Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

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.

Comments on: "Can We Stay at Our Church After Abuse?" (18)

  1. We left the church. The pastor is still there, and I had to cut ties to all of our friends there, as he continued to used people to get to me. I couldn’t have stayed there, it was actually hard just remaining in the same community. As we searched for a church, I was constantly wondering who knew what. Finally we found a wonderful church family, and I’ve seen first hand how true Godly men treat women. It took me 4 years to heal, but I finally have found peace.

  2. Mary Ramsay said:

    At first I felt lI could never enter a church again. Sadly, my children had no religious tradition at all. Later, I began visiting churches, but couldn’t bring myself to become visible, or stay anywhere.
    I had left the Episcopal church, and finally found the UCC, where I have found much healing.
    Now, after 20+ years of therapy, I have put myself through college, and graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. I am ordained and a hospice chaplain.
    It’s been a long, long road. But helping “others” just “showed up” over and over again.
    I’m so grateful for the work of Marie Fortune, and having attended one of her retreats not too long after the abuse and attendant lies and slander of me.
    Thank you so much for this healing place.

  3. It’s only been a few months since our church voted to kick out the minister from our congregation after he was found by the church investigator to have been harassing three young men in the church, (I made the complaint when I noticed it happening to two of my friends). The denominational powers wanted to put him back in the same church (because who cares who he hurts next right?!) So when we heard that it was decided by the one of the victims and myself (the other one in my complaint had some stuff going on and he’d pretty well exited the situation, but we had talked to him about it before) decided to leak the copy of the church report on his abuse to the local paper. When the congregation found out about it a lot of people were furious that the denomination tried to put him back. (Especially since he’d even admitted that decades before a 15 year old had complained about him coming on to him.)

    In the end one of the victims is still on staff at the church and has stayed, some people know that he was harassed, most don’t and most of those who don’t know are the ones who are brain washed by the former minister. One victim stayed for a while, but has moved back to Japan for a while (he’s working on immigrating) he received a lot of support from the people who knew him after he spoke publicly at a church meeting and identified himself as a victim. (Though he also got a few dirty looks from old people, some of whom have apparently taken to making racial slurs) And the third one’s life has gotten busier so I don’t know if he would have stayed if it hadn’t, I suspect the new stuff going on would not have kept him away if he hadn’t been abused.

    For me, I took a month off, planning on not going back. I’m training for ministry so I started looking for ministry jobs hoping that would be a good excuse to find a new church without making anyone feel like I’d abandoned them. But that hasn’t panned out. And while a lot of people were quite cold a month or so ago, the church seems to be bouncing back quite quickly. And I’ve started getting smiles and hand shakes from people again.

    One of the most frustrating things has just been how the church board has tried to stay neutral though the whole thing. Individual members have been quite supportive. But it would be really nice if they’d just make some sort of public apology, or statement denouncing him or something.

    • Mary Ramsay said:

      Thank you for sharing your story!
      Those unshaked hands and lack of apology must have really hurt.
      And big congratulations for continuing on your ministry journey.
      Some have never forgiven me and it’s been that way since 1983 or 4…and it’s not going to change. I literally took off my shoes and smacked the sandy dirt off them… That was a great moment.
      I’m so glad you are here!

      • Thanks Catherine and Mary. I’m actually writing this from upstairs at the church. (I was in the neighbourhood decided to stop in and say hi to the secretary, and I’m going to meet up with someone in half an hour.)

        It’s going to be a rough few months, and realistically few years for the church, but the community is already bouncing back surprisingly fast. (Attendance was actually up when the guy was suspended, however during his suspension he managed to exploit a few unknown conditions that made us unable to renew our associate minister’s contract, so a lot of people are also mourning his loss.)

        I appreciate all the support. It’s weird somebody (nobody knows who) put up the douche bag’s face on the wall that has all the other former minister’s faces on it. I confess every time I see that, it’s kind of like a bunch in the gut. Come fall when a lot of people come back from summer I’m hoping somebody decides to mention how inappropriate that is to the board.

