Spiritual Healing for Survivors of Clergy Sexual Abuse

Dee Ann Miller, RN, BS

Confronting Collusion with Abuse in the Faith Community

Copyright © 1998 Dee Ann Miller. All rights reserved.

The $120 million dollar award got the attention of the world. Yet those who have wrestled for years with the complexities of clergy sexual abuse (CSA) cheered loudest when we heard the clarification offered by the Dallas jury. Church officials, they insisted, bore more responsibility for the pain of victims than Rudolph Kos himself.

We also loved the exceptional role modelling Rev. Robert Williams provided for his profession. Since 1991 he has stood against the collusive system. His testimony at the trial was seen as key. Three days later he stood before the same congregation Rudolph Kos had been pastoring at the time of abuses and said: “You defy evil by standing up to it and saying it is evil.”

As an advocacy writer specializing in CSA, especially for conservative audiences, I cheered once again a week later. Speaking on CNN’s Larry King Live, an attorney for the diocese voiced his belief that the sexual abuse of minors is as proportionately great a problem “say among Baptist ministers” as in Catholic circles. While Catholic advocates were understandably outraged at what they perceived to be a ploy to take the spotlight off of those responsible, I applauded. In my opinion, the entire world was challenged to focus on the broader picture.

Traditionally, most CSA survivors appearing in therapists’ offices have come from two groups: men abused as minors by Catholic clerics and women abused as adults by Protestant clerics. Most laity and ministers alike still have great difficulty seeing those in the latter group as victims. Rather than “abuse,” they call the problem “consensual relationships.”

Another common visitor is the adult woman whose issues are further compounded by sexual abuse in childhood by her minister-father. The suggestion that a victim may be a minor outside the minister’s family is often completely missing from CSA policies in Protestant circles.

When CSA first got nationwide coverage in 1983, I was 10,000 miles from home, working as a Southern Baptist missionary in central Africa. Three years later my husband Ron and I, feeling a desperate need to understand the collusion in an organization we had trusted fully, turned to the only mental health professional in our adopted country in the aftermath of my own sexual assault by a missionary co-worker. The very competent British psychiatrist of Anglican faith validated our feelings, joining us in what she considered to be realistic expectations from the organization, but struggled greatly with her own feelings. “This is a Christian organization!” she exclaimed. “Who are they trying to protect besides this man?” Her question demanded answers, starting us on a quest which has allowed us to be a part of the solution.

Another doctor, equally supportive, was more informed. Although not a clinician in psychiatry, she knew far better than most that CSA was endemic in the community of faith. In the conservative Christian group of which she was a part, she had witnessed the stone-walling firsthand. She challenged my naivety, slowly convincing me that we were not dealing with novices, but with individuals highly-experienced at silencing anyone wanting to expose the truth. Furthermore, she insisted, it was not unusual that the man who assaulted me had also victimized at least two adolescents, one a national.

Disillusioned from the long struggle, we resigned in 1988. I returned to stateside psychosocial nursing while feeling a strong compulsion to share my story as a healing tool for the community of faith. Plans to combine my professional skills in nursing with those as a previously-published writer were solidified the night I admitted for inpatient treatment a 12-year-old victim of CSA.

As we sought to recover, the isolation was incredible. I found several empathetic clinicians, but none experienced in CSA. Most surveys, revealing a 10-14% rate of offenders among clergy, were yet to be published. The Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle was gaining notoreity, but it would be four years before I stumbled onto their work. As I simultaneously looked for a publisher, I talked. In return, I heard story after story, all with common threads.

How Little We Knew and subsequent advocacy writing has drawn more than 500 personal responses which continue to broaden my understanding. In conservative circles, several large groups have emerged outside the traditional ones mentioned earlier:

  • women abused as adolescents or pre-adolescents
  • women who either experienced blatant sexual harassment firsthand as adults or know of someone who did. (Almost half of these cases also involve minors.)
  • individuals abused on foreign mission fields, either by missionary co-workers or (as children of missionaries) by boarding school personnel
  • former wives of ministers, victims of domestic violence (often by perpetrators of clergy sexual misconduct)
  • advocates–either church leaders or family members, including two pastors who lost jobs in the process
  • “after-pastors”–ministers who have followed a perpetrator, a ministry which is almost always stormy.

