It’s been two and a half weeks since I learned of Kevin’s defrocking and eleven days since the congregational meeting. I’m relieved that the church is free of a dangerous priest, I’m grateful that the bishop called me directly to share the news, and I’m feeling validated since he finally dropped the veil of secrecy around my complaint.
Relieved, grateful, and validated: I wish that’s all I were feeling. I’ve been trying to write a relieved, grateful, validated response to the bishop’s words. But every attempt came out brittle, formal, and fake. Last night, I finally realized why.
Because I’m ANGRY. Once I got over the miracle that the bishop shared the truth at all, I start looking at what he said about my story. And what did he say? That what happened to me wasn’t that big of a deal, and that he still believes he was right to keep it from the congregation.
WHO IS HE to say that Kevin’s offenses against me “didn’t rise to the level of a Title IV complaint”? What kind of yardstick did he use? Does the church keep a manual that says if it’s only words, or if there’s only one complaint, then it’s okay to brush it under the carpet? (In 2010, the bishop actually told me that’s why he chose a “pastoral” response instead of invoking the canons). What if a priest deliberately misconstrues a directive from the bishop in order to continue meeting with his favorite congregants? What if he spends years working to gain a congregant’s trust, then misjudges and springs the trap too soon? What if he openly tells her that she’s part of a years-long pattern of inappropriate behavior toward “beautiful women”? Is a predator less guilty because a particular prey escaped without physical injury?
The bishop ignored Kevin’s pattern of grooming, instead focusing on a few words that he spoke to me on a specific day in 2008. Even worse, he ignored the impact of Kevin’s behavior. Author Marilyn Peterson, in her book At Personal Risk: Boundary Violations in Professional-Client Relationships (Norton, 1992), says that the only reliable measure is the harm an offense causes to the victim. “Determining severity by content alone does not allow a violation to be identified as legitimate or valid unless and until it has progressed to the most severe and overt extreme. … To get a truer, more comprehensive picture, it is essential that degree of pain felt by clients be measured.” My injuries at the time — a serious eating disorder and a diagnosis of PTSD — were severe. Six years after the church closed the case, I’m still trying to process what Kevin and the church did to me. Does this not signal an offense worthy of a Title IV response, and of a stronger warning to Kevin’s next congregation?
And why did the bishop think the congregation didn’t need to know? At last Tuesday’s meeting he told us, “I made a measured decision [not to disclose].” He was vague as to how he measured it, but he has spoken clearly on this question before. When I brought my complaint, he refused to inform the congregation, protesting that Kevin was “the [highest ranking priest] of my [most prominent congregation]!” Church scandals drive people and dollars away, and there was a lot at stake with this congregation. The bishop may have thought he could prevent this damage with secrecy. (I wonder how that has worked out.) Two years later, I was in the room when he told a group of clergy that this kind of news would be a “body blow” to a congregation — as if a group of full-grown Christian adults would be too weak to deal with hard truth.
The bishop decided to avoid the harsh official sentences, placing Kevin under pastoral direction instead. “I [required] that he not do certain ministerial functions, and [required] him to do certain other things to address the behavior.” First of all, isn’t that what suspension is — a temporary ban from exercising some or all of the gifts of ordained ministry? Second, why use vague language like “certain ministerial functions”? Why not name those functions, as he did with me in January of 2010? The day I filed my complaint, the bishop told me that Kevin was forbidden to offer pastoral counseling during the investigation. Two months later, he extended that ban for another 12 to 18 months. When a church’s senior minister is not allowed to do pastoral counseling, the congregation has a right and a need to know.
Toward the end of last Tuesday’s meeting, the bishop had harsh words for the people of St _____’s. “I’m going to be brutally honest with you,” he said. “We’ve had two complaints in the past six years, and it has not been easy for those who have been the complainants. I think this community can do a better job.” What?!? How can the bishop blame the congregation for responding badly to something that officially “never happened”? Instead of disclosing the truth, the bishop left my reputation in the hands of the priest who was then writhing under the humiliating restraints of pastoral direction. What did he think Kevin was going to say about me? Now, six years later, he blames the congregation for not being nicer to me? I’m going to be brutally honest with you, bishop: you set those good people up for failure. You don’t owe them a scolding; you owe them an apology.
Finally, the bishop admitted that his official silence was no match for the real voices of hurting, angry people. “What I’ve come to realize is how broadly both Jones and the complainant had talked about the matter.” He shouldn’t have been surprised; this is exactly what I told him I would do. When he wrapped up my case, I warned him that I was going to tell my friends why I was leaving the church. “I can’t carry the burden of this toxic secret any longer,” I said. He told me that if I did, I would “lose control” of the information. He was right; my words to a few trusted friends triggered an ugly wave of ostracism. I stopped talking for a while; I now speak through this blog. Although I’m not writing for my old churchmates, it seems that a few of them read it. If my strong voice helped the bishop find his, then I’ve done something right and I’m proud.
The waters are starting to settle. In my next post, I’ll be sharing the power and beauty of a very different kind of voice in response to clergy misconduct. Stay tuned.