Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Posts tagged ‘elements of justice-making’

The Role of Forgiveness & Reconciliation

What is the role of forgiveness in the church’s response to clergy sexual abuse? Why do some victims feel pressured to “forgive” and “move on” before they are ready? What does the church stand to gain — and what do they stand to lose – by putting forgiveness first?

For any faith community, these questions are important. For Christians, the questions can feel like a matter of spiritual life or death. Many Christians see forgiveness as the foundation of their religious faith. When Christians hear the words of Jesus – “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” and “If you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” – they wonder whether failure to forgive will exclude them from God’s grace.

Forgiveness is never easy after a serious violation; it can take years of struggle and prayer. Yet in the case of clergy sexual abuse, the church often translates Jesus’ challenging ideal into a kind of cheap grace, for reasons that have nothing to do with the real grace of God. Offenders may seek forgiveness so they can avoid the consequences of their behavior. Bishops and other leaders may wish to forgive so they won’t have to punish a colleague who may have also become a friend. Congregants may try to forgive so they don’t have to think ill of a beloved minister. If a victim feels an urge to forgive, it may be out of misplaced loyalty to her offender, or she may hold the desperate hope that quick forgiveness will lead to quick healing. If the church causes further harm while responding to her complaint, she may try to forgive them out of the same sense of loyalty and desire for healing.

These “gains” – offenders escaping justice, church leaders and congregants ducking hard questions – can inflict a devastating toll on the church. The push for quick forgiveness puts the victim at further risk and may put other vulnerable people at risk as well. When congregational or denominational leaders attempt to suppress an uncomfortable truth, they deny the wounded congregation a chance to heal. Secrecy and innuendo can lead to widespread distrust among the congregation: distrust of clergy, lay leaders, fellow congregants, and especially the victim. As a result, the congregation may shrink in attendance, giving, and community influence. The next pastor to serve this damaged community will likely fail and may become collateral damage as well, sickened by the stress of serving a congregation whose wounds were never tended.

After an instance of clergy sexual abuse, a rush to forgiveness causes vastly more harm than good. This is why many victims of clergy sexual abuse think of “forgiveness” as the real “F word.”

If not in forgiveness, then how should the church respond to clergy sexual abuse? First by seeking truth, administering justice, and seeking healing for all parties. Only then are questions of forgiveness and reconciliation appropriate.

Seek the Truth

The church, through the bishop and/or investigative body, must begin by seeking truth. In response to the alleged victim’s complaint, the alleged offender has a duty to provide a truthful response. But what offender would willingly admit, even to themselves, a truth that could end their careers? In Trauma and Recovery, Dr. Judith Herman writes,

“In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense. 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.”

To victims of clergy sexual abuse, these words describe a painfully familiar phenomenon. The church cannot simply take the accused minister at his or her word. They must vigorously and impartially investigate all reports of harmful behavior by clergy.

The congregation also needs the truth. In all circumstances, they need to know as soon as a complaint has been lodged against their minister, and as soon as the matter has been resolved. While the complaint is being investigated, the bishop should place the accused minister on administrative leave to prevent him from using the “same predictable apologies” to create an environment hostile to the complainant. It is rarely necessary to advise complainants to lie low; by this point, most are too traumatized to participate in congregational life.

Administer Justice

For the alleged offender, justice is straightforward, albeit rarely easy. The governing documents for most denominations (for example, the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church) spell out a detailed process and an equally detailed range of consequences for offenders. If an investigation confirms the facts of the complaint, consequences may include temporary leave, loss of position, lost of ordination credentials, or even – depending on the laws where the offence took place – criminal proceedings.

