Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Archive for the ‘Legal Issues’ 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. 

An Open Letter to Miles McPherson

First things first: I believe Taylor Peyton. 

Peyton, now 20, began abusing drugs at the age of 14. By the fall of 2013, she was estranged from her Ohio family, had been through multiple rehabs, and had a record for drug possession. After a trip to a San Diego hospital for alcohol poisoning, Peyton ended up on David Powers’ doorstep — literally. Powers (54) and his wife Tina owned ABC Sober Living, with several homes in San Diego. The women’s recovery house was full, so Powers invited Peyton to move in with him and his wife. According to the complaint, almost immediately he asked her if she could feel the “sexual tension” between them. Over the next four months, Powers escalated his attacks. In January, in the backyard of one of his properties, he sexually assaulted her.

Now Peyton and five other ABC Sober Living clients or staffers have filed a lawsuit against David and Tina Powers, ABC Sober Living — and The Rock Church, one of the nation’s fastest-growing evangelical megachurches. (June 13 update: seven more women have joined the lawsuit, bringing the victim total to 13). You see, until this story broke, David Powers had been the leader of the Rock Recovery Ministry. The Rock Church often referred its members to Powers’ treatment facilities; they offered scholarships to help people attend Powers’ programs; in 2009 they honored David and Tina Powers as “Rock Heroes.” Powers required all of his residential clients to attend the 90-minute Sunday worship service at The Rock. David Powers was not a pastor, but it’s hard to imagine that these women didn’t see him as a Rock Church spiritual leader and even a kind of savior. The lawsuit spells it out: each of these women “has suffered and continues to suffer spiritually.”

The story, which Buzzfeed broke four days ago (trigger warning for predatory grooming and sexual abuse), is making news around the world, but it is happening right here in my town. David Powers’ office is less than a mile from my home. When sexual/spiritual abuse happens practically in my front yard, I can’t stay on the sidelines. Since The Rock Church’s staff directory doesn’t include an email address for their celebrity pastor, I’m publishing my thoughts as…

An Open Letter to Pastor Miles McPherson

Dear Pastor Miles,

I am glad The Rock Church is temporarily removing David Powers from leadership of the Rock Recovery Ministry. Even if this is a defensive posture in response to the recent lawsuit, the church’s decision sends a message to potential abusers: The Rock Church will not protect or defend sexual predators.

Regardless of the outcome in this case, I hope The Rock Church will go a step further. When a ministry leader is accused of sexual misconduct, it’s not enough to remove that person from leadership. The church also needs to make sure the abuse doesn’t happen again. To protect your congregation from abuse and your church from legal risk, The Rock should:

1. Thoroughly review all ministries that serve children or vulnerable adults, whether inside or outside church walls. Ensure that all ministries follow safe church practices to minimize the risk of abuse.

2. Establish a reporting mechanism for sexual misconduct. Publish regular notices that define sexual misconduct and abuse, and tell church and ministry attendees how and to whom they can report concerns.

3. Establish a process for responding to claims of sexual misconduct. The process should minimize trauma to complainants, hold offenders accountable, and protect the congregation from further harm.

4. Educate The Rock’s congregations about sexual abuse in a spiritual environment: what it is, what it does to victims, and how The Rock Church’s ministers are working to prevent it.

5. Require all ministry leaders to attend training in healthy boundaries and sexual ethics. Many ministers may believe that it is okay to pursue a romantic relationship with a ministry member. They may not understand how damaging those relationships are to all parties.

The Rock Church may find these resources helpful.
The FaithTrust Institute offers training and educational materials to help churches respond to and prevent sexual abuse in all environments.
The Hope of Survivors offers training and educational materials on clergy sexual abuse/misconduct, and ministers directly to victims and survivors.

As a survivor of sexual misconduct in a church environment, I now work with national leaders to make churches safer. I am very familiar with this issue and with the best resources for churches. I would be glad to answer questions or offer any support as The Rock Church responds to these events.

With best regards,

Catherine Thiemann

Working With the Law: Making CSA Illegal

A few months ago, I was talking with my dad about my work on this issue. I told him that in many states, pastors can go to prison if they have sexual contact with a congregant. I could see the skeptical look on his face.

“You seem surprised, Dad,” I said. “Why?”

My dad asked, “Why is it the state’s business who a priest has sex with?” In other words: what’s wrong with a little canoodling between consenting adults?

The problem, of course, is “consent.” It’s hard to say “no” to someone more powerful than yourself. And if you can’t say “no,” your “yes” has no meaning, especially when the “yes” is won by emotional manipulation and deceit. My former pastor gained my trust, and eventually my romantic feelings, by feigning interest in my soul. If he had been open about his lust from the beginning, I never would have given him the time of day. But by the time he spoke, I was completely dependent on his pastoral care. It took me nine days to get the clarity of mind to say, “No.” That one word took all my strength, and ultimately I couldn’t make it stick.

I didn’t share all this with my dad; I just said that the power differential made meaningful consent impossible. Aha! I could see the light coming on. My dad said, “So it’s like when psychologists sleep with their patients!” Exactly right. The Hippocratic Oath prohibits sex with patients, and in all fifty states, a therapist can lose his or her license for being sexual with a patient. In many states, that therapist can end up in prison. And in 13 states (Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin) and the District of Columbia, the fiduciary duty law applies to clergy who offend sexually within a pastoral counseling relationship. The National Organization for Women supports efforts for legal reform in all states.

I’m not a lawyer, so I was glad to find a paper explaining the legal issues on the resources page of the Baylor clergy sexual misconduct study. If you’re curious, you can dive into some of these links. Sexual Misconduct of Clergypersons with Congregants or Parishioners — Civil and Criminal Liabilities and Responsibilities (Helge and Toben) is not easy reading, but it offers a deeper understanding of state laws on clergy sexual misconduct. In 11 of the 13 states, CSM is illegal only when it arises from a formal therapeutic counseling relationship. Only Texas and Arkansas criminalize clergy/congregant sex per se. The Texas law, like an earlier Minnesota law, refers to “the clergyman’s professional character as spiritual advisor.” That clause in the Minnesota law was struck down on the basis of church/state entanglement, and the Texas law still faces challenges. In contrast, the Arkansas law never mentions religious practices; it only requires that the clergyman be “in a position of trust or authority over the victim,” using that trust or authority to engage in sexual activity. The Arkansas law has so far stood up to all challenges.

Even as you read these words, the advocacy team at Predatory Pastor is trying to get clergy added to Virginia’s Fiduciary Code and Criminal Statutes. Jim Wright makes a clear supporting argument on his Crossroads Junction blog. I hope you will join me in signing this petition.

And if you are a lawyer interested in getting something started in California, let’s talk.



Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: