Questions I'm Often Asked about Sexual Abuse
For the past six years, since losing our careers, our sense of community and our personal dreams, the two of us have been struggling to survive financially, emotionally and spiritually. Simultaneously, we have been searching for effective ways to confront the denial within the institutional church over the most horrific incompetency imaginable--professional sexual exploitation and abuse by clergy. We have longed to "speak the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15).
"You keep telling me: 'You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,"' a long-distance caller said recently. "How can that be? If they don't believe me and accept the truth, how can I be free?" These are the perplexing issues we continue to find ourselves struggling to clarify in our own lives, as we simultaneously attempt to minister to other survivors.
Some of the most important truths needed by truth-telling survivors are:
1) SEXUAL ABUSE IS A COMMUNITY PROBLEM. This means that every adult in a specific community or institution has an obligation to help maintain safety. If persons of rank (e.g. parents in families, administrators in schools, clergy in churches) are not doing their jobs, the lower ranking adults (e.g. other relatives, teachers, parents and laity) must speak out.
2) SECRECY AND FEAR ARE THE PROTECTORS OF THE PERPETRATORS. When others consistently support survivors by speaking out and standing firm against abuse, we will see change.
3) WHILE IT IS NOT POLITICALLY CORRECT TO “BLAME THE VICTIM,” A LOT OF FOLKS DO. It shows up in attitudes and actions, as well as words.
4) JUSTICE IS SELDOM ACHIEVED, either in or out of the courts, in 1995. We have a long way to go before we can add this to our list of realistic expectations.
5) ROLE-REVERSAL THINKING IS STILL THE NORM. It treats the perpetrator as the victim and the victim as the perpetrator.
6) THE MEDIA GIVES US JUST THE HEADLINES. The world remains largely ignorant of the hidden suffering victims endure. Most of that suffering is brought on by people afraid of the truth.
In the past few months since How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct was released, we have had many opportunities to better understand the dilemmas of truth-tellers. The questions interviewers ask often illustrate what we call DIM thinking (Denial, Ignorance and Minimization): "How can anyone really know whether a victim is telling the truth or not? What about false allegations? Wouldn't this be a good way for a woman to get even with someone she's angry with? How many people are just jumping on the band wagon? What about forgiveness? What can we do about this anyway? The women are sometimes just as much to blame as the men who abused them, aren't they?
The most frightening truth for most is that we live in a society that is dangerous, especially for women and children. "The land of the free" is a place where many are afraid to walk out their front doors while others remain imprisoned in their own homes. Sadly, the church, the institution which should provide refuge and safety, must confront the evil in its own midst.
Throughout history, the institutional church has done great things only when it stands for truth. For example, when England faced the issue of slavery, the Church stood firmly against it. It never became a destructive issue there. In the U. S., by contrast, the people of faith were divided. They even used Scripture to support their right to keep people in bondage. As a result, many lives were destroyed through the years of terrible conflict.
Thc community of faith is called upon to respond to evil with emotion. Ephesiaris 4:26 (immediately following an admonition to speak the truth) tells us: "Be angry, and sin not." As a pastoral counselor, I see this as one of the most significant verses in the Bible. Unfortunately, the message we get from “soft-hearted" Christians is often: "Why are you so angry?" or "When are you going to work through your anger?" or "Now, let's not get angry." When we face the truth about sexual violence, we will be angry! Not to be angry is sick! The dilemma is finding what to do with our anger.
Anger and sadness often seem to come simultaneously. No longer is our world what we thought it was. We must rearrange our belief systems about ourselves, about others and about the church. It takes so much emotional energy to say what we know. It takes energy to keep on resisting those who want to refute the truth and discount what we have to say. One can get really worn down.
In Africa, where Dee and I spent a decade as missionaries we had a song about "stomping Satan" accompanied by a foot-stomping dance that illustrated the energy required to confront evil. We find doing this stomp dance therapeutic, for standing up against denial is draining. You think you have it accomplished, then something happens so you find out you don't. You must start all over with a new audience or repeat yourself with the folks you thought understood.
Whenever we risk speaking out, we must overcome our fears and the fears of those listening. What is the profession afraid of? We fear losing the peace of mind which clinging to the status quo provides. We fear the loss of our emotional stability. We fear for the credibility of our profession. Some fear losing their own careers because so many have "skeletons in their closets" due to having previously crossed boundaries or colluded to protect colleagues. The consequences of being mute, however, are even more frightening to me. If the cover-ups and paralysis continue, our loss of integrity will lead to the collapse of the profession as we know it.