For the victim, justice is less clearly defined. Church laws governing response to clergy sexual abuse typically focus on outcomes for the accused minister; the church seems to forget that holding the offender accountable is only half the job. Yet the victim needs justice too. In Is Nothing Sacred: The Story of a Pastor, the Women He Sexually Abused, and the Congregation He Nearly Destroyed, the Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune describes the process of justice-making from the victim’s perspective:

  1. Truth-telling: Church leaders must seek truth and share it in a timely manner with the congregation and any other stakeholders, in a way that protects the victim’s identity and privacy.
  2. Acknowledging the violation. If the investigation confirms that the minister has harmed someone in his or her care, the church must name it abuse and condemn it as wrong.
  3. Compassion. The church must listen empathetically to the victim. Since institutions can’t truly “listen” (only people can), the church should appoint a supportive individual to this role.
  4. Protecting the vulnerable. The church must take steps to prevent further harm to the victim and to protect other individuals who may be at risk of harm.
  5. Accountability. The church must confront the offender and impose sanctions impartially, regardless of the offender’s status in the church or community.
  6. Restitution. The church can share the burden of responsibility for what has happened by offering tangible restitution, such as payment for therapy. The church can affirm the victim’s importance in the congregation – which is one of her most critical needs – through acts of symbolic restitution, such as liturgies of healing or of congregational penitence.
  7. Vindication. The victim needs to be openly cleared from any sense of blame or shame for what was done to her. Since blaming and shaming of victims often originate in the congregation, vindication should also happen in this context.

Few church communities achieve perfect justice in the face of injustice. But if the victim can see a genuine effort on the part of the church, “approximate justice” may be enough to allow healing to begin.

Heal All Parties

To support victims as they heal, the church should make a conscientious effort to enact all of the elements of the justice-making process. Unfortunately, “paying for therapy” is often the beginning and end of the church’s offer of resources. While money is important, it falls far short of what the victim needs for healing. Among her greatest losses is the support of friends in her church community. The church must make efforts to reconcile these broken relationships.

The congregation will need support to process their pastor’s betrayal of trust. Whether the pastor stays or leaves, the congregation has sustained a wound. As reluctant as churchgoers may be to talk about what happened, these conversations are essential for restoring the congregation’s health. The church should identify – and pay for – the resources to help the congregation through this challenging process.

The offender and their family may need healing, but their needs should never take precedence over those of the primary and secondary victims, including the congregation.

Forgiveness: The Choice Belongs to the Victim

It can take years for a victim of clergy sexual abuse to come to terms with what was done to her, and even longer to understand what forgiveness would mean in the context of her experience. Each victim has a unique experience of violation as well as a unique life history, personality, set of relationships, and resources for healing. Each victim will have a unique path to recovery from the trauma of clergy sexual abuse. Whether, when, and how to forgive are decisions that belong entirely to the victim. Church leaders and congregants do not need to know whether the victim has forgiven her offender, and they have no right to suggest that she should.

A better question for the church to ask would be, “Can you forgive us?” Victims consistently report that the church’s response causes a great deal more damage than the original abuse. This includes institutional abuse (denial of harm, suppression of truth, etc.) as well as individual acts of unwelcome or unkindness. Although it is entirely the victim’s choice whether to forgive the church or not, church leaders nonetheless have a role to play in the process: to acknowledge harm done, offer amends, and express a hope for forgiveness.

Individual congregants, or the congregation as a whole, may attempt to forgive the offender and restore him to leadership. A robust congregational healing process can help them distinguish between forgiveness, which can coexist with justice, and denial, which stops justice in its tracks. Whether forgiven or not, offenders should never again have access to their target population. They should never be invited, in any capacity, back into the community in which they caused harm.

The Church Should Focus on Reconciliation

Instead of focusing on forgiveness, the church should put its efforts into reconciliation – not between victim and offender, but between the victim and her church community. Clergy sexual abuse throws victims into a crisis that many describe as the most painful and frightening experience of their lives. Yet in their hour of greatest need, victims almost universally suffer a violent loss of support from their church communities. Isolation and ostracism are the rule, not the exception. Most victims leave their congregations in the aftermath of reporting. Many leave church entirely; some lose their faith altogether. Yet years later, they still grieve the friendships they lost. Healing can never be complete for these victims; likewise, their departure leaves congregations incomplete.

