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.