Church Secrets we DARE NOT Keep

by Dee Ann Miller

"You can't hurt me anymore. I am stronger than you think I am." The gentle voice I heard last weekend reflects the strength of the person singing it--a lady I believe to be one of the most courageous, caring, and spiritual people I have ever met.

Decades ago, as an adolescent, Bette Rod was sexually assaulted by her own minister. Now, as her only daughter enters adolescence, she wrestles with a whole new layer of fear and confusion. Her torment is unending, but it is not about her own failures. It is about the failure of one who was supposed to be setting a moral example for his congregation. In contrast to the many years she spent in isolation and pain, today Bette is part of a huge network of men and women who are speaking out in the hopes of waking the sleeping. Her vibrant ministry takes her to both churches and secular support groups where she sings out her painful testimony. Her speaking has not been without consequence. Each time she sings her songs or tells her story, Bette knows there are some who will not understand. Still she refuses to be silent.

Each year Bette and I join about ten other women from a wide range of faith backgrounds. We come from all over the nation to share our journeys, to network, to hammer out new coping strategies as we wrestle with what we can never forget. All of us are victims of clergy sexual violence. Yet we are determined to be a part of the solution, not just for ourselves, but for others. Some, like Bette, were violated as adolescents, others as adults. Four of us victimized as adults know of adolescent girls violated by the same man.

Jan is one of two mothers who shares a double burden. She and her own daughter, once vibrant, active congregants now spend much of their energy wrestling with one terrible commonality. They were both betrayed by the same minister. Jan is a single mother who has the misfortune of living next door to a church which is no longer a place of fellowship for her. She has not attended services there in a year. Her only child was repeatedly molested and finally raped at age twelve by the least likely suspect in the community. Imagine the rage when Jan learned of this years later. Imagine the added grief when many in the community supported secrecy more than justice, turning on Jan's family and another victim as they struggled with a system which simply chose to remove the perpetrator from his present congregation and "help" him find a chaplaincy position only a few miles away.

Dee (not this author) is the other mother, a woman in her sixties. She was raped by the same minister who victimized her adolescent daughter and several others. Today the minister has been "restored" while Dee's daughter, herself an ordained minister, struggles to stay in a profession which she sees repeatedly offering "easy forgiveness" to other offenders within it.

"That's ridiculous!" you may say. "Those are just sensational stories! Such nonsense would never happen in my congregation or denomination!" I wish I could agree. Every story represented in our group is just as ridiculous.

Each of four others once found herself in a pseudo-romantic relationship with a minister in either a counseling or subordinate church leadership position. Contrary to the understanding of minimally-informed outsiders, these relationships cannot be called "an affair" or "consensual" even though the women were adults. Joel Friedman and Marcia Mobilia Boumil in their book, Betrayal of Trust (Praeger, 1995) insist that sexual exploitation by professionals is "yet another form of sexual violence." In a growing number of states, such behavior is classified as criminal.

These women are among the most wounded of all victims I know. They have a far greater challenge in trying to forgive themselves for being victims because, in most cases, the community and most ministers consider them as "equal partners" or the real perpetrators.

"I trusted him with my deepest secrets," one survivor said this past weekend. After a few counseling sessions, she recognized the destructive relationship and quickly got out. As she walked away, however, she carried the burden of the greatest secret she has ever known.

One woman was abused by a female minister. Rather than leave her denomination in bitterness, she has worked to be heard. Recently she provided a seminar to educate laity on these issues.

Many of us remain active in church, though some have made denominational changes. Several no longer attend any church regularly. Yet, in spite of their sense of alienation, all are actively seeking spiritual growth.

"We'll pray for your healing," many have been told. We are suspicious. We have learned that the majority of people who make this statement believe our healing depends upon us once again trusting leaders of the institutional church and deciding to keep silent. We refuse to accept such criteria.

Many in the group are radiant. They speak of feeling healthier now than ever before despite the on-going, widespread attempts to silence them for speaking out. Yet those who remain totally detached from the community of faith are often labeled "back-sliders."

These women are but a few of the thousands of survivors--both men and women--with whom I now have contact. My husband Ron and I work together in interfaith circles. We are committed to healing individual survivors. We also long to see a commitment among the masses in every denomination to strive to make the Christian community what we once believed it to be--the safest place on the face of the earth.

No person has contributed more to the work of advocacy which I do than my own husband. He frequently tells our local congregation about this arm of our shared ministry and expresses strong outrage at the status of his profession. He speaks up at every opportunity with colleagues, attempting to clarify the issues. I consider him to be a tremendous role model.

Ron tells me that in seminary he was taught a great half-truth. "There are lots of women out there who are just out to get you." It is our hope that someday these words will be changed in the education of all clergy to the following: "There are many wounded people out there. Among them are many men and women who have not been taught good boundaries. Many of these are victims of childhood incest. Some of you may be victims yourselves or for some other reason have not learned how to set boundaries with others. NEVERTHELESS, IT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO LEARN TO DO SO NOW. If you need help, get the therapy you need now. Don't step into the pulpit or any other form of ministry until you have taken this step. If you do and you choose to cross the boundaries into sexual misconduct, you must understand that you will not only destroy your own ministry but devastate many primary and secondary victims in the aftermath. In so doing, you will likely do far more harm than good, even if it is a one-time incident. Furthermore, you are responsible not just for yourself, but for your profession. Covering up gross misbehavior on the part of any colleague should be considered just as serious as crossing the boundary yourself."

Learning the Questions

"You ask hard questions," people often tell me. I won't argue that point.

"I know I do," I reply without apology.

One of my high school teachers was the first to tell me this. Asking hard questions has carried over into my work in psychosocial nursing. Today most of the questions I ask in the interfaith survivor movement are motivated by my desire to be a part of the solution. Such an effort requires that I run the risk of being misunderstood in everything I do. Like Dennis Gaboury, a Catholic survivor speaking to a large group of Catholic bishops a few years ago, I want people to understand: "We are not your enemies. We are your last best hope." Yet, more than once I have been accused of "not believing in the healing power of God."

"What is it that keeps people in the church zealous about confronting the evils of this world, yet paralyzed when confronted with the evils of violence in our own fronts yards?" I ask. More specifically: "Why do professional ministers and laity collude to re-cycle violent ministers from one congregation to another in secrecy?"

My concern is not just about sexual violence, but also about another group I've heard a lot from--victims of domestic violence in the parsonage. Over and Over I've heard from these wives. They often tell me that their husbands also sexually abused congregants. Typically, the wives were blamed by church members and other ministers, making it especially difficult for them to escape.

Ten years ago Dr. Maureen Wilkinson, a Christian British psychiatrist started me down a path of searching when I turned to her in the aftermath of my own sexual assault. I turned to her because the snail-paced responses to the case had left me in excruciating emotional pain. I had not blamed myself for the assault, but was now beginning to question my own sanity. My assailant was a missionary co-worker. We both served in Africa under the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Among his reported victims were two adolescents.

At that time, Dr. Wilkinson had never dealt with another case of clergy sexual violence. Yet she provided exactly what I needed. "Your feelings are valid. Your expectations are right on target," she assured me. Later she joined me in my own puzzlement over the role-reversal thinking which allowed the perpetrator so much protection. "The real problem here is secrecy," she said. "It's neither normal nor healthy to protect someone like this. Who are they really trying to protect?"

Immediately she attempted to answer her own question. "My guess is they are thinking, "This could easily be me."

"They're not just thinking it. They're saying it," I returned.

"They don't understand," she continued. "What this man has done is not an ordinary, everyday sin. This is not simply about us. There is a vast difference between those who have common, normal fantasies and those who act on them. Crossing boundaries is not only sinful or immoral. It is a seriously unhealthy behavior."

Since then, I have come to believe that her helpful explanation only partially explains the rationalization for unethical secrecy. Additional understanding has come through a study of three disciplines--psychology, theology, and ethics. New gems have been gleaned from workshop speakers who work fulltime as specialists who deal with professional abuse. An alternative source of information has come through contacts with persons responding to my on-going work of advocacy writing.

I began by writing my story--How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct ** (Prescott, 1993). The book has opened other doors to write articles reaching out to survivors, professionals, and the general public. It has offered scores of opportunities for media appearances and provided an ever-growing ministry beyond my greatest expectations.

Just before it was released I learned that my assailant had managed to return to a pastorate and teaching position in my native state of Texas only a few months after his resignation from foreign mission service. Apparently, he was able to persuade someone along the way that his few months of counseling had rehabilitated him. Of perhaps he simply lied his way into the hearts of another congregation. Had he not succeeded in staying within Baptist circles, he probably would have found a way to cross denominational lines just as many other perpetrators have done. This horror story, like so many others I now know, is a sad commentary on our feeble systems of accountability throughout the community of faith.

The questions I ask sometimes generate answers. At other times, they generate more questions as I look deeper and deeper into the complex issues. Yet Dr. Wilkinson's "Who are they really trying to protect?" continues to ring louder than all others. To it I have added a related question: "What unresolved feelings protect wrong-doers in the institutional church at the expense of the vulnerable?"

I believe the answer is complex, but boils down to two feelings: FEAR and SHAME. Ironically, these same emotions are what keep most survivors in hiding. Once the shame is gone, it is impossible to ignore the healthy anger. For many, overcoming the shame of being angry is yet another step. But once that anger is seen as God-given and useful, it starts to work for healthy change. Gradually the fear pales. The energy takes over, and Romans 8:28 has a new illustration!

Yet victims are under no obligation to take the risk of reporting, possibly inflicting on themselves much more painful abuse in the aftermath. Before doing so, it is essential to have a strong support system.

By contrast, persons in positions of leadership are ethically bound to protect victims from public exposure and to do everything possible to see that offenders are removed from positions of leadership. They, also, need strong support systems, but often fail to find them. They, too, may face double-binds, having to choose between compromising their convictions or enduring intense spiritual abuse from colleagues who shame them for their convictions.

"We have all sinned," is a silencer used by spiritually abusive people. I place it on a long list of others (i.e., "Stop throwing stones," "Forgive and forget," "Judge not that ye be not judged," etc.) All of these, when misused, are a part of a disorder I prefer to call DIM thinking (Denial, Ignorance, and Minimization). They can be used as readily to support evil as to encourage spiritual maturity.

Earlier this year I was asked to critique a doctoral dissertation written by a Princeton scholar. "The rules have changed," the writer explained. Such rationalization for unethical behaviors in our history is common. It reminds me of how some have tried to find ways to justify slavery, rather than mourn its existence.

"The rules have never changed," I countered. "What have changed are the consequences. Many of us refuse to keep silent. Churches and colleagues are being confronted with the evils of ministerial "misbehavior" a word commonly used which reminds me of two-year-old having temper tantrums. What else has changed? Secrecy is no longer acceptable in our larger society. It's time it is no longer acceptable in our churches!

What keeps non-offending ministers from displaying public outrage? Once again, I believe it is shame and fear. Ministers who honestly face the truth are ashamed of their own profession. Those who remain silent or rationalize that "we are helpless to change things" refuse to face the incongruency between what they know and what they are willing to admit.

Most of the fear seems to center around the exaggerated possibilities of false accusations and the threat of lawsuits. Gail Peterson, Ph.D., a Minnesota psychotherapist tells us that fewer than 2% of allegations are eventually found to be unfounded. A far greater likelihood for every minister is the danger of stepping into the difficult role of an after-pastor (the name given to pastors who immediately follow a perpetrator). Many ministers have not learned about former abuses until they have been on a field for months or years. They often find little support from colleagues and frequently leave their churches after multiple storms which they have difficulty in understanding because nobody wants to talk about the well-known, but hard-to-face secret.

Insurance companies and attorneys both repeatedly have assured churches that when they make wise ethical decisions, there is little chance that a lawsuit will develop. Furthermore, they tell us that acting on behalf of victims and working to protect others from further abuse will also promote faster healing for the congregation.

"But what about the 'troubled pastor?'" some ask. Once again, secrecy only works to sabotage the hope of true reform in offenders. Dr. Marie Fortune, executive director of The Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, tells those who attend her workshops that few offenders express genuine remorse. Instead they are worried about the consequences to their own careers far more than they are about the consequences the abuse has for the congregation and for the primary victims. Even if remorseful, the offenders will find few state-of-the-art treatment facilities. Treatment always is a lengthy process, and ongoing accountability is a must.

