How Could She?
On the surface, the questions I get from church leaders about clergy sexual abuse of vulnerable adult women sound very different from the ones that come from survivors. The most frequent are:
1. How could she have taken so long to realize what was happening?
2. How could she wait so long to start telling her story?
3. How could she have agreed to the exploitation? How can you say it was abuse since she did?
These questions often come from people who genuinely want to understand, not just from folks who are consciously trying to protect a perpetrator. They are valid questions, yet answering them in one or two simple statements is impossible.
If one is sincerely seeking the answers, it is necessary to take a long look at the complex vulnerability factors which exist in all of us. It takes courage to admit that, given the right set of circumstances, all of us can easily find ourselves a victim of violent crime.
”VIOLENT?" some will ask. "THIS is not violence!" But it is. To see clergy sexual abuse as anything less than violence is to minimize it. It makes no difference how much physical force was used. It is a violation of the temple of the Holy Spirit by the one who is in charge of the Temple! I've talked to many survivors who feel that murder would have been more merciful.
Nobody plans to be a victim of a violent crime. We don't like to even think about the possibility. Violence is something that happens to someone else. Above all, it's not something that occurs in close, intimate relationships, we want to think. But it does. It is because we believe it does NOT that women and children (and occasionally men) often find themselves victims of sexual violence perpetrated by professionals whom they thought they could trust.
Conventional wisdom tells us that violence just happens to people who do stupid things. When we are victims, we often say "if only I hadn't,_" Likewise, when we hear about violence we often say "if only the victim hadn't .......
Ironically, some of the same factors which make the non-victim ask "How could she...?" are close cousins to the vulnerability factors which set one up to be a victim of professional sexual "misconduct." The question we might all ask ourselves is: "What makes us all want to trust and protect our leaders so much?"
To be a victim of sexual violence requires that one face a myriad of double-binds. This is especially true if the violation is subtle and perpetrated by someone who is as respected as a minister. For example, if one acts offended and tries to set boundaries, she runs the risk of being accused by the "respectable man of God" of being foolish, prudish, too touchy, jumping to conclusions, resistant to his help, etc. It is normal to ignore one's own inner voice of truth and wisdom when one is caught totally off guard. This is what adds to the vulnerability. Yes, normal people are vulnerable--normal people just like you and me, just like your wife and children, given the right circumstances.
When a survivor comes to you, she will have already have:
1. awakened to the horror of what has happened to her.
2. decided that it is more difficult for her to remain silent than to speak She comes with a lot of hope, as well as fear. She hopes to be believed. She hopes you will lift the burden from her shoulder. Some come with little understanding of collusion, expecting that everyone is going to be awake to the horrors, that each will agree that it will do more harm to remain silent than to speak. Sadly, most survivors in 1998, regardless of the denomination, are still disappointed to find the opposite. For many years to come, a trusting survivor coming to make a report is likely to be asking: "How could THEY?"
Because her eyes have been opened, she will be able to see clearly what others cannot--that the perpetrator has succeeded in collectively holding the church in bondage, just as he did when he succeeded in silencing her. Amazingly, his success comes because of the vulnerability factors operating throughout the community of faith. In fact, those factors are all he is counting on for protection!
In order for non-survivors to come to grips with what has happened, it is necessary for them to go through almost the exact process as the survivor, though the trauma from doing will not be close to what the direct survivor has experienced. Yet anyone wishing to be of genuine support must first:
1. have awakened to the horror of what has actually happened
2. be convinced that it is more harmful to those in the faith community to remain silent than to speak
3. see speaking out as a sign of health--a choice for survivors, a must for advocates.
It would be nice if this process had to take place only once. Unfortunately, it must be repeated almost every time a new case comes in. We are slow to learn such difficult lessons. The process is exhausting, but most exhausting to survivors and their families!
Education is the key to decreasing our chances of colluding, which will in turn decrease the chances of the survivor and others of being re-victimized by a perpetrator. It will not, however, totally eliminate it. Abuse and collusion both have a way of sneaking up on us when our guard is down. All churches, all professionals, even the CLC is still highly susceptible to collusion because just one person who is colluding is often able to cast doubt on an entire group.
Much has been written about what factors make a minister susceptible to engaging in sexual misconduct. However, there is comparatively little written about what makes a person vulnerable to victimization. Even less is available on what makes an individual in the institutional church likely to collude. I see this as the greatest missing link to understanding the complex problems.
