by Dee Ann Miller
from author's home page: takecourage.org
Years before discovering the wonders of the Web, years before the general public expressed much concern about clergy sexual abuse, three major Christian magazines turned down articles on this topic--articles they had asked for! Each had taken me days to write. Insulted, I wanted some explanation. Each editor complained the articles contained only negative stories. Instead, they wanted me to write positive stories about systems that had "done things right." It didn't matter to them that I knew of none. I obviously didn't know enough about the subject to meet their criteria!
In frustration, I replied to each: "At this point in history, I don't know of anyone who has positive stories to tell. When I do, I'll contact you." Now, I have the story those editors all wanted! Yet, having found the wonders of the Web, the ability to provide resources that never go out of print, without the censorship of editors with a conflict of interests, I don't care to write for any of them! So this story is a gift, given by people who dared to make a difference, and written in defiance of the attempted suppression from silencers in high places.
Exceptional outcomes to stories of abuse require three things:
This incredibly complex story contains all three elements! It provides a vast array of lessons for the entire community of faith. Despite the horrific violations of so many, despite the years of intense suffering of victims waiting to be heard, this is a testimony to what is possible, flying in the face of those who still cling to priorities that protect the culture of the clerical elite. It is an answer to my prayers and those of many others.
Readers will do well to follow the links from this page and think through the myriad of details to the story and concepts that it represents.
The purpose of my writing is to show, as succinctly as possible, the exceptions in the survivors, in the timing, and in some who responded appropriately. The article is intended to comfort, as well as to instruct and inspire.
The exceptional survivors in this PCUSA story were MK's (ie. "kids" of missionaries). These daughters of missionaries in the Congo were abused at the boarding school they attended.
Ironically, one of the reasons for the boarding school was safety. Due to the instability in the countryside, it was considered much safer for the children to be at the school than in the remote stations where their parents were working.
Exceptional responses to clergy sexual abuse come from courageous people who have been able to face reality and put themselves and their positions at risk, even if it means great personal loss and suffering, for the sake of the vulnerable. Generally, it involves long-term, unwavering commitment. While Christians have always been encouraged to "take a stand for Jesus," few recognize that this may include taking an unpopular stand in the faith community itself. To have had that prophetic voice, anyone, at any level of the organization, would have had to stand against the popular thinking of others. That person would have had to become the voice for the voiceless, leading the way for change. Exceptional responses in this story would have included:
****welcoming, comforting and calming the victims, rather than silencing them
**** putting their welfare above the welfare of all professionals (especially the perpetrator) and the "well-being" of the system
****seeing that a thorough and open investigation be done to determine, as much as possible, the extent of the injuries the perpetrator had caused--not just to those who had already reported, but to other potential victims, as well
****removing the perpetrator swiftly and permanently from mission service
****encouraging open conversation among members of the Mission
****working to ensure that the perpetrator's credentials were removed so that he would not be using his power as a minister to attract other victims and bring destruction to other groups
****reporting his abuse of minors to civil authorities back in the United States
Although it appears that some previous PCUSA cases had been handled with less collusion, Pruitt's power base was huge! Like all perpetrators of immense power, he had succeeded in grooming his colluders (including his own wife), as well as his victims. It is impossible to find all of the missing pieces of the puzzle, since some documents seem to be lost. However, one fact is obvious: Not one adult had enough wisdom and courage to be the exception. Such drastic action just didn't seem to occur anywhere in 1970. It rarely does today! DIM thinking abounded at every level of the organization. In fact, one professional who was either deceived or chose to ignore what he saw was a mental health professional, a fact that doesn't surprise any of us who have been observing collusion for years.
Mission boards have historically painted very rosy pictures to convince missionary parents of the advantages for the children, as well as for the work, if the children are "cared for" and educated in boarding schools. Attempts to cover up the emotional neglect, as well as the physical safety issues, continue to this day while the evidence of serious problems for students becomes more and more evident.
For example, a few years ago I wrote to the school headmaster of the largest mission boarding school in the world. I wanted to know how he would wish for a former student, one of my readers, to proceed with allegations should he choose to do so. This alleged abuse "could not have occurred," I was told, without the knowledge of staff members because "a child would be certain to report such trauma if anything so horrific had happened!" This exhibition of ignorance, despite extensive efforts to inform and raise the consciousness of people around the world about the dynamics of abusive behavior, was disheartening.
