The Hope of Survivors: You Cannot Heal What You Cannot Talk About

Filed under Organizations & Causes Your World on Mar 25 13 by

One in thirty-three women who currently attends church is a victim of clergy sexual abuse (CSA) and clergy sexual misconduct (CSM) as an adult. Of course, that doesn’t take into consideration the women who have left the church due to pastoral abuse. Most church folks have never heard of such a thing, mainly because it’s not discussed in polite circles. I was once in the majority, too, until I was sexually harassed by my pastor.

What began as a six-month counseling relationship ended as a scar on my soul. Because I was raised in the church and taught to give automatic trust to faith leaders, I sought out my pastor for guidance during a spiritual crisis. I thought nothing of his wanting to meet off-site, away from his church office, because I assumed he wanted to protect my privacy. I didn’t see that he was guarding his own privacy. When he told me that I had “deep spiritual gifts” and that he was learning from me, I hoped he was discerning something about me that I couldn’t see in myself. I missed that he was pulling out all the stops to make me emotionally dependent on him. When he admired my outfit or the way I styled my hair, I was appreciative of his kind words. What I failed to see was his leering at me. When he asked probing questions about my deepest insecurities, I divulged my childhood wounds, believing that he needed to know intimate information to provide better counsel. I didn’t see that he was exploiting my trusting nature for his own pleasure. When he shared his own personal information with me, telling me that his wife wasn’t interested in theological conversations and that God had brought me to him to fill a gap in his life, I felt sorry for him, flattered that he would choose me to be his sounding board, and emotionally bound to him. Yet he was abusing my compassion. When he tried to convince me that my husband and children were abandoning me yet promised he never would, I accepted his words as truth, because he was a man of God. I was blind to the fact that he was crafting a story wherein I was his main character. I missed all the signs that he was grooming me—breaking down my defenses by gradually and methodically desensitizing me to inappropriate behavior by using warmth, flattery, secrets, and abusive spiritual language. So when he slipped the first of many sexual comments into a conversation, I thought I misunderstood him. Pastors don’t say things like that, do they? But I did the most dangerous thing I could have done: Nothing.

As weeks turned into months, my husband saw that I was irritable, distracted and rapidly losing weight (due to the stress of being in an abusive relationship), so he confronted me. I confessed that I had conflicting feelings for the pastor and that I was afraid to end the relationship because of my dependence on him. With my husband’s help, ended the relationship, sought counseling, and addressed the areas where I was vulnerable to abuse.

CSA/CSM victims are filled with shame, blaming themselves for the abuse. I became depressed and suicidal due to the spiritual trauma. Most CSA victims battle trust issues for months or years after they leave the abusive relationship. A tremendous source of wounding is that the place where an abuse victim should be able to go for help—her church—is no longer safe. My family and I have left both the church and the denomination where I was abused. But the greatest wound is that many victims have difficulty separating God from their spiritual leader, so once they realize that they can no longer trust their pastor, they walk away from God. My faith has ultimately been deepened by my experience, but it’s been a bumpy road, and I grieve for and with those whose faith lives have been destroyed.

The upshot? God provides healing. CSA education saved my marriage and my life, searing some important facts in my mind that are share-worthy.

CSA is not an affair, emotional or otherwise, because the term “affair” implies consent. CSA is an abuse of power between people of unequal status, so it is never consensual. A pastor has spiritual power over his flock as well as a sacred trust to protect his parishioners’ best interests.

It’s the pastor’s responsibility to maintain professional boundaries at all times. Parishioners should be able to trust their faith leaders to minister to them without sexualizing the relationship.

I learned that the right language is critical to healing. Diana Garland, Dean of the School of Social Work at Baylor University, published a paper on CSA/CSM that should be required reading for anyone attending church. My correspondence with The Hope of Survivors, Tamar’s Voice, and FaithTrust Institute, gave me a verbal framework for my experience, which taught me to stop blaming myself. And, because I also learned that I was far from alone in my experience, I was able to face my life.

Recently I read a statement that affected me profoundly: You cannot heal what you cannot talk about. I confided my story to a few friends who believed me and provided me a safe place to share. Having trustworthy friends is worth its weight in gold. In the telling, I reclaimed the power of my voice.

Months after I left the abusive relationship, I brought charges forward to denominational leaders to hold the pastor accountable for abuse. While this step isn’t for everyone, it was a crucial one for me. Even if victims don’t get justice, healing is still possible because, as Jesus tells us in Matthew 19:26, “With God, all things are possible.”

