Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Archive for the ‘Church Response’ Category

Never sign an NDA

Harvey Weinstein is in the news, as are dozens of his victims. Today, the Washington Post shines a light on one of Weinstein’s self-protective tactics: the NDA, or Non-Disclosure Agreement.  This week, actress Zelda Perkins broke hers. “I wanted to publicly break my non-disclosure agreement,” she said. “Unless somebody does this, there won’t be a debate about how egregious these agreements are and the amount of duress that victims are put under.”

Thank you, Zelda Perkins! Non-Disclosure Agreements reveal the institution’s true goals: not to heal the victim, but to protect the offender. I’ve always known this truth. I knew I couldn’t heal without telling my story. When I settled with the Episcopal diocese, I agreed not to disparage my offender, and to keep the terms of the settlement confidential — but I steadfastly maintained the right to talk about my experience. 

It seems NDAs are so ubiquitious, in the church just as in Hollywood, that everyone assumed I must have signed one. When I started talking openly about why I’d left St Paul’s, my new pastor asked me, “Are you allowed to say these things?” Even worse: the bishop who co-created and signed my settlement apparently assumed it contained an NDA. When he learned about my blog, he had his attorney send a threatening letter to my attorney (I wrote about it here)  If I didn’t “bring this whole episode to a close,” the letter warned, the bishop would make a public statement denying my experience.

I stood my ground then, and I stand it now. It’s my story, and I have a right to tell it. In fact, survivors need to tell our stories  to seek justice, protect others, and heal our souls. When we were negotiating my settlement, I told my attorney that I would never agree to keep silent about my experience. I had no problem agreeing to keep the terms of the settlement confidential, and to refrain from disparaging (legally, “making a false and injurious statement about”) my offender, but I insisted on my right to tell my story. I have kept my word; I’ve spoken and written nothing but the truth, and I even protected Scott’s identity on this blog until after my bishop had told St Paul’s the truth about him. 

Don’t allow the church to silence you. Don’t sign an NDA. Hold fast to your right to tell your own story. 

Pastor or Predator? Sexual Misconduct in Youth Ministry.

Kudos to Princeton Theological Seminary! Their Institute for Youth Ministry recently invited six leaders to submit responses to the topic on clergy sexual abuse in youth ministry. The series, “Pastor or Predator? Sexual Misconduct in Youth Ministry.,” was published this week. 

Here are the highlights. To read the whole essay, just click on the author’s name.

Linda Crockett says that the church often shortcuts justice by urging survivors to forgive too soon. As a result,  “victims carry the burden of shame that rightfully belongs to the offender.” Crockett urges the church to help young people recognize the red flags of sexual abuse. Although youth programs often each about the dangers of substance abuse, “we shy away from frank discussion about sexual offenders and how they operate. … We don’t tell them most offenders are not strangers, but people in our families, churches, neighborhoods, schools, and sports clubs.” 

Sharon Ellis Davis shares for the first time that “my Black Church experience also includes my being the victim of childhood sexual abuse by ‘men of God.’” She says, “It was the secret I was determined to hold onto no matter how much this abuse had negatively impacted my life choices… I could not, and I would not go against the ‘men of God.’ “ Ellis Davis only began to heal when she found a wise, compassionate listener who was willing to be a holder of her long-kept secret. As she healed, she was able to become a holder for others’ secrets as well. She reminds youth leaders that “many times we are… called to be holders” even if we “may not have adequately dealt with [our] own childhood victimization and are now forced to remember while providing care for others.

Hillary Scarsella writes, “Sexual abuse and assault are silencing.” She explains: the offender and the religious institution work hard to silence survivors, but survivors also silence themselves because of the stigma surrounding the experience of sexual assault. “We need to make it our regular practice to talk about sexual violence accurately, sensitively, and often,” she says, “because talking about abuse and assault has a significant degree of power to prevent and stop both.” The kind of speech we need, says Scarsella, “is the kind that believes and respects victims and survivors, the kind that empowers youth to love and protect their bodies.”

Justin Holcomb offers biblical encouragement to survivors dealing with the stages of aftermath of sexual abuse. He assures survivors that “what happened to them is not their fault. They are not to blame. They did not deserve it. They are not responsible for what happened to them. Nobody had the right to violate them… They were sinned against.” To survivors who despair of ever healing, Holcomb reminds them, “God promises a hope and a future.”

