Clergy sexual misconduct: one survivor's voice

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.

Comments on: "Reporting Your Abuser? How to Survive the Process" (5)

  1. This is excellent advice and very much appreciated, Catherine. Thank you.

  2. I am now a year and a half into reporting my abuser, two and a half years into my discovery of his abuse. I waited for a year, on the advice of my counselor, a lawyer, and the pastor of the new church I attended . I think they knew how hard this would be and how much the discovery had crushed me. I also think they wanted to just forget something so horrible ever happened. I tried to listen to them. Gradually, the nightmares started to dissipate. A year later, I was a little less broken.

    Two weeks of peace, and then the nightmares came back, worse than ever. Why? My children were better; my life was better. I knew I was deeply wounded still, and this recovery would be slow. But the nightmares flooded my sleep and woke me every night, many times a night. I became afraid to go to sleep.

    I am walking along the road and a bus drives past me; it crashes over the
    guardrail and slides down an embankment. It is trapped in a dry, ivy covered
    gorge under a bridge. No one can see it. I clamber down the hill and crawl
    into the bus. The bus is full of the vulnerable: immigrants, people of color,
    poor people, the handicapped, single mothers with frightened children, the
    homeless, vacant-eyed veterans. Many are dead; more are dying. They are
    moaning, begging for help. I go to each one and soothe them, hold them,
    comfort them. They bleed on my clothes. It doesn’t matter; I bandage the
    wounds that I can. When I have done all that I can, I promise to go for help.
    I am only leaving to go for help. I will bring them help.

    I crawl up the hill and over the crumpled guard rail. I try to flag down passers-by,
    a policeman, anyone. “There are wounded people down there!” I shout. No one
    will listen. I am crying in frustration because they are dying, and no one will help.
    No one will listen to me.

    I trudge up the hill, looking for others who will listen, and along the roadside are
    crosses with the pictures of the people dying on that bus, trapped beneath, out
    of sight, unimportant. I wake up crying for the people who are dying, unseen
    and unknown. No one cares.

    One dream was almost too amorphous to describe.

    I am in the Presence of the One who spoke. It is the end of my life. I will be
    welcomed into His embrace, but first I must answer a question. The light that
    illumines the One is bruised purple, with darkening clouds full to the bursting
    with rain, God’s tears. He asks me, again, without words but in a voice breaking
    with pain, “Would you leave them behind to suffer?” I wake and I know, I must
    report this.

    Reporting this has been one of the most painful and most freeing experiences of my life.

    It’s still not done, though, after a year and a half. Be ready for a very long battle; do not try to do it alone. But it has been worth the fight.

  3. I’d like to tell you what someone told me, about trying to make authorities understand something they do not want to hear. I told my friend that I felt like the importunate (aka persistent) widow. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, this is it:

    Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

    “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

    And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

    My friend reminded me that Jesus held up her as an example of intercessory prayer. Any of you who seek justice and must tell your stories more than once to be heard, are honored by Jesus Himself in this story.

  4. Marie Fortune said:

    Excellent advice!

    Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune
    Founder and Senior Analyst
    FaithTrust Institute
    Working together to end sexual & domestic violence
    2900 Eastlake Ave E., Suite 200
    Seattle, WA 98102
    206-634-1903 ext 24
    206-634-0115 fax

    Check out my blog

    “Reflections themselves neither mandate nor manufacture change; yet by enabling insight, they may inspire repentance.”
    Phyllis Tribble, Texts of Terror (1984)

  5. I realize that this blog is a few years old and may be inactive. This has been a wealth of support for me as I prepare to report my abuse. Thank you Catherine and everyone who has contributed with comments. I wanted to put this out there in case anyone still follows and is able to provide me with some guidance. When you reported, how was your privacy maintained? If you mentioned others in your account, were they contacted? What level of “roof” were you required to provide? I can provide a lot, but am concerned about losing the focus of what I am reporting. I do not wish to become the subject. My life and career have been impacted immensely by my situation and I can’t afford to have my name out there. Any guidance would be appreciated. Thank you

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