Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Posts tagged ‘silencing victims’

UMC Protecting a Predator

Dozens of young Methodists are in immediate danger.

This Sunday, July 31, unless leaders in the UMC take action, at least three youth groups from Greater New Jersey will arrive at Olivet Blue Mountain Camp in eastern Pennsylvania to spend a week under the leadership of a known sexual predator. 

Here are the facts.
* In 2013, “Lisa” (not her real name) filed a complaint of sexual misconduct against then-Rev. Darryl Duer. He wasn’t her minister, but he was the minister who led the summer service project that she had attended with her church youth group since she was in junior high. Duer had begun giving Lisa love notes and personal gifts when she was only 15. When she turned 18, he offered pastoral support, but very soon began demanding sex. He abused her for several years, telling her that his sexual abuse was God’s way of loving her. He knew of her history of abuse growing up, and he correctly assumed she wouldn’t know she was being abused. But eventually she figured it out.
* Bishop John Schol of the UMC’s Greater New Jersey jurisdiction received Lisa’s complaint. Rather than launching a formal investigation, Bishop Schol simply asked Duer to hand in his ministerial credentials. He later characterized Lisa’s complaint as “serious and substantiated,” but at the time he chose to cover it up. He hid the truth from Duer’s congregation, his fellow ministers, and the parents of the youth who had participated in those summer camps over the years.
* In 2014, Lisa learned that Duer was again offering the camp, and that three of Bishop Schol’s ministers were bringing their youth groups. After a great deal of effort on Lisa’s part, and with the involvement of the national church office, Bishop Schol agreed to inform those three ministers of Duer’s offense. In response, Duer canceled the camp.
* Lisa thought this was the end of the story. But in early 2015, Lisa saw online postings for Duer’s camp on one of the same three church websites. She wrote to the minister immediately. He assured her it was “old information,” and he promised to take down the posting. She believed him at the time, but later that summer she found evidence that this minister had brought his youth group after all, despite Bishop Schol’s warning in 2014. This youtube video shows the youth group’s presentation afterwards. Duer’s face is prominently shown in one of the slides.
* The horror continues. A few weeks ago, Lisa learned that Duer is still running the camp, and the same three churches are still bringing their youth. On July 5, Lisa sent a powerful email to Bishop Schol and a to key contact in the denomination’s national headquarters. She waited two weeks for a response, then wrote to a higher authority in the national church. She also reached out to the bishop in Eastern PA where Duer’s camp would take place. Although she’s heard from the national office, she has yet to receive a response from either bishop, and the national office seems to lack the power to take action.
* Lisa posted a comment about this situation on Bishop Schol’s facebook page. An administrator immediately took down her comment, but at least she had their attention. The bishop has finally agreed to speak with Lisa by phone about how he handled her case. He has also promised to “talk to” the three ministers when their youth groups return from Darryl Duer’s camp. But with a full week left before the train wreck, Bishop Schol said it was too late to stop his district’s youth from attending, or to inform their parents of the danger. 

Where is the leadership? Where are the shepherds who are supposed to protect the sheep from wolves like Darryl Duer? Does it really fall to an obscure blogger to get this word out? The odds that any of my readers know any of those parents is infinitessimally small. Still — if you do know someone involved, please share this warning. Young people have a right to expect a safe experience when they attend a church-organized camp, and parents have the right to know if their children are about to walk into a viper’s nest.


Update, afternoon of July 28. I’ve now spoken with the bishop of Eastern PA. She had not received Lisa’s email; she is very concerned and has promised to do what she can to keep UMC youth safe.


Update, January 2017: Bishop Schol’s excellent response.

“If Our Secrets Define Us”

After three years of blogging, I’m taking a much-needed sabbatical, but I can’t ignore the opportunity to share a message I just learned about. Every year on the last night of the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, one minister is invited to deliver prophetic words at the Berry Street Conference. This year’s Berry Street Essay came from the Rev. Gail Seavey, whose work I wrote about last August.