I believe it is virtually impossible, without first-hand experience, for outsiders to fully comprehend the isolation and vulnerability that is felt while living under governments that provide virtually no protection for residents. It is even more difficult to comprehend the added isolation and vulnerability of children who are living in boarding schools in such countries. There is literally no way out! No transportation to escape. No counselors and no mental health or social services outside of the limited ones that may be provided by schools themselves. No civil authorities for a child or parent to call.
The original core group of survivors in this story had been bonding since childhood, through their boarding school experiences. The extent of this bonding is difficult for people outside of missionary culture to even comprehend. Having spent their formative years in isolation, they managed to not only survive, but to also develop unique coping skills because of the oppression that they shared, living in a foreign country in the sub-culture of mission life. They depended upon one another, even when they weren't openly acknowledging the abuse to one another. Therefore, it was probably much easier for them to talk, as adults, when they found the courage to speak to one another decades later. As with groups of survivors everywhere, there were sometimes great strains on their relationship as they tried to work together for the good of all, while respecting individual needs. Yet, even when differences arose, they were not as likely to blow the cohesiveness of the group to bits as in more traditional groups that do not have the advantage of such lifelong bonding.
So the bonding seems to be the one positive exception, in regard to their circumstances, contributing much to the outcome. These bonds are still strong today, though they have been tested in the strains and stresses of seeking justice.
BY CONTRAST: Individual survivors of a single perpetrator, in most cases of clergy sexual abuse, are unable to even find one another. Denominations (often due to advice by their attorneys) refuse to assist in connecting even those from different perpetrators. Even if they do finally succeed in finding one another, through the Web or survivor groups, multiple psychological factors that keep survivors "stuck" sometimes contribute to the conflicts and pathological behaviors that continue to keep survivors in isolation and division.
Some will wisely question why this case should not have been handled in the courts, especially since it involved minors. The answers lie in the problem of statute of limitations, as well as the unique legal challenges for people living overseas on property that does not belong to the United States. Even if the group had chosen to use the courts, the chances of them being successful were slim. Yet this did not keep them from demanding an appropriate response through denominational appeals.
None of the women realized that they shared a common history of abuse until 1987, when some of them were attending a reunion for missionary families. As Bill Pruitt got up to preach, several of his victims, now in their 30's and 40's, made individual decisions to walk out. Their actions were probably not intended as a protest, but that was the purpose served! Outside, surprised at their common reaction, these young ladies began a conversation that would start them on the long road toward recovery, a road that would bring them back together again and again to share more and more of their collective story of betrayal while reaching out repeatedly to others.
It is unclear how much they knew, back in 1987, about Pruitt's history. The full story of how he had, after being confronted with allegations, been able to conveniently relocate back in the United States, hadn't been shared with them. Apparently, it hadn't been discussed much among his former missionary colleagues either since he was leading the group in a worship experience!
Among the 1987 protestors was Liz Iverson, who seems to have been the most persistent of the women in seeking to bring the truth to light. She was determined not to let others stay in permanent denial. Martha Faupel recently wrote: "When Liz first wrote me..... my exact quote to her was 'I am not interested because it is a scary thing to open up a can of worms. You might not be able to get all the worms out; or you may not be able to put the worms back in the can and close the lid; and then you have to learn to live with worms.' She was patient and supportive anyway!"
While waiting for more truth to be revealed, Liz and some of the others in that 1987 group of protesters were sorting out the past through formal therapy and informal talks with one another. Lots of important things were going on during those years, as they often are in cases when things seem to be at a standstill.
1987 was also a pivotal year in my own life. I can still feel the weight of the tropical heat as I stepped onto the airport trolley that would carry our family toward its final destination away from the continent we had grown to cherish. The burden of the climate was minimal, however, compared to the weight of the grief. For I was almost certain we would never be allowed to return to our adopted country unless we "confessed our sin of lacking mercy" toward the one who had so threatened the integrity and safety of us all.
