Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Posts tagged ‘Hope of Survivors’

Forgiving Like Nelson Mandela

Survivors: raise your hand if you’ve ever been told to “forgive and forget,” “move on,” or “let bygones be bygones.” Wow, that’s almost everyone in the room. OK, now raise your hand if church leaders added the Nelson Mandela guilt trip. You know, “Nelson Mandela forgave his jailers, so why can’t you drop that grudge?”

In other words, we should forgive like Nelson Mandela.

What would this look like? A lot of writers are asking this question. A few of them are getting it right, most notably Marie Fortune in her recent blog post, “Forgiveness Revisited.” But most people seem confused about what forgiveness means. Early in my journey, I thought “forgive” meant “reconcile” and even “trust again” (big mistake). Later, I thought it meant “stop being angry.” I tried, but I only succeeded in driving my anger inward. Only when I read Frederick Keene’s essay “Structures of Forgiveness in the New Testament” did I understand: forgiveness is not a simple emotional shift. Forgiveness is a concrete transaction, and it can only be offered from a position of power. (I explore that issue here.)

Then why do religious leaders, especially Christian leaders, keep telling survivors to forgive? Could it be they have a vested interest? Could it be that our demand for justice threatens their comfort, their job security, or even the world as they know it?

And what should we think about preachers who harp on forgiveness while ignoring the underlying justice issues?

“Let me say a brief word about the death of Nelson Mandela,” said a preacher I once knew. I am quoting from one of his recent sermons, but I’m paraphrasing enough to conceal his identity. “On the day after he was released from prison, Mandela was asked about the suffering he had endured. His answer? ‘Let bygones be bygones.’ If he had asked for vengeance, he might have triggered a revolution. Mandela chose instead to offer forgiveness. So let me ask this — what grudge or grievance are you clinging to this morning? What prevents you from forgiving as Mandela did, and freeing yourself and the other? Let bygones be bygones.”

What misguided beliefs can we find in my former pastor’s message? Does he believe that it is nobler to forgive than to insist on justice? That when survivors demand justice, we are simply “holding a grudge?” That victims of injustice can “free” ourselves and our oppressors by “letting bygones be bygones?”

Of course I am stretching a point. I know that’s not what he believes. It’s not what any sensible preacher believes, but it seems to be what a lot of preachers want us to believe. But here’s what those sermons don’t tell us. By the time Nelson Mandela offered those words, he had already changed the world. The revolution was nearly over. White leaders, all the way up to the president, had been courting Mandela’s favor for years. Apartheid was already unraveling. White South Africans, massively outnumbered, knew that their days in power would soon end, and they were terrified that the violence they had long inflicted on black citizens would now come back on them. Mandela knew that the only way forward was through peace, and the only way to peace was to calm white fears. So he urged forgiveness — but he never urged passivity. He challenged black South Africans to live peacefully with their white neighbors and to stay in the fight. “We cannot win a war,” he told them, “but we can win an election.”

Survivors of clergy abuse will never win a war against the church; most of us are afraid even to stand up and name our experience. We cannot win a war, but with the power of our voices we can change the church. Indeed, this is already happening. In the United States alone, the Catholic Church has released more than $1 billion of resources to victims of abuse. Pope Francis has launched a commission to address the issue worldwide. Organizations like SNAPThe Hope of Survivors, and the FaithTrust Institute have helped thousands (millions?) of victims find healing, and have trained thousands of faith leaders on prevention and response. A growing number of churches have policies, however inadequate, to prevent abuse. The revolution is far from over, but we are making progress.

And so, today I forgive like Nelson Mandela. I renounce any right to revenge against the priest who abused my trust or the bishop who silenced my voice, and I urge my fellow survivors to do the same. Revenge only brings more pain. It is justice that brings healing. So I will continue to seek justice, for myself and for other survivors. I will continue to use my voice, tell my story, and build up and strengthen my fellow survivors. I will work until the work is done, and here is how I’ll know: when calling committees are given the tools to screen out would-be predators, when seminaries train ministers to deal with their own and their congregants’ sexual feelings, when pastors refrain from counseling beyond their call or training, when victims of clergy sexual abuse receive justice and compassion in response to our complaints, when offenders accept full responsibility even to the point of giving up their ordained ministry, when wounded congregations are told the truth and given a chance to heal, and when all survivors’ voices are honored.