Initially most survivor blame themselves for the abuse. This is true whether the abuse is domestic or sexual. The fear of being found out and the fear of being condemned play a big part in the self-imposed silence. Yet silence is all that the perpetrators are counting on for their protection!

As I listen to pastors struggling with their own fears, I am convinced they are also wrestling with the fear of the profession being found out.

"We'll ALL become suspect if this gets out," one pastor said.

"I'm sorry," I told him. "You already are in the eyes of many. It's time to grieve. It's time to be outraged at what your colleagues have done to the reputation of your own profession."

Unexpected Insight

For my family and me, the Oklahoma City tragedy was an intensely personal wound. My husband Ron was born and raised in the City. Many members of our family, including our daughter and son-in-law, still live there. Ron and I met at Oklahoma Baptist University, only a 45-minute drive from the bomb site. We furloughed in Duncan, Oklahoma where we own a house.

Presently we live in Iowa, so we had to watch the heart-wrenching scenes on CNN. Unlike most Americans, we recognized two of the grieving family members. One of my cousins was among the rescuers. How eerie it was seeing familiar scenes from far away!

The tragedy became even more personal on April 21 when we learned our daughter had narrowly missed being in the Social Security office that April 19 for a 9 a.m. appointment.

I called the women of our church. They responded warmly. On short notice more than a dozen gathered to make memorial ribbons for every church member to wear as we observed a special time of prayer the next morning. The mundane details of our lives were left to take care of themselves. We were in grief and shock. I could not tear myself away from the Social Security office until the last survivor was brought out. We felt fortunate, yet powerless. As the news sank in, our gratitude for our daughter's safety mingled with our outrage.

Like many American, we watched the memorial service through tear-filled eyes, humbly admitting that there was no way we could fully understand the powerful sense of betrayal so many were experiencing. We were glad to be spared that knowledge.

Friends of mine from The Centering Corporation, a non-profit organization in nearly Omaha, Nebraska, rallied within twenty-four hours to ship $18,000 worth of helpful materials for grieving families. They sent no bills!

How proud I was to be an Oklahoman. How proud to be an American. As the local disaster team was joined by others from around the nation, heroic efforts were made to look for survivors, to help everyone involved in processing powerful feelings, and to assure all Americans that every effort was being made to find those responsible. This tragedy happened in one of the most unexpected places in our nation. We were terrified, knowing that we were all vulnerable; yet none suggested we ignore that fact.

As I struggled with the bombardment of emotion, it was impossible to ignore the stark parallels and contrasts between this acute crisis and the chronic one to which I have chosen to devote a major portion of the past ten years of my life.

Perhaps it is difficult for persons outside of the survivor activist movement to understand, but my prayers and grieving for the sufferers in Oklahoma City mingled with my prayers and grieving for all of us within the institutional church--those who are aware, those who are naive, and those who prefer to ignore what they know about violence in the profession which society wants to trust for moral leadership.

In no way do I want to minimize the intense physical or emotional suffering of bomb sufferers. I cannot imagine any tragedy surpassing this one. It is never wise to compare the intensity of suffering in one group with that of another. It is wise, however, to examine ourselves and or responses in every situation of violence in the hopes of sharpening our awareness of challenges in our own midst. That is where my focus lies.

In Oklahoma City the bodies of many survivors were buried beneath the rubble. We, in the community of faith, have thousands of unidentified living survivors who remain emotionally and spiritually buried beneath piles of debris. A few are crying out softly. Others cry silently, afraid to be found. The fear comes because of misunderstanding. Most survivors believe they need the blessing of church leaders to speak of the atrocities they have experienced by violent clergy. Indeed, they DO need that support; but they are under no ethical obligation to wait for it. Their speaking is a choice which they should be free to exercise, with or without the blessing of anyone.

It is difficult to imagine parallels in reverse, but I believe it is helpful. Imagine an Oklahoma City rescuer, upon hearing the voice of an entrapped survivor, edging his way as close as possible to the survivor's tomb and whispering: "Sh-h-h! Please be quiet. We don't want to find you. You embarrass us. You remind us that America is not the safe place we want it to be."