The church has an opportunity to stop this tide of loss. By seeking truth, doing justice, allowing victims to forgive (or not) on their own terms, and repairing broken relationships between victims and congregations, the church can bring about healing. It won’t happen quickly, and it won’t be easy, but real grace is never quick or easy. Instead of cheap grace, the church must strive for a grace that is worthy of the God they claim to serve.

Elements of Justice: Vindication

Helen Watson lost her son to suicide in 1999, but in truth she had lost him nine years earlier. A visiting priest had invited Peter, then 15, to spend the night in the rectory along with some of his friends. According to Mrs. Watson, Peter came home a different child. He developed violent behavior problems, turned to drugs and alcohol, and began disappearing for long periods. Finally, he told his mother that Father Paul Ryan had sexually abused him. But he felt responsible for the abuse, and he couldn’t live with the shame. Fourteen years after Peter took his own life, the parliament of Victoria, Australia issued a report on an official inquiry that had led to the arrest of several priests, including Paul Ryan. Victims and their parents had tried unsuccessfully for years to report one of those priests. Advocates called the report a “vindication for victims,” or proof that they had been telling the truth about a terrible danger, and that the church’s indifference had ruined more lives.

That is the ultimate vindication: to have the whole world learn that You Were Right! You were reporting a Genuine Danger! The church should have listened to you! That is the most powerful sort of validation — but it is also the most painful. I wish my former churchmates believed me; I wish they had seen the danger I saw. But it seems the only way to open their eyes would be to show them more victims. I would rather stay an outcast all my days than see my former pastor harm even one more woman.

There is another path to vindication: the church could tell the truth. My bishop told no lies, but he let secrecy and silence proclaim my offender’s innocence. The investigator thought I’d be relieved that the bishop wanted to handle my complaint “confidentially.” I asked, “But surely if he finds a credible offense, he won’t sweep it under the rug?” When I met with the bishop for the last time, I learned he really did intend to keep the matter quiet. I gave him the courtesy of a “heads up”: I told him I needed to tell my friends why I was leaving the church. Even then, the bishop held his ground. There would be no disclosure. Two weeks later, I had only talked to three or four people when a harsh wave of ostracism drove me underground and into silence.

Without the other elements of justice-making — truth-telling, acknowledging the violation, compassion, protecting the vulnerable, accountability, and restitution — there can be no vindication. Even if we receive partial justice, if we are not vindicated we cannot free ourselves from the shame of being the scapegoat.

If the church will not vindicate us, we must vindicate ourselves. How can we do that?

Contact the CSA/CSM survivors’ networks. Early in my ordeal, I described my experience to Jan Tuin of Tamar’s Voice. She affirmed that I was a victim of clergy sexual misconduct. After I had left my church, I connected with Samantha Nelson of The Hope of Survivors. She also affirmed me, and she encouraged me to attend the Hope and Healing conference. At that conference, every speaker told us, some more than once: “This was not your fault.”

Read the literature. It was Peter Rutter’s Sex in the Forbidden Zone that opened my eyes about my experience. Two great articles affirmed it: Diana Garland’s “When Wolves Wear Shepherds’ Clothing” and Pamela Cooper White’s “Soul Stealing.” Reading about clergy sexual abuse and misconduct has helped me understand my experience. These books and articles taught me how CSA/CSM happens and how to escape from it, heal from it, prevent it, and support other victims and survivors. I’ve listed some of these resources on the Survivor’s Bookshelf. The FaithTrust Institute offers a more extensive bibliography.

Connect with survivors of any kind of abuse. As we listen to people who share our experience, we learn to stop blaming ourselves. Early in my healing journey, I found strong support in a treatment group in an eating disorders clinic. None of the other patients had experienced CSA/CSM, but many had experienced other kinds of  abuse. We discovered what we had in common, and we helped each other heal. Survivors with addictions (one of the consequences of abuse) may find healing in a twelve-step group. Most cities have support groups for adults who have survived abuse within their intimate relationships, families of origin, or religious communities. Don’t overlook the survivors who may already be in your life. As you share your story with trusted friends, you may find them confiding in you.

