Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Archive for the ‘Surviving & Healing’ Category

“Sexual Healing” in my hometown

Here’s another story from my hometown of San Diego. Part of it is depressingly normal (pastor convinces vulnerable congregant that she needs his “sexual healing”), and part of it is extraordinary (the offender is now suing the victim).  

The story begins at Point Loma Nazarene University, where John Wright serves as a professor of theology. The Christian Post and San Diego’s ABC News 10 report that in 2014, Wright invited Amy McClanahan, then 20 or 21 and a student in one of his classes, to attend the Mid City Church of the Nazarene, where he and his wife served as pastors. 

McClanahan told Wright about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child… 

… and Wright offered to counsel her. (Does this sound familiar?)

By 2016, McClanahan was working as a camp counselor at Mid City Church. Wright began inviting her to coffee on a regular basis. He often held her hand as they talked (“I was kind of weirded out but I thought it was OK because he was my pastor,” says McClanahan), then moved to kissing and to “hundreds” of sexual acts, most of them in the church. Wright promised her that “the trauma would wash away” when he performed sexual acts on her. He told her many times that he loved her. She was vulnerable enough to believe him, and she willing agreed to his demand for secrecy. Eventually, per Wright’s lawsuit against McClanahan (as reported in the San Diego Union Tribune), she asked him for an open dating relationship. Instead, he ended their sexual contact. McClanahan is suing Wright for traumatizing her through sexual exploitation in the guise of “counseling,” and Wright and his wife are suing McClanahan for disruptive (and allegedly unlawful) behaviors. 

The San Diego UT published an eloquent statement by one of Wright’s former students. In his essay, Joel West exposed Wright’s lawsuit against McClanahan as a sheer act of bullying. West didn’t say much about Wright’s victim, but I will. 

Amy McClanahan, I salute you! While I can’t endorse actions outside the law, I salute any survivor who refuses to be “nice” and “cooperative” and “ladylike.” Most victims never report at all; most survivors who report willingly take part in our own silencing. Afterward, we turn our anger inward, into depression, self-harm, addictions, and eating disorders. Amy McClanahan is doing none of these things. She refuses to be silenced, she refuses to act ladylike, and she’s aiming her anger right where it belongs. In my opinion, she’s treating Wright far better than he deserves. And by refusing to swallow her anger, she’s taking an important step toward her own healing.

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.


How Do You Reconcile Two Opposite Feelings?

Moments after revealing that NBC had fired Matt Lauer for “inappropriate sexual behavior,” Savannah Guthrie asked her “Today” co-host Hoda Kobt, “How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly?” 

Guthrie didn’t have an answer. I don’t either, but I can tell you stories of how my former churchmates tried to reconcile those opposing ideas. Most of those stories ended with “she made it up,” “he couldn’t have done those awful things,” “she’s not right in the head,” or all three. We all have stories like that. So yesterday, when I learned that a woman I used to trust had helped spread the rumors against me, I chalked it up to “same ol’ same ol’.” 

But yesterday I added a new kind of story. Walking to a meeting in a different part of town, I unexpectedly ran into a former churchmate. I had enjoyed working with this man on several projects, and I still hold him in high regard. I greeted him; we spoke briefly. My meeting had already begun, so I couldn’t linger in conversation. I knew I had caught him off guard, so I sent him an email this morning. I said I was glad to have seen him; I offered congratulations on happy events in his life. 

Keep in mind that this man had been close to my offender. He could have dismissed me with a cursory “great to see you too,” or he could have ignored my email altogether. 

But that’s not what he did.

Instead, he thanked me for the work I am doing on this issue. He wrote, “You are helping to make the world a bit more just and a bit more safe for our girls and millions of others. And I can only imagine the price you have paid and the pain you have endured along the way.” He closed his email with a picture of his children and these words: “On their behalf, thank you.”

How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they’ve behaved badly? It seems to me that this man has found the finest path. He didn’t try to choose between me and my offender. He didn’t trash one of us to show loyalty to the other. I have no idea how he would be with my offender, but in my presence, he showed respect and compassion. He spoke of justice and a safer church. I can think of no finer reconciliation.

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. 

Books for the Journey

Dear readers,

Four years ago I posted a list of books I’d found helpful in the journey of healing. I still have most of those titles, but I’m ready to let them go. If you are still struggling to understand what happened to you, or struggling with any aspect of healing, take a look at my reading list. Send me an email with your address and the title of the book you’d like to have (you may want to add a second choice just in case), and I’ll put it in the mail as a gift for your healing journey. 

In solidarity,


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. 

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: