Clergy sexual misconduct: one survivor's voice

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.

The United Church of Christ (UCC) and the United Church of Canada may soon be in full communion. What does this mean, and why is it good news for the UCC?

When two churches are in full communion, they agree on essential doctrines. They recognize one another’s clergy as valid ordained ministers within both traditions. The leaders form a closer relationship. The churches learn from one another. Ideally, the two churches strengthen each other’s weaknesses. If the UCC and the United Church of Canada come into full communion, it will be good news especially for victims of clergy sexual abuse in the UCC. The Canadian church’s policy for responding to abuse stands head and shoulders over the policies in any church in the U.S.

What makes the United Church of Canada’s policy so strong?

1. It’s easy to find. Anyone can search “United Church of Canada sexual abuse” or similar terms and locate the church’s Sexual Abuse Prevention and Response Policy and Procedures manual.

2. It is grounded in theology; specifically in the church’s creed. For example, the creed calls the United Church of Canada to “seek justice.” The statement shows sexual abuse to be a justice issue, and it holds the church responsible for a just outcome.

3. The policy is clear, concrete, and rigorous. It clearly defines the behaviors that fall under the term “sexual abuse.” It clearly states who may file a complaint (victims, parents of minors, and people with first-hand knowledge). It clearly states that the church will not respond to anonymous complaints, and that allegations must be supported with clear and convincing evidence.

4. It distributes power so that no single person controls the process. It defines the roles of all involved in the process. It provides a step-by-step checklist for every person in every role. The manual spells out the process for handling complaints, and illustrates it with an easy-to-read flowchart.

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(Copyright © 2013, The United Church of Canada)

5. It gives special protection to legal minors. When the victim is a minor, the policy requires church officials to report suspected abuse to law enforcement first, and only to open a church investigation when it won’t interfere with the legal process.

6. It requires all church responders to read and understand the policy, attend a training, and be familiar with the local resources for victims (educational, therapeutic, legal, medical, etc).

7. It keeps the victim informed and supported at every step. She or he is given a copy of the policy and procedures at the very first meeting, along with specific resources for pastoral care or counseling support. When the investigation ends, she or he is given a copy of the investigator’s report. If the church wishes to resolve the case informally, church officials must first ask the victim for permission. (Oh, to have had this kind of support from my former church!)

Even with a strong, clearly articulated policy, responding to clergy misconduct is difficult at best. No doubt there have been and will continue to be bumps in the road for the United Church of Canada. But their policy gives responders a clear road map. Since I now make my home in the UCC, I am praying for full communion, and I’m praying that my church adopts this superb policy and process.

Yesterday, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago released several thousand documents on sexually abusive priests. The documents focus not on the abuse itself, but on the way bishops and cardinals systematically protected sexually abusive priests.

The Catholic Church gets most of the media on this subject, but they hardly have a monopoly. Clergy sexual abuse happens in all faith traditions, and so does institutional cover-up. Just as some congregations are led by serial predators, some dioceses (conferences, synods, districts, etc) are led by serial silencers. The church with which I’m most familiar — the Episcopal Church — seems every bit as committed to silence as the Catholic Church. I’ve spoken with several survivors of Episcopal clergy misconduct in the past several months. All of our offenders are still in active ministry. In none of our cases did the church disclose the truth to the affected congregation(s). And I don’t for a minute think the Episcopal Church is the only bad apple in the non-Catholic barrel.

In November of 2012, the Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune delivered a lecture at the Vanderbilt Divinity School titled “Wolves in Shepherds’ Clothing: The Institutional Crisis of Clergy Sexual Abuse.” In this talk, Fortune focused on the re-victimization that happens when church leaders cover up the truth about cases of clergy sexual abuse. “The default position of many institutions is to enforce silence and secrecy… in an effort to protect abusers and minimize scandal,” she says. “Yet the real scandal is the profound contradiction between the institutional response and the values, teachings, and precepts of the faith community.” Of victims and survivors, she says, “All they are asking is that we be true to our own stated values and precepts.”

And finally: “[Victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse] don’t expect perfection from their faith leaders. They accept our humanity, our foibles, our mistakes and even our misconduct, even when they suffer from it. What they cannot accept and do not deserve is incompetence, cover-up, corruption, blame, and betrayal by the institution that supposedly holds individual leaders accountable.”

Please take the time to watch this important talk and share it with your church leaders. The lecture itself is about 35 minutes long, and worth every minute.

 

The Survivor’s Bookshelf

It was a book that opened my eyes to what my pastor was doing. On a three-day spiritual retreat five years ago, I was too agitated to sleep. I wrapped myself in my robe, stepped into the monastery hallway, and looked on the shelves for something to read. And there it was: Sex in the Forbidden Zone. I stayed up all night reading it and took eight pages of notes. By morning, I knew — and it still took almost two years for me to file a complaint. During those two years, and in the years since, I’ve done a lot of reading. Here are the books that have helped.

Books about clergy/congregant relationships:

Sex in the Forbidden Zone: When Men in Power — Therapists, Doctors, Clergy, Teachers, and Others — Betray Women’s Trust by Peter Rutter. Extraordinarily clear and helpful. Helped me understand why a genuine relationship with my abuser was categorically impossible. This book is out-of-print (as are many on this list), but you can get it cheap used.

At Personal Risk: Boundary Violations in Professional-Client Relationships by Marilyn Peterson. Peterson thoughtfully explores boundary violations from small to large, and shows that even the small ones can create a harmful breach of trust.

Sex and the Spiritual Teacher: Why It Happens, When It’s a Problem, and What We All Can Do by Scott Edelstein. Lively, witty discussion of this serious issue. Edelstein focuses on the Buddhist teacher/student model, and at times he seems to discount “mere” clergy/congregant abuse as something lesser. But as most survivors know, most abuse begins in a pastoral counseling setting, where intimacy and vulnerability are essential. I found this book excellent and affirming.

When Pastors Prey: Overcoming Clergy Sexual Abuse of Women, edited by Valli Boobal Batchelor. Published in April 2013, this book gathers essays from familiar U.S. leaders like Jimmy Carter, Diana Garland, Marie Fortune, Martin Weber, Pamela Cooper-White, and Samantha Nelson, along with an astounding collection of voices of survivors and advocates from Africa, Southeast Asia, Europe, and Australia. Clergy sexual abuse is a worldwide problem, and this book brings leaders together for a worldwide response.

Books about the experience of victims and survivors:

Is Nothing Sacred? The Story of a Pastor, the Women He Sexually Abused, and the Congregation He Nearly Destroyed by Marie Fortune. One of the earliest titles on this topic, this book is still the classic. Marie Fortune (through the FaithTrust Institute) is still working hard to make churches safer. Also recommended: Fortune’s Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited.

Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith Herman. The first two pages are worth the price of the book. “When traumatic events are of human design, those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between victim and perpetrator. It is morally impossible to remain neutral in this conflict.” Thankfully, this online excerpt helps us understand why the perpetrator always wins, even if we can’t afford to buy the book.

What About Her? A True Story of Clergy Abuse Survival by Beth van Dyke. Author Jan Tuin originally wrote under a pseudonym, but later felt called to work openly under her real name. Jan founded Tamar’s Voice, named for King Solomon’s daughter Tamar who was raped by a half-brother (2 Samuel 13) and then silenced (verse 20) by her family. Jan gave me invaluable support as I came to terms with my experience and pondered whether to report my pastor.

Forgiveness and Abuse: Jewish and Christian Reflections, by Marie Fortune and Joretta Marshall. Expensive even on Kindle ($40!), this book is worth going without Starbucks for a month. Of all the issues surrounding clergy sexual abuse, forgiveness is one of the most complicated and painful. This book explores Christian and Jewish understandings of forgiveness, and offers several paths toward greater peace.

The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships by Patrick Carnes. The author explains why clergy sexual abuse victims bond so intensely with our abusers.

Fighting the Good Fight: Healing and Advocacy after Clergy Sexual Assault by Carolyn Waterstradt. This book introduces terminology (“virgin, laborer, midwife”) that sheds new light on the process of healing. As spiritual virgins, our naiveté made us vulnerable to abuse. Afterward, we labor and give birth to our new selves. Some (the midwives) find healing by supporting other victims along the same path.

Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction by Susan Cheever. A frank look at the author’s own sexual addiction. This book helped me understand what might have motivated my pastor.

