Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Archive for the ‘Surviving & Healing’ Category

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.

End of Life Needs of Survivors

Nearly seven years into recovery, my experience no longer feels like a crisis. The trauma marked the end of life as I knew it, but it was also a new beginning. Some of the things I lost were things I needed to lose, like my naive idealism, my tendency to mistake friendliness for friendship, and my blind loyalty to a particular denomination. I have a clearer sense of the dark side of human institutions now, and of human limitations including my own. 

Nevertheless, even in the new normal, even with the closure I reached after my offender was defrocked, I still struggle. I need to find a way to integrate this experience into the whole arc of my life. A few weeks ago, I found a resource for that work: a webinar called “End of Life Needs of Survivors.” The FaithTrust Institute invited the Rev. Dr. Sarah Rieth, an Episcopal priest and chaplain at a retirement community in North Carolina, to share her wisdom for caregivers. I may not be a chaplain or social worker; I may not be at the end of life; but I can still use Sarah Rieth’s insights in my healing. So can we all. Here are the steps we can take. 

1. We need to stop asking ourselves “Why can’t I put this in the past?” It’s an insulting question for survivors. Haven’t we been trying to do that all along? If we could have put it in the past, we would have, but this experience was too big. It changed the course of our lives. We are different people because of it.

2. Instead of trying to forget, we need to integrate those memories, to weave them into the narrative arc of our life. We need to look at how life has unfolded since the trauma, and by what means, and through what strengths, we have rebuilt our lives. We need to discover the threads of grace in all of this. Where was God, including the God incarnate in human helpers, during the abuse? Where was God when we were trying to heal? 

3. Our early spiritual formation, or others’ distortions of scripture, may get in the way of healing. If God (or a powerful adult in our lives) was a punishing taskmaster, we may still be hanging our heads, awaiting the blows or harsh words. If we thought of God as a loving protector, we need to reconcile that with the fact that one of God’s ministers exploited us. To engage that dissonance, we may even need to speak angry words at God. Do we have favorite Bible stories or verses, and can we put those to use in understanding our stories? (Mine is the story of Esther, whose courage in speaking up for her people gave me the courage to report my abusive priest).

4. Childhood experiences with abuse leave an indelible imprint. They can make us doubt our own worth; they make us more vulnerable to abuse as adults. Predators specifically target this vulnerability, because they know we’re less likely to fight back. Therefore, we need to understand our church trauma in the context of these earlier traumas. 

5. Reflecting on these experiences may be painful and frightening. While we’re doing this work, we need to be gentle, loving, and non-judgmental with ourselves. We need to insist on our truth even if others have not believed us. We need to affirm our own courage, especially if we choose to invite another person to help us with this work.

6. According to the psychologist Erik Erikson, at each stage of life we have unique developmental tasks. In infancy and early childhood, we must learn how and whom to trust. During our working years, we strive to leave a meaningful footprint on the world. In retirement, we look back at the wholeness of our lives. Have we lived with integrity? Have our lives been worthwhile? Do we still matter if we’re no longer needed in our former roles? If trust has been broken at any stage of our lives, we may need to return to the earliest task. If we’re still struggling with memories of abuse during our elder years, it may be harder to reach a satisfactory closure. The more we’re willing to engage with this work now, the more likely we’ll face our waning days (in fact, all our days) with peace.

7. Even if we don’t choose to do this work, circumstances may force us to face the questions. If we overcome addiction, we may uncover the feelings that we used the addiction to numb. Incipient dementia may unlock barriers to our memories and feelings. The death of an abuser may free us to think or speak words that were dangerous while he/she lived. Facing death, we may feel a spiritual urgency to resolve our memories. 

8. One key task is to look honestly at the cost of the abuse. What choices did we make as a result? What choices did we find ourselves unable to make? How did our choices affect our lives? As we ask these questions, we may want to think about the areas of health, relationships, family, vocation, and faith. 

9. Another key task: find the threads of grace. Who or what enabled us to survive and rebuild our lives? Who knew about the abuse; who helped us as we made decisions to save ourselves and perhaps report our abusers? As Mr. Rogers says, who were the helpers? If it was “only” God who gave us strength, how did God show God’s self to us?

10. A third key task: what qualities did we discover within ourselves that enabled us to survive and live the lives we’ve lived? As hard as it is for survivors of abuse, we need to own our victories, name and claim our strengths, honor our courage and our persistence.

11. Sarah Rieth shared the concept of the “context wheel.” We draw a simple bicycle wheel, then write a difficult truth in the central hub, for example “I encouraged my pastor’s attentions” or “I allowed my pastor to touch me sexually.” These words will seem stark and even damning, but the context can help us heal from shame and regret. In the areas between the bicycle spokes, we write words such as, “I was vulnerable because of my troubled marriage.” “I needed my pastor’s approval to move forward in discernment.” “He wasn’t just my pastor; he was also my boss.” “I didn’t want to believe he had sexual intent.” “I thought of him like a father.” And of course, “I trusted him.” We need to understand the context that made us so vulnerable, so unable to protect ourselves. We need to look at this context — and our actions, and our abuser’s actions too — through the loving eyes of God. 

12. Finally, reconciliation. I don’t mean reconciling interpersonally with our abuser; that is rarely possible and almost never helpful. But we might think of other relationships that need to be reconciled. We might ask ourselves what resentments we need to let go of? And whom we might need to forgive? And for what — and from whom — we might need to seek forgiveness?

Readers who want a more complete look at these concepts can view the “End of Life Needs of Survivors” webinar. Survivors may want to share this resource with their pastor, counselor, or spiritual advisor. 

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

Healing Service at St Paul’s

I told a lie last month. I told myself (and my readers) that it didn’t hurt much when I found out that the leaders at Scott’s new church had called my complaint “meritless” even after he had proven himself a predator in their midst. 

Three days later, I wondered why my life felt so unexplainably wrong. I felt off-balance, hurt, afraid, and angry, and I didn’t know why. Then I remembered: “meritless.” Of course. That word wasn’t just a reminder of an old wound; it was a brand-new wound. A whole new congregation, hundreds of miles away, now believed I was a nut, a slut, or a liar. And who had inflicted this wound? Ultimately, “meritless” had its roots in whatever Bishop Mathes told Bishop Andrus about me and my complaint. Mathes may have been (mostly) forthcoming at the January 2016 meeting at St Paul’s, but he seems to have told a different story in 2012 — a story that continues to harm my reputation. 

As I was thinking about this chain of events, I remembered the upcoming healing service at St Paul’s. They were planning this offering for the 14th of May. I’d been talking with the priest in charge of the project (for whom I have enormous respect), and I’d asked my own pastor if our church could co-sponsor. I knew that Bishop Mathes would play a role in this service. I had some qualms about accepting healing from a man who continued to publicly minimize my story — and who had explicitly told me to stop contacting him — but I wanted to support the church’s good effort. I’d told the organizers I would be there, and I promised to share the word with my churchmates and my readers.

“Meritless” changed everything. I felt sick just thinking about being at the service, or even being in the same room with the bishop. As much as I wanted to support the church’s effort, I couldn’t expose myself to the harm of being present — and I couldn’t recommend it to other survivors. With regret, I told the organizer that I wouldn’t be there, and I told her why.

Then I stopped thinking about it. With my older son planning a visit, May 14 took on a happier and lighter meaning. Then, the afternoon before the service, a friend forwarded me this notice from the dean of St Paul’s Cathedral: 

“Contrary to prior announcements, Bishop Mathes will not be present.” 

It took me less than a minute to make up my mind to go.

The healing service was holy ground. By coincidence (?), I ran into a trusted friend at the door, so I didn’t have to sit alone. The liturgists had chosen beautiful readings: Isaiah 61:1-3, Psalm 139:1-17Luke 8:43-48, and Luke 14:1-6.  The litany of healing from the January 26 meeting was woven into this service too. The hymns were comforting (except for the line “let me forgive as one forgiven;” forgiveness is complicated for survivors of CSM.) The priests offered words of reflection after the gospel readings; those were beautiful and helpful too. With the priests’ permission, I may share those words in this blog.

There were only about a dozen of us there. The service was so intimate that we gathered in the chancel; we were a small group surrounding the altar. After the readings, we were invited to receive prayer with laying on of hands. When I went forward, I asked the priest to pray not only for me but for the congregation. That is my fervent prayer; we all need to heal together. 

