Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

When Do We Stop Hurting?

I’m in conversation with a survivor who has just reported her abusive minister. This brave woman wakes every morning to the familiar chill of fear. She pushes all day through the thick muck of depression, and is eaten up worrying about the strain on her family and her marriage. She asked me this week, “After you reported, was there a time that you began to feel better?”

The answer, of course, is Yes. There have been many of those times in the five-plus years since I reported “Pastor Kevin.” Two weeks after I left my church, two weeks before I filed my complaint, I suddenly realized I never had to deal with Kevin again. I never had to sit in his office and hear his smooth lies; I never had to hear him preach; I never had to be in the same room with him ever, ever again. No matter what hell lay ahead, I was finally free of the most dangerous man I had ever known.

In the first year after I reported, I found the courage to join a new church. That didn’t make me feel better right away; in fact I felt terrified for the first year. But little by little, I found friends whom I could trust. I let a whole year pass before I joined my first committee. Since then, I’ve been entrusted with leadership roles and even with a chance to preach a guest sermon. “Being useful” has been important to my growth, but that first quiet year of healing was vital.

In the second year, my former church made me whole financially. At the time I filed my complaint, my bishop had offered to pay for counseling. I declined, not realizing how profoundly harmed I was. When I finally had to enter treatment for anorexia, I realized I needed to accept the bishop’s offer. I retained an attorney not to “sue the church” as some feared, but to negotiate a settlement that would help me restore my health. Besides financial restitution, I also asked for specific actions that would ensure a safer church. Our negotiations took nearly a year, but the church agreed to most of my requests. It was another big step forward in healing.

In the third year, the bishop invited Marie Fortune to speak to clergy and laypeople. I learned about this event completely by accident, but thank God I learned in time to attend. That day, I heard Marie tell the bishop and a room full of priests that clergy misconduct should always be disclosed. The same year, Pastor Kevin moved to a church in a different city (good riddance!), and I led a major campaign in my city on a social justice issue. I never could have done this before. Sorrow and healing had made me stronger — but I still hadn’t shared my story outside my small “circle of trust.”

In the fourth year, I finally began to speak. In the space of a few days in May of 2013, I “came out” as a survivor of CSM to my church council, to several dozen local pastors and chaplains from my new denomination, and to a nationwide gathering of clergy at a FaithTrust Institute training. As I sat in the airport waiting for my flight home, I drafted the first post for this blog. Through my blog, I’ve met women and men who share their stories with immense courage, putting themselves at risk of retribution and retraumatization. They do this not to heal themselves but to protect others. They have inspired me more than words can express.

In the fifth year, two things happened. First, my bishop got irritated by a post on my blog. He sent a note through our attorneys asking me to “bring this whole episode to a close.” I responded with a series of essays on Marie Fortune’s Elements of Justice-Making. Writing these essays, my voice grew stronger, and I began reaching many more people. The second great event: I learned of a complaint against another priest at my former church. I reached out to the complainant in a blog post. She found my words and graciously invited me into her journey, and that led me back to my former church. At an unforgettable meeting, the bishop courageously faced an angry congregation, explaining that their beloved “Pastor X” would not be coming back. He protected the survivor and spoke with compassion about the harm she had suffered. The justice he gave to this woman, I felt as a gift to me as well. Her experience has changed the way I see my former bishop. His actions are helping her heal, and I am grateful.

I’m now in the sixth year of healing. I’ve slowed my pace in the sacred task of advocacy; I’m now tending to family issues that I ignored far too long. But as I step back, I see others stepping forward. Some of the survivors whom I met on this journey have become powerful advocates for change in the church. And Baylor University, who published their landmark study on clergy sexual misconduct in 2009, is now studying how churches respond. Adult women survivors, you still have time to take part in this confidential, anonymous survey. You can find the invitation here.

In all these moments of “feeling better,” did I ever feel fear and grief? Did I ever despair of getting better? Of course. Healing from clergy sexual abuse is a long and difficult journey. I moved forward with strength when I could; I rested when I couldn’t move forward; I sought support from friends at every stage. This journey has changed me. I am not the person I was before. My faith is deeper. I know myself better than I did. I am stronger, I am braver, I am more resilient than I was.