Gail Seavey asks what happens “If Our Secrets Define Us.” She sets the stage with a scene from the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The Nazis have stolen the Ark and captured Indiana and Marion. As they begin to open the Ark, Indiana shouts, “Don’t look, Marion! Whatever you do, don’t look!” Marion doesn’t look, but the bad guys do, and we in the audience do, and we see the bad guys turn into corpses and dissolve into dust. Implying, of course, that some things should never be seen. 

“The movie was wrong,” says Seavey. “Some things SHOULD be seen.”

She tells the story of her first ministerial internship, under the supervision of the Rev. Frederica Leigh, in a struggling Southern California congregation haunted by stories of “screwing around” in the 60s and 70s. When a retired minister died, a line of elderly women came to Frederica’s office seeking pastoral care, needing to tell the secrets they’d carried for decades. A few years later another minister died, and another line of women came seeking care. Frederica Leigh provided care to legions of victim/survivors during those years. She “insisted on impeccable boundaries… and advocated that her colleagues practice clear ethical guidelines concerning clergy sexual abuse,” writes Seavey. As a result, some colleagues shunned Frederica Leigh, but others became champions for victims of misconduct who chose to report. Seavey says that “the lessons I learned from Frederica laid the foundation for my career.” 

Seavey took these lessons to her first settlement in a church in Minnesota. When church leaders refused to tell her why the previous minister left, she insisted that “I had to know church-wide secrets or I could not accept a call there.” The next day she learned that the minister had arrived single, married a long-term congregant, divorced her to marry a second congregant whom he’d been counseling, and been asked to leave quietly. Seavey asked the first wife what she most needed. “She asked only for one thing, that the previous minister never come into the building.” Seavey made it happen. For the next eight years the departed minister lobbied for a chance to guest-preach; Seavey faithfully and consistently said “no.”

Just as Frederica Leigh had, Seavey had to deal with massive distrust from her wounded congregation. Just as Leigh did, Seavey practiced impeccable boundaries with her new congregation and slowly regained their trust. 

In the late 1990s Seavey became active with national UUA. Working with the association of female ministers and with the UUA’s guidelines committee, she tried to address the issue of clergy sexual misconduct. She and her colleagues explored “the differences between confidentiality and secrets. Confidentiality requires protecting someone else’s story; keeping secrets involves hiding our own stories.” This work began to feel as if they were looking into Indiana Jones’ Ark. “Several women reported that [prominent New York UU minister] Forrest Church had had affairs with them when they were members,” “a wider circle of colleagues started to confide in me their painful secrets,” and even “alleged sexual misconduct by UUA staff members who were involved in an official response to clergy sexual misconduct.” The longer they worked, the more ugliness the task force uncovered.

As they pushed for transparency, the UUA began to push back. They disenfranchised the task force, blackballed its convener, Deborah Pope Lance, and told her “she would never again work for the UUA or any UU Group.” But survivors, impacted congregations, and after-pastors continued to seek support from Deborah and the task force.

In 2005, Seavey accepted a call from First UU of Nashville. “I was attracted to them because they were open about their history as a congregation that had suffered and healed from clergy misconduct” by past minister David Maynard. Anna Belle Leiserson, the only one of Maynard’s victims who dared to report her experience, was “harassed, bullied, and shunned by the minister’s supporters. That first year, her hair turned pure white. She says that the attempts to exile her from the congregation were even more painful than the original betrayal by the minister. Healing began in the following year when First UU held a ‘Listening Process’…”

Healing began, but it is far from complete. Seavey, Leiserson, and their colleagues discovered more and more layers of institutional secrecy and resistance to justice. Leiserson served as liaison for victim Amanda Tweed in 2005. To this day, Amanda Tweed has never been told the official results of her investigation.

And yet this same secret-keeping, justice-blocking UUA invited Gail Seavey to deliver the Berry Street Essay. 

What if our secrets define us, asked Seavey? “When we don’t tell the truth about a minister who betrayed our trust and yet another person becomes invisible to our community, who are we? How does keeping our UU institutional secrets about abuse and trauma define us? Are there actions or rituals … that would allow us to walk again on Holy Ground and see what we do not want to see?” 

“It can start by telling a secret — a secret that is your story to tell… So therefore I say, let us open our eyes and see. May we continue to weave sacred stories together until we form new rituals of re-membering… Maybe then the exiled will be safe to return. Maybe then we will discover what freedom, love, and justice really feel like. May it be so.”

You can read Rev. Seavey’s essay in full hereYou can read the response by the Rev. David Pyle here.

A Plea for Truth and Transparency

Dear readers, please pray with me that the bishop will share the truth at the congregational meeting this week. Here is the email I sent to him this morning.

Dear Bishop _____,
Thank you for reaching out to me last week. The news about _____’s new offenses has awakened powerful memories and emotions. It was helpful to get the news directly from you.
When we met, I urged you to disclose the fact of my complaint to the congregation. I feel strongly about this. Your continued silence prevents my full healing, leaves my reputation at the mercy of the rumor mill, and — by feeding a culture of secrecy and innuendo — makes healing harder for new victims of abuse at St. ____’s.
With this email I am giving you my permission and my urgent plea to disclose the fact that _____ received at least one substantiated complaint during his tenure at St ____’s. Especially now, the congregation deserves to know the truth.

Elements of Justice: Compassion

Com*pas*sion: Deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it. From Latin com*pati, to suffer with. 

Along with other members of my new church, my family is marking Lent by limiting our food budget to the amount a SNAP participant spends. The foods I used to take for granted (avocados, grapes, cake mix) now seem like luxuries. In the grocery store, I have to make hard choices. It’s a fiction, of course; we have plenty of money for food. But in our small way, we’re suffering with our low-income neighbors, and we’re learning concrete ways to help them.

The day after I filed my complaint in 2010, my beloved grandparents fell on a moving escalator. While I was surviving emotional trauma, I was helping them survive a catastrophic physical trauma. My grandfather died that summer; my grandmother and I kept each other going. She lived almost to her 99th birthday. When she was strong enough, I told her my story. We suffered together, and we healed together.

When my other church friends distanced themselves, “Diana” took me in. I cried on her shoulder for months. I talked about nothing else, for months. She saw me at my pale and ragged worst — for months. She didn’t experience my ordeal, but she hurt because I hurt. She suffered with me, and her compassion helped restore me to life.

I’ve walked the journey toward death with four people whom I loved. I couldn’t take the last step with them, but I could be with them in those frightening final months. When I was in the deepest pain, that’s what Diana did for me. That is what we need from the church: we need you to be willing to suffer with us. We need the church to see our pain and respond to it. In the months after I filed my complaint, I tried literally to make my pain visible. On Tuesday mornings, I took the long way to my therapist’s office. I walked several blocks along my church’s grand boulevard during the morning commute. Gaunt and hollow-eyed, I embodied the pain I felt. I wanted my friends to see it. It was a desperate measure, but I desperately needed compassion.

To be fair, my bishop tried to offer compassion. He thanked me for my courage. He told me that what happened wasn’t my fault. He told me I would have to separate from my church during the investigation, but he offered me a chaplain for spiritual support. I believe he did his best, but there was too much he didn’t understand. Can I blame him for his ignorance? On one level, yes: it was his job to know that stuff. On another level, no. He’s only human, and he’d only been bishop a few years when this happened. My complaint may have been the first one he ever had to face. If he harmed me with rookie errors, maybe he felt bad about it. I can forgive an honest mistake.

And I can offer to help him understand. I did that two years ago, when I sent him my notes on how to offer better support to victims. Here, I’ll reframe my suggestions to be more generally useful.
1. Church leaders, please educate yourselves about trauma. Talk with people who have survived trauma. Read Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery. By the time a victim comes to you with a complaint, she or he is already deeply traumatized. Above all else, you don’t want to cause more trauma.
2. Learn about clergy sexual misconduct: how it happens, what it looks like, and how it affects the victim. The Hope of Survivors and the FaithTrust Institute are great resources. You can find more helpful readings on the Survivor’s Bookshelf.
3. Seek support for the victim. Make responsible disclosures at the right time. If you limit the accused pastor’s ministry, even temporarily, the congregation needs to know. When you speak, remind the congregation that the accuser is suffering, and that she or he deserves their compassion. Remember: the congregation may still turn against the accuser. Do all you can to prevent a shunning; it can cause even more harm than the original abuse.

