Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Posts tagged ‘ostracism’

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.


Waiting For My Bundt Cake

My friend Sandy blogs about her son’s drug addiction. “If Joey were dying a slow death from cancer, the world would reach out with comfort,” she writes. Instead, the world see Joey’s addiction as a moral failure — his and his family’s. Sandy finds healing by raising her voice to end the stigma of addiction. She says, “We’ll know we’ve succeeded once comfort is baked into Bundt cakes, as it is for every other disease.” In the meantime, Sandy struggles in loneliness.

I have also known loneliness. During the hardest part of my journey — filing my complaint, waiting for justice that never came, watching friends pull away one by one — I was offering support to a friend whose daughter was battling leukemia. Whenever Gail posted updates on CarePages, dozens of us sent messages of love and support. I knitted a cap for Sydney’s little bald head, and then I taught her how to knit for herself. I wouldn’t have traded places with Gail for anything, but I envied her circle of care. I envied it bitterly! There is no CarePages for clergy sexual abuse. People respond to cancer with Bundt cakes, knitted caps, and love notes, but they respond to clergy sexual abuse by turning their backs and walking away. Almost every time I told my story, I lost another friend. Finally, I just stopped talking. While I was helping Gail survive her ordeal, I was trying to survive my own — but I couldn’t ask her for support. I couldn’t even tell her I was suffering.

Losing community may be the hardest part of the CSA victim’s journey. I expected to lose a few friends, but I was utterly stunned by what happened. In a matter of weeks, I turned from a respected church leader into a nonentity. In the silence from my beloved community, I felt as if I had drowned unseen in a crowded swimming pool. The water closed over my head, I was gone without a ripple, and no one even raised a cry. It was as if I had ceased to exist, or perhaps I had never existed at all. During these awful months, I had a weekly appointment with a therapist who worked near my old church. I parked several blocks from her office so I could walk along the boulevard on which my friends drove to work. Did they see me as they drove? Could they see my pain? I was pale as a cadaver, gaunt as a famine survivor, hollowed empty by trauma. Why would I want them to see me this way?

Honestly: all I wanted was to be seen at all. I wanted to know that I still existed. Maybe that’s why I joined a new church so quickly: I needed to be real again. Once there, I clung to every bit of evidence: an elderly man who greeted me by name every Sunday. Receiving my official church name tag. My face in the congregational photo (scroll down to see it here. I still look for myself every time I see that picture. It still thrills me to find my face in that beautiful crowd.) By now, the evidence is overwhelming: I am not alone any more. I am real, and I’m part of a very real community.

And yet I still sometimes find myself thinking like a refugee, living in constant protection against the next disaster. I skip church when I feel it becoming too important. I keep a distance from anyone who reminds me, no matter how remotely, of someone from my old church. I even look for reasons to back out of the women’s group that helped me find my soul again. But am I not just cheating myself? Cleaning out my files today, I found a little folded card with the emblem of my church on the outside. Inside, these words: “This is to certify that Catherine Thiemann has been received into full membership of Mission Hills United Church of Christ.” Full membership! Not “temporary asylum,” not “legal permanent visitor,” not “foster child until we change our minds.” I have been accepted into FULL MEMBERSHIP. I need to absorb this gift. It’s time to let the refugee go. It’s time to unpack, put the suitcase away, and move in.

We still have a long way to go before we erase the stigma of clergy sexual abuse. I still don’t talk about it with most of the people in my life, just as Sandy can’t talk about her son with most people. But one word at a time, we will end the stigma and elicit compassion for our fellow sufferers and survivors. And when we do, I’m going to enjoy that Bundt cake.

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