Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Archive for August, 2015

Can We Stay at Our Church After Abuse?

A few weeks ago, a survivor sent me this note: “Being at church is such a struggle for me lately. I keep wondering whether it’s even possible to heal successfully while remaining at the church where the offending behavior and aftermath occurred. Do you happen to know? Do women generally find they have to leave their churches, or do those that leave heal faster than those who don’t?”

I wish I knew the answer. I wish I could point and say, “If you go this way, you will definitely heal faster.” But healing from clergy sexual abuse is a long and painful journey, no matter how we do it. I have some preliminary data from the current Baylor study, which reveals that most women abandon church altogether after an experience of clergy sexual abuse, and that only a small minority of women stay in the same church. But I don’t have data on how these women have fared. Did their choice — old church, new church, or no church at all — affect their healing?

Some of us have no choice but to leave. Even while my church was investigating my complaint, a high-ranking priest on the bishop’s staff told me that my offender would likely be staying. “You might want to find a new parish,” she said. Heartbroken, but needing to belong somewhere, I chose a different church in the same diocese. There, I thought I’d be safe from the vicious gossip. Then one Sunday, a retired priest — with whom I’d had a friendly connection — blatantly shunned me during the passing of the peace. After this, I left the denomination altogether. It took several months to feel at home in my new church, which has a very different style of worship, and it took me several years to feel fully welcomed and safe. But at my new church, I have healed. If I’d tried to stay at my old church, the ongoing trauma might have done me in.

Fellow survivors, what is your experience? Did you stay in the same church? Was your offender gone, or was he/she still there? Did the congregation know your role, or did you keep your identity hidden? Did you move to a different church? Did you leave church altogether? Do you feel you made the right decision? Is there anything you regret? Do you have any wisdom for survivors who are now facing this choice?

Thank you for anything you can share. Your story may offer a key to healing for a fellow survivor.

Unitarian Universalist Association: Awakened by One Bold Survivor

Plenty of churches get it wrong when it comes to clergy sexual misconduct. Who’s getting it right?

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is blazing a trail that other churches would do well to follow. They just wrapped up their 54th annual General Assembly, “Building a New Way.” In a move that may be unprecedented in any faith tradition, the UUA GA program included not one but three workshops on clergy sexual misconduct, as well as a plenary address by UUA trustee Susan Weaver on the church’s new initiatives.

These were the workshops:
* In Sexually Safer Congregations: Building a New Commitment, the Rev. Debra Haffner, co-founder of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, shared the UUA’s new process, goals, and model policies, and urged UU congregations to renew their commitment to preventing misconduct and abuse. UU World senior editor Michelle Bates Deakin had written in 2013 about early steps in this effort.
* In Building Restorative Justice in Cases of Clergy Sexual Misconduct, the leaders of the UU Safety Net described the steps they are taking to improve the church’s process for dealing with clergy sexual misconduct. UU World senior editor Elaine McArdle summed up this workshop here.
* In Clergy Sexual Misconduct: Breaking the Silence, clergy and lay leaders shared the Sacred Listening Process that leaders in Nashville are developing along the lines of the StoryCorps model.

The UUA’s 2015 program reflects decades of dedicated hard work. The church in the 1970s “could feel like a carnival or a Roman Bacchanal” in the words of UU minister Deborah J. Pope-Lance. By the 1990s, things were beginning to change. Individual UU ministers were beginning to write about the need for appropriate boundaries and standards of sexual ethics, as Pope-Lance did here, and as the Rev. Sam Trumbore did here. At the 2000 General Assembly, then-Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery offered a public apology to victims and survivors of sexual misconduct by UU clergy. Over the next two decades the UUA moved forward in many areas.

But according to survivors, only in the past decade has the UUA made real progress. In this effort, no survivor has been more influential than Anna Belle Leiserson of Nashville. In 1993, disappointed with the UUA’s response to her complaint, she asked church leaders for changes in the process. She stayed with the church and became a leader, speaking at General Assemblies and serving on panels. Eventually, the quiet resistance of church leaders wore her down. In 2006, she writes, “I gave up. Or so I thought.” But a few months later, she suddenly realized that her congregation — First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, or FUUN — had “a powerhouse of potential activists.” In 2007, Leiserson led this team to create the UU Safety Net. After a slow start, which Leiserson writes about here, the Nashville effort has become a model for the national church.

One of Leiserson’s partners in this effort was FUUN’s minister, the Rev. Gail Seavey. She had served as an after-pastor in several settings early in her career, and had inexplicably thrived. She talks about her surprising success here, and about the lessons she learned from the challenging role of after-pastor. Another Safety Net leader, Dr. Doug Pasto-Crosby, has written about why the church tends to ignore and discredit the voices of survivors. He also writes about the traumatic impact on congregations after an instance of clergy sexual misconduct. Pasto-Crosby insists that the congregation can only heal when they help the survivor to heal. “Restoring the connection between survivors and their church community is the most important work a congregation needs to do after ministerial misconduct.”

When I named this blog “Survivors Awaken the Church,” I imagined it as a future event. Together, we survivors will awaken the church. But the awakening has already begun. Thanks to the brave and persistent Anna Belle Leiserson, the Unitarian Universalist Church has opened its eyes.

CSA Awareness: A Two-Minute Pitch for Sunday Announcements

Did you know that August is Clergy Sexual Abuse Awareness Month? The Hope of Survivors is leading the effort nationwide (actually, worldwide) to get congregations thinking and talking about this issue.

I am blessed to belong to a church whose pastor understands this issue. He gave me the green light to do an “awareness moment” during announcements at the Sunday service. Here’s what I’m going to say:

Good morning! I’m Catherine Thiemann, and I’m here to share two minutes of awareness on a subject we rarely talk about in church: clergy sexual abuse. 

When you hear those words, you may think of the Catholic Church and the child abuse scandals. But in fact, in most cases of clergy sexual abuse, the offender is not Catholic, and the victim is not a child. Within our Protestant tradition, most victims are adult women or teenaged girls. While there’s no doubt of the devastating impact to child victims, it also wreaks havoc in the lives of adult victims, their families, and the congregations in which it happens.

Sadly, it’s likely that several people in our church have had this experience. A 2009 study by Baylor University revealed that: 
* 3% of churchgoing women have experienced an unwanted sexual advance from a minister at some point in their lives,
* 92% of these advances were made in secret, and
* 67% of the offending ministers were married at the time. 

In an average-sized congregation, there are likely at least half a dozen women — or men — who’ve had this experience at some church in the past. Whether the offense includes physical violation or “only” words, it can be devastating. Victims rarely speak up because they fear they’ll be blamed or disbelieved. Sadly, they are often right.

I’m sharing this moment of awareness for two reasons. One, because we have to be willing to talk about it. Our silence can create a fertile ground for this abuse. Two — the more important reason — is because some of you may have experienced this, or you may know someone who has. I want to offer hope and resources for healing. If you need to talk with someone, our pastor would be a good person to start. There are also wonderful online resources like the FaithTrust Institute(.org) and The Hope of Survivors (.com), where you can connect with confidential counselors.

Why not ask your pastor if you can do this too? Feel free to use this message, and to make any changes you need for your church.

 

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