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“How could they?” The trembling voice comes over the phone from a survivor in a distant state. Sadly, it echoes hundreds of others I have heard.
The middle-aged man, sexually abused as a child by his minister, has spent half his life struggling with two questions: How could someone he trusted abuse him? And how can he communicate to the community of faith the need for victims to be believed and understood?
I, too, am a survivor of clergy sexual abuse. Ten years ago, I was as perplexed and despairing was the caller. I could not understand why long-time, respected colleagues were unable to find appropriate responses to my story. Like so many of the survivors I hear form, I was certain they were only saying they believed me.
My lonely battle was fought ten thousand miles from home, when my assailant and I were missionaries in Africa. He had been on the field twenty-five years, and his victims ranged from an adolescent national to a coworker in her fifties. Loyalty without merit and a false sense of guilt--both commonly found in victims--kept other victims from standing with my husband and me in our effort to have the perpetrator removed from his position.
After a lengthy struggle to preserve our integrity, we resigned, leaving our adopted country and careers of a decade. Despite the emotional, spiritual, and economic suffering, we have never regretted our choice.
Back in the United States, we vowed to continue speaking out. After publishing our story in 1993, I began receiving scores of requests for media appearances. As a result, I have heard from hundreds of survivors and church leaders who have joined in efforts to confront the persistent stonewalling in the face of clerical violence, both sexual and domestic.
When I speak with church leaders about issues of clergy sexual abuse, I usually hear feelings of anger and fear. Unfortunately, the fear and anger are often focused less on the reality that a congregation might be destroyed by a perpetrator and more on the concern that a “respectable” colleague might be falsely accused.
While these fears are understandable, false accusations of clergy violence are extremely rare. A recent study found that only 2 percent of claims of clergy sexual abuse were eventually found to be false.
Some clergy may fear having their own inappropriate behavior exposed or having their institution or denomination embarrassed. Such fear often leads to attempts to hide situations and abuse. A condition of confidentiality is far too often imposed to justify protecting the perpetrator and the institution from exposure.
Historically, the collusion surrounding clergy sexual abuse has come from a variety of sources, including some in the mental-health and pastoral-counseling fields. I am convinced that the historical tendency of the Christian community to impose a code of silence on past abuses has been largely due to naivete‘. People honestly did not realize how destructive such behavior was nor how dangerous it was for perpetrators to be recycled in silence from one congregation to another. However, such naivete’ can no longer be excused.
Paradoxically, the silence works against everyone trying to maintain it. A much worse embarrassment shrouds the entire community for years after the perpetrator is gone. The truth is just as freeing today as it was in Christ’s earthly life.
Those unwilling to confront the real issue of preventing abuse sometimes misuse biblical passages on compassion and forgiveness to quiet the victim. The rush to healing and premature forgiveness can lead to quick fixes--leaving survivors and the larger community at great risk while ignoring the long-term psychological and safety issues.
Survivors and their advocates usually feel a profound anger surrounding their experience. This anger must not be considered a sin nor an illness.
Temple-cleansing anger can be very useful when channeled against oppression. I sometimes wonder how anyone aware of the danger sexual violence poses to the church and the extent of the collusion and confusion in our communities can be anything but angry!
Survivors of clergy sexual abuse also experience a great deal of grief. But the grief of survivors and those closest to them often has less to do with the actions of perpetrators than with the apathy of institutions.
From a small percentage of Christian leadership, I hear a profound sadness--which is a hopeful sign. These leaders speak about their own sense of loss, about the inability to trust the people who are supposed to be our role models of morality. They ask the same questions survivors ask: “If we can’t trust our ministers, who can we trust?” Unfortunately, an even smaller percentage go on to ask: “What can we do to see that our churches are made safe?”
I am hopeful that massive educational programs will drastically change the cover-up of sexual violence. But those of us who continue to hear firsthand of the consequences of such corruption are impatient. We want to see the laity joining us to push reforms into the fast lane.
What steps can churches take to respond to the problem of clergy sexual abuse?
First, it is essential that churches get the facts about clergy sexual abuse. We must remember that clergy sexual misconduct is always an abuse of power. It is not about sex.
The professional is always responsible for holding boundaries in relationships. There is no such thing as a consensual sexual relationship with the power differential which exists between a clergyperson and a counselee, congregant, or subordinate employee. You are never dealing with an “affair” in these situations. It is abuse--always!
Congregations and church bodies must also develop policies and procedures to respond to allegations before they occur. These policies help avoid the anxiety and panicked reactions which often result in travesties of justice. (For help with policy making contact the Center for Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence--now called FaithTrust Institute)
All allegations should be reported to designated persons in the congregation or denomination. If the victim is a minor, be certain that allegations are reported immediately to the Dept. of Human Services in your area. Advocates should be willing to accompany the victim if she or he wishes to make the report in person, whether the report is made to the congregational or denominational leadership or to DHS.
Keep complete written records of all proceedings. Be certain the victim is informed promptly of all proceedings. Church members have a right to know of allegations and to have a knowledgeable outside counselor available to them, individually and collectively. They are also victims.
The church must also learn to listen to the survivors of clergy sexual abuse--initially and on a long-term basis--and must act to insure immediate and ongoing protection for the victim and others.
Those who listen to survivors must be aware of their own anger and anxiety. Communicating these in moderation to the victims can be validating and supportive. We must also avoid offering pat answers. Sexual abuse can be a faith-shattering experience; therefore, what we traditionally think of as spiritual counsel in crises can be counterproductive, unless the victim is asking for insights.
Those who seek to be supportive must relieve the victim of the burden of having to constantly initiate conversations about the problem or case. If frequent contact is not made throughout the period of healing, the victim will assume you are not interested. This is not paranoia: persons who are hurting deserve this kind of care, regardless of the crisis.
Finally, churches should act as advocates, insisting that perpetrators be held accountable and that victims have support and restitution. Churches must see that therapy is available without cost to the victim. This can be part of the accountability placed on the perpetrator; but if necessary, the church or denomination must bear the expense.
While acting as advocate, never force the victim to take any particular action. There are few absolutely best answers in such situations.
Be aware of “DIM thinking” efforts to deny, ignore, or minimize the problem. These include passing the buck to avoid responsibility for action and role reversal, where the perpetrator is thought of as the victim and the victimized family as enemies of the church. Also beware of attempts to label the victim. (Some of the usual buzzwords are: vindictive, unforgiving, lacking in faith or compassion, emotionally disturbed, and attention-seeking.)
As an advocate, be prepared to bear the brunt of some of the anger yourself. Advocacy is taxing. It has its merits, but is not without cost. Remember that it is impossible to bear the burdens of the oppressed without suffering alongside them. Those who would advocate must do their emotional homework.
Sometimes it is sheer agony! Yet if we learn to stand firm within the walls of our places of worship, justice will spill over into every other aspect of our churches. And the dry bones will rise again!
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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)
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) and The Truth about Malarkey (2000)