Hiding Behind the Collar by Catherine Britton Fairbanks. A raw, candid memoir of the author’s experience of emotional and spiritual abuse by an Episcopal priest, and the betrayal by the church hierarchy afterward. See a full review here.

Books about the church’s response (silencing, ostracism, denial)

Responding to Clergy Misconduct: A Handbook by the Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune et al, published by the FaithTrust Institute. An effective response to clergy sexual abuse will help the victim heal, help the congregation deal with the pastor’s betrayal, prevent abuse by holding offenders accountable, and protect the church’s resources. This book is an invaluable resource for judicatory leaders and church leaders, and it’s also great for survivors. It helped me understand exactly how my church added to my trauma in their response to my complaint. Clarity can be painful, but it ultimately moves us toward greater healing.

How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct by Dee Ann Miller. Miller focuses on the actions of her church when she reported an abusive missionary pastor. Her church took extraordinary measures to avoid dealing with the sexual predator in their midst. Miller and her husband were silenced and ostracized, an experience at least as traumatic as the abuse itself. Unfortunately, this pattern seems to be the norm. Most victims are silenced by our churches. As survivors, we find our voices.

Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power by C. Fred Alford. Remember all the movies about whistleblowers acclaimed as heroes? Erin Brockovich, Norma Rae, Silkwood… well, maybe not Silkwood. She died in a mysterious car crash while trying to expose inadequate safety measures at a nuclear plant. Silkwood illustrates Fred Alford’s point: most whistleblowers pay for truth with ruined lives. It’s not a cheerful book, but it helped me understand I wasn’t crazy, or alone.

The Watercooler Effect: A Psychologist Explores the Extraordinary Power of Rumors by Nicholas DiFonzo. Understanding the mechanism of shunning didn’t make it any less painful, but it made it easier to forgive, and to reach peace.

Understanding Clergy Misconduct in Religious Systems: Scapegoating, Family Secrets, and the Abuse of Power by Candace Benyei. I found this book challenging, but I confess I’m mostly ignorant about “family systems.” My bishop had used those words to justify ordering me not to contact leaders at my church, while allowing my abusive pastor to stay on the job and in the pulpit, so I thought I ought to do my homework. Now I think someone else should have done his.

Books to help the congregation:

Restoring the Soul of a Church: Healing Congregations Wounded by Clergy Sexual Misconduct edited by Nancy Hopkins and Mark Laaser. I found this book too painful to read at first; I had bought it thinking I could help my former church heal, and it turned out they didn’t want my help, or even want to heal. By the time I opened it a year later, I was ready to learn what clergy sexual misconduct does to a congregation, and how to make it whole again.

Shared Wisdom: Use of the Self in Pastoral Care and Counseling by Pamela Cooper-White. This book helped me distinguish between pastoral care (the minister’s normal response to emergencies in congregants’ lives) and pastoral counseling (ongoing therapeutic support). It is never a good idea for a pastor to offer counseling to his or her congregants. In fact, it’s a big red flag.

Resources on sexual harassment in the religious workplace:

Sexual Misconduct in the Church: Understanding how often it happens, why it happens, and what to do when it does. This 2008 collection is of limited value to survivors of pastoral sexual misconduct: the articles are brief, dated, and somewhat superficial. But it is a good resource for survivors of sexual harassment in a religious workplace. Female clergy who have experienced sexual harassment may also want to download the article Silent Sufferers, published by the Baylor University School of Social Work.

Thanks to blog readers for these great additions:

Understanding Misconduct Among Spiritual Leaders by The Hope of Survivors. This booklet provides an overview of pastoral sexual misconduct for victims and their spouses, youth, pastors and their spouses, church leaders, and congregants. This great resource is available in printed or PDF format.

When a Congregation is Betrayed: Responding to Clergy Misconduct, edited by Beth Ann Gaede. Thirty well-organized essays by contributors including Candace Benyei (author of Understanding Clergy Misconduct in Religious Systems) and Nancy Myer Hopkins (co-editor of Restoring the Soul of a Church.)

Betrayal of Trust: Confronting and Preventing Clergy Sexual Misconduct by Stanley J. Grenz and Roy D. Bell. This book helps churches respond sensitively to victims, and helps to prevent abuse through intelligent policies and procedures. At-risk clergy will find guidlines for establishing appropriate boundaries. The second edition includes a risk-determination questionnaire for pastors who may become abusers.