Learn to honor our own voice. Or, Learn to hear the voice of God within us. Trust our feelings. Trust our judgment. Trust our gut. When we squelched our misgivings about our offenders’ behavior, we made ourselves vulnerable to abuse. As survivors, we learn to hear and heed our inner voice. We learn to say “No” with more confidence. We learn to step away from dangerous situations. And we learn defend ourselves — in the court of our own conscience — against lies and unfair attacks. We no longer accept condemnation from people who don’t know the facts. We know what was done to us. We know what was taken from us. Even if we were coerced into “consenting,” or even if we were manipulated into making the first move: we know! And we know how we tried to protect ourselves and others. Most of us will never have a Victorian Parliament on our side — but ultimately, we don’t need it. We know.

Those are the steps to vindication, but it’s a long process. I know I told the truth to my bishop (and so does my offender; his testimony matched mine almost exactly.) I know I acted not to harm the church, but to save it. My conscience is clear. I have the respect of my new church community and of a widespread network of survivors. And yet I keep telling my story, as if I’m looking for a judge who can free me from the shame — of what? Of other people’s misinformed judgment against me?

Yes. Healing is a long journey.

Elements of Justice: Restitution

“I’ll pay for your therapy.”

My bishop spoke those words when he handed me the letter spelling out his judgment against my former pastor. I told him “Don’t worry, I can take care of myself;” I changed my mind when I found I needed weeks of nearly full-time treatment for anorexia. When I told the bishop I needed his help, he kept his word. He and his attorney treated me with respect throughout our negotiations, and he provided the resources I needed to restore my health. The terms of the settlement are confidential, but I don’t think the church would mind my sharing its existence, and my gratitude for the health I now enjoy.

So when I saw the word “restitution” in Marie Fortune’s Elements of Justice-Making, I mentally checked that item off. The church may not have offered me everything on that list, but they did offer restitution. Or did they? I’m learning that there’s a lot more to restitution than money. I’m grateful for the money and for the other actions the church took to move my healing forward. But there’s more they could have done — and it isn’t too late.

Here’s what I’ve learned about restitution.

Restitution IS NOT…
1. Charity for the victim. Charity disempowers its recipients, ignores the question of justice, and allows the giver to feel complacent and generous. But we don’t call ourselves generous when we pay off a debt — and restitution is simply a debt. When a minister of the church harms a congregant, he or she creates a debt that the church must pay.
2. Punishment for the offender. When I make a car payment, I’m not being punished; I’m just making things square. I took on the debt voluntarily when I borrowed money for a car. When the church pays restitution to a victim of abuse, no one is being punished. The church is simply making things square.
3. A way of erasing the damage. Restitution moves us toward healing, but the experience of broken trust remains. No amount of restitution can undo the past. Even with restitution, most of the journey of healing is still ahead of us. The church must respect each survivor’s right to walk that journey as she or he needs to.

Restitution IS…
1. Making things fair again. Restoring a loss. Repairing damage. Redressing a wrong. Squaring accounts. Setting things right. Making amends. Cleaning up our own mess. “Restitution” is just a fancy word for one of the most basic human experiences. Even small children know what justice feels like.
2. A way of healing all parties, not just the victim. Restitution restores or creates healthy relationships, frees the victim to move forward with healing, and gives the offender (or the offender’s institution) a deeper understanding of justice and a deeper commitment to protecting the vulnerable.
3. Hard work. It’s easy to write a check. True restitution involves patience, respect, humility, courage, persistence, and willingness to sit with uncomfortable feelings.

Restitution helps restore…
1. The victim’s tangible losses. Clergy sexual misconduct can trigger serious medical problems. Many victims can’t afford treatment on their own. Monetary restitution can help with those needs.
2. The victim’s intangible losses such as reputation, ability to form relationships, sense of belonging, faith in the church, and sense that God cares or exists at all. The church can address these wounds by listening, grieving with the victim, speaking truth, finding support within the community, and creating stronger safeguards against abuse.
3. The institution’s moral wholeness. Earlier on this blog, I wrote about Nelson Mandela’s role in bringing about a peaceful end to apartheid. The Restitution Foundation takes that work to the next step. In the spirit of ubuntu, the founders of the Restitution Foundation realized that white South Africans could never be whole if their non-white brothers and sisters still struggled with the wounds of poverty and injustice. In South Africa, restitution is the tide that lifts all boats.