The attorney on CNN offered the “big pockets” theory as an explanation for the focus of the press being on Catholic cases. My conservative roots may provide further understanding:

1. Conservative congregations often have no denominational ties. Those that do usually espouse congregational polity. (Ironically, so does the Unitarian Universalist Church and the Jewish faith.) In Baptist circles, a six-year-old’s vote can carry the same weight in hiring or firing a minister as the president of a state Baptist convention, who would have no vote unless he happened to be a member of the local congregation! Policies to handle CSA on a local church level are virtually non-existent. In this situation, it is far more difficult for survivors to speak out.

2. A large majority of conservatives are of southern heritage, where the threads of sexism and racism are in brilliant technicolor.

3. There is a greater distrust of outsiders, especially “secular” clinicians who are often considered “evil” influences in society.

4. Since CSA is rarely referred to in conservative publications, a survivor is far more likely to feel like an anomoly. Few of my conservative contacts have ever seen another article on CSA. They’ve never heard that there are organized groups to offer support. In Southern Baptist writings, when articles do appear, victims are referred to as “partners in affairs” and the word “abuse” is never used unless the writer is referring to non-clergy. However, as we continue to see new pockets of survivors emerging, we will find that the spiritual issues remain much the same, both for direct and vicarious survivors.

Important Questions

“It seems there are three primary questions,” I said to one of the pastor-advocates mentioned above shortly after his dismissal. “Where is God? Where is the community of faith? And where am I?”

“Exactly,” agreed my friend, who holds a doctorate in theology. “But I have another: are the three of us even making contact?” Where Is God?

CSA can poison all that is traditionally held precious about the church. Symptoms of PTSD can surface whenever a survivor encounters any church leaders, spiritual symbol, ritual, hymn, prayer, religious writing–even the sight of a church building!

“Survivors need pastoral care for spiritual healing, as well as therapy. Therapists are not usually equipped to delve into spiritual problems intensely,” cautions John Gonsiorek, Ph.D. However, unless an unusual comfort level can be achieved with a pastor as a part of the healing team, a therapist who understands survivor issues and is willing to take advantage of additional training may make a much greater contribution to spiritual healing than one with years of theological education.

“Suddenly I can’t pray,” a survivor told me. She had spent years in denial. During those years, she did not feel disconnected. Not uncommon, her spiritual devastation came only when another survivor came forward, forcing her out of her own denial.

Many survivors I know resent the tendency of the public to lump CSA with sexual abuse in general. They scoff at the legal term “misconduct,” insisting that “violence” is even more appropriate than “abuse,” regardless of the degree of physical contact from the primary abuser.

Andrew Greeley calls CSA “soul slaying.” “But nobody is powerful enough to take away my soul,” one survivor told me. “No,” chimed in another standing closeby. “But it felt like they were.”

For survivors who have moved from the distortion of being “chosen to be of special service to God” (a manipulative statement often made by abusers) to the equally-crippling distortion of having “caused God’s representative to sin” (once allegations surface) it is extremely difficult, both cognitively and emotionally, to turn the powerful pyramid of abuse on its head. This is especially true for Roman Catholic survivors who have been taught that they can only have access to God through a priest. “The Church has taken away our hope of eternal life,” the parents of one male survivor told their lawyer.

“Aside from my father, there was no male in my world who had more credibility, respect, trust, and power than my minister,” writes Nancy. “I wasn’t sure God could ever forgive me.” With the unethical behaviors of a profession expected to role model morality for society, many like her become lifelong skeptics.

Clergy often seem horrified to learn that laity see them as God’s equivalent. Insisting that they are only servants, many are unwilling to acknowledge the inherent power imbalance in their relationships. Failing to do so compounds problems for the survivor, the profession, and the community at large.

Where is the community?

Church is expected to be a place of trust, power, connections, validation and approval, identity, a place to find answers to difficult questions. Suddenly all of these spiritual treasures are lost when “the family of God” becomes abusive.