When Wes Ellis was in the 7th grade, his “funny, likeable” youth pastor inspired him to go into youth ministry. In college, Ellis was devastated to learn that this minister had sexually assaulted several young woman who had been Ellis’ friends in youth group. Ellis offers a clear, challenging theological response to clergy sexual abuse. “For me to come to terms with my own story,” he writes, “is to accept that the person who was eventually imprisoned for sexual misconduct… was the same person who mentored me, cared for me, and helped me to find my calling. He was not a monster, but a human being like me. … In recognizing his actions as sin… I am forced to face the sin of which I myself am capable.” At the same time, Ellis urges readers to “not treat this as an abstract philsophical problem or a problem of mere policy, but as a real human experience.”

I am honored to be the sixth voice in this series. I share the case study of a young woman who became suicidal when the church tried to silence her complaint against a youth minister, and I offer a series of steps the church must take to protect the young people in its care, including age-appropriate boundary training for youth and regular, vigorous discussions of this topic by the adults in the congregation.  

As I researched my piece, I discovered two great resources. 

1. Author and clergy spouse Sabrena Klausman has a wonderful piece entitled “Dangerous Volunteers: Understanding Signs of Sexual Abuse in Youth Ministry.”  She says the church MUST do a better job screening, monitoring, and training the clergy, staff, and volunteers who work with youth.

2. Tim Challies spells out “6 Reasons Why Sexual Predators Target Churches.”  It’s not a hopeful essay. Challies points out the deeply rooted structural issues that put children and teens at risk in just about any church. But it’s required reading for anyone who wants to solve the problem.

What Do Churches Need to Know About Sexual Assault?

Professor Karen Swallow Prior of Liberty University recently asked a question on Facebook: “What do you wish people knew/understood about experiencing sexual assault?”

From the flood of responses, Dr. Prior gleaned ten lessons. We need to know that sexual assault can happen in families, in church, and in public places; to young children, adults, and men. Women or children may be the abusers. Healing can take a lifetime. Finally — and this is why I’m sharing the article here — the church has the power to heal or harm in its response to survivors. 

I know this to be true: my churchmates shunned me after I reported the misconduct, my offender told lies about me, and the bishop tried his hardest to silence me. But I received healing from the good people at my new church, and through the work of the brave priest who led the effort to create a healing service at St Paul’s. I’ve seen this harm/help duality in the lives of other survivors as well.

The first nine lessons in Prior’s article contain the actual words of survivors, describing their experiences. Readers still dealing with this trauma may want to skip straight to lesson ten. I’ll put that lesson in my own words. For churches to be a place of healing for survivors of sexual assault, they must:
1. Listen. Take the survivor seriously. Don’t discount her words. Let the survivor tell his story as many times as he needs to.
2. Don’t blame the survivor. Don’t ask what she was wearing, what he’d been drinking, whether she resisted, whether he reported the assault, or any question that might hint it was the survivor’s fault. Tell the survivor directly, as many times as she or he needs to hear it, “What happened to you was not your fault.”
3. Develop resources for survivors who approach the church for help: counseling or referrals, Bible studies for healing, preaching and teaching on ethics of sex and sexuality.
4. Most important, churches need to create a culture in which full respect is given to people often marginalized by society: children, women, the elderly, the disabled, the poor, immigrants, people of color, queer people, and so on. The church needs to see God in the face of everyone who walks in the door. This vision needs to be lived fully and clearly by church leaders.

You can find the full article here. Thanks to the survivor who shared it with me. Thanks to my readers who will share it with their church leaders.

Justice. At Long Last, Justice.

Last summer, I posted a story about “Lisa.” As a teen and young adult, Lisa endured years of vicious sexual abuse from then-Rev. Darryl Duer, who led a weeklong summer service camp for UMC youth in New Jersey. When Lisa finally filed a complaint, Duer lost his ministerial credentials, but he kept his fan club. A handful of his colleagues secretly kept bringing their youth to Duer’s camp. No matter how many times Lisa raised the red flag, nothing seemed to change, but she persisted. She was relentless. Just days before the 2016 camp, Lisa learned that the same three ministers were bringing their youth groups yet again. I ran this story just before camp began, and this open letter to Bishop Schol just after the youth groups came home. 

At the same time, Lisa took actions of her own. During camp week, Lisa posted a blunt, direct comment in response to an article by Bishop Schol on the conference’s Facebook page. He was out of town, but he arranged for a telephone meeting with Lisa when he returned. In that meeting, Bishop Schol told Lisa that it hadn’t been his choice to let Duer walk away quietly. He’d wanted Duer to submit to the church’s judicial process, but Duer refused and turned in his UMC credentials. At that point, the bishop no longer had any power over him. This put Bishop Schol’s actions in an entirely new light. Lisa had spent three years believing that Schol had just looked for the easiest way out. She asked him, “Why didn’t you tell me that at the time?” My best guess is that church lawyers forced the bishop to keep the victim in the dark — an all-too-common church policy that ironically increases their risk of being sued.

The bishop promised Lisa that he would meet with the three ministers who had gone to Duer’s camp. Lisa gave him permission to share a series of text messages sent to her by Duer — messages full of graphic, obscene, exploitive sexual content. The day after that meeting, Bishop Schol reached out to Lisa. He told her that he’d had “very frank and forthright” conversations with the clergy, and that when those meetings were over, “it was clear… that the churches would not be advertising or participating in” Duer’s camp going forward. 

But Bishop Schol wasn’t done. He also promised to call all UMC clergy in Greater New Jersey to a mandatory meeting early in the new year to discuss clergy misconduct complaints, and Lisa’s complaint in particular. 

Last Wednesday, that meeting took place. On Thursday, Bishop Schol sent Lisa this extraordinary letter:
“Yesterday I met with 446 clergy from Greater New Jersey to talk about two clergy matters. One was [the summer service project] and your treatment by a former clergy person. I did not share your name but I shared your story. I also had the clergy read the text messages. It was a conversation that impacted our clergy. Clergy wanted to know how you were doing, how we were supporting you. Also several clergy came to me and other clergy have reported that since the meeting other clergy have talked with one another about how they have also been a survivor. We also prayed for you.”

A few weeks earlier, Bishop Schol had told Lisa, “The pain and sacrifice you have made will lead to a better United Methodist Church in New Jersey. You have certainly helped me to be a better bishop.”

THIS IS WHAT JUSTICE LOOKS LIKE! But in Lisa’s case, justice took far too long. Dozens of youth group participants were exposed to danger during the three summers the ex-Rev. ran his secret camp. The additional trauma to Lisa (beyond the original abuse, the isolation and shunning and character assassination by Duer’s fan club) nearly ended her life. Lisa’s long wait for justice was one of the final straws for me; it is one of the reasons I’m stepping away from church, but that’s a story for another post.

Even so — this is justice. Bishop Schol’s remarkable letter to Lisa is a textbook-perfect response to clergy sexual misconduct. He acknowledges the victim’s pain; he tells the whole truth to the whole church; he brings their love and concern back to her; he thanks her for making them a better church; and he promises that he’ll push the church to be better still: “I will be convening a group … to create a clergy and lay leadership ethics policy and program designed to educate leaders…, to build on the support system we have begun [for] survivors, and to do more preventative work.” 

Thankfully, the UMC is already on task. Bishop Schol can find excellent tools for this work on the UMC’s Sexual Ethics website, including a superb guide to helping the congregation heal

I’m feeling grateful today — for Bishop Schol’s long-awaited actions that will make the church safer, but more than that, for Lisa’s courage and persistence. Today, she is the survivor awakening the church.

Healing the Congregation

“Lisa’s” saga* continues: she’ll be speaking with Bishop Schol next week. To prepare him for their meeting, Lisa sent him a resource that should already be close to his heart: a document that spells out the highest standard for responding to clergy misconduct in the United Methodist Church.

“After Clergy Sexual Misconduct: A Process for Congregational Healing” is that document. Based on guidelines drafted by Episcopal Bishop Chilton Knudsen, the process was developed in 2006 by the Rev. Dr. Bonnie Glass MacDonald, a UMC deacon. The document may be ten years old, but it was new to me, and in all my years of advocacy, I have never seen a better resource for helping congregations heal.

Why does the church need this resource? As MacDonald says, “In situations of crisis or misconduct, congregations often … want to put the crisis behind them as soon as possible. But experience has shown that ignoring the intense feelings that naturally occur after a violation will cause more trouble in the long run.” She reports that after an event of clergy misconduct, congregations often descend into fearful conflict. Factions form, pastors turn over quickly, and the church loses energy, focus, hope, and members. Without intentional healing, this cycle can last many years, and may repeat itself with new acts of misconduct. For the sake of every member of the church, both present and future, “each congregation must be helped to deal openly with the misconduct.”

Note that word: openly. Incidents of clergy misconduct cannot be swept under the carpet. The church’s response must be confidential enough “to protect fair process and avoid additional harm to victims,” but the basic facts must be shared with clergy, church staff, lay leaders, and congregants. Why? Because ultimately, there are no secrets in a congregation. If leaders try to whitewash an event of pastoral misconduct, the facts will morph into cancerous nodes of rumor, accusation, and innuendo, and those cancers will destroy the church. 

“The Process for Congregational Healing” helps leaders handle each step of their response, from the staff meeting to the congregational letter to (ultimately) the congregational meeting. The document spells out how to support the victim, what behaviors to expect from the accused minister, and how to speak with the youth and children of the church, who need to be included even if none of them was directly harmed. 

What happens when congregations don’t go through an intentional process of healing? They may become suspicious, angry, depressed, fractious, highly reactive, hopeless, and fixated on matters of human sexuality. Far from shining the light of the kingdom of God, these congregations become a toxic burden to the denomination.

I’m sharing this resource for clergy and churchgoers of all faith traditions. I recommend all my readers look at the UMC’s Sexual Ethics site. If only all faith traditions cared enough to develop resources this robust and thoughtful! More to the point: if only UMC leaders cared enough to consistently use the wisdom from their own denomination.

* See Lisa’s story here, my open letter to Bishop Schol here, and Bishop Schol’s excellent response here

Open Letter to Bishop John Schol

Dear Bishop Schol,

The UMC youth groups have returned from the JUNE Project led by disgraced former minister Darryl Duer. It’s too late to protect these kids, but it’s not too late to safeguard the future.

In 2013, you received “Lisa’s” complaint against Darryl Duer for clergy sexual misconduct. You judged rightly that Duer was unworthy to be a minister in the UMC, but you judged wrong when you let him go quietly. Secrecy may have been easier in the moment, but look at the danger you have brought on your congregations. At least three of your ministers continue to give Duer access to their youth groups. If any of those young people are harmed, their parents could claim that you knew of the danger and failed to warn them. 

In 2014, when Lisa learned that Darryl Duer was still running the JUNE Project, she contacted you to ask you to keep UMC youth from attending. You sent a note to three of your ministers, telling them that that a former camp participant had made a serious, substantiated complaint against Duer. In response, he canceled that summer’s camp, but he was back in business the very next summer. At least one of your ministers, Pastor Brian Neville of Hillsdale, brought his youth group in 2015. Here’s their slide show, including a big, clear photo of Darryl Duer. 

You claim that you continue to monitor and warn others about Duer. Really? Did you not know that your ministers are still working with him? If you look at Facebook you can see that Hillsdale UMC participated in the JUNE Project again last week, and that St Peter’s of Ocean City was there too. St Peter’s has re-labeled the project as “Hope Rescue Mission,” but it’s the same camp. One of the photos clearly shows Duer in a leadership role. Gibbsboro UMC may or may not be at the camp, but they are still big fans of Darryl Duer. Pastor Rob Lewis proudly lists “JUNE Project” in his staff bio as one of his leadership roles, and he invited “Pastor Daryl Duer” (sic) to speak at the church’s potluck breakfast worship on July 3.

In short: by failing to give clear warning, you have put countless young people in danger.

Since Mr. Duer no longer has credentials in the UMC, I understand that you can’t stop him from running his service project. But you can communicate the truth clearly to all of your ministers, all of their congregations, and the parents of all the young people who have ever participated in the JUNE Project. And the truth is that Darryl Duer sexually abused a former camp participant. He did so by exploiting his power as minister, his knowledge of her life history, and her trust in him as a minister. He does not deserve the trust of young people or their parents; he is a dangerous man.