Restitution is made of…
1. Money: enough to pay for the therapy and medical care to heal the wounds of abuse. Money empowers the victim to make her own decisions about treatment, and it shows the church is serious about caring for its victims. The money must be offered with no strings attached. Some settlements include a non-disparagement clause; some churches try to enforce that clause as a gag order. This is bad religion (would Jesus silence a victim of abuse?), bad PR (churches that silence their victims don’t fare well in the media), and bad judgment (it makes survivors angry and it gives us more to talk about).
2. Listening. “Make no mistake,” says the Restitution Foundation. “Listening can be hard. We do not like to be made uncomfortable or confronted with our complicity in another’s oppression.” Perhaps this, as much as anything, is why churches silence their victims: our stories confront them with their complicity in our abuse. But as uncomfortable as these conversations are, they are essential to restitution and justice. We need the church to listen to us, lament with us, and reform the structures and cultural norms that have made abuse possible.
3. Truth-telling. If secrecy and lies destroy the victim’s reputation, the truth needs to be spread at least as widely as the lies. Belated truth-telling will never fully repair the damage (remember the story of feathers in the wind), but it is still worth doing. Four years later, I have no hope of ever restoring the lost friendships, and no wish to be part of my former church — and still I would welcome an open disclosure of truth from the bishop. If he cares about my healing, telling the truth is the most important thing he could do. Liturgy can be a way of truth-telling; one survivor shared her church’s liturgy here.

Restitution is hard work because…
1. Each situation is unique. There is no “one size fits all.”
2. The church has to give up power and the right to dictate the rules of engagement. The fact is, each party has something to offer that the other needs. The church has resources to address victims’ losses. Victims and survivors have wisdom to offer the church, and something more: we can offer our forgiveness. Restitution can set all of us free.
3. The church must face its demons. Abuse doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Where are the flaws in screening, training, and oversight of ministers? How does the church enable abuse of power and privilege (of clergy over lay, male over female, experience over youth, etc)? Is the church sacrificing vulnerable people to an idol of its own image? As victims and survivors speak, these stories will emerge. Church leaders will be tempted to walk away and reject these painful truths. But once the restitution process has begun, a rupture will only cause more harm to the victim. Jesus stayed on the hard road to Jerusalem; the church must do the same.

For readers who want to understand restitution more deeply, I strongly recommend the work of the Restitution Foundation. The Theological Mandate for Restitution is a good place to begin.

Elements of Justice: Accountability

Early in my career, I managed the business services in a large corporate sales office. During my first year, my office failed the business audit. I told my manager, “I understand you’ll need to drop my ranking.” He said, “No, I’ll drop Bill’s ranking instead.” Bill was a supervisor who reported to me; he had worked in that office for more than 20 years, and he had hired my manager. While I was glad to hold onto my ranking, I also felt a little insulted. Did my manager expect so little of me that he couldn’t hold me accountable for my own failure?

What does it mean when someone holds us accountable? Literally, it means they count on us. The landlord can pay the mortgage because we pay the rent on time; the host can plan the dinner because we have RSVP’d; our manager can trust the reports because we run our business with proper controls. The Notre Dame football team gets this: they end each breakdown with a unison shout of “Count on me.” But in church settings, bad theology can muddy the water. When we ask the church to hold our offenders accountable, they urge us instead to forgive. When we talk openly about our experience (which some of us do as a way of holding the church to account), they accuse us of vengeful bad-mouthing.

It’s time to clear up some misperceptions. Here are my 1-2-3’s of accountability: what it is and what it isn’t, why it’s hard, why we need it, and how survivors can help.