When Merradyth and Jack McCallister refused to be silenced, Merradyth was excommunicated. Her husband, a former bishop avoided the same by withdrawing his membership. Jack and his son, among others, were exposing their sexual abuse as adolescents by Mormon bishops. They felt abandoned after devoting years of service and financial support to their faith community.

The wheels of justice are slowly moving through educational efforts and public exposure. Recently I’ve had reports from a few survivors who did not experience a great deal of “shoot the messenger” tactics. Yet confusing messages, mixtures of empathy and hostility, are still the norm.

While survivors are probably confronting CSA for the first time in their lives, denominations are not. Repeatedly ministers in leadership tell me: “I know what you’re talking about. I’m not a novice at this. I’ve handled scores of cases in the past.” These words are horrifying to me because, from what they’ve already revealed about their understanding, they have mis-handled every one! Learning that the church is NOT on an uncharted course is an important piece of reality, but adds greatly to the trauma of survivors.

Normally the first questions my clergy-husband and I hear from ministers are: “How are we going to protect ourselves against false accusations, avoid lawsuits, and help restore erring ministers to the fold?” Seldom does anyone ask: “What should we do for victims and the devastated congregation?” We believe that members of the profession must see themselves as victims and go through the same grieving process as others. Sr. Joan Chittister, O.S.B., Catholic feminist theologian, says the church must first get over the shock. Subsequently, there must be a “re-ordering of the faith, a shift from faith in the institution to the gospel, a sense of growing up.”

As a microcosm of society, churches are filled with people who have unresolved issues surrounding their own histories with incest or other forms of violence. A vocal CSA survivor forces others to look at their own secrets. This is a tough one for a community which has often been emotionally crippled by faulty teachings about anger, fear, and tough love (see Fighting Fire below). Rather than embracing these gifts, anyone exhibiting them is at risk for being condemned by “holier” people.

Typically, as survivors work in therapy on these issues, a growing chasm in relationships with those of the faith community compound the pain and loss. Among their greatest losses, most survivors can name scores, if not hundreds, of good friends. “It’s as if you’re dead,” says one.

Where am I?

Rita* was only nineteen when her daughter was born. The father, a priest-abuser has never paid child support. Twelve years later, she sobs as she says: “My parents say I’m an embarrassment to the family. I feel out of place in my community of faith. I don’t know how to relate to God. And I’m scared of any clergy person.” While some family members are highly supportive, others like Rita’s join the collusion, contributing to the devastating isolation.

Survivors must reject the labels of others and re-learn the truth about themselves. They are not speaking out because they are “sick” or “evil” or “destructive.”

Sonja Grace, New Zealand author of Garlands from Ashes, reminds us that survivors whose entire social and religious support system has come from their church community may feel they have no place in the world at all. This is especially true for survivors from extremely troubled families of origin. Having brought their earlier pain into the “ideal” family amplifies issues.

Deciding what to do with the church is a double-bind which is especially difficult for one who has lived in the same small neighborhood since childhood. She may not want to move or go to another congregation, yet staying brings painful daily reminders and constant shunning.

Survivors and their advocates are often treated as lepers. Survivor-phobia causes others to stay as far away from the wounded messenger as possible, both in presence and conversation. Frantic efforts are often made to get the survivor to accept partial blame for the abuse, adding a new label–“unclean.”

Melissa, a United Methodist student pastor finds herself stuck. On leave of absence from seminary because she cannot find the emotional energy to write the required papers while simultaneously struggling with CSA, she writes: “It seems so much easier to be quiet, to be silent, to go away and find some meaningful work outside the church where the church will not be able to touch me again. But my reality is that the church affects me everyday of my life in my silence.”

“Strange that struggles with my faith are coming at this point in my life, rather than at the time of the abuse,” wrote Bob,* a middle-aged survivor abused at a boarding school in Kenya while his parents were employed as missionaries in another country. At the time of that writing (1994), Bob had left the ministry himself, despite years of following in his parents footsteps, even going back into mission service. Today, after years of wrestling with his own doubts, he is back, feeling better equipped in his role as a hospital chaplain and parttime pastor. Yet a basic question still baffles him: “Where was God?” His only answer so far: “I think He was somewhere crying.”

