Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Posts tagged ‘survivors voices’

Survivors Finding Their Voices

Survivors are finding their voices! I’d like to share three resources that I discovered last week.

“My Voice Back” was created by the parent of a survivor. The website offers a resource list, denominational policies, and a blog to support survivors and educate the public about clergy sexual abuse. Readers may recognize some of their own feelings in the essay that begins, “I went to church today. And today I sat through the whole service without a panic attack.”

I’ve already written about progress in Australia. An Australian survivor recently created a Facebook page with some great resources. If you’re on FB, please join me in “liking” Clergy Sexual Abuse of Adults Australia Community.

Survivor “Shamelessly Shayna” has created a powerful video about her experience of clergy sexual abuse. She was victimized first by her youth pastor and then by church leaders who protected her offender. You can find her message here. Her charming blog, Zoetic Cherry Blossom, beautifully illustrates how we can blossom as we heal from abuse.

A Call for Survivors’ Voices: Baylor University’s New Survey

Dear friends,

Please read this important letter from Dr. David Pooler of Baylor University, which issued the landmark study on clergy sexual abuse in 2009. Baylor is now studying how churches respond when victims report sexual abuse or misconduct by religious leaders. You may have already received an invitation to participate in the survey through The Hope of Survivors. If you are a woman over 18, and you experienced clergy sexual abuse at age 16 or after, I hope you will participate in the survey. Your experience could help many others. Although the study is limited to adult women, the results may lead to healthier outcomes for all victims and survivors.

Here is Dr. Pooler’s letter:

Your experience as a survivor of clergy sexual misconduct matters to us. This is an invitation to participate in a national study conducted by Baylor University so we can better understand these experiences. This important project is funded by Hope of Survivors and the Grant Me the Wisdom Foundation. It is hoped that this research will provide information about how churches and denominations can better respond to people who have been abused by a church leader. 

If you are a woman who is 18 years or older and the abuse occurred at age 16 or after in your life, we want you to participate. There are questions about you, your church, and the ways your church did or did not support you. Below is the link to an anonymous Internet survey. We are not asking for information that can personally identify you. Your involvement in this research is critically important. Thank you in advance for considering this opportunity. Please note: This survey could take up to 30 minutes, so please set aside some dedicated time to work on it. We hope that you will benefit from knowing that your responses will help generate new knowledge and awareness around this important issue.

To take the survey click the following link:


Feel free to forward or share this link with other survivors.


David Pooler, Ph.D., LCSW
Associate Dean For Baccalaureate Studies
School of Social Work
Baylor University

Update, May 26, 2016: This study is now closed. Dr. Pooler and his team are analyzing the results and will present their findings this fall. I’ll post a link here as soon as I receive it.

New Leadership at Vanderbilt Divinity School

Vanderbilt has a new dean of divinity! The Rev. Dr. Emilie M. Townes is only the second woman ever to hold this position. She will be the first African-American dean at the Vanderbilt Divinity School, the first lesbian, and almost certainly the first dean to have gotten a whole set of encyclopedias thrown out of her elementary school library. Two years into her goal of reading every book in the library, Emilie Townes came to the “S” volume of the encyclopedia. In the entry on slavery, she found “cartoonish and offensive caricatures of black folk eating watermelon. Stereotypes of smiling black folk working in the field with tattered clothes. A monstrous cavalcade of sambos and mammies and pickaninnies.” Shocked nearly speechless, 10-year-old Emilie brought the book to her teacher and the librarian. “All I could do was open the page and say, ‘This is not right.’ ”

The educators agreed. They threw out the offending encyclopedias even before the new set arrived, and Emilie Townes has been changing the world ever since. In her first address as dean, Townes asked the Vanderbilt audience, “How many versions of that ‘S’ volume do we have in our academic disciplines? In our churches? In our communities?”

Indeed! If Protestant Christian seminaries produced an encyclopedia, what would we find in the entry on clergy sexual abuse?
* Would the entry focus on the abuse of children in the Roman Catholic tradition, and say (like the Pharisee in Luke’s gospel), “Thank God we are not like that”?
* Would it speak of “affairs” between pastors and their congregants, staff, or junior clergy?
* Would it paint victims as sexually voracious or mentally unstable seductresses?
* Would it shrug off the damage in victims’ lives as the inevitable result of their own weakness?
* Would it warn future pastors to protect themselves against false reports by vengeful congregants?

Or would it tell the truth?
Clergy sexual abuse happens in every faith tradition.
* Experts estimate that 95% of clergy sexual abuse victims are adult or teen women.
* The landmark Baylor study of 2009 showed that nearly 1 in 30 churchgoing women (or seven survivors in an average-sized congregation) have endured sexual advances from clergy as adults.
* When a pastor initiates or encourages a sexual connection with a congregant, it is never an affair. It is abuse. The clergy/lay power differential makes meaningful consent impossible.
* Congregants may develop crushes on their pastors, but pastors need to remember that it’s not about their attractiveness as men (or women). It is about their power as clergy, their perceived spiritual superiority, and their apparent willingness to listen and care.
* Clergy sexual abuse causes profound emotional and spiritual damage even to victims who start out healthy and strong. Worse, predatory pastors target the already wounded. Some victims never recover. Every single survivor is a living, breathing miracle.
* Of course each claim should be investigated, but false claims are rare almost to nonexistence. As I shared here, a pastor is more likely to be struck by lightning than to be falsely accused of clergy sexual abuse.

Emilie Townes challenged her audience. “How many versions of that ‘S’ volume do we have?” she asked. “And how can I and others model what my teachers did, and provide others with larger and more accurate visions of who we are, and how we can be, in the household of God?”

Vanderbilt Divinity School is on the right track. Last fall, the school invited the Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune, founder of the FaithTrust Institute, to deliver the Carpenter Lecture, “Wolves in Shepherds’ Clothing: The Institutional Crisis of Clergy Sexual Abuse.” When religious institutions invite Marie Fortune to speak, it is always a good sign: she is fearless. She pulls no punches. I hope that Emilie Townes will continue to include strong voices like hers in the dialog at Vanderbilt. Even more important, I hope she will include the voices of survivors.

I have great hope for Emilie Townes. She has already spoken clearly on this topic. Vanderbilt Divinity School and its partner, The School of Theology at Sewanee, together graduate more than 100 new Masters of Divinity every year. These men and women will eventually lead churches and judicatories. They will have the power to harm or to help their congregants, to hide behind institutional self-protection or to challenge it boldly, to silence the voices of victims or to learn from them and heal the church.

Dear Rev. Townes: the community of survivors are looking to you with hope. Will you grab these future leaders by the ears, look them in the eyes, and demand that they take seriously their call as caretakers and protectors of God’s flock? Will you give them a larger vision for what the Church can be? Will you blaze a trail of leadership that invites all divinity deans to follow?

We are looking to you with hope.

For the Sake of Truth and Witness

Being “out” as a survivor of clergy sexual misconduct in a room full of clergy was scary. We were together for a three-day training on “Teaching Healthy Boundaries.” These leaders were committed to creating safer churches, but even they didn’t fully understand. Even after decades of smart hard work, church remains treacherous ground for the vulnerable. Clergy members still turn a blind eye to their colleagues’ errant behavior. Laypeople still refuse to see their pastors’ faults. Victims are still blamed, silenced, and ostracized, and I had to bring these unwelcome truths forward.

There was one truth that even I didn’t have the courage to bring forward. To make room for grace and restoration, the church often tries to draw a bright line around touch. Indeed, there are degrees of physical violation from “none” to rape, and degrees of damage from “none” to suicide, but these scales can’t be correlated. No one can predict the impact of any violation on any vulnerable person. But when a victim of “touchless” misconduct files a complaint, she is often dismissed or ignored. As a generic misconduct survivor, I had a voice in this group. As a “touchless” survivor, I was afraid I might be laughed out of the room. I have three solid years of healing, but by the end of the second day, I felt like I was on thin ice again.

In the aftermath of trauma, survivors may feel as though the whole world is made of thin ice. We harbor quite realistic fears: that we will be blamed or accused of lying, that we will be ostracized at church, that we will lose our jobs, our families, our health, our will to live, or even life itself. Recovering from this state, and struggling with some of these losses, I learned to identify the physical sensations of fear. I developed an arsenal of ways to make myself feel safe again. I spent a year in a virtual cocoon. I took enough bubble baths to fill a small lake. So when being “out” at this training got scary, my instincts cried, “Retreat!”

That evening, I took a long walk while a chorus of doubts played in my head. Had I taken this step too soon in my healing? Should I be doing this work at all? I felt enormous tension between taking a risk for the sake of truth and witness, and finding emotional safety. The church needs the truth and witness of survivors. Most laypeople and clergy are blind to the reality and impact of sexual misconduct, because most survivors live deeply closeted lives. We have experienced profound betrayal in the sanctuary of God. If we reported the abuse, we were further betrayed by the church’s response. Most of us just want to build lives worth living again, but when we are silent, the church remains happily blind. Blindness makes no demands. Seeing requires hard choices and sacrifice. Change cannot happen until the church is willing to see.

That is why I have chosen to stand up publicly as a survivor. I feel called to help the church see. I still hold the memories of the price I have already paid for standing up: the circled wagons, the isolation, the sense of fractured life. Losing community so brutally felt like a kind of death. Yet three short years later, in the space of a single week, I came out as a survivor to a room full of local clergy from my denomination, to the members of my Church Council, and to this nationwide interdenominational group at the training. I credit the strength I gained in healing and the hope I now have as a member of a healthy church. I believe that my voice can make a difference. Even so, I still choose my audiences carefully. At the end the second day of training, I wondered if I had made the right choice.

While my fearful chorus wailed, I strolled a quiet section of a shared bike/pedestrian trail. A cyclist rode past. In the warm evening light, I read the words on his jersey: “Courage Classic.” Courage! I decided to claim this word as a message from the divine. I told myself I was walking the Courage Classic, literally on my long trek around the lake, and metaphorically in my work as a survivor/advocate. Both journeys call for a balance between effort and rest; both demand careful judgment about risk and safety. Now, with “Courage” in my heart, I remembered all my resources: the lessons I had learned in healing, the support of church and family, and my own gifts and strengths. The final miles of the walk seemed shorter. The next day, the response of the group affirmed my initial judgment. It had not only been safe for me to come out, it was vital to the work we were doing together. When I shared my final insights as a survivor, I knew I had been deeply heard.

Sitting in the airport that afternoon, surfing the web and waiting for my flight to board, I googled the words I had seen on that cyclist’s jersey. The Courage Classic, I learned, is a grueling three-day cycling event that raises funds to provide services for abused children and their families. “When you ride the Courage Classic,” said the website, “you are helping to stop the cycle of abuse in your community.

And so I am. As I walk my own Courage Classic, I am helping to stop another cycle of abuse. The work itself is part of a cycle: it was the abuse that brought me into this work. But this cycle is different. This is not a cycle of abuse, always coming back to the same point, but a cycle of justice and healing moving ever forward. Along with my colleagues in training, I hope for a day when all faith communities are safe for the vulnerable, and when all clergy offer compassionate and respectful care to every person in their congregations, and especially to themselves. Through the steadfast work of clergy, survivors, and our allies, each rotation of the cycle will bring us one step closer to the dream. By taking a risk for the sake of truth and witness, our voices, in brave chorus, can bring that day around.

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