Accountability IS NOT…
1. A failure to forgive. Pope John Paul’s would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, remained behind bars for nearly two decades after the pope forgave him. Both men understood that Agca was still accountable to the state. (Note: forgiveness is complicated for survivors of clergy sexual misconduct. See my reflections here and here.)
2. Punishment or public shame. Accountability may feel like punishment to the offender, but most measures aren’t punishments in the strict sense. The church may require the offender to take part in therapy or addiction treatment, or they may suspend or limit his or her ministry as part of protecting the vulnerable. The congregation may not need to know about therapeutic matters, but they absolutely must be informed about limits on their pastor’s ministry.
3. Revenge. Victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse rarely have any say in how our offenders are held accountable, so revenge plays little or no role in the offender’s experience of accountability. To be sure, many of us fantasize about revenge. But what we really need is not revenge, but a chance to heal through justice.

Accountability IS…
1. Owning our mistakes. Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll was caught plagiarizing in his book Real Marriage, and his Mars Hill Church admitted to buying a spot for that book on the New York Times Bestseller list. What did Driscoll do in response? “He owned up,” says blogger Ray Ortlund. Not only did Driscoll apologize, but he instructed his publicist to stop using the “New York Times Bestseller” status. Even more significantly, Driscoll agreed to stay off social media for the rest of the year, using the time to reset his life, rebuild his family relationships, and renew his work as the pastor of Mars Hill Church.
2. Accepting the consequences. I tried to do this when my office failed the audit. Jesus did this by submitting peacefully to his arrest and crucifixion, knowing they were the consequences of preaching that had threatened the powers-that-be.
3. Learning from our failures. Minister and counselor Mark Laaser struggled with sexual addiction early in his career. He learned from his own pain and his victims’ wounds, and he overcame his addiction. Now, with his wife Debbie, Laaser leads the Faithful and True ministry for men and women struggling with the same problem. In an interview with the National Association for Christian Recovery, Laaser talks about what he has learned on his journey.

Accountability is hard because church leaders worry about…
1. Money. Leaders may fear the financial impact of a public scandal. When a pastor is fired or openly held accountable for a sexual offense, the church may see a short-term drop in attendance and giving. But leaders should take the long view. Within the Catholic Church, secrecy (which allowed predator priests to harm many more victims) has so far cost more than $2 billion in the U.S. alone.
2. The offender’s feelings. Leaders often form friendships with the pastors who serve in their congregations. Being closer to the offender’s pain than to the victim’s, leaders may be tempted to cut a deal to keep the offense a secret. Church leaders must maintain a level field! If they wouldn’t offer a secret deal to the victim, they shouldn’t offer one to the offender.
3. The church’s image. Leaders fear that a public scandal will harm the church’s image, especially if the offender is well-known. But a congregation will recover far sooner from a transparent response to pastoral offense than to a cover-up. When faith leaders lie to their communities, they destroy the trust on which community stands.

Offenders need to be held accountable…
1. To rescue them from situations where they can’t control their behavior. In Healing the Wounds of Sexual Addiction, Mark Laaser says that sexually addicted clergy may feel “afraid and ashamed” when they are caught, but they also feel relieved. Some may even “slip up and do things that reveal their secret” because they know they can’t control their behavior on their own.
2. To free them from the burden of a secret that can literally make them sick.
3. To show respect. When church leaders ignore a pastor’s sexual offenses, they give the subtle message, “We can’t expect anything better from you. You aren’t worth the effort it would take to heal you.”

Victims and survivors need our offenders held accountable…
1. To acknowledge the violation: not only that the pastor violated our sexual boundaries, but that his or her actions harmed us. To affirm that the church will not accept that kind of behavior from its ministers.
2. To protect the vulnerable, either by removing a pastor’s access to the congregation or by sharing the facts openly with the congregation in a way that supports the victim.
3. To affirm that we matter to the church. To affirm that the church will stand up for us when we are wronged, even by one of their own.