“I went into the ministry thinking I wouldn’t have to worry about being abused again. I thought ‘If I’m in the pulpit, I’ll be in control’,” said a clergywoman in recovery from what the congregation called “an affair with the minister” during her young adult years. She was sadly mistaken: 48% of UCC women in ministry surveyed in 1986 said they had experienced sexual harrassment by clergy co-workers in the workplace!

As he continues to find pieces of his shattered self, William Nothoff describes himself as “a child of tears, washing his soul.” Attorney Stephen Rubino, who has handled scores of CSA cases, believes his own spiritual struggles will be lifelong: “It’s like a serpent you can’t kill.”

Potential Coping Strategies

A New Theology

A high percentage of CSA thrivers have made a shift in thinking of a male God to an androgenous or female deity. Books on feminist theology, which support this shift through Scripture, abound for those open to this exploration.

Many Christian survivors have developed a broader understanding of Jesus, viewing him as a social activist, despised by the establishment because he refused to accept its pyramidal system. Some find their faith growing as they identify with Christ as one crucified because of his refusal to stand by and watch the institutional church condemn and oppress others, yet able to keep his voice throughout the centuries. Female survivors find a balm in His exceptional willingness to show mercy to women and go against customs in such stories as the Samaritan woman, Mary and Martha, and Lazarus’ sisters.

Comfort comes for some by following the example of the psalmist David, who yelled at God in his torment. Eventually, the rage may be replaced by a sense of serenity; but survivors should be cautioned that reaching a state of peace may take years. Exercising patience with oneself is essential.

Gloria reminds us not to stereotype survivors. She insists her faith never wavered. She attributes this to having successfully tackled another spiritual crisis only a few years earlier during critical health problems.

Theology of Forgiveness

Some clients benefit by differentiating between “letting go” and “forgiveness.” CSA survivors have had the concept of forgiveness used repeatedly as a spiritual weapon. Some have heard, even from therapists, that forgiveness is a necessary step in healing. Yet, the definition of forgiveness is as controversial as any theological term I know. Many of us, after intensive theological study have come to rely on Webster’s first definition of forgiveness, “to excuse for a fault or offense; pardon.” Contrary to current trends, we do not see forgiveness as being for ourselves. Neither do we see it simply as the process of letting go.

Without repentance, many theologians insist that forgiveness is not in order. Others believe that forgiveness can only come from above or from a person of equal power. (Scriptures refer largely to forgiving “a brother.”) By contrast, healing will eventually necessitate letting go of the anger toward the unrepentant and the obsession to make unrealistic outcomes pre-requisites for healing.

Unable to return to the theology of her childhood, one Catholic survivor says: “My God is the Great Mother Earth and Father Sky.” Joan, a dear friend and survivor of childhood sexual abuse by her clergy father, also finds spirituality in nature. “That’s all I know of a god. I can’t imagine anything more,” she says, pointing to a tree in her back yard.

New Sense of Community

Connecting with other survivors and advocates provides opportunity to partially reclaim a sense of community. Through one another, there is validation, even if survivors are from vastly divergent faiths. Dr. Sarah Rieth, D. Min, an Episcopal pastoral counselor who has done years of tireless work as a survivor-advocate provided me with a beautiful metaphor years ago. “We are holding hands in the dark.”

While survivors of childhood CSA may find help through mainstream AMAC groups, some consider them inadequate to address the additional layers of abuse which CSA brings. Although the number of local CSA support groups is growing, most still do not welcome male victims. In my personal ministry, being able to connect survivors of various faiths across the miles has facilitated a sense of community for some.

Therapists can encourage clients to avoid the splitting reflected by polarized voices in society. In other words, never-churched acquaintances tend to quickly declare the abuse as proof that “churches are all bad,” contributing to increased self-blame for ever being devoted or dependent on the faith community. By contrast, non-survivors (and sometimes colluding survivors) who remain devoted to the church may want to avoid the reality that CSA and collusion with it is a common occurrence.

The institutional church, while currently suffering from an image problem, has always moved at a snail’s pace on social issues. Survivors who have spent years idealizing their faith community will suffer greatly from the cognitive dissonance which CSA creates. Developing realistic expectations helps prevent re-victimization, especially if the survivor chooses to go public. Therapists can encourage celebration over tiny pieces of justice, like finding a single advocate within the system, rather than waiting to feel a sense of total vindication.