Already having been told that the collusion and spiritual abuse that we had experienced from co-workers and supervisors was endemic throughout the community of faith, my lifelong focus of "I'll go where you want me to go, Lord" seemed impossible to maintain. For, in my heart, I was beginning to fearfully face the fact that doing so would put me at odds with many of the very people who had been so excited about the direction that our lives had taken up to this point! While I wasn't certain how this burden was going to work itself out in my life, I knew that it had to.
Had I known that it would be seventeen years before I would be able to write (with firsthand knowledge) of a story with a positive outcome, the burden most certainly would have been too incapacitating to even take the first step! Who could have predicted that the story would come because of a group of courageous women who had grown up in African missions?
Fast forward to 1998, the year when this web site was born. After hearing, since 1993, from hundreds of readers through snail mail and personally replying to each and every one of them, suddenly the tool that I could not have even envisioned when How Little We Knew was published, was connecting me with scores of new contacts, every week! It was empowering and refreshing to be connected to readers, professionals, and survivor friends whom I had met over the last five years of my "pre-Web life," then to provide empowering connections to readers. While breaking the isolation that many of us had known in earlier cases was often the best that could be done for new contacts, it seemed to help immensely.
Now back to the PCUSA story......1998 was another year of protest for this group. In fact, it seems to be the pivotal year in the story. Eleven years after the informal 1987 survivor walk-out, there was a reunion of alumnae from the boarding school. Sitting around a table, some of the Presbyterian and Methodist MK's from the Congo began casually sharing survivor stories of old times. These were more the common garden-variety stories that MK's tell. Like the time someone may have found a live critter in the half-cooked cafeteria rice or when a brave soul managed to sneak off from chapel without getting caught. Eventually, the tone of the conversation changed when one of the women mentioned being abused by Pruitt. Soon others related their own stories. Before the reunion was over, these women resolved to tell their stories to people with power in the very system that had held them captive as children. They were tired of carrying the burden that adults of yesteryears should have carried for them!
Exceptional responses came from several PCUSA leaders, starting with Dr. Marian McClure, the director of the Worldwide Ministries Division. When she got a call from the father of one of the survivors, she didn't hesitate to respond compassionately. Immediately, she arranged for a retreat with some of the best-known leaders in retreat services for survivors of clergy sexual abuse, Rev. Pat Liberty and Mary Kuhns. The retreat was scheduled in November.
By then, Pat and I had met a couple of times at conferences where we'd been able to share our mutual passion and frustration with our respective survivor ministries, so How Little We Knew was on the recommended reading list for the retreat.
Becky Scott writes: "They also told us about your website. I went home and found it and read everything on it!!!! Before I contacted you, because I was really nervous about contacting anyone and letting anyone know what had happened to me." Becky's speaking up, she knew, could have far-reaching implications, within her family, as well as the denominational system. Not only were her parents missionaries. Her grandparents, Hezekiah and Lillie Washburn, had been some of the first Presbyterian missionaries in the Congo!
Soon Becky and other survivors were reading the book, which some said spurred them toward further resolve, realizing that their case wasn't an isolated one.
As in so many previous cases, I simply stood by, "listening" and validating while encouraging realistic expectations, hoping to brace my confidantes for disappointment.
"Why be so skeptical?" some might ask. Because I'd lost count of the number of mission field cases that had come to my attention over the past five years! I'd even had one concerned administrator, who had recently read How Little We Knew, calling to tell me of a conference that was being held, just to allow mission administrators to share their concerns about this problem that was overwhelming them all!
So far, no survivors seemed to have any sense of justice. Most perpetrators had either remained in their mission field positions or had been quietly dismissed, only to surface somewhere else in positions of power within the same denomination, without their histories being considered a problem for the future!
While the Web allowed these survivors to connect with key people and to connect with one another more easily, the voices didn't seem to be changing much in places of power. Policies were more likely to be found than in the past, but continued to be universally inadequate and written to protect institutions and individual offenders more than vulnerable survivors. The acts of perpetrators, aided by colluders, continued to silence and psychologically paralyze most victims. Yet few survivors, upon beginning a process of seeking justice, were able to believe that their group would be as bad as the others. The courses had all been roller coasters, so I had no reason to believe that PCUSA would be any different, though I certainly hoped so.
