Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Archive for the ‘Impact of CSA’ Category

Broken and Beautiful: One Survivor’s Story

Broken and beautiful: that’s what we are. Broken and Beautiful is also the title of a new book by CSA survivor Kristal Chalmers and her mother, Eileen Peters. Chalmers and Peters introduce their story by describing the Japanese art of kintsugi: “Instead of discarding a beautiful bowl that has been broken, they use gold to repair it, creating a vessel that is unique and even more valuable.” Rather than seeing breakage as something to hide, Kintsugi artists treat the breaks as part of the history and identity of a ceramic work. 

The same is true for us. Our wounds and healing become part of who we are. 

I’m highlighting this superb book for three reasons.

First, Kristal Chalmers describes her experience of abuse through two lenses at once. She shares what she felt at the time, but she also shares her current understanding of what happened. At the time, Kristal took her offender’s alternating warmth and coldness to heart; she believed what he told her about herself; she even blamed herself for the abuse. Two years later, she writes, “I know that he’d crossed a moral and professional boundary and had been grooming me for many months.” It took Kristal a great deal of time, study, and strong, loving support from her family and others, to reach this level of clarity. At the end of each chapter, Kristal and Eileen add their notes “for further reading,” sharing excerpts from some of the most important non-academic writings about clergy sexual abuse.

Second, Broken and Beautiful looks at CSA through the lens of spiritual warfare, a unique perspective among the survivor accounts I’ve read. Some readers may be unfamiliar or even uncomfortable with this perspective. In my rational mind, I question whether we’re really surrounded by demons and angels, but I’ve had enough personal experiences that I remain open to the idea. After all, who’s to say spiritual warfare isn’t real? The authors’ words helped me see trauma bonding in a new light:

“…the Bible speaks of soul ties when it talks about souls being knit together, or becoming one flesh. A soul tie … ties two souls together in the spiritual realm. Godly soul ties can draw a married couple together and knit their hearts to each other. Ungodly soul ties can cause a beaten and abused woman to attach to a man from whom, in the natural realm, she would run. In the demonic world, unholy soul ties serve as a bridge between two people through which evil can pass.”

In this light, Chalmers shows how a specific method of prayer freed her from this bond. 

“I [asked] God to forgive and cancel any ground or permission I had given over to Satan. I declared that the demons had no right in my life and commanded them to leave. I claimed the victory that Jesus’ death had won on Calvary, and immediately felt freedom!”

Third, the book doesn’t just recount the experience of abuse and shunning, it gives equal time to the arduous process of grieving. It was two years before Kristal Chalmers was able to journal again, but once that door was opened, the words poured out. In the sixth chapter, Kristal shares some of her words from the first three months of journaling, two years after she left her church. We follow her chaotic emotions, we remember our turbulent feelings even after many years of healing, and we feel a little less alone. “Can’t seem to get the grief or sadness or bewilderment out of my mind,” Kristal writes at one point. Another day she writes “I want to … cry, eat, and watch Netflix until bed…”; another day she writes “I keep having dreams,” even a dream about zombies. But she also writes, “When I look back now, I see that it was the beginning of freedom” and “I can’t end [a journal] entry without being grateful for God has done. Come and see what God has done!”

Indeed, come and see what God has done! You can find Broken and Beautiful on Amazon or on Eileen’s and Kristal’s website, MyVoiceBack.com. The Kindle edition includes live links to the resources on their website. 


Christmas can be difficult for anyone; it can be especially painful if you are dealing with current abuse by a religious leader, or if you’re healing from that abuse. If you are struggling, please know that it will get better. More important, the world is going to need you, your voice, and your story. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please seek support from someone you trust, or call a hotline for help. Readers in the U.S. can call 1-800-273-8255. Canadian readers can call 1-833-456-4566; UK readers can find help here; Australian readers can find help here.

 

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.

How a Congregation Grieves

A leader at my former church sent me a heads-up: “Our Easter flower donations list includes several donations by parishioners in appreciation of Scott and [his wife].” This leader didn’t want me to be blind-sided if I attended Holy Week or Easter services. I told her how much I appreciated her thoughtfulness. It feels good to have a church leader thinking, “How will my decisions affect someone who was harmed in my church?” 

But she could have taken it a step further. I’m glad the church didn’t refuse the tribute donation, even though it honors a man who caused me such harm. The congregation loved Scott. Grief is a long and painful process, and we need to remember that denial and anger are part of the process. It may take years (or a lifetime) for Scott’s admirers to accept the fact of his guilt. Meanwhile, they are doing what they can to show their love.