Imagine another survivor running from the scene--unknowingly in the direction of a television camera--only to be stopped, have his bloody face washed by a bystander, advised to go home and forget what he has just witnessed.

Imagine a family member being told by a counselor: "You are not to speak about your pain or loss. It will remind outsiders that federal building may not be the safe places they were once thought to be."

Imagine prosecutors telling the media: "We have decided not to prosecute. It's obvious to us that our prime suspect must have had a difficult time in his childhood. Besides he once served our nation in the military. Look at all the good he must have done there. Sure, experts tell us that guys like this are likely to commit other similar crimes in the future, but we think he deserves a second chance. Furthermore, we have found a counselor who tells us she can rehabilitate this troubled man in just six months of therapy. So we are simply going to require that, offer him social protection, and ask the public just to pray for him. Don't worry. We doubt this will happen again."

Imagine journalists accepting this and saying: "We won't show his face on TV or even reveal his name. Just trust us. The public doesn't need to know."

Confronting the Secrecy

Much work has gone into tackling these complex issues among Roman Catholics and mainline denominations. The media exposure of the scandals of TV evangelists and priests splashed across the front pages of newspapers nationwide has helped to break the ice.

Yet those of us in the survivor movement continue to work against the common belief that clergy sexual abuse is primarily a Catholic problem. "If it isn't, why don't we hear more about other churches in the media?" some ask.

Sometimes it's hard to find the answers to difficult questions such as this. Until recently, we have only been able to speculate. Earlier this year at a press conference, Rev. Thomas Economus, President of Linkup (an interfaith survivors' organization), turned the tables on journalists, questioning them on this very issue.

"It's just not as bad with Protestant ministers (who molest children or adolescents). Unlike Catholics, they do not take an oath of celibacy," one reporter explained. Upon hearing this, I could not help but wonder how many undiscovered layers of denial in our society we have yet to uncover.

At one time, experts believed the solution lay in formulating policies and procedures. Mainline denominations went to work diligently once they heard of the impending threats from insurance companies that their coverage would be withdrawn unless they did this. "Policies are a good first step,: I have repeatedly said, commending persons who have been a part of this process. I say this because I continue to hear of case after case where documents are being misused to protect offenders. My guess is that what we put n paper is going to continue to be ineffective until people are also able collectively to do the emotional work required to make wise ethical decisions.

Even those who work toward policies and procedures seem to be largely ignorance of another secret. The very wording of policies leads one to believe that victims n Protestant circles will always be adults. There is little if any mention of minors. I know of no documents that discusses the relationship between church hierarchies and parents of young victims. Another glaring omission is the ethical responsibility which all of us share to make police reports on all allegations of abuse involving minors. While there are still relatively few cases of reported child sexual abuse by non-Catholic clergy, I have met many adults who never felt safe in revealing their abuse as minors. This leads me to believe that the profession may soon be facing the added concerns of these cases on a much larger scale than we know today.

Some denominations are making their policies and procedures public information. New York Episcopal leaders have gone even one step further, requiring that a brochure be placed in tract racks or pews of every congregation. These brochures tell survivors what constitutes a violation and to whom it should be reported. Yet, other denominations--especially those with congregational polity--continue to be very secretive in sharing what they know about professional abuses.

"We can't make these policies public knowledge," a minister once told me. "The laity won't understand them." I was puzzled. I had seen the policies and studied them intently. There was not one word or idea in them that I thought would be difficult for the average high school graduate to comprehend.

Quietly amused, I immediately made a mental note of the "coded" message: "We can't let the public know we have a serious problem like this. They might ask questions. They might insist that names of offenders be revealed. Some might even decide to make reports of more wrong-doing than we already know! We've got enough problems on our plate already. We can't handle more!"

Why did I not confront the speaker with my suspicions? This was not our first conversation. I had tried repeatedly to teach him the difference between confidentiality and secrecy. He seemed incapable of comprehending that the first is to protect the innocent. The second serves to protect individuals and institutions who are caught in unethical behavior. His cries for "confidentiality" were actually pleas for secrecy.

