Clergy sexual misconduct: one survivor's voice

Archive for the ‘Surviving & Healing’ Category

Final reflections

I’m walking away from this work. It’s not that the work is finished; the church is still unsafe for vulnerable people. Whether the church knows it or not, they need the voices of survivors more than ever. Thankfully many survivors are now speaking their truth. When one of us needs to stop, another survivor steps in to run the next leg of the race. I’ve worked alongside some of today’s most effective victims and survivors. I no longer have any hope in church (I don’t belong to any church and likely never will again), but I have hope in the leaders I’ve met. If there’s any hope for the church at all, it’s because of these good people.

With love and thanks to all who have supported me in five years of writing.

 

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. 

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

Reporting Your Abuser? How to Survive the Process

I thought the nightmares were behind me, but I had another one last week. I dreamed that a counselor had violated my sexual boundaries in a way that he could deny and I could never prove. I moved through that dream in a state of frozen fear. I knew I should file a complaint, but I also knew what would happen: I’d be called liar, seductress, madwoman, or all three. In despair I asked, “Again?”

Of all the stages in the process of clergy sexual abuse, this one may be the most grueling. Even if the abuse has ended, we still live with a terrible secret. Often, the people we count on for support (our families, our friends at church) are threatened by our story. Instead of comforting us, they blame us, or they tell us to hush up, move on, and “forgive.”

It’s a wonder any of us finds the courage to speak the truth.

For my readers who are about to take this step, I offer my prayers, my gratitude and admiration, and a few lessons from my experience. I learned some of these lessons the hard way; perhaps you won’t have to.

1. When you meet with your church’s intake officer, bring a friend or spouse for support. Their presence will give you strength, and they’ll remember details that you miss. Ask them for a ride: you may be too emotionally charged to drive safely before or after the meeting.

2. Remember that the abuse was NOT YOUR FAULT, even if you believe you gave consent. My bishop said these words almost as soon as I walked into his office. I hope you hear the same words from your church. Even if you don’t, know that these words are true. The abuse was absolutely, positively not your fault.

3. Prepare a written statement, but don’t bring it to the meeting. Writing the statement will help you tell your story more clearly. During the meeting, you may get a better understanding of what information the church needs. By waiting until after the meeting, you’ll have a chance to expand and clarify your statement before submitting it.

4. Ask your church officer for a copy of the policy and procedures they’ll be following. Ask how long the process will take. Ask what will happen next, and when. Ask about the range of possible outcomes. Ask how the church will keep you informed. Ask whom you should contact if you have questions.

5. You will need support while the church investigates your complaint. Ask the church to refer you to a counselor right away. Even during a brief investigation, the stress can take a toll on your health. My church’s investigation took only two months, but it was enough time for a borderline eating disorder to flare out of control, requiring months of expensive treatment. Getting support now could protect you from a life-threatening crisis.

6. Debrief with your support person as soon as the meeting is over. Ask them to stay with you, calm you, and help you understand what was said in the meeting. Ask them if you can call them in a few days (or sooner) to talk about it again. Let them know how grateful you are for their support, now and in the months ahead.

7. Prepare for a time of painful and unsettled emotions. The church will respond imperfectly, your offender may try to discredit you, cherished friends may turn against you. I wish I could offer words that could ease this pain. All I have is this: speaking the truth will eventually bring healing and growth beyond what you can imagine today. But meanwhile you need to survive this painful experience. Build good habits of self-care: eat well, attend to health concerns, and be gentle and patient with yourself. Now is the time to reach out to friends whom you trust. Don’t isolate — connect. It may save your life.

To readers who have already survived this process: I hope you’ll share your wisdom in the comments.

To all readers: please lift a prayer for those who are about to embark on this journey.

A Great Victory for One Survivor

“Ocian in view! O! The joy!”
— journal of William Clark, on reaching the mouth of the Columbia River.

On a cold November day in 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark rejoiced to see the Pacific “Ocian.” After eighteen months and nearly four thousand miles of hard travel through uncharted territory, this was a great victory. The Corps of Discovery had failed in their primary goal — discovering a shipping passage across the continent — and they still had a cold wet winter and year’s return journey ahead of them. Even so, there’s no doubt that their expedition’s greatest day was November 7, 1805. The U.S. Mint even created a nickel to commemorate the moment.

Every long journey has these buoyant moments. No matter how discouraged and fatigued we are, journeyers get new courage from the miracles and victories along the way. Even with all the new stories of clergy abuse and institutional silencing, I’m constantly encouraged by the small triumphs in the lives of my fellow survivors, and by the support of our allies.

And last week, one survivor accomplished something so great that I feel like Captain Clark. “O! The joy!”