As an advocacy writer, I have had the advantage of listening to more survivors of clergy sexual abuse than most therapists who have been in private practice for decades. As the wife of a minister, I have had a ring-side seat to hearing the voices of collusion, as well, as I listen to what is being said behind the backs of survivors. In that process, I have been able to identify a wide range of factors that seem to increase an individual's vulnerability, both to being victimized by a minister and to colluding with an erring colleague. Surprisingly, they are often close cousins.
The largest hurdle, I believe, in avoiding collusion is trying to understand the vulnerability factors specific to survivors. It is rare that a survivor can say that all of the factors apply to her case. However, the more there are, the higher the degree of vulnerability. The following list shows factors that may increase the power differential, thus making an individual more vulnerable. It is definitely not an all-inclusive list:
1. female congregant, male clergy (There is still much power differential between a male congregant and female pastor—and, yes, abuse occurs in this situation, as well as same sex relationships--yet the tendency to give much more preference to males in professional positions causes this particular gender difference to be a major increase in the power differential. To ignore or minimize the bias against women, in regard to power, in our faith communities, is a part of the DIM thinking.)
2. younger in age
3. one who is devoted to the church and highly respects and trusts the pastor, most likely idealizing him or her
4. with a limited support system outside the church
5. isolated, lonely, perhaps living alone so that she is easily accessible to an offender
6. one suffering from personal problems, such as health, family discord, recent bereavement, economic crises
7. one who is additionally dependent in the relationship, as an employee being supervised by the pastor
8. an adult trying to cope with childhood abuse or domestic violence
Still having difficulty understanding vulnerability? Then, please reflect on times when you’ve been faced with a serious illness requiring extreme dependency on a physician. Think how much more difficult it is to think through what the physician is saying, under such duress. Think how small and vulnerable one feels, as a patient or family member. Imagine what would happen if the physician betrayed your trust, manipulating you into doing something that you would not even consider doing if you or your loved one were not seriously ill. Now, ask yourself if the illness is your fault. Is the fact that you would feel vulnerable your fault? The possibility that you might make a decision you would later regret? What if the physician committed gross malpractice that ends up greatly reducing your quality of life, your future health, or your financial well-being? Would you feel obligated to keep quiet? Even if everyone in the community held him or her in high regard? What would be the consequences for you and your family if you spoke up, out of concern for others, as well as the need to have, comfort, protection, and assistance to ease some of the pain and get help for some of the treatment or rehabilitation you and your family now require?
One of the most interesting responses to my writing this year came from a lady I'll call Dottie. She was a church leader who had been slowly waking up to the fact that she had miserably failed her friend who had come to her several years ago, entrusting her with revelations of sexual harassment by their minister. After many agonizing months, the charges were deemed to be founded through a judication process within the denomination. As often happens, however, the snail-paced responses had caused the survivor to leave the church, She had told many people, including Dottie, that she wanted nothing else to do with them or anyone else associated with any faith.
After finding my website, Dottie came under strong conviction that she should fully acknowledge to the survivor her behaviors of betrayal and express remorse. We corresponded for some time. I commended her for her rare courage and honesty.
Eventually, it became evident that Dottie's motives were not entirely pure. She asked me to look over a letter she was hoping to send to the survivor. I did. To me, it seemed that she was most concerned with her own losses. There was no evidence, however, that the survivor was ready or ever would be ready to restore the relationship. My suggestion was that she remove the sentence expressing hope that the survivor would forgive her and once again be her friend. She needed to do that, I felt, because it was putting an undue burden on the survivor, who might feel it as impossible and unhealthy for her to have the relationship restored as it would have been to restore fellowship with someone who had murdered her mother.
I told Dottie that it was appropriate that she admit what she had done. After that, there was only one thing remaining. She must grieve the loss of the relationship, relinquishing the luxury of putting the ball in the court of the survivor. Then, she must be willing to wait. Only if the survivor initiated a hope for restoration, could she pursue it. This was hard for Dottie, but she agreed that she could understand this. The story is still in the process of unfolding.
Meanwhile Dottie is working to bring good out of evil. Not only did she apologize. She is taking steps toward becoming an advocate within her denomination. She is determined that she will not collude again. And I believe there is a good chance that she won't. It has been an extremely painful education.
I leave you with Dottie's story, hoping that you will understand your vulnerability to both being victimized and to being blind-sided in the important work you are doing. In so doing, perhaps survivors who come your way will not be asking themselves "How could they .... ?"
Dee Ann Miller is the
author of Enlarging Boston's Spotlight: A Call for Courage, Integrity, and Institutional Transformation (2017) How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct (1993)
The Truth about Malarkey (2000)