 

Erik’s Story

Thank God for survivors like Erik Campano, who had the foresight to organize hundreds of pieces of evidence supporting his complaint against a priest and her bishop. After talking with Erik and reviewing his account, I shared his story this afternoon with a few respected journalists. Here’s what I told them:

At the American Church in Paris, new Episcopalian Erik Campano survived a classic case of clergy sexual misconduct. He joined the church, caught the attention of an Episcopal priest-in-training, initially resisted her advances, gradually succumbed, and eventually agreed to a sexual relationship that he had to conceal from his friends at the church. Although he was flattered, Erik was also confused and fearful about being sexually involved with his minister.

Ginger Strickland’s bishop, Pierre Whalon, clearly considered her a protégée. As a candidate for bishop, he had asked Strickland to give his nomination speech. Unfortunately, Whalon placed the newly minted Yale M.Div. in a non-denominational church that had no sexual misconduct policy. When Strickland asked her supervising pastor (not an Episcopalian) if she could date a congregant, she got a green light. Against Episcopal Church protocols and against her seminary training, she went ahead.

And yet it was never a real relationship. Even before she was ordained, Mother Strickland’s power as Erik’s minister made it hard for him to say no, and therefore impossible for him to give meaningful consent. The stress led to serious health problems. Finally, Erik broke off the relationship and reported Strickland for misconduct, but to a bishop who was heavily invested in her success. Bishop Whalon took extraordinary measures to protect Strickland’s career. He misrepresented to Erik which office had jurisdiction to hear the case, he delayed forwarding Erik’s complaint to an Intake Officer for months, he ordained Strickland to the priesthood despite this serious unresolved disciplinary matter, he published in the New York Post his intention to discredit Erik’s story (and may have actually done so through attorney John Walsh), he failed to meet with Erik even once to hear his complaint, and he defamed Erik’s character in his October 2012 report to the Convocation of the Episcopal Churches in Europe.

It is this final action that I address in my letter to Bishop Katharine.

In Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman eloquently describes what the Episcopal Church may be doing to Erik Campano. “Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense,” writes Herman. “If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens. To this end, he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization. After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it on herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.”

A powerful institutional church seems to be working hard to silence its victims. And who are the church’s victims? With the Episcopal Church we have worshipped, served, and shared not only our spiritual hopes and fears but also our financial resources. We are, in fact, the church itself. Now we are silenced by the very power we helped to create.

Sometimes we are blinded by our own knowledge. I’ve spent so many years reading and writing about clergy sexual abuse that I sometimes forget how naïve I once was. Most people still live in that state of naiveté, unaware of the scope and danger of CSA. The scope is huge: more than three percent of churchgoing women have suffered sexual advances from clergy as adults. And the danger is huge: The Hope of Survivors lists consequences of CSA including depression, self-harm, eating disorders, PTSD, suicide attempts, impaired relationships, and loss of faith.

Before I became a victim, I knew none of this. I thought it was fine for unmarried pastors to date their unmarried congregants. If my pastor and I had both been single, we might have “dated” (meaning: his sexualization of our pastoral relationship might have escalated to the physical) — and it would have made for an even bigger nightmare.

Erik Campano survived this experience with a female minister, and he tells the story here. Sadder and wiser, Erik now writes with great power and clarity on this issue. I plan to share his superb article Eleven Reasons Why Pastors Should Never Date Their Parishioners with my friends and family who still live in that state of innocence. I hope they will understand my experience better, but even more, I hope they’ll join the growing number of churchgoers who are willing to “see something, say something.” An informed congregation can help keep clergy from crossing the line.

How I admire Erik Campano’s resilience! It took me years to be able to write about my experience, and he is sharing the horrors of his church’s response only months later. He has had to overcome the same stigma we all do, and more: if it’s difficult for a woman to come forward, it’s even harder for a man. And while I choose not to name my abuser in my writings, he holds his abuser, church and denomination publicly accountable. For that, I commend him.

You can read Erik’s interview with another survivor, Michele, at his blog, Accurate and Courageous Journalism of Religion.

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