Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Which came first, the seductions of a predatory minister or the victim’s fractured marriage?
My husband and I separated last month. We’re still married, we’re getting along, we’re not seeing other people, we’re parenting cooperatively and we’re supporting each other as well as we can. We have family dinner once a week. We touch base every day, even if it’s only about logistics. For a separated couple, we’re on very good terms. But we are not together, and it’s not clear whether we’ll ever be together again. We’re giving it a year before we make any decisions.
What role did clergy sexual abuse play in this breach?
“Pastor Kevin” didn’t cause the tension in my marriage, but he definitely noticed it. How could he miss the pretty-ish woman sitting alone in the second pew and wiping tears during every Sunday service? I felt invisible in that big congregation; now I understand that my distress made me very visible and interesting to my pastor. I kept my distance out of sheer respect — he was the powerful leader of one of my city’s most important congregations — but eventually (and unwittingly), I gave him an opening when I confided my spiritual struggles after a Sunday service. At his invitation, we began to meet. A year and a dozen “pastoral counseling” sessions later, during a particularly stressful time in my marriage, I ran into my pastor outside the church office. He looked at my face and knew something was wrong. He asked me, “What’s the trouble?”
I started to answer, then stopped. Did I really want to tell another man about my troubled marriage? It didn’t feel right to me — but he pushed right past that boundary. As I hesitated, he prompted me for an answer: “File under…”
“Marriage,” I finally responded.
“Aaaah,” he sighed. “I’ve seen that coming. Why don’t you make an appointment to see me.”
Thus began the escalation. At our next meeting, Pastor Kevin encouraged me to talk about the pain and fear and loneliness I felt at home. With a predatory clergyman, there was only one way this road could go.
So which came first? Did the tensions in my marriage make me more interesting to my pastor? Yes.
Did my pastor’s attentions make more tension in my marriage? Most definitely yes.
My husband has always been leery of organized religion. Twelve years into our relationship, when I returned to my Christian faith, I set off a storm whose waves have never really settled. By the time I met Pastor Kevin, “religion” was well-established as a conversational minefield between us. Unlike me, my husband never trusted Kevin. From the first time they met, my husband saw him as a self-centered opportunist. Later, when Kevin was actively grooming me toward seduction, my husband was at his wits’ end. But what could he say? He felt if he tried to warn me against my pastor, I would hear it as an attack on my faith — and he may have been right. All he could do was watch the train wreck happen, and once it happened he was suddenly living with a traumatized woman. He had no idea how to deal with my frantic grief and fear, or my eating disorder spinning out of control, or the new shape of my body once I started treatment. In short: while I was still trying to recover from the train wreck at church, I now had a wreck at home too. Our marriage never really recovered from those awful months. We got back on our feet as a couple, but trust had been shattered.
And now we are living apart.
If I had never met Pastor Kevin, would I still be living with my husband? Or were our problems so deeply entrenched that the church crisis was only the last straw? I will never know.
I want to be clear: I am not saying that my pastor ruined my marriage. He didn’t do us any favors, but I was aware of being unhappy long before I met him. So why am I talking about my marriage on these pages? Because I know I’m not the only survivor with whose marriage has been affected by clergy sexual abuse. Some survivor couples use the pain to build stronger marriages, but I suspect that most of us don’t. Most of us (and I’m including our spouses) don’t know how. By the time we understand our own pain, we’ve caused too much pain for our partners.
When I write a story of pain, I try to include a note of hope. If there’s hope in this story, it’s this: survivors know how to get through hard times. Compared to the multiple traumas of my pastor’s abuse of power, the church’s attempt to silence me, and the total loss of community through ostracism, marital separation is a cakewalk. I’m not saying it’s easy, only that it’s easier than what I’ve already been through. And that I know how to live with sadness and uncertainty while my husband and I walk through this year, waiting and hoping for the right answer to emerge.