  4. Timing in life sometimes amazes me. Just days after responding to this post I had the most baffling experience. I was having paint mixed in Lowe’s today as we’re refinishing the basement. Low and behold my abuser walks up to the paint counter, probably 50 ft from me. Raises his hands, yells out my name to say hello. Like nothing ever happened. I will admit, I’m not one for confrontation, just waved back and diverted eye contact. A few minutes later, as I stood talking to the sales clerk, this man, this pastor that emotionally, mentally and spiritually abused me, walked over to where I was standing, reached out and touched me and said hi again. I was shocked, am still shocked at the arrogance. I did not turn toward him or acknowledge him and he moved on. It’s been two years since I’ve been that close to him, and I guess he expects that I should just get over it. Not! I may have to see him occasionally, since we live in the same community, but I don’t have to put up with him touching me. He will understand that when I husband finishes chatting with him in the next day or two.

    • Julie, oh my, I am shuddering just imagining it. I am so sorry. This is terribly re-traumatizing. Please be very kind to yourself the next few days and if you find yourself shaken or irritable or not quite yourself, just give yourself a hug. You should not have to deal with this when you’re still on the journey of healing.
      Can you ask your church leaders to talk to your offender and tell him that he should not contact you in any way, ever? Your husband shouldn’t have to bear this burden (but I’m so glad he wants to protect you).

      • We are going to write a correspondence together, to leave no room for misinterpretation of boundaries. I tried to tell myself it’s no big deal, but it is. I would rather not see him, but in the same town that is hard. A wave hello I suppose is polite but not necessary. But there is no excuse for this man to put his hands on me.

      • Julie, that plan means you’ll be contacting your offender directly. He may see that as an opening to conversation. You may want to consider another plan: you and/or your husband can write a letter to your local denominational leaders, insisting that your offender not contact you in any way. Tell them how upset and violated you feel by his inappropriate behavior today. He was not being polite when he insisted on speaking to you and touching you despite your obvious discomfort. You have no obligation to be polite to him.

      • It will take a couple of days to process this encounter. My husband and I will prayerfully decide what we want to say, but I will have no part of the communication, I’m not worried that he will contact me privately, as he doesn’t want anything down in writing that can be used as evidence against him. He approached me because I was alone. He is generally a coward and would not have come over if my husband had been with me. I’m just angry that he’s managed to hurt me once again. That has to stop.

    • I’d recommend telling him that he’s to have no contact with you, and that a touch of any kind at this point will be considered assault, and that if it happens again in any context that you will be gathering witnesses and making a police complaint. (At least it’s considered assault in Canada, even a touch, I’m not sure, I checked the Canadian stuff with my sister “the defence lawyer.”

      • Thank you. We will definitely make that point to him. My husband is contemplating asking Lowe’s for Video, as I was standing in a pretty open area in front of the paint counter and speaking with the clerk who waited on me and witnessed the intrusion on my personal space. Thank you for the advice! Yesterday was a hard day, as the whole event played out in my mind and brought back a lot of buried anger. But, my week took a much needed upswing last night, as my son and daughter-in-law informed us we are going to be grandparents! God is so good!

  5. It has been so helpful to read about your experiences. I cannot imagine, Julie and David, how offensive seeing the offender in person or honored with his picture on the church wall must have been. As if nothing had happened! It makes me want to scream. Mine figured out how to manipulate the system and barely escaped a church trial by “retiring.” I find this highly offensive. Hardly anyone else knows what happened. If I bring it out in public, I know that something terrible will happen. He will attack me. I have had to go to court because of his stalking and my adult son found out he has taken up target practice as a hobby. My son is very worried about my safety.

    I think these offenders are very, very, very sick…I think they tell themselves “Nothing happened” or “It was no big deal.” My clergy abuser (who was my husband-double whammy-he abused me in every way except striking me AND he sexually abused women in our church) still claims he never went to the home of one of his victims. This is in spite of the evidence-the nude photos he took of her, in her home. This is the kind of distortion of reality these people live in. The counselors I have seen think he probably has a personality disorder (a form of sociopathy called narcissistic personality disorder). He was an emotional and spiritual vampire and loved the accolades and special treatment he received as a Christian minister…but he told me, as my mother was dying, that there is no life after death. He told me that Jesus had not been resurrected either; all of Jesus’ power came from some kind of combined energy from all the people who thought he was God. These are only two of the many unorthodox beliefs he came to espouse in private while serving as a Christian minister in public.