Some clients find revisionist work helpful–exploring the mistakes made by church leadership throughout history. A study of Old Testament prophets, of Christ’s rebuke of the Pharisees, and of Paul’s letters to New Testament churches are excellent starters.
Like families, institutions heal gradually. In dealing with powerful religious establishments, survivors need to see truth-telling as a prophetic work. In other words, it will take more than a lifetime to see the paradigm shift completed.

Personal Transformation

Sally* was abused by a priest in a confessional. Years later, she wrote: “Because of you I turned away from God. I gave up my Strength, my freedom, and my hope…. Through this experience I have learned one thing: Sometimes the wisdom and the actions of the old are not the wisdom and the actions of the Wise.”

Tapping into ones own creativity has brought more than personal healing. Singer Bette Rod (see resource list), now working on a degree in music therapy, has written scores of songs for survivors. Quilter Fran Park displays an elaborate quilted mural, depicting the destructiveness of CSA. William uses photography to capture survivor themes he finds in nature. Frank Fitzpatrick, the man responsible for finding Father Porter and bringing him to conviction, writes and sings comedy. “Lying Perpetrator Syndrome” (sung Elvis style), “It Didn’t Bother Me Much” (satire about survivors who collude with the system), and “Leave It in the Hands of the Lord” (which every CSA survivor is admonished to do) are among his titles.

Paul Goulet, a survivor of CSA at a Canadian boarding school writes of his journey from self-blame to reality: “In the care of holy men, I caused all of them to sin….Now I know, I bare no shame, the fault was theirs, I’m not to blame.”

Spiritual healing and improved self-esteem go hand in hand. The task for the survivor is to get in touch with the power (or God) within. For Christian survivors, Colossians 1:27 may be useful: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Freedom from guilt seems to be hardest for women who experienced an on-going abusive relationships with a minister. One of the greatest challenges for therapists is helping clients understand the power differential that rendered them as emotionally vulnerable as a child, no matter what the community believes.

Seattle therapist, Fran Ferder, Ph.D. encourages her clients to look to themselves, rather than depending on the system that has often encouraged blind faith. To illustrate, she uses a story from John 5. A crippled man was waiting for someone to help him into the healing pool of Bethesda. Immediately after Jesus called him to active participation in his own healing, he was able to get up and walk.

Bob* (mentioned earlier) revels in parallels between his own journey and the lives of strong Bible characters. Joseph is his favorite. When the power dynamics were eventually reversed, Joseph was stronger. From a position of authority in a foreign land, he was able to confront his family with the truth and find resolution.

One day, thumbing through words of Old Testament prophets, I found some comic relief in Micah 6:5.*: “Remember your journey from Shittam to Gilgal.” (italics mine) To fully understand this valuable metaphor, one must know that Shittam was the last place the Israellites camped before crossing the Jordan River, the geographical division between captivity and freedom. Gilgal was the site of their first night after the crossing. There they celebrated.

Sometimes we survivors need to see how far we have come. When we start mourning for “Egypt,” the place of total bondage (despite its predictability), a strong reminder of the advantages of “Gilgal” (as strange and unpredictable as it is) can keep us centered so that psychological returns, even to nearby Shittam, become shorter and fewer.

Fighting Fire with Fire

The institutional abuse experienced by CSA survivors reflects what I call “DIM thinking” (Denial, Ignorance, and Minimization). It must be combated with deeper spiritual truths. Sadly, the distortions coming from “spiritual” leaders are often filled with abusive theology. As a result, a potential source of comfort for Christian survivors may be turned into a weapon.

“All have sinned–the perpetrator is no different from anyone else. There for the grace of God go you and I!” Those who seem most likely to dish out this “logic” espouse inerrancy, the literal interpretation of Scripture which refuses to acknowledge any degree of error, despite numerous translations through the centuries. It leaves a strong suggestion that the perpetrator had little or no choice, therefore should bear minimal consequences for his behavior. Ironically, these same people tend to conveniently ignore scriptural qualifications for church leadership, found in I Timothy 3.
They also ignore a Biblical warning to abusers: “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” Matthew 18:6. (“Little ones” refers not just to children, but to all the vulnerable.)
Leaders should be reminded that CSA is a violation of “the temple of the Holy Spirit” by a person who holds the greatest responsibility for maintaining sanctuaries.