***

Last summer, “Anonymous Girl” filed a complaint against the United Methodist minister who led a service trip for youth groups in his region. A week later, her bishop sent her an email: “Over the weekend, Rev. ____ submitted his clergy orders to my office. This means that he has resigned as a clergy person.”

“Just like that,” reflected Anonymous Girl, “in a week’s time the process was over. It happened quickly and I got what I wanted: this person will not work in a ministerial role in the United Methodist Church with vulnerable populations.”

But it wasn’t over. The hard work of healing had only begun.  Anonymous Girl spent months struggling with emotional pain and with questions about her own role in the abuse. The abuse had not been her fault, but like most survivors she felt she must have done something to cause it. Severely traumatized, she spent most of the winter actively planning to end her life. What was it that gave her the strength to stay? Was it when she found out that a local Methodist pastor had invited her defrocked abuser to lead a Bible study in his church? Did she decide to stay so she could finish what she had set out to do — to keep vulnerable people safe from the man who had exploited and abused her?

Whatever the reason, the world is a safer place because Anonymous Girl is here. A few weeks ago, she was stunned to learn that her abuser would lead the same service project again. Even worse, she learned that several churches had already signed up. Did she feel angry and betrayed? You bet. And did she fight back? Yes, she did. She began by emailing the UMC’s General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. The previous head of the GCSRW had helped Anonymous Girl with her original complaint, but she had never met the new leader. So she had to summon up the courage to tell her story one more time.

After a week, she hadn’t heard back, but she didn’t give up. She sent a stronger letter. This time, the GCSRW reached out to Anonymous Girl’s bishop. The bishop was also slow to respond — and again, Anonymous Girl didn’t give up. She sent the bishop an articulate, respectful email to let him know that at the end of June, she would send a letter to every youth minister in the Conference. She would attach not only the evidence of her own abuse, but the letter the bishop had sent to her, sharing the fact her abuser was no longer a UMC minister.

Finally, the bishop broke his official silence. He sent a letter to every UMC pastor whose church had signed up for the service project. He told them that the leader of the project “admitted to having an inappropriate relationship with a young person” who participated in the project. While I don’t like the language — the bishop should have said, “he admitted to sexually abusing a young person” — I like the results. After the bishop sent his letter, Anonymous Girl’s abuser withdrew his offer to lead the service project. By insisting on justice, and speaking up with courage and resolve, Anonymous Girl has made all the youth in her Conference safer.

Anonymous Girl has discovered another truth: her abuser may not have cared about the project after all. You see, he didn’t just step away from the project. He cancelled it altogether. He seems to have seen this service project only as a way to get access to vulnerable youth. If he cared about the project, she writes, “he would have stepped down and allowed it to continue without him. He could have helped someone else take the leadership role.” But she also knows: whatever the value of the project to the youth and the community, it carried too high a cost. She rejoices that the project was cancelled “not because I want to see the project fail, but… because I know the man who hurt me will not be given the option to hurt other youth in the same way.”

This kind of victory is rare. For every triumph of justice against clergy sexual abuse, we hear dozens of tales of abuse, silencing, and victim-blaming. With near-daily bad news, it’s easy to lose hope. But then this amazing thing happens. Against all odds, a solitary victim, still struggling with the trauma of abuse, speaks with so much power and clarity that the whole church hears. A bishop finds his voice. A predator loses access to victims. A whole group of young people will not be this man’s victims.

And every survivor who hears this news stands up a little taller. Anonymous Girl’s victory is a victory for all of us.

Why We Tell Our Stories

Recently, my former bishop asked why I need to keep telling my story. His office has already done a lot to support my healing. He made sure my former church had windows in the office doors; he beefed up the diocese’s online resources on sexual misconduct; and he now asks all parishes to post a quarterly “how to report” notice. And of course, he secured the resources I needed for medical treatment and therapy. For these gifts, I am grateful, and I wish I could say they had healed me. They have certainly helped. I wanted the church to be safer, and it is. I needed medical treatment, and the church’s funds made that possible. I am healthier, stronger, and more whole than I have ever been, and I owe my healing at least partly to the bishop’s efforts.

And yet, that doesn’t change my need to tell my story. When we experience trauma, that is how some of us heal. We tell our stories again and again, to many people, in many ways.

What happens when we tell our stories?

We free ourselves from traumatic memories. Writer Penelope Trunk was a block away from the World Trade Center when the towers fell. Stepping outside her building, she nearly suffocated in dust, debris, and the crush of the crowd. In the moment, she writes, “You have to turn off all your emotions to get yourself through it. After the fact, in order to stop having nightmares and panic attacks, you have to experience the emotions you missed.” She told her story again and again, so often that her family got sick of hearing it. But she knew she needed to keep telling it.