Finally, we were offered communion. Receiving the wine was the scariest moment for me. The woman holding the chalice, formerly a dear friend, had shown me great unkindness after I reported Scott. But as she held out the sacramental cup, she gave me a warm look of welcome. I knew she wasn’t there by random chance. She had to have volunteered for this role. I choose to see her actions as an offering of peace. For that, I am grateful.

It has been five weeks since I found out about the disparaging label “meritless.” I wanted to write more about it, and I wanted to write about my plans to stay away from the service, but all of it hurt too much to think about. I’m now glad I didn’t write. My silence may have made room for the bishop’s grace-filled decision to stay away.

It’s been five days since the service. Before I shared here, I needed to let the waters settle. Paradoxically, the church’s welcome opened the lid on my excruciating memories of being shunned. I needed time to deal with that pain, and I needed time to figure out what this healing service meant. Did it make a difference? Yes. The service didn’t erase my wounds or my scars, but it opened the door for me to be part of the community again. I don’t think anyone expects me to rejoin the church — but now I know I’ll be genuinely welcome when I visit.

Here is another measure of healing. Next Monday, my pastor will co-lead a candidates’ forum with the dean of St Paul’s. Before this service, I would have felt a pang of loss on seeing the announcement: “This will be a great event, but I’m not wanted there.” But now? I happily put the forum on my calendar. A church that was once my beloved spiritual home, and then was scorched earth, has been restored to me. 

My life is one degree more whole. 

The journey of healing continues.

Disappointing News from the UMC

Last month I came across this article about church response to clergy sexual misconduct. It was so clear and strong! It’s rare to find writing this good on church response. I wondered, “Who wrote this?” Then I looked at the byline. Of course — the Rev. Dr. Darryl Stephens, a former leader from the United Methodist Church’s Commission on the Status and Role of Women. Stephens now writes and teaches, and I’m sure his work helps many, but he is painfully missed by victims and survivors within the UMC. During his tenure on the Commission, he provided extraordinary support to at least one survivor whom I know. No one has yet filled his shoes, but at least the Commission is still working to protect and promote the dignity of women. A Commission executive described that work here in 2012, saying “We are getting more requests than we can handle.” 

Unfortunately, the Commission may soon be turning down all requests. The quadrennial UMC General Conference is happening this week in Portland, Oregon. While the media focuses on the church’s positions on hot social issues like human sexuality, they’ll likely give a collective yawn to church governance issues. Yet some of those changes have enormous implications! Within the next few days, the church will vote on whether to adopt “Plan UMC Revised.” Hidden deep within this dull-sounding plan: it would eliminate the Commission on the Status and Role of Women

I’m sure the UMC would tell me not to worry. The commission on the Status and Role of Women may be going away (as well as the Commission on Religion and Race), but the vital work will continue via a newly constituted “United Methodist Committee on Inclusiveness.” Golly, isn’t that a fine-sounding name? Unfortunately, I believe it’s a hedge. Rather than explicitly naming the needs of women and racial minorities, the church only says it’ll be “inclusive.” Considering the fact that the UMC still punishes ministers who perform same-sex weddings, even though those marriages are legal in all 50 states, it’s clear that “inclusive” is actually quite selective. By replacing commissions on gender and race with an ill-defined office of “inclusiveness,” the UMC waters down its promise to fight against racial and gender bias.

This is happening in other institutions as well. I spoke this week with a friend whose husband leads the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) training for a branch of the U.S. military in his region. My friend told me some sad news. “My husband’s old C.O. knew how important this work was, but his new C.O. told him ‘Spend as little time as you can on this issue. Just keep the Pentagon off our backs.’ “ Under the new command, my friend’s husband has to divide his time between SAPR and racial sensitivity training. He is no longer a SAPR trainer; he’s a “diversity officer.” He now has to do two full-time jobs, without the time or resources to do justice to either one.