“Compassion” has been a challenging topic. It’s hard to write about compassion when I’m still reeling from a threat, but Jesus calls us to be compassionate in all circumstances. As I reflect on compassion, I realize I have some to offer to the bishop.

Dear Bishop _____: I am sorry if my writing distresses you. I write to heal, not to harm. Healing can be painful; I pray that any pain I’ve given you is the kind that heals. You needn’t worry that my words will harm your reputation. First, I don’t have as much influence as you think. On a good day, maybe twenty people see my blog. Most of my followers are people who have watched me heal. Aside from my parents, very few Episcopalians follow my blog. Second, readers come here not to learn about my experience, but to understand and heal from theirs. With all due respect, they don’t care who you are.

But I feel the most compassion for my fellow survivors. I don’t presume to know their pain and loneliness; all I know is the pain and loneliness I felt. I know what it felt like to be shamed, despised, and thrown out like trash. Then, I needed someone to stand with me. Now, with these words, I stand alongside my sister and brother survivors. When I write and speak with my real name, I reject not just my shame but all of our shame.

On behalf of all survivors of clergy sexual misconduct and abuse, I call on the church to have compassion and let us speak. When you silence our voices, you cut us off from the very people who can help us heal. We will never have the power of the institutional church. Our only power is our voice, and you must protect that power. With it, we can heal ourselves and others. And if you will listen, we can heal the church.

Elements of Justice: Acknowledging the Violation

In the 1944 thriller-mystery film Gaslight, Charles Boyer’s character tries to convince Ingrid Bergman’s character that she has gone insane. His best-known technique, and the one from which the film gets its name: gaslighting. Boyer secretly dims the gas lights in their home. When Bergman comments that the lights are flickering, he tells her that she’s crazy. She comes to believe it.

Psychoanalyst and author Robin Stern defines gaslighting as “the systematic attempt by one person to erode another’s reality. This is done by telling them that what they are experiencing isn’t so.” Gaslighting usually takes place within a romantic relationship, she says, but it can also happen between friends, family members, and work colleagues. All it requires is “a gaslighter, who needs to be right in order to preserve his own sense of self and his sense of having power; and a gaslightee, who allows the gaslighter to define her sense of reality.” (You can find this passage on page three of Stern’s book The Gaslight Effect.)

I want to make it clear that the church did not gaslight me. On the contrary: by acknowledging my former pastor’s violation in writing, the bishop concretely affirmed my experience. But now that seems to be unraveling. On this blog and elsewhere, I have used the term “sexual misconduct” to describe my former pastor’s actions. The bishop’s attorney now says, “It would be incorrect to imply that __________ ever concluded there had been clergy sexual misconduct.” Is the church attempting to gaslight me after the fact?

A year and a half after the bishop closed my case, I sent him a letter with thanks for his helpful actions, and I suggested ways that his process could offer better support to people like me. Among my bishop’s most helpful actions: the letter that he handed me on March 15, 2010. Although it focused only on the words my former pastor spoke on a single day (which I have described here), and it ignored the earlier behavior that I now see as red flags, the bishop’s letter affirmed that a member of the clergy had harmed me by violating my boundaries. Although the bishop didn’t ask me to keep that letter confidential, I have always considered those words to be holy ground. I won’t share the letter, not even here, not even to show why I was so sure that the bishop had labelled my former pastor’s behavior as “sexual misconduct.” The bishop may now disagree with that term, but we both know what was in the letter.

In Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman describes what often happens after “traumatic events of human design.” After a human-originated trauma, bystanders cannot remain neutral. They have to choose whether to stand with the victim or the perpetrator. The victim demands compassion and empathy; the perpetrator demands only that bystanders go on with their lives. “Silence and secrecy are the perpetrator’s first line of defense,” says Herman. “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. … 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.” Is my church now saying, “It never happened”?

