An Educational Series on Sexual Misconduct in the Church
Survivors Helping Survivors:
Gina was in the cloakroom after attending the seniors’ potluck at church. She was reaching up over the coat-rack to retrieve her scarf when she was shocked to feel someone’s hand quickly slide up under her sweater and underneath her bra strap. Startled and scared, she whirled around and jumped back at the same time. She could not believe her eyes; it was her pastor who had touched her! She felt very afraid suddenly, and confused as he looked at her and smiled. She ran out of the church without her scarf.
Gina was in turmoil. Could this really have happened? She felt like she was going crazy. This simply didn’t make sense. She felt dirty and violated. She stayed away from church for several weeks. Eventually she went back to church but kept her distance from the pastor, being careful to never be alone with him. He caught her eye across the room during a meeting and smiled. She suddenly felt nauseous and had to leave. A month later she decided to do something.
She arranged a meeting with her church council chairperson, a woman, and explained what had happened. The chairperson looked distraught as Gina told her story. “Do you believe me?” Gina asked, when she had finished.
“Yes, I believe you. And I am sorry to say we received another complaint like this last week, and we are just sorting out how to handle it. Thank you for coming forward with your story. I am so sorry this happened to you.”
Pastor Dave was put on a paid leave of absence as the two complaints were investigated. The congregation was informed that sexual harassment allegations had come against their pastor, asking other potential complainants to come forward. Over the next month five more women came forward with complaints of their necks being caressed, inappropriate hugs and sexually suggestive comments. Some incidents had taken place two years earlier.
The congregation hired an outside consultant to conduct an investigation, and to help with the healing process. This consultant convened a meeting for complainants to meet each other.
It was an emotional evening, as each shared what had happened. “I know it only took a few seconds, but it changed my life.” “I thought it was my fault. Should I have worn that dress to church?” “I would have said something earlier, but I was worried I was blowing something out of proportion. And I didn’t think people would believe me.” “I feel like I lost my church. I haven’t been able to feel comfortable in worship.” “I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so powerless before.” “I haven’t been able to process my own feelings since my husband found out. He’s so angry, he wants to go and have it out with Dave.”
Over and over again they said to one another, “How can a pastor do something like this… he’s supposed to be a man of God!”
Biblical Grounding: From the Ground Up
Two can defend themselves.
Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken
Pastoral abuse is “crazy making.” In other words, it is so far out of one’s experience and expectations that it can feel like you are living in a surreal dream. Gina seriously wondered whether she had imagined the whole thing because it seemed so impossible. Could she even trust her own memory?
Finding out that Dave had abused other women changed things significantly for her. She was horrified that other women went through what she did. At the same time she was also relieved because she could finally believe her own memory and gut feelings. Meeting with the women was very empowering. She was with people who were really listening. Their listening helped her to articulate the pain she was feeling. Together they felt their voice would not be ignored. They would support each other as they tried to move on.
Professional Ethics: Casting a Net
If Pastor Dave was a denominational leader, or had worked in schools or camps, he could have abused people in those settings as well. In that case it would be appropriate for church leaders to spread the word in those circles too that a complaint had been received, encouraging others who had experienced any inappropriate behaviour to come forward.
Casting a wide net to find survivors of abuse is sometimes controversial, particularly if allegations come forward after someone has died. Allies of the pastor may feel that his reputation is being needlessly destroyed in the larger church. There is a feeling of “let sleeping dogs lie.” “If people don’t come forward of their own accord, then it must not be very bad.” Some are worried that deceased persons cannot defend their reputation, or it will hurt living relatives.
However the experience of survivors of abuse is clear. Many suffer lasting and debilitating consequences because they are isolated and alone. Their healing journey often begins when they share their story.
Just as the abuser cast a wide net to find victims, so the church must cast a wide net to help save survivors from the pain of secrets and lies.
Guarding A Sacred Trust: The Good News
Not an easy road
Although it is helpful to find others who have experienced pain like your own, it is never easy being a survivor. Hearing how others have been abused is excruciating, particularly when the pain is so real in your own life. There are decisions to be made about confidentiality. Certain people in the group may want to come forward publicly while others decide to remain anonymous.
Much as churches pay lip service to “not blaming the victim,” often survivors of abuse can feel ostracized or blamed for the consequences a pastor faces. Members in the church might look at the abuse and judge that it “wasn’t that bad." They may feel that the complainants are ganging up on the pastor or exaggerating what the effects are in their lives. Survivors can support each other as they navigate the stormy waters of an investigation and its aftermath.
- How does Gina’s age factor into her experience of abuse?
- How might this story be different if the church council chairperson had minimized Gina’s complaint, or told her he/she would deal with it privately?
- What kinds of emotions do you think might be felt at the meeting where survivors shared their stories with each other?
- Do you think you would be more likely to pursue a complaint if there were other complainants? Why?
- Why would some church members feel that what happened was “not that bad”?
- How might the combined voices of the survivors change that attitude?
Credits and Links
This fictional story was written to show the kinds of experiences survivors of abuse face. Authored by Carol Penner, it is part of an MCEC sexual misconduct educational series entitled "Sacred Trust."
Sacred Trust is an MCEC inititiive in collaboration with SMARRT.