Over time I learned much more than the speaker wanted me to know. The information came quite by accident, as it often does, from a friend of his who seemed to be more amused than troubled at my frustration. Like many colluders, the minister had some skeletons in his own closet. He had repeatedly covered up unethical behavior for several of his colleagues in the past, skillfully rationalizing it to himself by relabelling the behaviors "normal."

I have been especially watchful of the responses of Southern Baptists.

Applying This All to the Largest Protestant Denomination in the World

Two years ago a Catholic survivor in Linkup led me to a survey of SBC pastors published in the Winter, 1993 edition of The Journal of Pastoral Care. I added it to my list of best-kept secrets. The survey, done by Jeff Seats, an SBC pastoral counselor, revealed that 14.1% of ministers surveyed admitted to "engagement in sexual behavior which was judged by the individual pastors to be inappropriate for a minister."

Again I thought in parallels. If 14.1% of churches were in danger of being destroyed by arson or embezzlement, my guess is that warnings would be on the front pages of every issue of every state paper until the problems were corrected!

In 1995, I was given opportunity to write a series of articles for Baptists Today. While it was running, the Sunday School Board announced its formation of a committee of eight men and one woman already meeting annually to address the problems of clergy sexual misconduct. One of the stated purposes is to provide "social protection" to offenders.

That same year I heard from Joe Trull of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He is one of several Southern Baptists who have encouraged me to continue speaking out and working for change. AS a professor of Christian ethics, he understands how important preventive education is to producing the necessary paradigm shifts.

In recent year, I have made contact with SBC survivors from all over the United States. I've also heard from several after-pastors. As a result of this networking, plans are underway for the upcoming survivor retreat.

Recently I had a call from Dr. Jeff VanVonderen, pastoral counselor and author of When God's People Let You Down (Bethany House, 1995). During our conversations I brought up the especially complicated problems which denominations with local church autonomy have with clergy sexual abuse. To my surprise, Dr. VanVonderen did not echo my concerns. Instead he assured me that exposing the evil-doing and providing open channels of accountability were being prevent by only one problem--"too much equity to protect."

Being ashamed of what cannot be changed is counter-productive. Every profession has members who sometimes get into leadership because of poor judgment or because past secrecy has protected them. However, this does not prevent us from moving beyond our dysfunctions, confronting our failures, making amends, and growing beyond the cowardice of secrecy.

Further corruption is all we can expect if we continue to rationalize collusive cover-ups. "Letting go of the shame" of our history can only be done through the spiritual exercise of true repentance, public confession, and a collective vow to work toward prevention and education of the masses.

If the shame over these issues is gone, what will the institutional church become? I believe the answer is "a renewed people of power." The energy it takes to live in fear and shame, keeping the secrets, can then be channeled into finding creative ways to protect the vulnerable. That energy will well up, not from mere rage, but from Christ-like outrage over those who would prefer leaving churches in pieces rather than working toward making them the safe, peaceful places of competency which Christ intends them to be.

Specifically and practically several actions related to clergy sexual abuse are appropriate as this challenge is squarely confronted.

Education about the issue is needed in the seminaries, at various denominational levels and in local churches so as to clarify boundaries, spell out consequences of misconduct, and break the secrecy codes.
Preaching, teaching, and writing which clarifies the issues, acknowledges the gravity of the problems, and presses for "fruits meet for repentance" are also needed.
Thought leaders are needed to speak out against the still widely held inclination in the faith community to blame the victim and exonerate the perpetrator.
Policies and procedures need to be formulated for clarifying this issue of clergy sexual abuse, preparing ministers and congregants to guard against it, and offering practical counsel and help for those directly affected by it.
Many employer and businesses and some churches now offer such policies and procedures. Guidelines have been offered by the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, 1914 North 34th, Suite 200, Seattle, Washington 98103.

By finding the courage to speak "the unspeakable" we can create a safer community. Subsequently, I believe we will discover an immeasurable capacity to tackle a wide spectrum of problems which now frighten us into paralysis.

This article, like all at is copyrighted by the author. Other writers, by copyright law, may use up to 300 words in other published works without asking permission, provided the author is given full credit. This also applies to the acronym "DIM Thinking," a term coined by Miller. You may download and/or distribute copies of any of these articles, for educational purposes, PROVIDED the pages are distributed without alteration, including this copyright statement.

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)