    I left my ex-husband and my denomination, not because it was inherently bad, but because I would always run into people that knew my ex-husband as a minister. They either did not know what had happened, and asked how he was doing, or they did know some of it and treated me like I had leprosy. I told three dear friends in my church; only one has remained a dear friend. The other two will have nothing to do with me; for one, it almost destroyed her faith and for the other, when she realized that she was on his list of future “interests” decided that he had a sexual addiction (and that is all). Only one dear friend believed me and understood. That is what hurts the most. I stopped telling people the details because I realized that this was just poison. The poison CSA creates can destroy a whole church.

    I attend another church of a different denomination and it has been such a source of healing for me. I also sought counseling from a therapist who specializes in CSA; she is also an ordained priest associated with my denomination. The need for spiritual counsel is huge, and hardly anyone knows how to help CSA survivors see the profound difference between their abusers’ actions and what God intended.

    It is encouraging to me that all of you are survivors and that you do want to awaken the church. You are all still very active in your faith, with Mary an ordained minister and David on his way, and Julie (and Catherine) very, very invested. A good church can be a true sanctuary for us and I am sad for those who have not been able to find that. I do believe that God understands and does not judge those who cannot enter a church without a flare-up of PTSD. I am so grateful for what you are all doing in trying to awaken the church; if anyone needs a safe spiritual haven, it is certainly a CSA survivor!

  6. Alan Hitchner said:

    Sexual abuse and misconduct by clergy is serious and should never be permitted or over looked it must be dealt with or it will be repeated make many victims. Without diminishing sexual misconduct there are other serious forms of harassment and misconduct in our churches. We are still in the pre-pottery stages of development in dealing with harassment.
    Harassment by clergy onto parishioners and harassment upon clergy by parishioners and parishioner to parishioner. It happens often and they suffer silently while their faith and confidence in God and those that are to carry His spirit among us turn on one another. There are many suffering but they are silent until they just stop coming or our clergy is reassigned.
    People stay hurt and they are left to themselves in state of impasse. A ombudsman process manned by pastors of other churches that rotate or some how share the role could help and coach, or guide us through to the point of giving reconciliation and forgiveness a chance before the concrete of anger and alienation hardens.

    • I agree with most of what you are saying, Alan; I would only add that forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. Victims of clergy sexual abuse who can forgive their offenders often still choose not to reconcile with them, because we know that any relationship with our offender — even if the outright abuse has ended — will cause us harm.

  7. Catherine, you are so right and I don’t think putting other pastors in as mediators would work for me. It is a great concept, but It took over 3 years for me to rejoin a church, and I still won’t open up about my experience to our pastors.
    Since my experience last week, I have even stopped going to the places I would normally shop to assure I don’t have to see my abuser again. Hopefully that need to hide will subside with time, but it has been like living the pain and humiliation all over again. My husband and I did send an email to let him know that we are not friends, and will not tolerate him approaching and touching me. No response to this point, so hopefully he got the message.

  8. I listened to a sermon today with the message that people need to ‘cut down’ resentments and forget them. That is true enough, as harboring anger and resentment only damages me. But offending pastors need to understand the depth of the pain they caused, which does not sit on the surface like being called a name or kept off a church committee, but damages every single emotion we’ve ever had about ourselves, our relationships, our church, even our God. It’s not as simple as ‘I hurt you, now be a good girl, forgive and reconcile as God instructs us to do’. It is a pain so deep, that only with God and in God’s time will we see healing. I don’t believe the burden of ‘cutting it down’ and ‘forgetting it’ is really for the abused. That burden belongs to the abuser, who needs to truly see what they did, feel the pain they caused, learn from their indiscretions and move forward as a new person in Christ. It won’t matter for my abuser’s future whether I forgive him or not, that is on me. The forgiveness he needs is from the Lord, and you don’t get that without admitting, repenting, and asking for it.

  9. Hello- I just found this site- what a great resource. I don’t know if it is too late to respond to this article.. I am a 67 year old female who experienced abuse by an Episcopal priest when I was a teenager. It took me years to tell anyone. The priest in question was killed in an automobile accident, which added to my guilt and anguish. About three years ago I returned to my old church to meet with the present- female- rector, and had a wonderful, healing meeting with her. However I have tried for years to reconnect with a church- attending many churches of various denominations. I simply can not make a commitment to a church. The pain, sadness and isolation I feel when I attend a church are overwhelming. I recently made the decision not to try anymore. I will pursue my relationship with the divine on my own.

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