It’s hard to stay optimistic when I learn that a major denomination is eliminating an office that made such a difference to survivors of CSM. It seems lately that anytime I hear good news (like when the local bishop finally disclosed my complaint against Scott to the congregation at St Paul’s), there’s bad news right behind (like when leaders at Scott’s new church publicly call my complaint “meritless.”) “Spotlight” notwithstanding, as a society we are still massively in denial about the scope and impact of clergy sexual misconduct. 

But the work continues. I take courage from the good things that are happening, like the study on church response to CSM, coming out this fall from Baylor University’s Garland School of Social Work. (Please note the survey is now closed.) I have faith that when I need a break from the work, there will be others to speak truth and carry the baton forward. 

A Very Good Good Friday

On Good Friday, we’re supposed to contemplate the suffering of Jesus on the cross. But what if Good Friday brings such a procession of miracles that sorrow is impossible? I have no authority to say this, but I’m saying it anyway: our emotions don’t have to match the church calendar. On Easter six years ago, I felt like dying, and wondered what was wrong with me. Today, on Good Friday, I feel more like Easter. And there’s nothing wrong with me at all.

Here’s how it happened. A friend from my current church invited me to join her at the Good Friday service at St Paul’s. After some hesitation, I accepted. I couldn’t be more grateful that I did. Here are a few of the blessings I received.
* At the entrance, an old friend greeted me warmly. She gave me a big hug. Standing next to her was a leader who had spurned me when I reported Scott six years ago. He had no interest in greeting me today either, but that didn’t matter. My friend’s greeting made me feel welcomed and loved.
* The music (Giovanni Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, beautifully performed by two vocal soloists and a small string ensemble) was exquisite! It filled my soul with joy despite the sorrowful theme. The three homilies were thoughtful and thought-provoking. Despite our rift, I felt comfortable listening to the bishop delivering the final message, and he seemed comfortable with my presence.
* As I was leaving, I recognized an old friend, a woman of deep faith and prayer. Though I’ve never spoken with her about what happened, she knows my story. She looked straight at me and said, “I’m really glad to see you here again. This is healing!” Did she mean my presence was a sign that the church is healing? Or that my presence helps the church heal? Either way, her words strengthened my sense of being welcomed and wanted. 

Perhaps the greatest blessing was in the printed bulletin: a prominent announcement for the upcoming series on clergy misconduct. This is such good news that I’m going to share it in full.

SERIES — “A SACRED TRUST: Clergy Misconduct Education”
April 10: Ordination and Power: Theolog(ies) and Practicalit(ies) of Ordained Ministry. What power does (and doesn’t) ordination confer? What ethical standards guide priests besides the Bible? What about sin? What’s the process for discipline?
April 17: How Misconduct Happens: Understanding the Dynamics of Clergy Sexual Misconduct. What do studies reveal about common patterns in leaders, communities, and events involving misconduct? How is this different from “an affair” or “romance”? Why is it so often very traumatic?
April 24: Where Do We Go From Here? Building Safer Communities. How can we all participate in developing a culture where this is less likely to happen? What’s so great about boundaries? Why are we still talking about this?

A young husband & wife team of priests will teach the first session. I’ve known them both for many years; I trust and respect them immensely. A well-respected local psychologist will lead the second class. From the description, it’s clear she will be sharing the groundbreaking study by Baylor University. The third class will be led by the new dean of St Paul’s. I don’t envy her having to lead a congregation that has been so profoundly betrayed. Being an after-pastor is so difficult that when I asked expert Mark Laaser what advice he would give one, he said, “Don’t take the job.” But Dean Penny has the job, and she has my prayers. 

I couldn’t have designed a better program if I’d had a year to work on it. I am incredibly grateful to the lay and clergy leaders whose courage and persistence made this day possible. I am hopeful for the congregation at St Paul’s, and for the priests who lead them. I’ll be praying for them; I hope you will too.

So on this Good Friday, I’m full of Easter feelings: gratitude, hope, triumph and joy. For survivors who have made it to this place of healing: I celebrate with you. For those who are still struggling: you have my prayers — but  I hope you also have hope. The journey of healing is long and painful, but don’t ever give up. Keep on doing the next right thing for yourself and your healing. Keep putting one foot in front of another, and one day you’ll find yourself blessed in ways you can’t begin to imagine today.

Wishing all my readers a very good Good Friday.

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.

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