We reach an understanding we can live with. Over time, Trunk learned to reframe the experience. In the early weeks, she kicked herself for staying at the scene too long, for standing too close to the falling tower, for not trying to help others. But by telling her story again and again, she learned to focus on the good luck of surviving and the blessing of living through a moment “where I thought I was going to die and saw exactly what I cared about in my life.”

We shed the shame that was never ours to begin with.  In healing from clergy sexual misconduct, survivor “K” chronicles her journey from shame to strength. Last August, she wrote in remorse, “I feel terrible that I ended his career.” Five months and several thousand words later, she could write, “What happened was a conscious decision by a man who knew the rules and broke them anyway and used me for his own purposes when I was in a fragile state.”

We defend ourselves against harmful lies. I made an effort to do this here. Erik Campano did it here. It’s unlikely either of us changed a single mind by laying out the facts. Communal myths tend to inoculate people against the truth. But for me, and for Erik, telling our stories lightened the sense of injustice.

We connect. At my former church, I kept people at a distance to protect my dangerous secret. After I left, I was too traumatized to trust even my family. At my new church, it was months before I felt safe talking to anyone. In isolation, my fears grew enormous and I slid into a dangerous mental illness. Only by telling my story — first to the women in my treatment group, then to a trusted soul at my new church — did I begin to heal. Humans are communal creatures. Force us into isolation, including the isolation of forced silence, and we will wither and die.

We give courage to other survivors. It was Jan Tuin’s story that helped me put a name to my experience. Samantha Nelson’s story helped me find my voice as a survivor. These two brave women let me know that I wasn’t alone, and that I wasn’t to blame for my pastor’s behavior. Now, when I tell my story, I help other survivors see that they aren’t alone. A few have contacted me through my blog, and now we give courage to each other.

We claim our voices. Last spring, I attended the Sexual Ethics training for clergy in my region. When I introduced myself, I gave my name and said, “I’m a survivor of a breach of sexual boundaries in a church setting, and I’m here because I feel called to work for safer churches.” This was the first time I had ever stood up publicly as a survivor. Two days later, I did the same in a three-day training for church leaders from all over the country. Two days after that, I started this blog. I now have a voice, and that has helped me restore my sense of self.

We “bring to light the things now hidden in darkness” (1 Corinthians 4:5). When a minister crosses sexual boundaries, the church needs to know. This is true even if the offense wasn’t physical, and even if only one victim complains. Mark Laaser, founder of Faithful and True, told me, “The congregation absolutely needs to be told. That’s a moral imperative. Otherwise you’re screwing with their minds.” Marie Fortune made this truth the central point of her November 2012 lecture at Vanderbilt Divinity School, “Wolves in Shepherds’ Clothing.” When the church remains silent, the victim carries this moral burden forward. We tell our stories to bring the hidden things to light.

We answer the question, “Who am I now?” Trauma reshapes us irreversibly. Anyone who thinks we can “bring this whole episode to a close” just doesn’t get it: after trauma, there is no going back to normal. Because of my experience, I will never again be welcome in the congregation I once loved. I will never again be able to give full trust to a minister. I will never again belong to the church that baptized me. Even the trivial things are different: because the abuse triggered an eating disorder, I had to give up running, so I will never again be a runner. So, who am I now? Along with the losses, what have I gained? How is my life better today because of what I experienced? By telling my story, over and over, I uncover my new self.

In four years of telling my story, I’ve done a lot of healing. Recently, I had begun to wonder if I might be coming to an end of my need to talk about my experience. I’ve made sense of the most painful memories that involve my former pastor. I’ve finished grieving the shattered friendships. I understand the community dynamics that fueled my ostracism. I’ve found my voice through writing. I’m beginning to understand why institutions silence whistleblowers — and I had even begun to feel that the church was honoring my voice. I thought the institutional silencing was behind me.

Now, hearing from my bishop, I feel the hand of silence closing in around my mouth again. I’m not afraid what the church might do; I am afraid that I’ll absorb their fears and begin to stifle my own voice. So I push against silence in the only way I know how: with TRUTH, OUT LOUD. If my new fear awakens settled memories, I’ll tell those stories again. If the hand of silence tightens, I’ll fight against it harder. I’ll speak the truth louder.

I understand my bishop’s fear. When I tell my story, there’s a chance my readers will figure out who I’m talking about. I do my best to prevent that by masking the names and details. After all, we all make mistakes, and we all deserve a chance to learn our lesson and start again. But we need to understand: even when we start again, we leave a trail behind us. If we’ve given someone a painful story to tell, we have to let them tell it.

Telling my story has blessed me beyond all imagination. And so, I wish for my former pastor, and for all who carry the burden of a painful secret, the freedom to tell their stories — and the gift of unconditional love and support from the communities into which they speak.

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