Clergy sexual misconduct: one survivor's voice

Archive for the ‘Impact of CSA’ Category

Final reflections

I’m walking away from this work. It’s not that the work is finished; the church is still unsafe for vulnerable people. Whether the church knows it or not, they need the voices of survivors more than ever. Thankfully many survivors are now speaking their truth. When one of us needs to stop, another survivor steps in to run the next leg of the race. I’ve worked alongside some of today’s most effective victims and survivors. I no longer have any hope in church (I don’t belong to any church and likely never will again), but I have hope in the leaders I’ve met. If there’s any hope for the church at all, it’s because of these good people.

With love and thanks to all who have supported me in five years of writing.

 

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.

Erik’s Story

Thank God for survivors like Erik Campano, who had the foresight to organize hundreds of pieces of evidence supporting his complaint against a priest and her bishop. After talking with Erik and reviewing his account, I shared his story this afternoon with a few respected journalists. Here’s what I told them:

At the American Church in Paris, new Episcopalian Erik Campano survived a classic case of clergy sexual misconduct. He joined the church, caught the attention of an Episcopal priest-in-training, initially resisted her advances, gradually succumbed, and eventually agreed to a sexual relationship that he had to conceal from his friends at the church. Although he was flattered, Erik was also confused and fearful about being sexually involved with his minister.

Ginger Strickland’s bishop, Pierre Whalon, clearly considered her a protégée. As a candidate for bishop, he had asked Strickland to give his nomination speech. Unfortunately, Whalon placed the newly minted Yale M.Div. in a non-denominational church that had no sexual misconduct policy. When Strickland asked her supervising pastor (not an Episcopalian) if she could date a congregant, she got a green light. Against Episcopal Church protocols and against her seminary training, she went ahead.

And yet it was never a real relationship. Even before she was ordained, Mother Strickland’s power as Erik’s minister made it hard for him to say no, and therefore impossible for him to give meaningful consent. The stress led to serious health problems. Finally, Erik broke off the relationship and reported Strickland for misconduct, but to a bishop who was heavily invested in her success. Bishop Whalon took extraordinary measures to protect Strickland’s career. He misrepresented to Erik which office had jurisdiction to hear the case, he delayed forwarding Erik’s complaint to an Intake Officer for months, he ordained Strickland to the priesthood despite this serious unresolved disciplinary matter, he published in the New York Post his intention to discredit Erik’s story (and may have actually done so through attorney John Walsh), he failed to meet with Erik even once to hear his complaint, and he defamed Erik’s character in his October 2012 report to the Convocation of the Episcopal Churches in Europe.

It is this final action that I address in my letter to Bishop Katharine.

In Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman eloquently describes what the Episcopal Church may be doing to Erik Campano. “Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense,” writes Herman. “If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens. To this end, he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization. After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it on herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.”

A powerful institutional church seems to be working hard to silence its victims. And who are the church’s victims? With the Episcopal Church we have worshipped, served, and shared not only our spiritual hopes and fears but also our financial resources. We are, in fact, the church itself. Now we are silenced by the very power we helped to create.

Profile in Courage: Erik Campano

Sometimes we are blinded by our own knowledge. I’ve spent so many years reading and writing about clergy sexual abuse that I sometimes forget how naïve I once was. Most people still live in that state of naiveté, unaware of the scope and danger of CSA. The scope is huge: more than three percent of churchgoing women have suffered sexual advances from clergy as adults. And the danger is huge: The Hope of Survivors lists consequences of CSA including depression, self-harm, eating disorders, PTSD, suicide attempts, impaired relationships, and loss of faith.

Before I became a victim, I knew none of this. I thought it was fine for unmarried pastors to date their unmarried congregants. If my pastor and I had both been single, we might have “dated” (meaning: his sexualization of our pastoral relationship might have escalated to the physical) — and it would have made for an even bigger nightmare.

Erik Campano survived this experience with a female minister, and he tells the story here. Sadder and wiser, Erik now writes with great power and clarity on this issue. I plan to share his superb article Eleven Reasons Why Pastors Should Never Date Their Parishioners with my friends and family who still live in that state of innocence. I hope they will understand my experience better, but even more, I hope they’ll join the growing number of churchgoers who are willing to “see something, say something.” An informed congregation can help keep clergy from crossing the line.

How I admire Erik Campano’s resilience! It took me years to be able to write about my experience, and he is sharing the horrors of his church’s response only months later. He has had to overcome the same stigma we all do, and more: if it’s difficult for a woman to come forward, it’s even harder for a man. And while I choose not to name my abuser in my writings, he holds his abuser, church and denomination publicly accountable. For that, I commend him.

You can read Erik’s interview with another survivor, Michele, at his blog, Accurate and Courageous Journalism of Religion.

The Myth of False Claims

An open letter to clergy members who fear false claims.

Dear Pastors, Ministers, Deacons, Priests, Bishops, Elders, Rabbis, and Imams,

Put your hearts at ease: false claims almost never happen!

Victims of clergy sexual misconduct pay an enormous price for reporting abuse. Even when we can support our claims, and even when the offenders acknowledge their behavior, the process is highly traumatic. When I filed a complaint against my former pastor, the church’s response cost me my community, many close friendships, my faith and my health for a time, and very nearly my marriage — and this happened under almost a “best case” scenario.

One of my friends was abused by a different minister, a known serial offender. My friend has solid evidence of her own abuse, and the congregation still rings with stories of other victims. Yet after seeing what happened to me, my friend decided to remain silent. Her offender is still active in ordained ministry.

Because of the high cost, a person would have to be out of his or her mind to raise a false claim. Indeed, false claims are exceedingly rare. In a survey of claims against Catholic clergy over the course of more than five decades, more than 99.8% of the claims (all but 20, out of more than 10,000) were valid. A minister is almost as likely to be struck by lightning as to be falsely accused of sexual misconduct.

Victims’ greatest fear is that no one will believe them. As a survivor, this is still one of my greatest fears. I know my pastors mean no harm, but when I hear them talk about “false claims,” I feel less safe in my church. I may be the only “out” survivor in my congregation, but I’m certain there are others. According to the landmark study by Baylor University, in an average-sized congregation, at least half a dozen women have likely received sexual advances from clergy during their adult lives.

When you consider your own congregation, please be aware of this unspoken pain and tread gently.

And please be at peace. If you respect your congregants’ boundaries and protect your own, you are almost guaranteed safety from false claims.

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