I hesitate to begin this blog post. Stories of clergy misconduct resonate with experiences and observations from my life relating to domestic abuse. In a variety of abusive situations, one person exercises power and control over another person in an unhealthy manner. Although clergy misconduct is different in many ways from domestic abuse, one common result is that the vulnerable person is is often blamed or shunned because of their perceived willing participation in the event. They are often told they misunderstood the situation, asked for it, or are flat out lying about what happened. I would like to share a ray of hope with people struggling in each situation. This ray of hope requires the willing participation of my brothers and sisters in faith, so keep reading!
The inspiration for this blog arises, in part, from an article, “Risk,” in the July 9, 2014, edition of The Christian Century. “Risk” gives 10 short scenarios of persons risking to speak and do things outside of their comfort zone. In one scenario, Catherine Thiemann discusses her fear related to starting over in a new church after she had experienced, and filed a complaint about, clergy sexual misconduct by a well-loved pastor in the church of her youth and upbringing. In speaking of her anticipation of entering a new church, she wondered, “What if they knew my history? Would they turn on me?” She discussed her experience at her home church when it became known that she had filed a complaint against the well-loved pastor.
What happened exceeded my worst fears. I lost almost all of my friends. My name became notorious. There was no place for me in my church. If we are all part of the body of Christ, I had become the cancer.”
Catherine’s experience at her home church nearly kept her from trying to participate in a different congregation. I think it is fair to conclude that Catherine experienced some emotional scarring from the experience with the clergy and the continued experiences with the congregation.
This summer, before arriving in Chicago to attend my second year of classes at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, I read “Little Bee” by Chris Cleave. In “Little Bee,” a young Nigerian girl seeks refuge in England from severe and rampant violence in her home country. This profound quote from the book speaks to Little Bee’s theory of survival:
We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means I survived.”
Catherine may have been scarred by the clergy misconduct, but something in her faith kept her alive and it allowed her to survive. Had Catherine allowed her experience of clergy abuse chase her away from the church, she may have fallen entirely away from her faith and from the very sustenance that raised her into the adult she is. She may have slipped into a spiritual despair that would rob her of the joy that a faith in a loving God can bring. This certainly would be a loss to Catherine, but it represents a loss to the family of God and a rupture in the kingdom of God. By her refusal to remain outside the walls of the church and by seeking and finding a safe worship space, Catherine showed a level of critical self-care that bodes well for her spiritual health. This does not mean she will not carry the scars of the experience of abuse and its aftermath. This does not mean she will ever “get over it.” I think it does mean that she, and others, may someday see the beauty within her that is illuminated by God’s grace even in the middle of this misfortune. The fears that Catherine expressed in the article are the same fears of a woman who had been baptized, confirmed, and raised in a close-knit church community. She felt called by the Holy Spirit to seek a new church community, and she eventually found what seemed to be safe: a “warm, old-fashioned sanctuary of a century-old United Church of Christ congregation.” Yet she was afraid of the reception she would find, in a church, if the new congregation knew what had happened to her in the context of her prior congregation.
I have to ask myself, why, in the name of God, do we make life so difficult for people who want to love God, love their neighbor, practice acts of piety and practice acts of mercy? These are not specifically Catherine’s desires (although they may be accurate), but they do reflect many of the basic reasons people attend church, in my experience. The misconduct of the one person who held a position of power within that one church not only violated Catherine’s human rights, but the toxic and destructive repercussions of that misconduct influenced many of the people with whom Catherine came in contact in the aftermath of the event of misconduct. These people, who could have been a powerful source of healing and Christian love, shut Catherine out of their life, and effectively shut her out of their church. That is the tragedy that our churches face as we continue to overlook acts of clergy misconduct in our midst.
I do not believe all clergy act inappropriately. I do not even believe that most clergy act inappropriately. I do know that clergy who are not held accountable for their words and their behaviors as they relate to sexual ethics can cripple an entire community of faith and stunt its ability to attract people into deeper relationship with God. The church is called to speak out against the “way of the world,” and the area of clergy abuse is one particular area where the church has some control over its own. God calls, but the church ordains. In The United Methodist Church, clergy serves at the direction of the bishops. If a clergy is misbehaving, it should be the clergy called to task, not the victims of the behavior of the clergy.
Yes, people such as Catherine are victims. They can survive. They can recover. They can even emerge victorious. But in that moment of their greatest vulnerability, they were victims of a misuse of power that should not be allowed to occur. They have sad stories to share, if we open our minds and our hearts to let them be heard. What if, just once, we as the church rallied around those who have experienced clergy misconduct and if we refused to accept clergy misconduct as “the way of the world”. Then perhaps we could hear and understand within our context another quote from “Little Bee”:
Sad words are just another beauty. A sad story means this storyteller is alive. The next thing you know something fine will happen to her, something marvelous, and then she will turn around and smile.”
If that is not a witness to God’s grace and forgiveness, what is?
Pat Trask, a former lawyer, is a second-year student at Garrett-Evanglical Theological Seminary. She is this year's seminary intern for the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women.