I’m in conversation with a survivor who has just reported her abusive minister. This brave woman wakes every morning to the familiar chill of fear. She pushes all day through the thick muck of depression, and is eaten up worrying about the strain on her family and her marriage. She asked me this week, “After you reported, was there a time that you began to feel better?”
The answer, of course, is Yes. There have been many of those times in the five-plus years since I reported “Pastor Kevin.” Two weeks after I left my church, two weeks before I filed my complaint, I suddenly realized I never had to deal with Kevin again. I never had to sit in his office and hear his smooth lies; I never had to hear him preach; I never had to be in the same room with him ever, ever again. No matter what hell lay ahead, I was finally free of the most dangerous man I had ever known.
In the first year after I reported, I found the courage to join a new church. That didn’t make me feel better right away; in fact I felt terrified for the first year. But little by little, I found friends whom I could trust. I let a whole year pass before I joined my first committee. Since then, I’ve been entrusted with leadership roles and even with a chance to preach a guest sermon. “Being useful” has been important to my growth, but that first quiet year of healing was vital.
In the second year, my former church made me whole financially. At the time I filed my complaint, my bishop had offered to pay for counseling. I declined, not realizing how profoundly harmed I was. When I finally had to enter treatment for anorexia, I realized I needed to accept the bishop’s offer. I retained an attorney not to “sue the church” as some feared, but to negotiate a settlement that would help me restore my health. Besides financial restitution, I also asked for specific actions that would ensure a safer church. Our negotiations took nearly a year, but the church agreed to most of my requests. It was another big step forward in healing.
In the third year, the bishop invited Marie Fortune to speak to clergy and laypeople. I learned about this event completely by accident, but thank God I learned in time to attend. That day, I heard Marie tell the bishop and a room full of priests that clergy misconduct should always be disclosed. The same year, Pastor Kevin moved to a church in a different city (good riddance!), and I led a major campaign in my city on a social justice issue. I never could have done this before. Sorrow and healing had made me stronger — but I still hadn’t shared my story outside my small “circle of trust.”
In the fourth year, I finally began to speak. In the space of a few days in May of 2013, I “came out” as a survivor of CSM to my church council, to several dozen local pastors and chaplains from my new denomination, and to a nationwide gathering of clergy at a FaithTrust Institute training. As I sat in the airport waiting for my flight home, I drafted the first post for this blog. Through my blog, I’ve met women and men who share their stories with immense courage, putting themselves at risk of retribution and retraumatization. They do this not to heal themselves but to protect others. They have inspired me more than words can express.
In the fifth year, two things happened. First, my bishop got irritated by a post on my blog. He sent a note through our attorneys asking me to “bring this whole episode to a close.” I responded with a series of essays on Marie Fortune’s Elements of Justice-Making. Writing these essays, my voice grew stronger, and I began reaching many more people. The second great event: I learned of a complaint against another priest at my former church. I reached out to the complainant in a blog post. She found my words and graciously invited me into her journey, and that led me back to my former church. At an unforgettable meeting, the bishop courageously faced an angry congregation, explaining that their beloved “Pastor X” would not be coming back. He protected the survivor and spoke with compassion about the harm she had suffered. The justice he gave to this woman, I felt as a gift to me as well. Her experience has changed the way I see my former bishop. His actions are helping her heal, and I am grateful.
I’m now in the sixth year of healing. I’ve slowed my pace in the sacred task of advocacy; I’m now tending to family issues that I ignored far too long. But as I step back, I see others stepping forward. Some of the survivors whom I met on this journey have become powerful advocates for change in the church. And Baylor University, who published their landmark study on clergy sexual misconduct in 2009, is now studying how churches respond. Adult women survivors, you still have time to take part in this confidential, anonymous survey. You can find the invitation here.
In all these moments of “feeling better,” did I ever feel fear and grief? Did I ever despair of getting better? Of course. Healing from clergy sexual abuse is a long and difficult journey. I moved forward with strength when I could; I rested when I couldn’t move forward; I sought support from friends at every stage. This journey has changed me. I am not the person I was before. My faith is deeper. I know myself better than I did. I am stronger, I am braver, I am more resilient than I was.
And so, dear friend, will you be. And whether you share your story with many people, or only with your family and your church leaders, know this: your voice will make a difference. It is already making a difference.