The clergy's preference for "soft love" approaches at the expense of the vulnerable keeps us from acting. Too often laity take the easy way out, allowing the abuser to continue or be transferred to another community. This business requires "hard love" approaches, the kind Jesus used to stop the power abuse in the temple.
"I've got something you must have. It's back in my hotel room, but I'm coming back with it because I know it will be important to you," the woman said as she came to the display table to purchase a copy of How Little We Knew. Soon she returned with a few photocopied statements of various authors who have written about truth-telling.
I must have looked puzzled. "That's what you're doing, you know. Perhaps this will be helpful," she said. After almost a year of publicly speaking out about clergy sexual abuse, I have lost count of the number of times I have opened my scrapbook to read those words.
The most powerful quote comes from Alice Walker's book, THE TEMPLE OF MY FAMILIAR. "As long as the people don't fear the truth, there is hope. For once they fear it, the one who tells it doesn't stand a chance. And today truth is still beautiful... but so frightening."
A few hours later those words were perfectly illustrated by a woman who proudly announced to me that she was on a committee to work on her denomination's policies and procedures for addressing clergy sexual misconduct in her state.
That's wonderful. That's a good first step," I commended her. Then I gave her my sales pitch, which included a brief summary of my own story.
“Well, I’ve learned something,” she replied, flipping her head patronizingly. The real victims are the clergy. These women are just out to get them, you know!”
“Excuse me, ma’am,” I countered. “You just heard my story. Did I ‘ask for it?’”
“Well, no, not you, of course. But your story happened in Africa. Those things don't go on like that here in the civilized U.S.A.!”
I excused myself and went out to do a stomp march in the hallway.
I wish I could tell you that my book has been greeted with overwhelming joy. Conversely, it is often met by total silence; and, as all incest survivors know, silence speaks louder than words. Friends who buy the book sometimes come back to say they have not yet been able to finish it, Others say it took them months because of their own pain. Some rush through it looking for a happy-ever-after ending only to be confronted with reality. One friend, not a survivor herself, was unable to shake the effects of the story from her mind for days after reading it. Some survivors who are far enough along in their own healing often say they read it four to six times, finding new truths in it each time they read.
No longer can I be paralyzed by fear of the consequences of speaking, though I often have bouts of anxiety. I know that some, because they are threatened by the truth, wish to silence me, Not long ago, when I was standing up for another survivor, a patronizing clergyman spoke with sarcasm: "I think I know where you are coming from, Dec. I'm so glad you know so much." He wasn't glad at all. What I had to say was so alarming he later ran out of the room!
Nancy Biele, MSW, who trains advocates willing to stand alongside survivors, tells us she kept thinking she would find just the fight words so she could clear up all of the confusion. It reminded me so much of my own experience as I attempted to "get it right" with my co-workers and superiors. Long before we met, Biele and I had come to the same conclusion: there are no right words for those who are afraid to hear the truth.
Biele talks about the universal abuse of Scripture endured repeatedly by every survivor of clergy abuse. That abuse, usually far more painful than the sexual abuse, is promoted by religious leaders and those whom they influence. Ron and I had both experienced this painful reality when we were informally "preached to" about forgiveness, love and mercy.
Although the world seems to be moving at the speed of a glacier to individuals caught in the traps of incestuous families and institutions, survivors are being heard more today than ever. We are making a difference for future generations as we speak the truth about evil in our world.
We can all hope to have our message appreciated, but in reality, it is only necessary for us to feel good about ourselves and believe in what we are saying. We are convinced that no real change will occur until the masses, both survivors and pro-survivors, come to know the truth and are able to find complete freedom from the oppressive fear of rejection which often creeps into our thinking whenever we speak out.
Knowing the truth gives us the freedom to make choices and power to act on what we knew over what we feel. As a couple, we choose to risk speaking and writing the truth, despite our fears. We do so, knowing that our audience cannot perceive us as more than "a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal" unless their fears are at a healthy level. The paradox is that if we wait to speak until everyone is ready to receive our prophetic words of love, we will be forever mute!
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www.takecourage.org by Dee Ann Miller, author of How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct and The Truth about Malarkey.