Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Posts tagged ‘consequences of clergy sexual abuse’

Can We Stay at Our Church After Abuse?

A few weeks ago, a survivor sent me this note: “Being at church is such a struggle for me lately. I keep wondering whether it’s even possible to heal successfully while remaining at the church where the offending behavior and aftermath occurred. Do you happen to know? Do women generally find they have to leave their churches, or do those that leave heal faster than those who don’t?”

I wish I knew the answer. I wish I could point and say, “If you go this way, you will definitely heal faster.” But healing from clergy sexual abuse is a long and painful journey, no matter how we do it. I have some preliminary data from the current Baylor study, which reveals that most women abandon church altogether after an experience of clergy sexual abuse, and that only a small minority of women stay in the same church. But I don’t have data on how these women have fared. Did their choice — old church, new church, or no church at all — affect their healing?

Some of us have no choice but to leave. Even while my church was investigating my complaint, a high-ranking priest on the bishop’s staff told me that my offender would likely be staying. “You might want to find a new parish,” she said. Heartbroken, but needing to belong somewhere, I chose a different church in the same diocese. There, I thought I’d be safe from the vicious gossip. Then one Sunday, a retired priest — with whom I’d had a friendly connection — blatantly shunned me during the passing of the peace. After this, I left the denomination altogether. It took several months to feel at home in my new church, which has a very different style of worship, and it took me several years to feel fully welcomed and safe. But at my new church, I have healed. If I’d tried to stay at my old church, the ongoing trauma might have done me in.

Fellow survivors, what is your experience? Did you stay in the same church? Was your offender gone, or was he/she still there? Did the congregation know your role, or did you keep your identity hidden? Did you move to a different church? Did you leave church altogether? Do you feel you made the right decision? Is there anything you regret? Do you have any wisdom for survivors who are now facing this choice?

Thank you for anything you can share. Your story may offer a key to healing for a fellow survivor.

Clergy Sexual Abuse and Your Marriage

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Which came first, the seductions of a predatory minister or the victim’s fractured marriage?

My husband and I separated last month. We’re still married, we’re getting along, we’re not seeing other people, we’re parenting cooperatively and we’re supporting each other as well as we can. We have family dinner once a week. We touch base every day, even if it’s only about logistics. For a separated couple, we’re on very good terms. But we are not together, and it’s not clear whether we’ll ever be together again. We’re giving it a year before we make any decisions.

What role did clergy sexual abuse play in this breach?

“Pastor Kevin” didn’t cause the tension in my marriage, but he definitely noticed it. How could he miss the pretty-ish woman sitting alone in the second pew and wiping tears during every Sunday service? I felt invisible in that big congregation; now I understand that my distress made me very visible and interesting to my pastor. I kept my distance out of sheer respect — he was the powerful leader of one of my city’s most important congregations — but eventually (and unwittingly), I gave him an opening when I confided my spiritual struggles after a Sunday service. At his invitation, we began to meet. A year and a dozen “pastoral counseling” sessions later, during a particularly stressful time in my marriage, I ran into my pastor outside the church office. He looked at my face and knew something was wrong. He asked me, “What’s the trouble?”

I started to answer, then stopped. Did I really want to tell another man about my troubled marriage? It didn’t feel right to me — but he pushed right past that boundary. As I hesitated, he prompted me for an answer: “File under…”

“Marriage,” I finally responded.

“Aaaah,” he sighed. “I’ve seen that coming. Why don’t you make an appointment to see me.”

Thus began the escalation. At our next meeting, Pastor Kevin encouraged me to talk about the pain and fear and loneliness I felt at home. With a predatory clergyman, there was only one way this road could go.

So which came first? Did the tensions in my marriage make me more interesting to my pastor? Yes.

Did my pastor’s attentions make more tension in my marriage? Most definitely yes.

My husband has always been leery of organized religion. Twelve years into our relationship, when I returned to my Christian faith, I set off a storm whose waves have never really settled. By the time I met Pastor Kevin, “religion” was well-established as a conversational minefield between us. Unlike me, my husband never trusted Kevin. From the first time they met, my husband saw him as a self-centered opportunist. Later, when Kevin was actively grooming me toward seduction, my husband was at his wits’ end. But what could he say? He felt if he tried to warn me against my pastor, I would hear it as an attack on my faith — and he may have been right. All he could do was watch the train wreck happen, and once it happened he was suddenly living with a traumatized woman. He had no idea how to deal with my frantic grief and fear, or my eating disorder spinning out of control, or the new shape of my body once I started treatment. In short: while I was still trying to recover from the train wreck at church, I now had a wreck at home too. Our marriage never really recovered from those awful months. We got back on our feet as a couple, but trust had been shattered.

And now we are living apart.

If I had never met Pastor Kevin, would I still be living with my husband? Or were our problems so deeply entrenched that the church crisis was only the last straw? I will never know.

I want to be clear: I am not saying that my pastor ruined my marriage. He didn’t do us any favors, but I was aware of being unhappy long before I met him. So why am I talking about my marriage on these pages? Because I know I’m not the only survivor with whose marriage has been affected by clergy sexual abuse. Some survivor couples use the pain to build stronger marriages, but I suspect that most of us don’t. Most of us (and I’m including our spouses) don’t know how. By the time we understand our own pain, we’ve caused too much pain for our partners.

When I write a story of pain, I try to include a note of hope. If there’s hope in this story, it’s this: survivors know how to get through hard times. Compared to the multiple traumas of my pastor’s abuse of power, the church’s attempt to silence me, and the total loss of community through ostracism, marital separation is a cakewalk. I’m not saying it’s easy, only that it’s easier than what I’ve already been through. And that I know how to live with sadness and uncertainty while my husband and I walk through this year, waiting and hoping for the right answer to emerge.

Theology, Schmeology. What About Christianity?

The Christian Century is getting serious about clergy sexual misconduct, or so it would seem from their current cover article, “Theology and misconduct.” It covers the story of John Howard Yoder, the legendary Mennonite theologian and sexual abuser. He was investigated for abuses he committed in the 1980s and 1990s; he died in 1997. Fifteen years later, two academic authors (Ruth Krall of Goshen College and Barbra Graber of Eastern Mennonite University) published articles about Yoder’s abuse. Finally last year, the Mennonite Church USA formed a committee to study Yoder’s abuse and the church’s response.

John Howard Yoder is best known for his writings on Christian pacifism. He opposed not only physical violence but anything that violates “the dignity or integrity of some being.” He wrote, “As soon as either verbal abuse or bodily coercion moves beyond that border line of loving enhancement of the dignity of persons, we are being violent.” Yet he spent years violating the dignity of his victims at a Mennonite seminary, then twisting his own writings to keep leaders from holding him accountable.

The authors ask, “Do Yoder’s violations of his own theological claims undermine the content of his theology? Do his sins disqualify him from the major role he has played in modern Christian thought?” A few paragraphs later they answer their own question. No, they say: “Because God providentially uses the fallen for good.”

So what? I don’t care whether Christians still read Yoder’s work; I want to know the church did for his victims.

In the 1980s, many of Yoder’s victims told their stories to Marlin Miller, the president of the seminary where the abuse took place. Eventually Miller had a “substantial collection of files,” but Yoder managed to drag the proceedings on for years. One victim, Carolyn Holderread Heggen, tried to organize a victims’ movement, but Miller refused to put her in contact with the others, citing “confidentiality.” (See Marie Fortune’s insightful distinction between confidentiality and secrecy). Heggen eventually prevailed with the support of another Mennonite leader, and her “Dear Sisters” letter brought the group together. They gathered for two days, created a composite story, and outlined eight steps they wanted the church to take. Together they read their story aloud to a group of Mennonite leaders, asked them “Do you believe us?” and requested their eight reforms.

What eight steps did Yoder’s victims request? How did the leaders respond? Unfortunately, we will never know. The CC article ends with the leaders offering a eucharist-like dinner of soup and bread to the gathered survivors. The final sentence, from Heggen’s testimony: “They served us, and it felt like a holy time of communion together.”

That’s very touching and sweet. It’s a lovely liturgy. But again, so what? Theology, schmeology; liturgy, schmiturgy. What about the practice of Christianity? If we aren’t working to create justice and wholeness for the real people the church has harmed, what good are our ideas and symbols?

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.

New Leadership at Vanderbilt Divinity School

Vanderbilt has a new dean of divinity! The Rev. Dr. Emilie M. Townes is only the second woman ever to hold this position. She will be the first African-American dean at the Vanderbilt Divinity School, the first lesbian, and almost certainly the first dean to have gotten a whole set of encyclopedias thrown out of her elementary school library. Two years into her goal of reading every book in the library, Emilie Townes came to the “S” volume of the encyclopedia. In the entry on slavery, she found “cartoonish and offensive caricatures of black folk eating watermelon. Stereotypes of smiling black folk working in the field with tattered clothes. A monstrous cavalcade of sambos and mammies and pickaninnies.” Shocked nearly speechless, 10-year-old Emilie brought the book to her teacher and the librarian. “All I could do was open the page and say, ‘This is not right.’ ”

The educators agreed. They threw out the offending encyclopedias even before the new set arrived, and Emilie Townes has been changing the world ever since. In her first address as dean, Townes asked the Vanderbilt audience, “How many versions of that ‘S’ volume do we have in our academic disciplines? In our churches? In our communities?”

