My friend Sandy blogs about her son’s drug addiction. “If Joey were dying a slow death from cancer, the world would reach out with comfort,” she writes. Instead, the world see Joey’s addiction as a moral failure — his and his family’s. Sandy finds healing by raising her voice to end the stigma of addiction. She says, “We’ll know we’ve succeeded once comfort is baked into Bundt cakes, as it is for every other disease.” In the meantime, Sandy struggles in loneliness.
I have also known loneliness. During the hardest part of my journey — filing my complaint, waiting for justice that never came, watching friends pull away one by one — I was offering support to a friend whose daughter was battling leukemia. Whenever Gail posted updates on CarePages, dozens of us sent messages of love and support. I knitted a cap for Sydney’s little bald head, and then I taught her how to knit for herself. I wouldn’t have traded places with Gail for anything, but I envied her circle of care. I envied it bitterly! There is no CarePages for clergy sexual abuse. People respond to cancer with Bundt cakes, knitted caps, and love notes, but they respond to clergy sexual abuse by turning their backs and walking away. Almost every time I told my story, I lost another friend. Finally, I just stopped talking. While I was helping Gail survive her ordeal, I was trying to survive my own — but I couldn’t ask her for support. I couldn’t even tell her I was suffering.
Losing community may be the hardest part of the CSA victim’s journey. I expected to lose a few friends, but I was utterly stunned by what happened. In a matter of weeks, I turned from a respected church leader into a nonentity. In the silence from my beloved community, I felt as if I had drowned unseen in a crowded swimming pool. The water closed over my head, I was gone without a ripple, and no one even raised a cry. It was as if I had ceased to exist, or perhaps I had never existed at all. During these awful months, I had a weekly appointment with a therapist who worked near my old church. I parked several blocks from her office so I could walk along the boulevard on which my friends drove to work. Did they see me as they drove? Could they see my pain? I was pale as a cadaver, gaunt as a famine survivor, hollowed empty by trauma. Why would I want them to see me this way?
Honestly: all I wanted was to be seen at all. I wanted to know that I still existed. Maybe that’s why I joined a new church so quickly: I needed to be real again. Once there, I clung to every bit of evidence: an elderly man who greeted me by name every Sunday. Receiving my official church name tag. My face in the congregational photo (scroll down to see it here. I still look for myself every time I see that picture. It still thrills me to find my face in that beautiful crowd.) By now, the evidence is overwhelming: I am not alone any more. I am real, and I’m part of a very real community.
And yet I still sometimes find myself thinking like a refugee, living in constant protection against the next disaster. I skip church when I feel it becoming too important. I keep a distance from anyone who reminds me, no matter how remotely, of someone from my old church. I even look for reasons to back out of the women’s group that helped me find my soul again. But am I not just cheating myself? Cleaning out my files today, I found a little folded card with the emblem of my church on the outside. Inside, these words: “This is to certify that Catherine Thiemann has been received into full membership of Mission Hills United Church of Christ.” Full membership! Not “temporary asylum,” not “legal permanent visitor,” not “foster child until we change our minds.” I have been accepted into FULL MEMBERSHIP. I need to absorb this gift. It’s time to let the refugee go. It’s time to unpack, put the suitcase away, and move in.
We still have a long way to go before we erase the stigma of clergy sexual abuse. I still don’t talk about it with most of the people in my life, just as Sandy can’t talk about her son with most people. But one word at a time, we will end the stigma and elicit compassion for our fellow sufferers and survivors. And when we do, I’m going to enjoy that Bundt cake.