I thought the nightmares were behind me, but I had another one last week. I dreamed that a counselor had violated my sexual boundaries in a way that he could deny and I could never prove. I moved through that dream in a state of frozen fear. I knew I should file a complaint, but I also knew what would happen: I’d be called liar, seductress, madwoman, or all three. In despair I asked, “Again?”
Of all the stages in the process of clergy sexual abuse, this one may be the most grueling. Even if the abuse has ended, we still live with a terrible secret. Often, the people we count on for support (our families, our friends at church) are threatened by our story. Instead of comforting us, they blame us, or they tell us to hush up, move on, and “forgive.”
It’s a wonder any of us finds the courage to speak the truth.
For my readers who are about to take this step, I offer my prayers, my gratitude and admiration, and a few lessons from my experience. I learned some of these lessons the hard way; perhaps you won’t have to.
1. When you meet with your church’s intake officer, bring a friend or spouse for support. Their presence will give you strength, and they’ll remember details that you miss. Ask them for a ride: you may be too emotionally charged to drive safely before or after the meeting.
2. Remember that the abuse was NOT YOUR FAULT, even if you believe you gave consent. My bishop said these words almost as soon as I walked into his office. I hope you hear the same words from your church. Even if you don’t, know that these words are true. The abuse was absolutely, positively not your fault.
3. Prepare a written statement, but don’t bring it to the meeting. Writing the statement will help you tell your story more clearly. During the meeting, you may get a better understanding of what information the church needs. By waiting until after the meeting, you’ll have a chance to expand and clarify your statement before submitting it.
4. Ask your church officer for a copy of the policy and procedures they’ll be following. Ask how long the process will take. Ask what will happen next, and when. Ask about the range of possible outcomes. Ask how the church will keep you informed. Ask whom you should contact if you have questions.
5. You will need support while the church investigates your complaint. Ask the church to refer you to a counselor right away. Even during a brief investigation, the stress can take a toll on your health. My church’s investigation took only two months, but it was enough time for a borderline eating disorder to flare out of control, requiring months of expensive treatment. Getting support now could protect you from a life-threatening crisis.
6. Debrief with your support person as soon as the meeting is over. Ask them to stay with you, calm you, and help you understand what was said in the meeting. Ask them if you can call them in a few days (or sooner) to talk about it again. Let them know how grateful you are for their support, now and in the months ahead.
7. Prepare for a time of painful and unsettled emotions. The church will respond imperfectly, your offender may try to discredit you, cherished friends may turn against you. I wish I could offer words that could ease this pain. All I have is this: speaking the truth will eventually bring healing and growth beyond what you can imagine today. But meanwhile you need to survive this painful experience. Build good habits of self-care: eat well, attend to health concerns, and be gentle and patient with yourself. Now is the time to reach out to friends whom you trust. Don’t isolate — connect. It may save your life.
To readers who have already survived this process: I hope you’ll share your wisdom in the comments.
To all readers: please lift a prayer for those who are about to embark on this journey.