Empowering Connections

by Dee Ann Miller, RN, BS

Confronting Collusion with Abuse in the Faith Community

The intensive press coverage of “the Catholic problem” here in 2002 has brought a lot more public discussion my way than the other waves of exposure over the past few years. I don’t think that’s entirely due to the present magnitude either.

Fifteen years ago I heard writer Dr. Frank Laubach say, at a literacy workshop I attended: “If you want to get an idea across to the public, you have to say it 100 times in 100 different ways.” Some of us have been trying to do that as we’ve worked to educate the press, as well as the general public.

It’s been very refreshing during this latest attention to “the Catholic problem” to hear so many of my casual friends and neighbors saying that collusion, as well as abuse, is “not just a Catholic problem. It’s in every faith.” They’re saying this even though so many Protestant leaders are insisting that they have “everything under control” in their neck of the woods.

“Lady, let’s get one thing straight.” After twenty years, I can still hear the sound of the African official’s fist coming down on his desk. “We have NO refugees in this country. Do you understand?”

“Sorry, Sir,” I humbly replied. “I was mistaken to think that the grass huts along the highway were erected by refugees.” The fixed glare from the chief law enforcement officer told me I’d said enough. I rose, hoping for a quiet and safe departure.

“Wait a second!” I froze at attention, as if responding to a drill sergeant. He lowered his voice before continuing: “If you happen to find any refugees, bring them straight to me. I’ll handle them the same way that I did last week.” I held my breath as he continued. “I sent a 13-year-old boy straight back to where he’d seen both of his parents shot!”

With God’s help, we’ll find a way, I told myself. We did, even in collaboration with the hostile government. But that’s a story for another day.

The man in power was afraid to assist the needy refugees, partly because he knew that if he helped one, many others would be right behind them. He also felt threatened by his African brothers across the border. If he helped the victims, they might come after him!

In 1995, from my home in Iowa, that scene flashed before me again, as I heard another booming voice: “Tell her she must come straight to me!” The allegiance of this speaker was not to an African government, but to the denomination of which this woman was a member. The response was to a simple request. Or so I thought.

Wisely, the young victim of sexual harassment by her minister realized the need for outside support people, as she made plans to make a report that could cause much re-victimization to herself and others. The first thing she needed, as I saw it, was a copy of the denomination’s policies and procedures—if there were any. She gratefully accepted my offer to make the call of inquiry to her bishop.

Although the request was denied, the survivor’s report was welcomed and the offending minister’s ordination papers promptly removed. The bishop didn’t help the process by his reaction.

The responses from the men in each of these stories illustrate an important set of dynamics that Jesus seemed to understand very well. If one genuinely desires to right the wrongs in this world, there must be a willingness to put power on an even playing field—something very difficult for people in power to do.


My journey from the first encounter to the second was filled with a mountain of expensive learning opportunities. While the brief encounter with the African official was traumatic, it was not life-changing. However, five years later a far more traumatic realization impacted my future forever.

If ignorance is bliss, my first forty years were utopia! Like many others, in a denomination long known for its oppression, I joined progressive college professors, believing that things were changing for the better in the Southern Baptist Convention. Just a matter of time, I told myself.

The most fulfilling work for an SBC woman called to “special service” was on the foreign mission field. Or so I’d heard, since childhood. My clergy husband Ron and I enthusiastically went to Africa in 1978, taking our two children with us, never dreaming that we were walking straight into a concrete wall! In the interim, we were thrilled to see many rewarding dreams come true, while staying devoted to our calling.

“You’ve done all you can now, ” my supervisor told me ten years later, not long after we’d settled back in the States. That’s what he hoped, but somehow I had to see that he was wrong about that. The devastation we felt from being treated like “backslidden rebels” was too painful for words. It had happened over the course of eighteen months, as we chose to continually confront co-workers and superiors who were more afraid of bad publicity than the behavior of a sexual predator, who had victimized adolescents, as well as co-workers during the course of his twenty-five years of mission service. Unable to hide our story under a bushel, as most people wished we would do, I’d had a growing sense of calling since our resignation.

The nightmare we’d endured was not an isolated situation. I knew that. But the victims of abusive clergy were isolated from one another and would stay that way as long as the powers-that-be in the institutional church had their way. If God was still on his throne, I told myself, I knew that I had to spend the rest of my life working to see that victims got connected because I was as convinced then as I am today that empowering connections bring spiritual change.

By 1990, Ron was pastoring, this time as an American Baptist, after extensive training in pastoral counseling. Meanwhile, upon resignation, I dusted off old skills in psychosocial nursing to help support the family. While wrestling with new insights, I struggled to learn computer skills while resurrecting old skills as a writer.