I’m about to describe an out-of-print book by Judith Rowland titled “Rape: The Ultimate Violation.” Because the church is sensitive to how I describe my experience, I want to be perfectly clear: my former pastor did not physically harm me in any way. He never violated my physical boundaries, not even once. But Rowland’s work is still relevant to this discussion. In her book, she describes the symptoms of “rape trauma syndrome” (sleeplessness, weight changes, nightmares, isolation, fearfulness, poor job performance, etc). Even in the absence of physical evidence of rape, courts have begun to see these symptoms as evidence that “something happened.”

Could there also be “clergy sexual misconduct trauma syndrome”? The Hope of Survivors lists the consequences of abuse as “fear, grief, anger, anxiety, shame, guilt, low self-esteem (self-respect), self-abuse, suicide, eating disorders (anorexia or bulimia) depression, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and a host of physical illnesses and symptoms, damaged ability to relate to others and to God, trust issues, etc.” Even without a physical violation, I suffered most of the symptoms on this list. Is that not evidence that serious harm happened? If no violation occurred, why would I still be so focused on this issue? If my former pastor hadn’t nearly stolen my soul, why would I spend my time thinking and writing about such a painful subject? Honestly, I don’t want to be doing this work. I want to be traveling, gardening, painting, enjoying my family, and writing about happier things. I want to feel comfortable sharing my writing with my family and friends, but because people are so uncomfortable with this subject, I can’t share this blog with most of the people I know. I don’t do this work for fun; I don’t do it for revenge (my God, life is too short for revenge!) I do it to heal myself, to heal others, and because I can’t ignore the call of God.

When the church refuses to acknowledge the violation, one of two things may happen. The victim may come to doubt her own experience — or she may start fighting like hell. She may refuse to be gaslighted. She may insist on holding to her truth.

My bishop is now offering to set the record straight publicly. If he does, I hope he tells the whole story. I would like to know: if it wasn’t clergy sexual misconduct, then what was it that nearly destroyed my health, my marriage, and my faith?

More Healing and A Blatant Threat.

I went to the Ash Wednesday service at my former church. This wasn’t something I had planned. A friend who knows how much I miss the Episcopal liturgy approached me on Tuesday night. “I’m going to St. _____’s tomorrow,” she said. “Would you like to join me?” My first response was “No,” but then I remembered how kind she has been the past few years. I thought, “I can do this for her.” So I went, and to my surprise I was genuinely blessed. Unlike my previous two visits (a funeral and an ordination), this time nothing bad happened. No one glared or sneered; no one turned their backs. I ran into half a dozen friends, and every one greeted me warmly. I was impressed with the new pastor. Even though I’m now firmly planted in the UCC, I realize that St. _____’s can be a home for me too.

I tell this story because I want my readers to know: healing continues. Even four years later, I am still finding new hope.

…..

Thankfully, the bishop wasn’t there. In my most recent post, I hinted that he is unhappy about my public writings. Here’s the full story: ten days ago, he sent me a threatening letter through our attorneys. If I don’t “bring this whole episode to a close,” the letter read, the bishop might make a grossly misleading public statement about his findings in my case. (When I told my husband what the bishop now claims, he could only say, “What???!”)

I hope the bishop read my last post. I hope he understands that I’m writing not to harm the church or anyone in it, but to heal myself and others. Even after all the trauma, I still love the Episcopal Church. I am hoping to make it (and all churches) safer for vulnerable people. I hope the bishop understands this now, and I hope he writes to tell me so. But until he does, I need to assume that he meant what he said in his letter.

How do we respond to threats from the church? I’ve decided to share my process transparently on this blog. As I respond, I want to model as much strength and wisdom as I can muster. So, what steps have I taken since I received the bishop’s letter?
1. Panic. I responded exactly as he may have hoped I would. When I first read his letter, I bought into his narrative and genuinely believed he had the power to harm me. But then…
2. Reality check. What can he do to my reputation? My former pastor already took care of that. And has the bishop thought about what the community will think if he suddenly makes a public statement about something he has never publicly acknowledged?
3. Pray. For some survivors, prayer is impossible; I’m one of the lucky ones. After years of healing, I can pray again. I ask God to guide my thoughts, words, and actions as I face this challenge. I am angry, but I don’t want to respond in anger. I’m scared (the threat has reawakened old fears), but I don’t want to respond in fear. So I’m praying for courage, peace, and the power to respond in strength and love.
4. WAIT. My daughter told me, “You should post that letter!” I may some day, but not until I get a clear sign from God. I approach this blog the same way. While my feelings ran hot and chaotic, so did my writing. I’ll never publish most of those words. Before I post anything, I wait until I can draw my words from a well of healing and strength.
5. Watch for affirmation. Am I doing the right thing by sharing my story? Am I helping to make the church safer? It seems so. Marie Fortune offered encouragement to people like me in her Ash Wednesday blog post. She said, “No longer does the great silence stifle the truthtelling that must be done. Resistance is strong and enduring.” Another sign: my traffic has doubled since the day I received the bishop’s letter. Surprisingly, most of my new readers come from other countries. Today for the first time, my words reached readers in Croatia, Portugal, and Uruguay. This is thrilling and affirming. A note of assurance for all of my readers: your identity is safe. I can’t see who you are. My statistics only tell me in which countries you live. I am delighted to have non-U.S. readers, and I’d love to hear from you. If there’s an issue I haven’t addressed that’s important to you, please send me an email. You’ll find my address here.

What do I do next? Reflect and Write. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be taking a fresh look at Marie Fortune’s Seven Elements of Justice-Making, which she first outlined in her book Is Nothing Sacred?  Fortune built this list after listening to hundreds of victims and survivors. My former bishop may recognize the list; it’s the same one that Fortune shared when she spoke in our city two years ago.

What are the elements of justice-making? What do victims of clergy sexual misconduct need from the church? According to Marie Fortune, we need:
* Truth-telling
* Acknowledging the violation
* Compassion
* Protecting the vulnerable
* Accountability
* Restitution
* Vindication

In the next seven posts, I’ll be looking at these elements one by one. I welcome other survivors to this conversation. If you reported your abuse to the church, what elements of justice did they offer to you? What did they fail to offer? You can share in the comments below.

Why We Tell Our Stories

Recently, my former bishop asked why I need to keep telling my story. His office has already done a lot to support my healing. He made sure my former church had windows in the office doors; he beefed up the diocese’s online resources on sexual misconduct; and he now asks all parishes to post a quarterly “how to report” notice. And of course, he secured the resources I needed for medical treatment and therapy. For these gifts, I am grateful, and I wish I could say they had healed me. They have certainly helped. I wanted the church to be safer, and it is. I needed medical treatment, and the church’s funds made that possible. I am healthier, stronger, and more whole than I have ever been, and I owe my healing at least partly to the bishop’s efforts.

And yet, that doesn’t change my need to tell my story. When we experience trauma, that is how some of us heal. We tell our stories again and again, to many people, in many ways.

What happens when we tell our stories?

We free ourselves from traumatic memories. Writer Penelope Trunk was a block away from the World Trade Center when the towers fell. Stepping outside her building, she nearly suffocated in dust, debris, and the crush of the crowd. In the moment, she writes, “You have to turn off all your emotions to get yourself through it. After the fact, in order to stop having nightmares and panic attacks, you have to experience the emotions you missed.” She told her story again and again, so often that her family got sick of hearing it. But she knew she needed to keep telling it.

We reach an understanding we can live with. Over time, Trunk learned to reframe the experience. In the early weeks, she kicked herself for staying at the scene too long, for standing too close to the falling tower, for not trying to help others. But by telling her story again and again, she learned to focus on the good luck of surviving and the blessing of living through a moment “where I thought I was going to die and saw exactly what I cared about in my life.”

We shed the shame that was never ours to begin with.  In healing from clergy sexual misconduct, survivor “K” chronicles her journey from shame to strength. Last August, she wrote in remorse, “I feel terrible that I ended his career.” Five months and several thousand words later, she could write, “What happened was a conscious decision by a man who knew the rules and broke them anyway and used me for his own purposes when I was in a fragile state.”

