Clergy sexual misconduct: one survivor's voice

Posts tagged ‘FaithTrust Institute’

End of Life Needs of Survivors

Nearly seven years into recovery, my experience no longer feels like a crisis. The trauma marked the end of life as I knew it, but it was also a new beginning. Some of the things I lost were things I needed to lose, like my naive idealism, my tendency to mistake friendliness for friendship, and my blind loyalty to a particular denomination. I have a clearer sense of the dark side of human institutions now, and of human limitations including my own. 

Nevertheless, even in the new normal, even with the closure I reached after my offender was defrocked, I still struggle. I need to find a way to integrate this experience into the whole arc of my life. A few weeks ago, I found a resource for that work: a webinar called “End of Life Needs of Survivors.” The FaithTrust Institute invited the Rev. Dr. Sarah Rieth, an Episcopal priest and chaplain at a retirement community in North Carolina, to share her wisdom for caregivers. I may not be a chaplain or social worker; I may not be at the end of life; but I can still use Sarah Rieth’s insights in my healing. So can we all. Here are the steps we can take. 

1. We need to stop asking ourselves “Why can’t I put this in the past?” It’s an insulting question for survivors. Haven’t we been trying to do that all along? If we could have put it in the past, we would have, but this experience was too big. It changed the course of our lives. We are different people because of it.

2. Instead of trying to forget, we need to integrate those memories, to weave them into the narrative arc of our life. We need to look at how life has unfolded since the trauma, and by what means, and through what strengths, we have rebuilt our lives. We need to discover the threads of grace in all of this. Where was God, including the God incarnate in human helpers, during the abuse? Where was God when we were trying to heal? 

3. Our early spiritual formation, or others’ distortions of scripture, may get in the way of healing. If God (or a powerful adult in our lives) was a punishing taskmaster, we may still be hanging our heads, awaiting the blows or harsh words. If we thought of God as a loving protector, we need to reconcile that with the fact that one of God’s ministers exploited us. To engage that dissonance, we may even need to speak angry words at God. Do we have favorite Bible stories or verses, and can we put those to use in understanding our stories? (Mine is the story of Esther, whose courage in speaking up for her people gave me the courage to report my abusive priest).

4. Childhood experiences with abuse leave an indelible imprint. They can make us doubt our own worth; they make us more vulnerable to abuse as adults. Predators specifically target this vulnerability, because they know we’re less likely to fight back. Therefore, we need to understand our church trauma in the context of these earlier traumas. 

5. Reflecting on these experiences may be painful and frightening. While we’re doing this work, we need to be gentle, loving, and non-judgmental with ourselves. We need to insist on our truth even if others have not believed us. We need to affirm our own courage, especially if we choose to invite another person to help us with this work.

6. According to the psychologist Erik Erikson, at each stage of life we have unique developmental tasks. In infancy and early childhood, we must learn how and whom to trust. During our working years, we strive to leave a meaningful footprint on the world. In retirement, we look back at the wholeness of our lives. Have we lived with integrity? Have our lives been worthwhile? Do we still matter if we’re no longer needed in our former roles? If trust has been broken at any stage of our lives, we may need to return to the earliest task. If we’re still struggling with memories of abuse during our elder years, it may be harder to reach a satisfactory closure. The more we’re willing to engage with this work now, the more likely we’ll face our waning days (in fact, all our days) with peace.

7. Even if we don’t choose to do this work, circumstances may force us to face the questions. If we overcome addiction, we may uncover the feelings that we used the addiction to numb. Incipient dementia may unlock barriers to our memories and feelings. The death of an abuser may free us to think or speak words that were dangerous while he/she lived. Facing death, we may feel a spiritual urgency to resolve our memories. 

8. One key task is to look honestly at the cost of the abuse. What choices did we make as a result? What choices did we find ourselves unable to make? How did our choices affect our lives? As we ask these questions, we may want to think about the areas of health, relationships, family, vocation, and faith. 

9. Another key task: find the threads of grace. Who or what enabled us to survive and rebuild our lives? Who knew about the abuse; who helped us as we made decisions to save ourselves and perhaps report our abusers? As Mr. Rogers says, who were the helpers? If it was “only” God who gave us strength, how did God show God’s self to us?

10. A third key task: what qualities did we discover within ourselves that enabled us to survive and live the lives we’ve lived? As hard as it is for survivors of abuse, we need to own our victories, name and claim our strengths, honor our courage and our persistence.

11. Sarah Rieth shared the concept of the “context wheel.” We draw a simple bicycle wheel, then write a difficult truth in the central hub, for example “I encouraged my pastor’s attentions” or “I allowed my pastor to touch me sexually.” These words will seem stark and even damning, but the context can help us heal from shame and regret. In the areas between the bicycle spokes, we write words such as, “I was vulnerable because of my troubled marriage.” “I needed my pastor’s approval to move forward in discernment.” “He wasn’t just my pastor; he was also my boss.” “I didn’t want to believe he had sexual intent.” “I thought of him like a father.” And of course, “I trusted him.” We need to understand the context that made us so vulnerable, so unable to protect ourselves. We need to look at this context — and our actions, and our abuser’s actions too — through the loving eyes of God. 

12. Finally, reconciliation. I don’t mean reconciling interpersonally with our abuser; that is rarely possible and almost never helpful. But we might think of other relationships that need to be reconciled. We might ask ourselves what resentments we need to let go of? And whom we might need to forgive? And for what — and from whom — we might need to seek forgiveness?

Readers who want a more complete look at these concepts can view the “End of Life Needs of Survivors” webinar. Survivors may want to share this resource with their pastor, counselor, or spiritual advisor. 

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.

 

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