“It’s time you forgive and forget. We’re all tired of hearing about this.” (usually offered as resistance to being empathetic or to working for justice and safety) Forgiveness is not the real issue. Its prerequisite is justice. The faith community is responsible for helping to bear the burdens of the offended, joining them in grief and outrage, for as long as it takes. (Galatians 6:2, 9-10) Extending gratitude to the courageous survivor would be a welcome surprise!

“You are trying to destroy our church with your ‘gossip.’ How dare you go to the press! Besides you know it’s wrong to sue your brother (or the denomination). You shouldn’t be asking for God’s money.” Read I Corinthians 5. St. Paul called for community action for the good of the congregation in a case of sexual perversion. Lawsuits come because of displaced loyalty to the institution and its leaders. Sadly, it has taken the threat of law suits to bring about what changes we have seen in denominational responses.
Among the invalid excuses for maintaining secrecy is the insistence that God’s work will be hurt. Nonsense–it already has been! Secrecy has to go.
“How things look and what others think becomes more important than what’s real,” write David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen in The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1991).

“We must maintain confidentiality!” Confidentiality is a buzzword, often confused with secrecy. The first is to protect the vulnerable. The second maintains the status quo, allowing destructive people to be protected from exposure.

“How can you throw stones?” Survivors are not throwing stones. Stoning not only disempowered a wrong-doer. It ended life. Jesus’ famous statement, “He that is without sin, let him cast the first stone,” was made after a woman was caught in adultery. As far as we know, it involved no abuse until a crowd of men wanted to stone her, apparently allowing her partner to go free! (John 8:3-ll) Jesus’ best example for dealing with power abusers came when he threw them out of the temple. (Mark 11:15-18)

“You are as much to blame as anybody. Why didn’t you tell him ‘No?’ If you were so upset, you would have come to us earlier? What do you want us to do anyway? That was so long ago.” Such thinking assumes “consent” on the part of the victim, ignoring power differentials. The on-going trauma comes from the larger faith community. Since there is little respite within the system, the survivor is in an excruciating double-bind–either accept what they say and feel guilty or turn to strangers.

“God has a purpose in all of this. The Bible says ‘all things work together for good.’ This will too. Just trust the rest of us in leadership. God is leading.” Blaming God for DIM thinking is ridiculous. Stone-walling gives power to evil. Why should any survivor trust those in power? Using Romans 8:28 (the verse referred to above) is a cop-out for cowards if taken at face value. Try combining it with another I Corinthians 3:9 One of my greatest personal breakthroughs came when I recalled another verse, “We are laborers together with God.” (I Corinthians 3:9)

Whether or not others do anything to bring good out of evil, the survivor must be assured that she or he has the capacity to do so independent of the closed, abusive system they once respected.

Additional Resources

1. Arterburn, Stephen, and Felton, Jack. Toxic Faith, (Nashville: Oliver-Nelson, 1991).
2. Berry, Jason. Lead Us Not Into Temptation, (NY: Doubleday, 1992).
3. Fortune, Rev. Marie. Is Nothing Sacred?, (NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992)
4. Gnanadason, Aruna. No Longer a Secret: The Church and Violence Against Women, (Geneva, Switzerland: World Council of Churches Publications, 1993)
5. Grace, Sonja, Garlands from Ashes: Healing from Clergy Abuse, Wanganui, New Zealand: The Grace-Watson Press, 1996)
6. Hauerwas, Stanley, and Willimon, William H. Resident Aliens, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989)
7. Johnson, David, and VanVonderen, Jeff. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1991).
8. Rod, Bette, “And turn it into a Song”–audio-casette of Rod’s songs (available for $10 from Rod at 2413 lst Ave., NW, Waverly, IA 50677.)
9. Rutter, Peter, M.D. Sex in the Forbidden Zone, (NY: Fawcett Crest, 1991)

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