Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Posts tagged ‘healing from clergy sexual abuse’

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. 

Healing the Congregation

“Lisa’s” saga* continues: she’ll be speaking with Bishop Schol next week. To prepare him for their meeting, Lisa sent him a resource that should already be close to his heart: a document that spells out the highest standard for responding to clergy misconduct in the United Methodist Church.

“After Clergy Sexual Misconduct: A Process for Congregational Healing” is that document. Based on guidelines drafted by Episcopal Bishop Chilton Knudsen, the process was developed in 2006 by the Rev. Dr. Bonnie Glass MacDonald, a UMC deacon. The document may be ten years old, but it was new to me, and in all my years of advocacy, I have never seen a better resource for helping congregations heal.

Why does the church need this resource? As MacDonald says, “In situations of crisis or misconduct, congregations often … want to put the crisis behind them as soon as possible. But experience has shown that ignoring the intense feelings that naturally occur after a violation will cause more trouble in the long run.” She reports that after an event of clergy misconduct, congregations often descend into fearful conflict. Factions form, pastors turn over quickly, and the church loses energy, focus, hope, and members. Without intentional healing, this cycle can last many years, and may repeat itself with new acts of misconduct. For the sake of every member of the church, both present and future, “each congregation must be helped to deal openly with the misconduct.”

Note that word: openly. Incidents of clergy misconduct cannot be swept under the carpet. The church’s response must be confidential enough “to protect fair process and avoid additional harm to victims,” but the basic facts must be shared with clergy, church staff, lay leaders, and congregants. Why? Because ultimately, there are no secrets in a congregation. If leaders try to whitewash an event of pastoral misconduct, the facts will morph into cancerous nodes of rumor, accusation, and innuendo, and those cancers will destroy the church. 

“The Process for Congregational Healing” helps leaders handle each step of their response, from the staff meeting to the congregational letter to (ultimately) the congregational meeting. The document spells out how to support the victim, what behaviors to expect from the accused minister, and how to speak with the youth and children of the church, who need to be included even if none of them was directly harmed. 

What happens when congregations don’t go through an intentional process of healing? They may become suspicious, angry, depressed, fractious, highly reactive, hopeless, and fixated on matters of human sexuality. Far from shining the light of the kingdom of God, these congregations become a toxic burden to the denomination.

I’m sharing this resource for clergy and churchgoers of all faith traditions. I recommend all my readers look at the UMC’s Sexual Ethics site. If only all faith traditions cared enough to develop resources this robust and thoughtful! More to the point: if only UMC leaders cared enough to consistently use the wisdom from their own denomination.

* See Lisa’s story here, my open letter to Bishop Schol here, and Bishop Schol’s excellent response here

Why Does Healing Take So Long?

“Isn’t it time to move on?”

As survivors, we hear this question all the time: sometimes directly, more often in silence and a change of subject. Our loved ones may have many reasons for not wanting to talk about it. Maybe our experience triggers memories of sexual offenses that they have endured, or that they have inflicted on others. Maybe they don’t want to know the harm that their beloved pastor or church caused in our lives. Maybe they genuinely want the best for us and genuinely believe that we won’t heal until we can “leave it all behind.”

Whatever their reasons, they can’t understand why it takes so long for us to heal, and they get frustrated. I get frustrated too. When I reported my pastor in January 2010, I knew I was in for a few rough months, but I figured life would be back to normal by summertime. But that summer, I was still in treatment for an eating disorder brought on by the abuse. Nearly four years later, life still isn’t back to normal. I have gained substantial wholeness, but my previous “normal” is gone forever. My new “normal” is wrapped around scars. And four years later, the pain sometimes still feels fresh.

Why does healing take so long? Here are some of my thoughts.
1. On a pain scale, clergy sexual abuse is near the top. The Rev. Pamela Cooper White calls CSA “soul stealing.” Dr. Martin Weber, president of the board of The Hope of Survivors, served as a police chaplain for many years. At a survivors’ gathering two years ago, Dr. Weber told us about going with police officers when they had to notify next-of-kin. He would sit with the bereaved through the first shock of grief and loss, often in the middle of the night. Even after witnessing these searing scenes, he says he has never seen greater suffering than he sees in victims of clergy sexual abuse.
2. Our wounds may be invisible, but they are deep. I have a brave young friend who fell last summer while climbing a difficult rock cliff. “Cassie” may be tied to a wheelchair for life. How insulting would it be for me to insist that she “move on” and “put it behind her”? Yet that is what CSA survivors hear. Having struggled for years to “move on,” and having watched other survivors do the same, I have come to believe that our experience is the emotional and spiritual equivalent of falling off a 35-foot cliff.
3. We lose community. If we report our offending pastors, we are most often silenced and ostracized. If we quietly leave our churches, we become the butt of gossip. Even our most loyal friends may walk away when they realize the price they pay for standing up with us. We must face the most painful and confusing experience of our lives — alone. For many of us, the loss of community is more traumatic than the abuse itself.
4. Beyond the spiritual and emotional pain, we may have tangible losses. Survivors of clergy sexual abuse may lose our marriages. We may become estranged from parents or siblings still loyal to the church. If we worked for the church, we may lose our livelihood. If the abuse happened in seminary, we may lose our sacred calling. We may fall into addictions. The emotional damage may make us unemployable for months or years. We may suffer permanent changes to our health. We may even attempt suicide. (Please, if you have considered suicide, click here for hope and help.)

So what can we tell our friends and families? If they are secretly carrying baggage as victims or perpetrators of sexual offenses, we may need to just give them time to come to terms with their experience and ours. If they are so loyal to our offending pastor or church that they feel they can’t support us in our healing — well, there’s nothing we can do about that. We can be grateful for the other ways those people are a blessing in our lives. And if there are no “other ways,” we may need walk away from those friendships.

But the people who genuinely love us want to help us heal; they just may not know how. Here are some things we can tell them.
1. “Just by listening, you are helping me.” Our friends may want to offer tangible help. If we have husbands, they may want to “fix” our pain. We need to tell them how much it means to us when they are willing to simply listen.
2. “What I need now is …” a hug. Or a Bundt cake. Or a friend’s presence in a scary situation (my husband came with me to meet with the bishop in 2010; my friend S. came with me when I visited my former church last week). We can name our specific needs and boldly ask our friends for help. The chances are, they will love the feeling of being needed.
3. “I don’t know how long healing will take or what it will look like, but I am committed to healing.” Share the steps you are taking to recover: therapy, prayer, healthy friendships, twelve-step programs for addictions, meditation, singing, knitting… and ask your loved ones to help you see when any of these pursuits gets out of hand. Believe it or not, it is possible to knit too many scarves.
4. Finally, “I promise I won’t be this sad forever.” While you are saying these words to your family and friends, say them to yourself. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about emotions, it’s that they don’t stand still. What I’m feeling now I won’t be feeling even an hour from now. Some hours it gets better, sometimes worse — but over time, as we discover new resources, new ways of coping, and new people whom we can trust, it does get better. My friends tell me that they see me growing more whole every year.

We can never go back to the person we were before the abuse; we can only go forward. We will never trust anyone as unquestioningly as we once trusted our abusive pastors, and that’s a good thing. As we learn to discern whom we can trust, and for what, we can form friendships with more realistic expectations. And when we do find someone whom we can trust with our deepest hopes and fears, we’ll know exactly how blessed we are.

 

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