- Survivor Girl

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  • R Z

    The MO of this pastoral abuser reads very much like mine. I couldn’t separate myself because of the same type of grooming methods used on me, a very vulnerable(wounded childhood & marital troubles) female congregant which caused emotional attachment and dependency, fear of his loss as my pastoral caregiver, and the belief I needed to protect him. Because of the enormity of the power pastor’s hold in a congregation, especially if they are popular, I was also protecting myself from the disbelief and blame of others should I reveal any of his actions toward me. The only way I escaped was him being fired from the church due to a separate situation. The resulting emotional, psychological and spiritual damage was huge. I sought counseling from a mental health professional because I was so traumatized. I now suffer with PTSD and have to continue in therapy. My psychologist and the Hope of Survivors helped give me the ability to understand and verbalize what had happened to me. The Hope of Survivors showed me I was not alone in this kind of victimization. God is the one who has healed my spiritual damage. He has faithfully taken care of me and ministered to me as I have traveled on this painful and difficult journey. My relationship with Jesus Christ has strengthened. I continue to look to Him to bring the rest of the healing I need.
    I’m very glad the writer, Survivor Girl, had the courage to bring up charges against her abuser to denominational leaders. Many of us are not able to do so for one reason or another. I pray they hear and believe her, hold him accountable and give her the justice she and all of us deserve.

    • SurvivorGirl

      Thank you, RZ, for sharing a part of your story. After I began to search for other CSA stories, I noticed right away that so many of the grooming methods are nearly the same. I even “joked” that there must be a playbook from which these abusive church leaders learn these tactics. You’ve also brought up another very important issue: PTSD among victims/survivors. How correct you are that the resulting damage is huge and long-lasting, as well. Praise God that your relationship with Jesus is stronger and that you are depending on Him for your healing. You are also very brave to share. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

      • R Z

        You are welcome, welcome, welcome. People need to be educated on the grooming practices of predators. I understand they all have similarities whether the target is an adult or a child. My brother, retired from law enforcement, who worked as a detective in the sex crimes unit teaches a class at his church every year about recognizing predators. It’s taught both to adults and teens. Every church should be doing this. Those in church leadership especially need this training since they are supposed to be the protectors of the congregation. Although these predators are very manipulative and very devious, they do give clues as to who and what they are.

        • SurvivorGirl

          “… a class at his church every year about recognizing predators. It’s taught both to adults and teens. Every church should be doing this.”

          You have hit the nail on the head. People in the pews must be fully educated about CSA. The church must stop trying to hide the truth about how often it occurs; it must admit the truth and provide education. It’s time that the church must be part of the solution.

  • Kelly Smith-Master

    Just yesterday, had a conversation with someone close to me that was terribly abused by spiritual leaders. They manipulated her; and she so desperately wanted to please God, that she fell for it. Great devastation was the result. As you mentioned, she walked away from God, blaming Him for years. Fortunately, God wooed her back to Himself and today and she walks in healing. You are absolutely right that you can not heal what you are not willing to speak about. Thank you for sharing and I hope many women read and reach out.

    • SurvivorGirl

      Thank you for your comment, Kelly. I am so sorry that your friend walked this horrible journey and has suffered so much at the hands of spiritual leaders. I’m grateful that she allowed God to minister to her in her pain! Like you, I also pray that this message reaches victims and those who love them. We are not alone!

  • Susan McKenzie

    I love what you said here: “You cannot heal what you cannot talk about. I confided my
    story to a few friends who believed me and provided me a safe place to
    share. Having trustworthy friends is worth its weight in gold. In the
    telling, I reclaimed the power of my voice.”

    I’m so glad for you, Survivor Girl! I’m so happy that you have friends who believe your story and have taken the time to listen to you. And now your story is helping other survivors in a wider circle.

    You are right – our churches need to be educated. I know of a worship leader, right this moment, who spoke up because her pastor had done the very same things you describe in your story… and they didn’t believe her. In fact she got fired. She’s living without electricity, water, and sometimes without food now. They will not help her in any way to get back up on her feet.

    I have also experienced the grooming in almost the exact same way you have described. I believe as more of us speak up the Light is going to shine even brighter into these situations, exposing the predators, and bringing healing (and also protection) to those who have suffered.

    Thank you so much for sharing your story!

    I’d love to reprint and share your story on my blog, if you wish…

    • SurvivorGirl

      So good of you to comment, Susan! I value your insights. I am heartsick to hear about the worship leader who has paid so dearly for sharing her truth. She’s being oppressed. I believe there are many of us who will are forerunners of a new movement to shed light upon and stop CSA, and part of being a forerunner is paying a price for sharing the truth about it. That’s why it’s so important for us to support one another, promote others’ stories, etc. Thank you for your comment, and please share my story on your blog!

    • SurvivorGirl

      Susan, I also meant to add that one of the reasons this worship leader wasn’t believed is because the congregation, including church leaders, is also groomed by an abusive pastor. This is a common dynamic.