The November, 1993 release of How Little We Knew seemed to be providentially timed. It was a bit comical, though I didn’t realize that at the time, for this formerly-obedient Southern Baptist woman to be standing at the most “radically feminist” conference ever held in history, selling the first copy! By the time the Re-Imagining Conference was over, I was already learning from my readers. My future ministry would be even broader than I had envisioned. Neither the problems of clergy domestic abuse and incest by clergy parents, even more concealed than clergy sexual abuse, could be ignored either. Before leaving Minneapolis, I vowed to do all I could to connect every reader who wanted to build a support system of courageous survivors. It is a ministry that continues to grow, even as the writing continues. Yet back in 1993, I had no idea how much technology was going to play in all of this.

Less than five years after standing in Minneapolis, I was in need of some empowerment myself, as I tiptoed around the Web, mumbling about how nice it would be to have a web site. A few hours later, with the help of my first new friend in cyberspace, I was on my way. The Tennessee survivor, a Universalist Unitarian who is a professional web-site designer, “held my hand” and talked me through every step! Soon I received a message from Mary Steele, a Catholic survivor and a former reader of mine who had also written her own story and now had it published on the Web (http://asbw.us). Mary set to work to help me with the “housekeeping” on my site, freeing me to devote more time to answering e-mails. “God must be laughing,” I thought to myself, as I reflected on all that was happening.

A few days later, Kevin Gourley told me about this new web site he was starting. How exciting it all sounded. A few days later Kevin wrote to say he’d suddenly realized that he’d read an article I’d written a couple of years earlier and wanted to know if he could put that article on the Web. He connected me with a few other advocates through a list-serve. We shared a vision, but Kevin soon exceeded anything that we could dream, creatively putting together a set of tools that has eased the journey and enhanced the work of so many of us.

Today I get more new contacts in a month than I got in a year, previous to going on the Web. Most are survivors, but some professionals genuinely interested in working for change. The voices blend together like a choir. In isolation, they haven’t felt heard; yet I’m convinced that nobody can ever fully erase from the psyche the imprint made from hearing the voice of one oppressed person. Collectively, I tell them, each voice is important, though this is small comfort for those who have lost so much.

Several years ago, an editor of one of the most widely-read Christian publications in the world turned down an article he’d asked me to write, saying: “This is too negative. We want to hear stories of how people have done things right on these issues.” Already weary from being treated like a pornography writer by many, I responded in disgust, saying that I was sorry that I did not currently have any material to meet his needs. Perhaps someday soon I’ll get back to him.

I’m gathering every ray of hope that I find. And they are far more evident than five years ago, though the absence of re-injury is still a dream in every case. Some of the changes have come because caring people have simply learned to do the right thing. Far too many, I’m afraid, are prompted from fear of lawsuits. Sadly, without exception, the snail-paced collusion of trusted people in the church is felt to be far more damaging than done by the perpetrator, regardless of the offense.

United Methodists provide some of the best examples of exceptionally positive outcomes. A Minnesota survivor had the rare experience of feeling sufficiently heard and accepted by a substantial number of congregational leaders to allow her to comfortably stay and worship in the church where she was abused.

Living the Sacred Trust, edited by Gafke and Scott and published by United Methodists in 1998 is a hallmark resource that should be in the hands of every church leader.

United Methodist laity, Kevin and Gail Gourley are co-founders of www.advocateweb.org, an impressive array of resources for all people who are struggling to cope and learn about the issues of professional sexual exploitation in any profession.

Katrina Horbatko, a young college student in the Pacific Northwest, is grateful to several people who have helped her grow beyond victimization since she courageously spoke out eighteen months ago ago. District Superintendent Tom Eberly saw that she got financial assistance for a retreat and therapy through the “Healing Care Fund.” Meanwhile they called in Stephanie Hixon from COSROW, who acted as Katrina’s advocate through the process. A consultant from Seattle helped the church leaders draft a letter, which clearly stated the nature of the violations and why the offending youth pastor was suspended, sending it to every member of the congregation!

United Methodists in Iowa hosted nationwide ecumenical retreats for survivors for three years—-an ongoing need in every denomination. They continue to provide a meeting place for annual peer-led retreats for those who have attended an “Is Nothing Sacred” retreat elsewhere.

Courageously, Linda Maue, a Nebraska ELCA survivor whose losses include her marriage and a desire to maintain any church ties, recently told colleagues of her abuser, from another denomination: “Surely, if the church behaved like the CHURCH, the world would be a better place.” It’s a dream worth nurturing!

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