If you doubt whether truth-telling can save a church, consider this: it once saved a whole nation.
When the decades-long horror of apartheid ended in South Africa, the leaders of the African National Congress proposed a Nuremburg-like trial to name and punish human rights violators. In response, the outgoing white-led National Party asked for a general “forgive and forget” amnesty. Either option could have led to more bloodshed. In a brilliant move toward peace, President Nelson Mandela established South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC, led by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, invited the victims of state-sponsored terrorism to speak the truth of their experience. It invited perpetrators to seek amnesty by disclosing the full extent of their offenses, sometimes to the families of their victims. The TRC wasn’t seeking hard forensic truth or universal theological truth, but the subjective, organic truth of human experience. This process affirmed victims and provided some restitution, allowed offenders to set down their burdens of shame and guilt, and helped families and communities reach closure. Truth-telling was the essential first step in South Africa’s long journey of healing from apartheid.
According to Marie Fortune, truth-telling is the essential first step in the process of justice-making after an incident of clergy sexual misconduct. That’s how the process seemed to begin at my former church. The bishop invited me to tell my story to him. I then re-told it in more detail to the forensic psychologist whom the bishop had hired to sort things out. My former pastor went through the same process. Thankfully he told the truth; our stories were nearly identical. The bishop had only to decide how to hold my pastor accountable, how to provide for my needs, and how to keep the congregation safe. In our final meeting, the bishop handed me physical evidence of all this truth-telling: a letter spelling out his judgment against my pastor. (I’ll talk more about that letter in my next post, “Acknowledging the Violation.”)
Unfortunately, the truth never extended beyond the bishop’s inner circle. He had told a few key leaders that he was investigating a complaint against “Pastor Kevin,” but he never followed up with them afterward. During the investigation, when Kevin wasn’t allowed to meet with any woman one-on-one on church property, the bishop apparently let Kevin decide how to share this news with the staff. He told the congregation nothing at all, ever. At my final meeting with the bishop, I told him I could no longer carry the burden of this toxic secret. I warned him that when I told my friends I wouldn’t be coming back, I was going to tell them why. It was a courtesy “heads up” that I needn’t have bothered giving. The bishop never had any intention of telling the church of his judgment against Pastor Kevin. Now, he is threatening to spread a report implying exactly the opposite.
It’s an ugly situation.
Silencing stifles truth-telling. The scandal of silencing has bankrupted many Roman Catholic dioceses. Catholic bishops and cardinals knew of abuse, but they systematically and almost universally silenced victims and witnesses. They quietly moved predator-priests to other parishes, where those priests abused other victims. When one priest abuses a vulnerable child or adult, he destroys a single life. When the church silences a victim or witness and prevents truth-telling, they may indirectly destroy dozens of lives through abuse — and the silence itself destroys lives. Until recently, survivor Joan Isaacs wasn’t allowed to talk about her childhood abuse even to her husband and children. Now, the Catholic program Towards Healing invites Joan and other survivors to speak their truth. (Note: I could only find evidence of the program in Ireland and Australia, and I found plenty of critics in Australia. They point out that the program may simply be an effort by the church to keep clergy abuse out of the legal system. Churches should take heed when they launch truth-telling initiatives: survivors can see through that kind of self-serving whitewash.)
What if my bishop were to set up a real Truth and Reconciliation Commission in response to incidents of clergy sexual misconduct in his diocese? What if he invited victims and survivors to tell our truth in an open forum, anonymously if we weren’t ready to expose ourselves publicly? What if he invited church members to voice their hurt and their sense of betrayal? What if he allowed offending clergy to seek mercy by confessing the ways they had violated boundaries, whether intentionally or not? What if the bishop himself could share fully and openly, with no ecclesiastical penalty, the ways in which he had inhibited truth-telling? Churches seem to fear that if they give victims an inch, we’ll demand a mile, but this isn’t true. All we want is enough justice that we can move forward and heal. Without truth-telling, there can be no justice at all.
Four years after the bishop resolved my complaint, it isn’t too late to speak the truth. In the radio program “Speaking of Faith,” South African theologian Charles Villa-Vincencio, who served as the TRC’s Director of Research, said, “Us frail human beings, us strong-headed human beings, need time to learn to speak.” Four years later, perhaps the church is ready.
On my own, I can’t open up the truth at my former church. All I can do is share my truth here. I do so openly, and I invite the church to hear my voice. I have nothing to hide. To Bishop _____, if you are reading these words: I welcome the day we enter into dialog not through our attorneys, but face to face. Until that day, I will continue to resist silence. I will continue to speak my truth.