In April of 1999, when the Dallas Morning News chose to publish some of the story, it was met with much skepticism. Not surprisingly, much of the denial came from people in the prominent church where Pruitt had been a staff member since leaving the Congo. Incredibly, he did take a break from his assignments in Dallas, however, when he was called to "new adventures" in Zaire and the Congo from 1976-1978, once again with the collusion of informed individuals on the field!
Few bystanders understood why telling their story could be important, after so many years. Yet the importance was much more evident when the DMN announced that others had came forward, including stateside women who had been molested after Pruitt's 1970 resignation! My inbox grew more crowded as additional people from this case, including family members of some survivors, began finding increased energy.
Then, in September, came another shock when Pruitt died suddenly! Adding insult to injury, his victims were blamed for killing him! The accusations came from people still convinced that Pruitt had been "falsely accused," resulting in his dying of shock. Constitutionally, the church's formal jurisdiction ended with the death of a perpetrator, so there seemed to be no further recourse!
Another retreat was organized, this one for interested people to come and listen to survivors and their families voicing current concerns while telling their stories. It was a time of some healing, partially due to apologetic confessions made by some who had colluded decades earlier. At this point, the group wanted very much to have its own ICI (Independent Committee of Inquiry). Yet nobody was sure just how to proceed.
According to Martha Faupel, the six ladies of the core group sat at a coffeeshop after the retreat and jotted down their ideas on the back of an envelope.
When Pamela Pritchard wrote to tell me of the group's desires, I immediately thought of a humble individual whom I had met in cyberspace, earlier that year, through Advocate Web. I believed that Pam would find comfort and hope, through this connection. She did, within hours.
Reflecting back, Pam recently told me: "He did not take personally my rantings and ravings against the church. He was ALWAYS there with thoughtful comments and insights.....it was important to me to know that it IS a process and to have people to love me through it until I could begin to learn to love myself." Since this advocate knew the system well and shared the group's passion for an ICI, he was able to provide invaluable guidance to help make it happen.
This was an example of the exceptional responses that came about when the adult women decided it was time to speak to various powers-that-be in the 1990's. There was an understanding of the need to treat survivors as "witnesses," rather than "damaged people" who had nothing to offer. Instead of patronizing the women, these denominational leaders knew how to turn the pyramid of power on its head! They communicated a desire to bring about healing AND institutional change. They worked in collaboration with the group's leaders. These including Pamela Pritchard, whose peers often fondly called "Joan of Arc" and Martha Faupel, who was one of two survivors responsible for writing a request for the envisioned ICI and showing how it would operate, then flying to Louisville to work out the details with the mission board.
The other survivor was Rev. Ruth Reinhold, an ordained PCUSA clergywoman who became a spokesperson for the group. Her presence was a powerful reminder of the resilience of these women, despite their years of suffering, especially when she spoke to members of the press. To some in the denomination, no doubt, Ruth brought increased credibility because of her own status in the profession. She represents an exceptional testimony, in sharp contrast to many clergywomen who are understandably intimidated about telling their own stories or standing as advocates in a profession that has not been eager to welcome women into leadership roles, even when they are perceived to be much less "threatening" to the status quo.
BY CONTRAST: Historically, church authorities seem to have believed it their responsibility to "straighten out" the eye witnesses, rather than to learn from them. This "highly-successful" mode of operation has insured that the "people out to get the Church" have not been able to succeed.
Within a few months, a search for ICI members began. The desire was for the denomination to hire highly experienced people, thus insuring integrity and lessening the likelihood of them being blinded by conflicts of interest that might be a stumbling block for on-going employees of the denomination. Being a Presbyterian wasn't a requirement; neither was being a minister! The members weren't selected because they were located near one another, which would have cut costs considerably. They came from both coasts of the United States and as far away as Canada. Survivors and others who would be coming as "witnesses" were just as scattered. Getting them together would be time consuming and expensive, as justice usually is.
