I wish I could say I am surprised about the revelations of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Church (SBC) and Roman Catholic churches, but I am not. I worked in the field of clergy sexual abuse for many years and I had victim/survivors from the Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic churches (including women religious), who had gone to leaders only to be ignored, re-victimized, and blamed, regardless of their age. It is the one interfaith thing denominations share. In both traditions, some clergy continue to serve in positions of authority. In both churches there was failure to alert authorities when the victims were children.
The number of victims is staggering. The stories are horrific. Some of the abusers were male leaders with male child/teenage victims. This leaves victims wondering about their sexual identity at a formative time. It is important to say that the offenders who abuse same sex victims are not gay. The bishop’s gathering in Rome last week perpetuated that terrible myth. It simply is not true. Roman Catholic priests do not offend because they are celibate. All clergy offend because they choose to misuse the power and authority of their role in a sexual way.
Adult victims are universally judged without an understanding of the compromise of moral agency. For all victim/survivors it is an act of violence to the soul that leaves profound and lasting pain. Some adolescent girls and adult women became pregnant and were told to get abortions. Given the stance on abortion in both the SBC and the Roman Catholic church, this is unspeakable hypocrisy. Excuse me while I vomit.
Leadership in the SBC is trying to hide behind the polity (organizational structure) of the denomination. Stating that each church is independent and voluntarily associates with the greater organization, they have distanced themselves from the offending leaders, churches in crisis and victims. Like the families of school shooting victims, they offer “thoughts and prayers”. It is cowardice of the first order. It is also profound institutional evil.
The Roman Catholic Church talks about education, policies and procedures that will reduce abuse by priests. They talk about institutional change. At the Pope’s conference of bishops last week the focus was on education. Why do they need a whole week of church poohbahs in one room for a week? I can sum up the lesson needed in two words, “it’s wrong”. Class dismissed.
One thing I learned working in the field of clergy sexual abuse is that regardless of the denomination, institutions keep the secret, blame the victims and leave the churches with few resources to heal. Meanwhile, abuse continues, victims are left abandoned and the major thing church judicatories learn is how to cover their corporate asses.
The biggest thing leaders can do is stop keeping the secret. Timely, appropriate and ongoing disclosure shines the light of day on the church’s dirty little secret. Let’s be clear, victims do not come forward for the fame and glamour of it all. They are blamed, shamed, threatened with death, driven to the brink of suicide, isolated from their faith communities and have their souls shattered in ways that are unimaginable. In the twenty years of doing clergy sexual abuse work, with over 1500 cases, I had one false allegation. It is a myth that victims make false allegations. Churches should create a universal policy of “one and done”. One credible allegation of abuse and clerical orders and privilege are revoked, whether or not there is civil or criminal litigation.
The second thing churches can do is stop blaming victims. Offering victim/survivors the resources they need to heal is crucial. Money for counseling and understanding of the arduousness of the healing journey are good places to begin. Recognizing the healing journey takes YEARS and not abandoning the victim are key aspects of healing. So is respecting what the victims need. In other words, denominational leaders can be the church. What a concept.
Here is an excerpt of one survivor’s account of the pain of her abuse.
Stolen Not Lost
“I learned a valuable lesson today about responsibility.
I now know where to leave the shame and blame.
I am beginning to discover the truth.
Many of my precious gifts were stolen, not lost.
You stole my unquestioned belief in my Heavenly Father’s love;
You stole the preciousness of solitude in God’s presence.
You stole the joy of coming together to share Eucharist.
You stole my reverence for the deep meaning of a church family.
You stole my ability to be quiet and hear God’s voice.
You stole my belief in the phrase “God answers prayers”.
You stole the joy I felt in calling myself Christian.
You stole my ability to find comfort in going to confession.
You stole my innocence and twisted my trust in mankind.
You stole my hope for a better tomorrow and instilled doubt.
You stole my love of life and wanting to live.
You stole my belief in the basic goodness of people.
You stole a significant part of my childhood and adolescence.
You stole my desire to become a loving adult woman.
You stole my voice and my actions that screamed a loud NO.
You stole my right to claim my justifiable anger at abuse.
You stole my right to easily risk counsel without suspicion.
You stole the inner peace I experienced entering God’s house.
You stole my many treasures and the blame and guilt is yours.
Someday you will answer to God for your many thefts.
Someday justice will be based on the evilness of your actions.
Today I leave the responsibility at your feet, where it belongs.”*
May church leaders and people of faith hear her witness and act with compassion and justice.
*Responding to Clergy Misconduct by Marie Fortune, pp12-13.