When Lisa filed her compaint, she did it for one reason: to save other young people from what happened to her. She has never asked anything of the church but to keep Duer away from its youth. In 2013, you wrote a letter to clergy about a former pastor implicated for misuse of funds. You could have — you should have — written a similar letter to clergy warning them about Darryl Duer. With his offense, it wasn’t mere dollars at stake, but human lives.

Please, Bishop Schol — it’s not too late to do the right thing. 

Yours in Christ,

Catherine Thiemann


Update, August 7: this newspaper account confirms that Gibbsboro UMC also brought a group to Duer’s camp.


Update, January 2017: Bishop Schol’s excellent response.

UMC Protecting a Predator

Dozens of young Methodists are in immediate danger.

This Sunday, July 31, unless leaders in the UMC take action, at least three youth groups from Greater New Jersey will arrive at Olivet Blue Mountain Camp in eastern Pennsylvania to spend a week under the leadership of a known sexual predator. 

Here are the facts.
* In 2013, “Lisa” (not her real name) filed a complaint of sexual misconduct against then-Rev. Darryl Duer. He wasn’t her minister, but he was the minister who led the summer service project that she had attended with her church youth group since she was in junior high. Duer had begun giving Lisa love notes and personal gifts when she was only 15. When she turned 18, he offered pastoral support, but very soon began demanding sex. He abused her for several years, telling her that his sexual abuse was God’s way of loving her. He knew of her history of abuse growing up, and he correctly assumed she wouldn’t know she was being abused. But eventually she figured it out.
* Bishop John Schol of the UMC’s Greater New Jersey jurisdiction received Lisa’s complaint. Rather than launching a formal investigation, Bishop Schol simply asked Duer to hand in his ministerial credentials. He later characterized Lisa’s complaint as “serious and substantiated,” but at the time he chose to cover it up. He hid the truth from Duer’s congregation, his fellow ministers, and the parents of the youth who had participated in those summer camps over the years.
* In 2014, Lisa learned that Duer was again offering the camp, and that three of Bishop Schol’s ministers were bringing their youth groups. After a great deal of effort on Lisa’s part, and with the involvement of the national church office, Bishop Schol agreed to inform those three ministers of Duer’s offense. In response, Duer canceled the camp.
* Lisa thought this was the end of the story. But in early 2015, Lisa saw online postings for Duer’s camp on one of the same three church websites. She wrote to the minister immediately. He assured her it was “old information,” and he promised to take down the posting. She believed him at the time, but later that summer she found evidence that this minister had brought his youth group after all, despite Bishop Schol’s warning in 2014. This youtube video shows the youth group’s presentation afterwards. Duer’s face is prominently shown in one of the slides.
* The horror continues. A few weeks ago, Lisa learned that Duer is still running the camp, and the same three churches are still bringing their youth. On July 5, Lisa sent a powerful email to Bishop Schol and a to key contact in the denomination’s national headquarters. She waited two weeks for a response, then wrote to a higher authority in the national church. She also reached out to the bishop in Eastern PA where Duer’s camp would take place. Although she’s heard from the national office, she has yet to receive a response from either bishop, and the national office seems to lack the power to take action.
* Lisa posted a comment about this situation on Bishop Schol’s facebook page. An administrator immediately took down her comment, but at least she had their attention. The bishop has finally agreed to speak with Lisa by phone about how he handled her case. He has also promised to “talk to” the three ministers when their youth groups return from Darryl Duer’s camp. But with a full week left before the train wreck, Bishop Schol said it was too late to stop his district’s youth from attending, or to inform their parents of the danger. 

Where is the leadership? Where are the shepherds who are supposed to protect the sheep from wolves like Darryl Duer? Does it really fall to an obscure blogger to get this word out? The odds that any of my readers know any of those parents is infinitessimally small. Still — if you do know someone involved, please share this warning. Young people have a right to expect a safe experience when they attend a church-organized camp, and parents have the right to know if their children are about to walk into a viper’s nest.


Update, afternoon of July 28. I’ve now spoken with the bishop of Eastern PA. She had not received Lisa’s email; she is very concerned and has promised to do what she can to keep UMC youth safe.


Update, January 2017: Bishop Schol’s excellent response.

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