The ICI's duties would not be limited to this one case. They were commissioned specifically to investigate any abuse that had occurred in the Congo, involving children, whether the adult abuser was a PCUSA missionary or the victim was a child of PCUSA missionaries, over a period of 1945-1978. Therefore, several cases were discovered. Yet most of the survivors came to the ICI because of one perpetrator, the one who abused all of the MK's who appear in this document, as well as many more. (During the course of the investigation, concerns for nationals were raised, yet investigating beyond the scope of the mission "family" was not a part of the commission. Doing so, would have been a noble cause, but understandably involve a much more extensive search and a more daunting task with the greater distance and cross-cultural issues. The fact that missionaries are sent to minister and/or "convert" nationals who may, instead, be abused makes it far more imperative that mission boards take seriously the accountability issues in regard to their personnel.)
Rather than leave the project conveniently set "to be finished whenever they finish," survivors knew that the ICI would present a report back to the Executive Committee of the General Assembly in eighteen (18) months. It would be a long wait, but nobody wanted the job half done. The survivors could live with this, especially when they realized the quality of the people who would be hearing their stories.
BY CONTRAST: Historically, survivors have waited for long periods of time while institutions stone-wall, failing to communicate and support them during the agonizing waits. Denominations have depended largely upon clergy members, mostly male, to police their own group, even though a few members of the laity may be included, sometimes along with a token clergywoman. Those members--even church leaders with years of experience--have had a built-in tendency to feel "one down" to clergy members, for various reasons. They also are likely to be out-voted, just because of the way the cards are stacked. The emphasis on spiritual issues (often addressed in very unspiritual ways) at the expense of psycho-social needs has been profound. Most horrific, in many cases, is the lack of appropriate training for committee members.
Another very notable exception: The ICI was chaired by an attorney. Refreshingly, instead of representing the interests of the denomination, he was highly experienced in representing victims of clergy sexual abuse! This means he had not worked in the service of power, but in service to the powerless within the system.
In the fall of 2002, after eighteen months of pouring themselves into listening to survivors, looking at the issues and implications, the ICI released an impressive document of book length, filled with recommendations that would extend FAR beyond this case. They include the provision for an open apology to survivors and their families. You may access the entire 173-page report(a pdf file).
Survivors were so thrilled and grateful that they called a press conference, where a formal statement was read. It expressed gratitude first to the leadership of PCUSA, then to the members of the ICI, whom they declared to be "our knights in shining armor," and finally to all of the women who made up the "sister-hood of this group." The "sister-hood" included more than twenty-two survivors who had come to bear witness.
In the summer of 2004, a list of proposed amendments was drafted by members of the Executive Committee, after carefully studying the ICI report. The amendments were presented to the General Assembly (national meeting of the PCUSA) where they were approved, all except one (calling for the removal of credentials from a clergy person post-humously).
While a lot of people may have been overwhelmed by the volume of information the ICI produced, Wayne Sherwood was not. As a researcher who has written many detailed reports in his lifetime and knows how often important research gets neglected, he refused to cut corners. Even though he had never attended a General Assembly, this grassroots member of the denomination took his responsibility seriously! Knowing that the report was going to be an important part of the Church Polity Committee, on which he had been selected to serve, he began preparing carefully and sensitively for the meeting.
Out of concern for survivors who were scheduled to speak to his committee at the General Assembly prior to the larger meeting, he voiced anxiety: "I'm concerned about the set-up we have for our committee. A big windy space curtained off from the convention hall, but barely. A large committee of 60 people, none of whom know each other. I'm very concerned about the atmosphere in which the testimony from the abused women is going to be heard. If we just run them through the mill, have a red light on the table to tell them when to shut up, and then run them out the door telling them thanks for their input, goodbye, it starts feeling to me like they are being abused one more time by the system."
By the time he arrived for the crucial meeting, Wayne was convinced of the need for a public apology to ALL survivors of the PCUSA. So convinced that he asked Pamela Pritchard what she thought about this when he first met her, just prior to the meeting. He set out to make it happen, asking questions about procedures and approaching leaders boldly.
After much work, the apology was drafted. The next day Wayne stood before the General Assembly to read the letter that came as such a welcome surprise to survivors, exceeding the wildest expectations of every one of them! To the amazement of all who had worked so hard, the recommended letter was approved.