Indeed! If Protestant Christian seminaries produced an encyclopedia, what would we find in the entry on clergy sexual abuse?
* Would the entry focus on the abuse of children in the Roman Catholic tradition, and say (like the Pharisee in Luke’s gospel), “Thank God we are not like that”?
* Would it speak of “affairs” between pastors and their congregants, staff, or junior clergy?
* Would it paint victims as sexually voracious or mentally unstable seductresses?
* Would it shrug off the damage in victims’ lives as the inevitable result of their own weakness?
* Would it warn future pastors to protect themselves against false reports by vengeful congregants?

Or would it tell the truth?
Clergy sexual abuse happens in every faith tradition.
* Experts estimate that 95% of clergy sexual abuse victims are adult or teen women.
* The landmark Baylor study of 2009 showed that nearly 1 in 30 churchgoing women (or seven survivors in an average-sized congregation) have endured sexual advances from clergy as adults.
* When a pastor initiates or encourages a sexual connection with a congregant, it is never an affair. It is abuse. The clergy/lay power differential makes meaningful consent impossible.
* Congregants may develop crushes on their pastors, but pastors need to remember that it’s not about their attractiveness as men (or women). It is about their power as clergy, their perceived spiritual superiority, and their apparent willingness to listen and care.
* Clergy sexual abuse causes profound emotional and spiritual damage even to victims who start out healthy and strong. Worse, predatory pastors target the already wounded. Some victims never recover. Every single survivor is a living, breathing miracle.
* Of course each claim should be investigated, but false claims are rare almost to nonexistence. As I shared here, a pastor is more likely to be struck by lightning than to be falsely accused of clergy sexual abuse.

Emilie Townes challenged her audience. “How many versions of that ‘S’ volume do we have?” she asked. “And how can I and others model what my teachers did, and provide others with larger and more accurate visions of who we are, and how we can be, in the household of God?”

Vanderbilt Divinity School is on the right track. Last fall, the school invited the Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune, founder of the FaithTrust Institute, to deliver the Carpenter Lecture, “Wolves in Shepherds’ Clothing: The Institutional Crisis of Clergy Sexual Abuse.” When religious institutions invite Marie Fortune to speak, it is always a good sign: she is fearless. She pulls no punches. I hope that Emilie Townes will continue to include strong voices like hers in the dialog at Vanderbilt. Even more important, I hope she will include the voices of survivors.

I have great hope for Emilie Townes. She has already spoken clearly on this topic. Vanderbilt Divinity School and its partner, The School of Theology at Sewanee, together graduate more than 100 new Masters of Divinity every year. These men and women will eventually lead churches and judicatories. They will have the power to harm or to help their congregants, to hide behind institutional self-protection or to challenge it boldly, to silence the voices of victims or to learn from them and heal the church.

Dear Rev. Townes: the community of survivors are looking to you with hope. Will you grab these future leaders by the ears, look them in the eyes, and demand that they take seriously their call as caretakers and protectors of God’s flock? Will you give them a larger vision for what the Church can be? Will you blaze a trail of leadership that invites all divinity deans to follow?

We are looking to you with hope.

Finding Strength, Hope and Healing

For some survivors, writing is how we heal. But while I was keeping my pastor’s dark secret, writing was almost impossible. How can I describe the weight of holding that secret? I don’t even have the courage to try right now; it was a terrifying, sickening, and confusing time that lasted far too long. I will just say that the secret permeated almost every waking thought for years. I had the terrible duty to guard my pastor’s reputation and honor, and the only way I could do it was through silence. But the secret wanted OUT. If I tried to write, the terrible secret found its way into almost line. To protect the secret, my writing turned to mud (dense, obtuse, opaque) and then dried up altogether. Years after I left my church, I finally found the courage to begin talking. Once I did, words started flowing like water.

It is the rare survivor who has the courage to write while she is still facing her demons. Even more rare: a survivor who writes so fearlessly that she almost pulls you into her world, even while she is still facing the horrors of victim-blaming and ostracism. Survivor “K” reported her pastor just this summer. He left ordained ministry only weeks ago. And yet she has the clarity of mind to write — and not merely a catalog of events. She shares with stunning transparency her struggles with trust and betrayal, loss and grief, despair and hope, anger, faith and emptiness.

K has given me permission to share her blog. As you read, please consider these suggestions and warnings:
* Start at the beginning. Scroll to the earliest post and read your way forward. The newer reflections will make most sense if you know the facts of K’s story.
* Trigger warning: the Aug 19 post titled “How My Experience with Clergy Sexual Misconduct Started” contains an account of sexual abuse.
* Trigger warning: the Sept 5 post titled “Don’t Call Me Brave” contains a description of self-harm.

K writes about abuse and betrayal, but she also writes about honor, compassion, and courage — and strength, hope, and healing. I’m honored to share her words here.

Profile in Courage: Erik Campano

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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