Even given in love, these flowers create a hostile environment for victims and survivors. If Scott had harmed another woman at St Paul’s, and if she were trying to decide whether to come forward, the floral tribute might silence her forever. 

How might church leaders address this problem? To balance things out, they could invite donations of flowers to honor the voices of survivors of abuse, or they could pass the hat at the staff meeting and make that donation themselves. They could include an awareness message in the service bulletins — unusual during Holy Week, but all the more impactful. They could pump up the publicity for the the classes on clergy misconduct. 

Yes, you read that right! Next month, St Paul’s will offer a three-week series on clergy misconduct during the Sunday adult education hour. I was thrilled when I heard about it. I don’t plan to attend; the congregation needs to have an honest conversation, and my presence might make that difficult. But I am delighted they are doing this work. So — in response to the flowers honoring Scott, the church could make a stronger effort to get people to those classes.

Even more important: church leaders could recognize the grief in those floral tributes. Along with the educational effort, they could embark on a conscious course of healing for the congregation. It wouldn’t be easy; it would take a lot longer than three weeks. Rebuilding trust and vibrancy could take years. Hopkins & Laaser’s Restoring the Soul of a Church (Liturgical Press, 1995) tells stories of congregational healing; the leaders at St Paul’s might use these stories to generate their own process, including a liturgy of healing — because no one does liturgy like Episcopalians.

Speaking of liturgy: later this spring, St Paul’s will offer a service of healing for survivors of clergy misconduct. It will be open to all denominations. Even though I consider myself substantially healed, I’ll be at that service. I don’t expect any miracles; I know even the best liturgy can’t undo the damage or erase the scars of my experience. But then again, a floral tribute can’t erase Scott’s disgrace or restore him to the priesthood either. A healing service, like the floral tribute, is a gift of compassion and love.

And I accept with gratitude.

Anger Rises to the Surface

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.

 

A Letter to Three Brave Women

I’ve been trying to explain to my friends what it’s like to be unexpectedly freed from the bishop’s long public silence. It’s as if I’d been paraplegic for six years and suddenly started feeling sensation in my legs; as if I’d lived six years with cancer and suddenly went into remission; as if a loved one had been missing for six years and was suddenly found. These metaphors aren’t quite right, but they give a notion of how big this change is. My world is different now. Finally I have a defense against malicious hearsay — but I have more than that. I have the beginning of welcome. On Tuesday night, several people went out of their way to greet me. One offered an apology, two crossed the room to greet me, and one wrapped me in such abundant warmth that I never felt the fear I had expected. The welcome may not have been universal, but it was enough and then some.

My outer world has changed, but it will take longer to rebuild my inner. For six years I’ve built my life around the fact of silencing and shunning. Some of my adaptations — like finding home in a new church — are permanent. But others can be changed. I can learn to release the sense of exile and begin to accept the hand of friendship. 

I have more to say about Tuesday night’s meeting, but first I need to acknowledge that these events aren’t about me. I am only free because “Kevin” harmed three women badly enough to lose his ordained ministry. I cannot celebrate while these women and their families suffer. So today I offer these words to the three who found the courage to come forward, speak truth, and demand justice.

          Dear Sisters,
          I don’t know who you are. You each have a name, a face, and unique roles in your family and church and community, and I know none of those things. I don’t know what kind of pain led you to seek Kevin’s help. I don’t know how he violated your trust, nor what you risked to come forward against him.
          But I know that you suffer. I know how brave you are. I can imagine how special and safe he made you feel (safe — the irony!!) I can imagine the crippling burden of the secret you had to carry; the heartbreak of losing friends when you began to share your story; the heavy cost of enduring the church’s process.
          Did the three of you come forward together? If not, I pray you are together now. For survivors, sisterhood (and brotherhood) is solace and strength. I pray you already knew that you weren’t the first, that you aren’t suffering a new shock reading these words. I always expected I’d learn about other women like me; I just thought they’d be in Kevin’s past. It breaks my heart that they — you — were in his future.
          Now, we are all part of his past. God willing, there will never be another.
          Sisters, I am praying for you. If it feels right to you, you are welcome to get in touch. You can find my email here. If that feels too close to home, I understand. I hope you have people in your lives who can help you heal, and that you’ll consider contacting The Hope of Survivors. They have wonderful resources and volunteer counselors to help you begin to move forward.
          God bless you as you walk the path of healing. Perhaps one day we will be in each other’s lives. Until then, may you walk in God’s protection.
          In sisterhood,
          Catherine

Can We Stay at Our Church After Abuse?

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.

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.

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