Congregations need to see errant pastors held accountable…
1. To keep the church safe. We need to know that the man or woman in the pulpit won’t harm us or our friends or family members.
2. To acknowledge the congregational wound and begin the process of healing. When a pastor violates sexual boundaries, his or her sin wounds the whole congregation. Clergy sexual abuse is never really a secret. A few people may find out or at least suspect the truth. This can lead to jealousy, gossip, and broken trust even before the matter is openly discussed. A toxic secret can destroy a community. If the church openly acknowledges a failure in leadership, they can restore trust and give the congregation a chance to rebuild.
3. To show compassion for survivors of sexual assault, no matter where or when it happened. Even when survivors don’t make ourselves known within congregations, we are here. In an average-sized congregation of 400 people, dozens may have experienced sexual abuse or assault. Look at the statistics:
Nearly one in five women in the U.S. have survived sexual assault.
* Experts believe that between 8% and 20% of adults were sexually abused as children.
One in 30 women has endured an unwanted advance from a member of the clergy as an adult.
Whether we share our secrets or not, survivors need to know that our church is a safe place, and that church leaders will keep it safe by holding offenders accountable.

Can survivors hold the church accountable? YES! We can…
1. Educate ourselves about the nature of clergy sexual abuse: how and why it happens, how the church should respond, and how the church can reduce abuse within its walls.
2. Work to strengthen our congregation’s policy and procedures if we belong to a church.
3. Tell our stories, to one trusted friend or to the world. The more of us claim our voices, the more the world will join us in demanding justice.

Elements of Justice: Protecting the Vulnerable

As I write this series of essays on Marie Fortune’s Elements of Justice-Making, I’m learning where my wounds still exist, and this is a deep one. When I filed my complaint, my former church did very little to protect the vulnerable. Instead, they protected a minister with an admitted pattern of boundary issues. Of all the ways the church betrayed me, this may have been the most painful.

After my pastor made his feelings plain, I struggled for more than a week with overwhelming confusion, fear, and grief. When my mind finally cleared, I told him I would no longer meet him for pastoral counseling. I didn’t want to damage his ministry, so I told him I wouldn’t report him. He sighed with relief. He seemed genuinely sorry he had hurt me. He acknowledged he had betrayed my trust. He kicked himself for being “careless,” and he told me that I was part of a pattern of “beautiful women” whose boundaries he had ignored. Stunned, I demanded, “You knew you had a pattern, and you knew you were attracted to me, and you didn’t take steps to protect me?” He quickly clarified the “pattern”: only one woman. A different church. No physical violation. I needed to believe in my pastor’s basic goodness, so I chose to believe his words. I decided to trust him again, but this time more cautiously. I refused pastoral counseling, but a month later I accepted his invitation to share a writing project. That led to another betrayal. When I confronted him again, he assured me he was turning over a new leaf. No longer would he offer pastoral counseling to any woman he found attractive. I was thrilled to hear these words. I believed that my firm “NO” had made him a better minister, and had made my church a safer place for women.

I decided to trust him again, but more cautiously still. He created a staff position for me. Knowing I would be reporting to a different minister, I accepted his offer. I loved the work, and I was sure I had healed from my pastor’s sexual breach, but in truth I had only covered up the wound. It was a training film that finally opened my eyes. The movie “Not in My Church” depicts a minister who sexually abuses three women at his church. One of those women could have been me. I watched the film with growing horror; afterward in the bathroom I dissolved in tears. With effort, I pulled myself together to sit through the rest of the training. I hid my swollen eyes behind sunglasses.

Let me be perfectly clear: as far as I know for certain, my pastor breached boundaries only with me and the woman at his previous church. But over the next few months I kept my eyes open, and I saw far more than I expected to. I’ve shared some of my observations on this blog. As the evidence grew, the truth began to dawn on me: my silence could be putting others at risk. I made the hard decision to report my pastor. I began to build the courage.