We defend ourselves against harmful lies. I made an effort to do this here. Erik Campano did it here. It’s unlikely either of us changed a single mind by laying out the facts. Communal myths tend to inoculate people against the truth. But for me, and for Erik, telling our stories lightened the sense of injustice.

We connect. At my former church, I kept people at a distance to protect my dangerous secret. After I left, I was too traumatized to trust even my family. At my new church, it was months before I felt safe talking to anyone. In isolation, my fears grew enormous and I slid into a dangerous mental illness. Only by telling my story — first to the women in my treatment group, then to a trusted soul at my new church — did I begin to heal. Humans are communal creatures. Force us into isolation, including the isolation of forced silence, and we will wither and die.

We give courage to other survivors. It was Jan Tuin’s story that helped me put a name to my experience. Samantha Nelson’s story helped me find my voice as a survivor. These two brave women let me know that I wasn’t alone, and that I wasn’t to blame for my pastor’s behavior. Now, when I tell my story, I help other survivors see that they aren’t alone. A few have contacted me through my blog, and now we give courage to each other.

We claim our voices. Last spring, I attended the Sexual Ethics training for clergy in my region. When I introduced myself, I gave my name and said, “I’m a survivor of a breach of sexual boundaries in a church setting, and I’m here because I feel called to work for safer churches.” This was the first time I had ever stood up publicly as a survivor. Two days later, I did the same in a three-day training for church leaders from all over the country. Two days after that, I started this blog. I now have a voice, and that has helped me restore my sense of self.

We “bring to light the things now hidden in darkness” (1 Corinthians 4:5). When a minister crosses sexual boundaries, the church needs to know. This is true even if the offense wasn’t physical, and even if only one victim complains. Mark Laaser, founder of Faithful and True, told me, “The congregation absolutely needs to be told. That’s a moral imperative. Otherwise you’re screwing with their minds.” Marie Fortune made this truth the central point of her November 2012 lecture at Vanderbilt Divinity School, “Wolves in Shepherds’ Clothing.” When the church remains silent, the victim carries this moral burden forward. We tell our stories to bring the hidden things to light.

We answer the question, “Who am I now?” Trauma reshapes us irreversibly. Anyone who thinks we can “bring this whole episode to a close” just doesn’t get it: after trauma, there is no going back to normal. Because of my experience, I will never again be welcome in the congregation I once loved. I will never again be able to give full trust to a minister. I will never again belong to the church that baptized me. Even the trivial things are different: because the abuse triggered an eating disorder, I had to give up running, so I will never again be a runner. So, who am I now? Along with the losses, what have I gained? How is my life better today because of what I experienced? By telling my story, over and over, I uncover my new self.

In four years of telling my story, I’ve done a lot of healing. Recently, I had begun to wonder if I might be coming to an end of my need to talk about my experience. I’ve made sense of the most painful memories that involve my former pastor. I’ve finished grieving the shattered friendships. I understand the community dynamics that fueled my ostracism. I’ve found my voice through writing. I’m beginning to understand why institutions silence whistleblowers — and I had even begun to feel that the church was honoring my voice. I thought the institutional silencing was behind me.

Now, hearing from my bishop, I feel the hand of silence closing in around my mouth again. I’m not afraid what the church might do; I am afraid that I’ll absorb their fears and begin to stifle my own voice. So I push against silence in the only way I know how: with TRUTH, OUT LOUD. If my new fear awakens settled memories, I’ll tell those stories again. If the hand of silence tightens, I’ll fight against it harder. I’ll speak the truth louder.

I understand my bishop’s fear. When I tell my story, there’s a chance my readers will figure out who I’m talking about. I do my best to prevent that by masking the names and details. After all, we all make mistakes, and we all deserve a chance to learn our lesson and start again. But we need to understand: even when we start again, we leave a trail behind us. If we’ve given someone a painful story to tell, we have to let them tell it.

Telling my story has blessed me beyond all imagination. And so, I wish for my former pastor, and for all who carry the burden of a painful secret, the freedom to tell their stories — and the gift of unconditional love and support from the communities into which they speak.

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