And so, dear friend, will you be. And whether you share your story with many people, or only with your family and your church leaders, know this: your voice will make a difference. It is already making a difference.

Comments on: "When Do We Stop Hurting?" (8)

  1. I wish I could give a specific answer, but I think it is different for all of us. There are so many emotions tied up with this – pain, guilt, shame, distrust of everyone, even self. There have even been times when I missed my abuser, then the guilt and shame would start all over again. I can share what helped me. I gave myself permission to feel each emotion when it hit, then I would sit down and write out, step by step, what brought out that emotion. Pretty soon I realized that the actions that I was so ashamed of were actually reactions to my abusers intentionally misleading behaviors. For instance, I had to remind myself that there is never an appropriate time for your pastor to hug and whisper in your ear ‘we can just stand here and hold each other for a minute’. He knew my feelings for him at this point, told me how uncomfortable it had made him, knew my emotional need for male approval, yet – used all of that knowledge to draw me closer to him. It was his way of continuing the intimacy between us that should never have been there in the first place, Perhaps most women would have known that this was a bad thing, but It felt warm and loving to me at the time, now it makes my skin crawl. I had to dissect it, roll it over in my head and write it down before I could see it for what it was. Every hug, every conversation, even a sermon where he referenced me, made sure I knew it was about me, had to be dissected. He was/is a master manipulator.
    I learned a lot about myself through this horrible ordeal. I prayed for God to take away my feelings during and after the abuse, but I had to go through the whole ordeal to learn what I needed to know. I am a woman in need of male approval, I’m sure if we looked into my past we’d find a psychological reason for it, but now I’ve learned how to protect myself from predatory men who want to take advantage. God didn’t forget me or forsake me. While I was figuring everything out, He protected my family and my husband, kept our foundation strong. For that I am so grateful. We’ve found a church full of righteous leaders who hold each other accountable and while I have not felt secure enough to reveal what happened to me, I have placed appropriate boundaries for myself without shutting off completely from others and that is a major step in healing.
    I hope maybe this will help in some way!

    • Julie, thank God for your healing, for your family and your husband, and for the healthy church in which you now worship. Thank you so much for sharing what happened; I know how painful it is to revisit those memories. You’re right, your pastor was a selfish, manipulative predator. Thank God for the strength and wisdom that helps you stay safe now.

  2. Catherine, could I please get your email address? Thanks!

    On Fri, 1 May 2015 02:53:07 +0000

  3. Catherine you know you played a major role in that healing. I am very thankful for your blog, and your friendship! It took a while, as you know, for us to find a new church. We still live in the same community and I was terrified of what people might have heard about me. So we would visit a church and if a pastor or other leader made eye contact for too long, or hugged me, I’d bolt for the door. I’m not a woman who flaunts my physical self for attention, I tend to seek the deep emotional attention that I found in a man who was looking for a woman to pump up his ego. I played right into his game. But I am no longer ashamed of being human. He is the one to feel ashamed, ashamed of using his position to gratify his own desires.

  4. Julie, you are every honest; I know how much strength it takes to speak of your painful emotions. It seems that blame and shame can be a victim’s default position for quite a long period of time. It is hard to look back and see who you were in it all. I remember someone saying to me, ‘Do not let your thoughts or emotions at that time seem rational, because they weren’t.’ When you are in the state of being groomed, you don’t see things for what they are. Your perspective is both limited and skewed. The healing journey is long and difficult; connecting with other survivors is of great benefit and support. Thank God, Catherine wrote her blog and that we can connect.

    • ” ‘Do not let your thoughts or emotions at that time seem rational, because they weren’t.’ When you are in the state of being groomed, you don’t see things for what they are. Your perspective is both limited and skewed.” Wise and helpful words, Ana!

  5. Thank you, Catherine. Your blog continues to help and support survivors.

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