Until that day, I will continue the long walk toward justice.

One Man’s Hands

“One man’s hands can’t tear a prison down
Two men’s hands can’t tear a prison down
But if two and two and fifty make a million
We’ll see that day come round
We’ll see that day come round.”

me and Father Joe

Pete Seeger wrote “One Man’s Hands” in the 1950s, and the Chad Mitchell Trio covered it best. You can hear their version here, and you can hear founding member Joe Frazier’s voice harmonizing clear and strong in the third line. The Trio still perform from time to time, but Frazier now spends most of his time as the vicar of St. Columba’s in the small mountain town where my family has a weekend cabin. I may have left the Episcopal Church, but I never left St. Columba’s. After my hometown church family ostracized me, Father Joe Frazier offered safe haven — and for me it was truly safe, because Father Joe is a gay man. I always worship at St. Columba’s when we visit the mountains. I cherish the precious minutes I spend with Father Joe. The photo above may be a little out of focus, but I know you can see the love.

Father Joe announced this morning: “We’re going to have a karaoke sermon.” Seated next to me, Carmen groaned in mock annoyance. In the choir stall, Alan pushed a button. The music began to play, and Father Joe invited us to join him. “When you know the chorus, sing it with me”, he said — but I’ve long known this song by heart. I didn’t need to learn the chorus.

I met Father Joe in 2008 during my state’s passionate battle for and against same-sex marriage. I was working hard for marriage equality in my hometown. In gratitude, Father Joe offered me a CD of Trio hits. When I heard “One Man’s Hands,” I pictured the gay men and lesbians who had felt alone and helpless their whole lives. I celebrated the fact that now they and their straight allies were coming together in common cause. That year, “two and two and fifty” almost won a victory in my state — almost, but not quite. The struggle continued, but now more powerfully because now we had built a movement.

Fast forward two years. By the summer of 2010, I had reported my pastor, left my church, recovered from the most dangerous impact of clergy sexual misconduct (an eating disorder), and begun to equip myself for this work. But except for the leaders of The Hope of Survivors and Tamar’s Voice, I didn’t know a single survivor. I live in a very large city, and I couldn’t find even one other survivor. I felt so small and helpless — but I also felt called to this work. The lyrics to “One Man’s Hands” took on a new meaning. I was only one survivor, but I knew I would find another, and then two more, and then fifty…

We’ve just finished the third annual Clergy Sexual Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month, and what a month it has been! I’ve had the privilege to work with Erik Campano (see my stories here, here, and here), I’m now connected with many other leaders in the Hope of Survivors network, and I’m in conversation with a young survivor whose courage would absolutely knock you over. This work is hard, there’s so much to do, and we are still a very small army. Small — but strong and growing. We are committed, we are united, and when two and two and fifty make a million, we will see the day of truth, justice, and healing come round.

What the Church Says to Victims About Reporting

What happens when church leaders learn that a victim is thinking of filing a complaint? Here are the voices that influenced my decision:

From my offending pastor: “I don’t think you’d get the result you hoped for. I would likely just get a note in my file.”

From the associate pastor: “If you report him, you lose control over the information.”

From a friend on staff who knew the pastor well: “You have to report him.”

My friend had nothing to gain if I reported; the pastors had everything to lose. I listened to my friend, and I talked with my new pastoral counselor, “Joyce.” (In addition to her work with me, Joyce also supervised all of the real pastoral counselors at my church. By that time, I had figured out that my pastor was untrained, unlicensed, and totally unfit for counseling). Joyce seemed awed by the fact that I was willing to report my pastor despite the personal risks. I told her I had no choice: I believed other women were in danger.

Two days after I reported my pastor, Joyce and I met in her office. She seemed stunned that I had actually done it. She asked me, “Couldn’t you have just walked away and let those women fend for themselves?” Needless to say, that was our last meeting. I may be a hero or I may be a fool, I told her, but it doesn’t much matter which. I had to turn him in or I couldn’t have lived with myself.

August is Clergy Sexual Abuse Awareness & Prevention Month. I’ll be posting all month with helpful, hopeful resources from The Hope of Survivors and others. Check out the THOS blog for another survivor’s story about what a church leader said to her when she was about to report.

Stay strong and hopeful, friends!

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