important thing I did. Initially “Pastor Eileen” was supportive, but when I told her I was thinking of reporting “Pastor Kevin,” she changed her tune.

      I took a lot of small steps before I took the big step of reporting. Peter Rutter’s book was the first one I read (I found it entirely by accident on a bookshelf at a retreat center) and it opened my eyes. But if I had to identify the step that led me to freedom, it was “trust my feelings.” When I ignored my apprehensions about Kevin, I opened myself up to years of manipulation and abuse. When I finally listened to my feelings (I still remember the moment I realized I’d had all the pain I could take), I gained the strength to leave the church, reach for healing, and work for justice for myself and others.

  2. M.E.Dunham said:

    Hi again, Catherine –

    I agree with you that heeding your feelings is an extremely important step. It was my feelings, super super strong, that I was a mess, that Pastor S could no longer be my pastor, that I needed one, and that I could trust Pastor Kelly, that made me phone her. I’ve also believed that I was finally understanding what God wanted me to do on the day I phoned her.

    Unlike you, I never planned to file a complaint about Pastor S. Pastor Kelly and the synod staff urged, encouraged, prodded, and guided me to make a statement/file a complaint. I felt complicit, somewhat responsible, and physically unharmed. Pastor Kelly was MUCH clearer about Pastor S’s misconduct and responsibility–from the beginning, as he resigned, and throughout the church’s disciplinary process.

    I am thankful that my feelings, with God’s obvious guidance, led me to seek help from Kelly and to receive more even more valuable help from her than I expected.

    I wish the pastor in whom you confided had truly assisted you rather than silencing you.

    Be well, Catherine. On, on!

    M.E.

    • Thank you for these kind and supportive words, M.E. Many victims feel complicit and partly responsible, whether or not they’ve been physically violated. I certainly did. I even apologized at one point to my abusive pastor (and he accepted my apology; how sick is that?!) It took me a long time to realize that what had happened was abuse, and it was not my fault — not even a little. When it comes to clergy sexual abuse or misconduct, the abusive pastor bears 100% of the responsibility and shame.

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