During this time, I saw “Joyce” for counseling at an office a few blocks from my church. She supervised the pastoral counselors who worked at my church, so I assumed she knew my pastor. It was hard to talk about this decision with Joyce. She seemed incredulous that I would take the risk of reporting a popular minister. I tried to explain: “If I remain silent and he harms other women, then I’m as much responsible as if I had inflicted that harm myself.” She acknowledged my courage, and she almost seemed awed. But the day after I met with the bishop, she asked me, “Couldn’t you have just quietly left the church?” Even she seemed to want to protect him.

The day I filed my complaint, I learned of the death of a hero: Miep Gies, who had helped hide Anne Frank from the Nazis. For two years, Mrs. Gies smuggled food to the families in the Secret Annex. After the Nazis discovered them, Miep Gies saved Anne’s diary. She could have been executed for those acts. But she knew that if she didn’t help the Franks, she would face a lifetime of sleepless nights. “Permanent remorse about failing to do your human duty,” she said, “can be worse than losing your life.”

For two years I had kept my pastor’s secret. Like many victims of sexual offenses, I still felt affection for this man. You might even say I loved him. He was still the spiritual leader of my church; I desperately needed to admire and respect him. After I came to terms with my experience, I kept my secret out of fear. Even if the church believed me, I would lose the friendship of people who were dear to me. So what finally led me to turn him in? I saw vulnerable women at risk. I needed the church to protect them. I had to speak, regardless of cost, or I would have faced a lifetime of sleepless nights.

In a different church in a different part of the country, survivor “K” reported her abuser for the same reason. While in college, she had endured vicious sexual abuse by the pastor who had led her summer high school youth ministry. When she reported him, she wrote, “I asked for nothing from this church other than Darryl’s removal from any work that places him with vulnerable populations.” Sadly, her church failed her. She had given the bishop solid evidence of abuse, including sexually explicit emails from her abuser. The man denied nothing. Yet the day after the bishop confronted him, he was back at work at the youth ministry. Two weeks later, the bishop ended Darryl’s career as a UMC minister, but he failed to alert the other ministers in his area. Later, another Methodist church invited Darryl to lead a Bible study. “Why was my little request too little for the UMC?” asks K. “Why does my life and the trauma sustained from this man not matter?”

When I first met with my bishop, he told me he needed to decide whether to disclose the investigation to the church. I had given him plenty of reason to suspect there might be other victims: my observations of my pastor during my time on staff, his grooming-style pattern with me, and his own admission of weakness for “beautiful women.” How did my bishop weigh the pros and cons? Did he yield to entreaties from the pastor? Did he decide that the chance of learning the truth wasn’t worth damaging this pastor’s reputation? I will never know. My pastor once told me a story of a congregant at his former church, a defrocked minister whose first victim’s complaint had brought dozens more “out of the woodwork.” If there were other victims “in the woodwork” at my church, the bishop will never know.

I met with the bishop one more time to hear his decision. He gave me a letter outlining his judgment against my former pastor, and he told me that they would both be required to disclose this judgment to any future employer in the church. I had hoped the bishop would share the outcome with the congregation, but he opted to keep it quiet. Still, I trusted that any future employer would know about his record. But two years later, my former pastor was chosen from a large pool of candidates to lead a thriving church in another city. I felt sick, and I felt terrified for the women in his new church. Again, I felt a duty to protect them. So I took the only action in my power: I sent a note to his new church leaders. After that, I had to be at peace. I had done all I could.

Survivor “K” did the same thing. Her bishop never told the other leaders of the youth ministry that Pastor Darryl had sexually abused a former client. So K wrote to those leaders. One of them wrote back, “Why are you telling us this?” K responded in her blog: “Because it’s your responsibility to protect others. Even if you don’t believe me, I know you will think of what I said before you let another youth member be alone with this man.

These reflections have dredged up painful memories. Struggling with these thoughts the past few days, at night I’ve had troubling dreams. If “protecting the vulnerable” is part of the process of justice, then I did not receive justice. The church failed to protect other congregants. They failed to reach out to other potential victims. They failed to protect me from the congregation’s backlash. But they bent over backward to protect the man I accused.

And yet — I will never regret speaking up. If my actions saved even one woman from my fate, I did not sacrifice in vain.

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