Pamela Pritchard, who worked hard to be sure that the denomination would be a safer place for others in the future, is rightfully proud See Creating Safe Churches.
"It's interesting how this stuff often seems like a baton race, and when someone's energy flags, then the next runner steps forward to carry the baton on." writes Martha Faupel, in reflecting on the long process. The problem, as I see it, is that there is often only one runner in so many of these cases. When she/he is worn down, the race stops and the colluders praise God for the "victory!"
During the PCUSA investigation, the ICI received reports that a United Methodist house parent, was guilty of abusing children. The ICI recommended that United Methodists launch their own ICI. See 2002 UM report on this story. After much consideration, United Methodists made a 2004 announcement that the ICI was indeed being set up.
At the 2004 General Assembly, Becky Scott's childhood picture was one in a collage that was made into a poster for the event, as well as on pins that were distributed to people attending. When I asked Becky how she felt about the many exceptional outcomes already demonstrated, she wrote: "Is proud a bad word? I am proud of my parent church. I am proud of what we have accomplished--it took six long years to get where we are!! I am proud of the women who were in this process together. I am proud of all the people who helped us through the process, at each step of the way. I am proud of survivors who have found their courage to come forward since our process began. I am proud of so many things."
No, Becky "proud" is not a bad word--not at all! I can't think of a word more appropriate.
In response to the unexpected 2004 apology, survivor Beth Gold sent a cover letter, with the apology enclosed, to all of the members of the Congo Mission. Part of her letter says:
"We started this process LONG before it was a focal point in the Catholic Church and we were VERY up front with the PCUSA officials that we were NOT after settlement money, we ONLY wanted TRUTH telling and acknowledgement so that there could be healing for the victims and the church. We stressed that ultimately our justice would be if there were changes made at the mission level as well as in the book of church order. Some of you did not believe us but many of you did. From your support through letters, phone calls and e-mails we found the strength to continue.....
"The Presbyterian Church can hold it's head high and be an example to all the world. It has heard a very painful truth. It has faced it head on and hardly flinching has acknowledged it's imperfections and neglect. This process can and has brought healing to the survivors, to us as a Mission family, as well as to the church at large.
"To all of you who have supported us in so many ways, e-mails, letters, phone calls, support to our parents and siblings, help at airports as we have traveled, and even support at the GA - THANK YOU. We truly could not have done it with out you. The church is stronger, healthier and safer now because of this journey."
Most important, the General Assembly of PCUSA recommended eleven proposed amendments at the 2004 meeting. These were sent to the 173 presbyteries, for consideration. According to PCUSA polity, it would be necessary for a majority of the presbyteries to approve the amendments. If that transpired, all presbyteries would have to follow what the majority had voted to approve.
To the survivors who waited anxiously for the results, there would be disappointment without a majority vote. Yet, from what some said, I was confident that the group was in such high spirits that nobody would be devastated. However, that prediction did not have to be tested. By May of this year (2005), all presbyteries had voted and the proposals were approved! The next step, which is on-going, is for each presbytery to decide how they will go about implementing them, far from a simple task.
So, in spite of all of the thought put into these amendments, there will still need to be a lot of fine-tuning. There always is. Unless those who implement the policies have done their own emotional homework, they will fail to project the spirit of the recommendations. Determining when an adult is considered to not have a limited "mental capacity" may perhaps be the first issue to tackle. I, for one, will be watching closely and hoping to see more exceptions as this story unfolds, but it is already off to a very good start! An exceptional one indeed!
Personally, I had the easiest of all roles, connecting courageous people who
needed to find others with the same passion. The connections I was able to make
in this story worked to bring about more good than most do. They are still sparking
new energy. I am humbled and thrilled to have been able to simply assist and
to witness the work of the survivors and advocates in this story, as well as
to offer words of encouragement to various participants from time to time. How
grateful I am to have met so many fine people on the journey! What spiritual
energy has flown my way! As we continue to turn destruction into life-giving
energy, I hope to hear of many more positive outcomes in the years to come.
This article, like all at www.takecourage.org
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)
The Truth about Malarkey (2000)
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)