"A MISTAKE OF THE SYSTEM" Calls Out for Compassion
(Article NO. 8 is the final article from Dee Miller’s Baptists Today series of 1995)
I am a mistake of the system,” an Auschwitz survivor once said. “They never expected us to survive to tell about this.”
Joan, one of my closest friends, is also “a mistake of the system.” Despite years of childhood torture by her father, she radiates and reaches out to others more than most church-going folks.
Like all “mistakes of the system,” she represents thousands of others too afraid to confront their realities of abuse.
Her dad, still recognized as an independent minister in the Texas panhandle, once made his way through the easy-access gate into the halls of Southern Baptist ministry.
Quickly, but with charm, he squirmed back into wider “professional” circles to find another vulnerable congregation. His victims include not only his children—and his sick wife who colludes—but a trail of wounded congregants and congregations over the past fifty years.
The greater tragedy is that hundreds obviously knew of his escapades and quick escapes to “new callings.” Silence, as always, did its work well.
It seems many felt so sorry for the “poor man” that they colluded to offer him “social protection,” rather than honor the profession by openly exposing his malpractice.
Joan knows many hymns by heart. She can quote the scriptures her father used as he sexually abused her. She knows a lot of church jargon, gleaned from spending years on revival pews.
All of the symbols considered beautiful by many of us are permanently poisoned to her. She has no use for any church, and I don’t blame her. Her body bears physical scars. Her heart is ripped by emotional and spiritual ones.
Perhaps her story will serve to sensitize you to individual and collective responsibilities facing us as we dare to break the silence of the centuries.If you have ever had a victim of clergy violence confide in you, rest assured you were carefully selected. You probably felt a heavy weight of responsibility.
Ironically, your feelings paralleled those experienced by the victim, feelings that had likely been there for months or years already. Shock, temporary paralysis, anger, guilt and fear may have rushed at you in rapid succession. Unless you had thought this situation out well in advance, your responses may have inflicted further injury.
Before you can effectively respond to victims, you must find the courage to face a painful reality: YOU—-male or female—-and every member of your family are potential victims. I know of several victims, still active in churches, who have kept their secrets from their parents for twenty years or more! They are certain that they will not be believed.)
A simple “I’m sorry” is the starting point, followed closely with “Thank you for taking the risk of talking to me.”
You might add: "I know this is tough, but I’ll be here for you.” Don’t say it unless you mean it, though!! Above all, assure the victim of your commitment to her or his safety.
Resist the temptation to resort to old clichés. Even “God is with you” or “I’m praying for you” are often resented by the most seriously wounded.
“I am angered to know that anyone, especially someone in this profession, would take advantage of you,” would be appreciated if it is truly sincere.
Most of all, listen to what may be a highly complicated story. Be aware that the victim is testing you with small bits of information. Be sensitive to his or her fears to reveal more at this time.
Ask “What can I do to help?”If the victim wants to seek the help of a professional therapist, encourage this. Look for ways the church can assist with therapy bills.
Let the victim know what you plan to do next. In most cases, I would advise you to immediately go OUTSIDE of the church system to a professional counselor who is well-versed in abuse issues. Assure the victim that you are doing everything possible to protect his or her anonymity.
However, if you are dealing with a minor, be aware that you are at least under ethical obligation to see that the abuse is reported to the department of human services in your area, whether or not you are considered a mandatory reporter.**
Finally, make a commitment for getting back within two or three days. Whatever you do, don’t leave the victim hanging a day longer than your agreement. The burden of initiating the next conversation is on YOUR shoulders.
Other articles in this series:
Article 1: Struggles with Cancer Teach Disciplines of Patience, Hope
Article 2: Churches Must Be Honest to Confront Sexual Abuse
Article 3: Denial and Ignorance Hinder Answers to Severe Problems
Article 4: 'Hold Hands in the Dark' with Victims of Violence
Article 5: The Kingdom Is Not Served by Self-Seeking Secrecy
Article 6: Christians Need Courage to Break the Silence Barrier
Article 7: Victim Asks: "What If's?" about Clergy Sexual Abuse
Other articles in this series:
Dee Ann Miller is the author of Enlarging Boston's Spotlight: A Call for Courage, Integrity, and Institutional Transformation (2017) How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct (1993) and The Truth about Malarkey (2000)