Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Posts tagged ‘Judith Herman’

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.

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.

 

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: