Beyond the Facts: A Two-Fold Treatment Approach for Institutions with Professional Sexual Offenders

by Dee Ann Miller
from author's home page:

There are TWO ingredients required to bring healing to

an individual or institution suffering from the

Systematic Thinking Disorder of Collusion:


Collusion occurs throughout our society. Yet the more power a person has, the greater the degree of collusion. No profession likes to deny its power more than clergy. Denying power, giving it all to God, sounds very righteous, immensely humble and holy. It's also a setup to deception--not just for a clergy person, but for everyone else. This denial is an enormous part of the problem because it lessens the responsibility placed on this "highest office" in the faith community, insisting that the victim is completely, or at least partially, responsible. Rather than holding the minister or priest responsible for setting the shining example for everyone else, many people even suggest that these professionals are vulnerable to being deceived. Few understand that the denial of power is what makes them so vulnerable and so tempted to cross boundaries! Confusion about these power dynamics sets up a web of confusion. It becomes so much more acceptable to place all or much of the blame on the victim, turning the professional into the "real" victim!

Even when we think we have stated clearly the ethical approach to avoid collusion, even when everyone has been "told" what to say, what to believe, how to think.....we are far from finished. Yet we long to be. For making institutional change, creating new paradigms, is a long process, especially when we are dealing with such immense power and denying it all at the same time.

The greatest myth about how we make change in regard to appropriate responses to abuse is this: If we all just get educated, we'll fix these problems. I used to think exactly the same. Today I'm convinced that education is just a good FIRST step. It goes hand in hand with having legislation and institutional policies.

However, education does very little to change hearts! It is not a cure-all.

For all of the education about clergy sexual abuse--books, workshops, videos, seminary training, increased awareness of the need to screen people who work with vulnerable individuals, especially in professional roles and most especially in our churches—all of these have been great for exposing these problems. They’ve raised consciousness for sure. Unfortunately, they’ve occasionally served to also raise resistance to change, as people who feel threatened learn how to argumentatively fine-tune faulty "reasoning," increasing efforts to confuse and frustrate those who are working for genuine change.

Marie Fortune of FaithTrust Institute writes about the "institutional protection agenda" that we often see. In that same document, she offers tips for creating an alternative agenda.

As laborious as it is, education accomplishes very little unless we, as a society and especially as faith groups, do the far more difficult and time-consuming job of grieving. Often the grief needs to be on a personal level, as families whose lives have been invaded have to undertake the work. Only facing facts and grieving the losses puts us in a position to act wisely and with a clear vision when we face another case, either in our families or institutions or neighborhoods.

NO CHURCH CAN ADEQUATELY DEAL WITH ABUSIVE MINISTERS AND LEADERS UNTIL THE MEMBERS HAVE EACH, INDIVIDUALLY, GRIEVED THEIR OWN PERSONAL STORIES. Those stories will impact every new story one encounters and put blinders on the eyes of those who are afraid to see, just as they have been afraid to see their own losses in the past. Unresolved grief, especially involving childhood trauma, may possibly constitute the greatest single cause for institutional dysfunction and individual acting-out behaviors of all kinds in congregational dynamics!!

Let’s see how this applies to our responses to abuse alone. For example, a professional minister who once saw his mother beat to a pulp in his childhood home, will have great difficulty hearing stories of abuse and violence and making appropriate reports and recommendations unless he has done plenty of personal processing to come to grips with his past trauma.

Likewise, a deacon who has had an illicit affair sometime in his past, will have difficulty holding a minister accountable when dealing with a report of his pastor’s malpractice of committing sexual misconduct against a congregant. And colleagues of the minister, whether they are guilty or not, may have averted their eyes to other situations in their past so that it is much “simpler” just to look the other way again. In fact, it seems to get easier with each new incidence! For character is built by acting in courage instead of fear. It takes practice to avoid character atrophy.

The easy road is always the one that is the least amount of work. Grieving is very hard work, so is holding an individual accountable. Yet the former is necessary for personal mental health. The latter is essential for the health of the community.

In one sense, there has been a LOT of grieving over the past fifteen years when it comes to abuse committed by clergy. Plenty of public awareness, as well, so that nobody should be shocked anymore. Yet denial protects most people from the inevitable pain of facing the truth when it’s close to home. Almost every time, it seems!

Most of the grief, unfortunately, seems to be about what survivors have done “to” the profession and “to” the community of faith at large. It has little to do with what wolves in sheep's clothing have done to the Kingdom and the individuals they’ve harmed.

Grieving is scary, gut-wrenching work. Survivors know this. Coping with the past, moving into the present, and accepting the challenge of the future all involve grieving. How is it that any member of the clergy can sit back in apathy or feigned helplessness when at least 75% of the profession's members personally know at least one colleague who has violated at least one person in his or her charge?** I believe the answer may lie in an unwillingness to do reality-based grieving. In fact, I’m quite sure of it. Whenever I’ve suggested the need for this, people seem to just go away. Such a suggestion, strangely, shuts down most conversations!

What will happen when one is at least well into the process of grieving for the Kingdom? He or she will, in some way, be speaking out about the need to work for change. He or she will be preaching about the problems in the pulpit. There will be boldness in that person's willingness to confront the potential child abuse in the congregation. He or she will not stop speaking out until true change has occurred. It is impossible to stay in a self-destructive system without living either in denial that keeps people silent or in reality which cannot help but speak at appropriate times.

Facing reality leads to a willingness to bear the burdens of those suffering from collusion, not just the problems created because the profession has been found guilty of colluding with incompetency. Grieving involves three emotions with which most of us have a lot of difficulty--anger, fear, and sadness.

One only has to listen for a short time to a group of church leaders talking about clergy sexual "misconduct" to know that they believe getting the facts is the key to changing the system. Listen more closely. You will notice that the talk is much more about protecting the system than changing it. Such conversations are permeated with DIM thinking statements and game playing. (For more insight, see Basic Facts about Collusion)

Even before How Little We Knew was released, the problem of clergy domestic violence came to my attention. This problem is even more easily pushed aside as "just a personal problem." Yet, in story after story I've heard, it seems that survivors of clergy domestic abuse have suffered as much as sexual abuse survivors, if not more so, from collusion within the church whenever they try to bring their abusers to accountability. Despite the increased exposure and empathy which survivors of domestic violence are receiving in the media, these women are almost always "tarred and feathered" and labeled as "insubordinate wives" when the abuser is a clergyman.

More and more denominations are requiring that their ministers attend a workshop to learn the facts and rules of clergy sexual abuse to protect themselves and their organization from being sued or from losing their insurance coverage. Without a doubt, some are also concerned with helping survivors in their midst. However, "helping" is all-too-often equated with "silencing" them. Speaking out is seen as a sign of illness, rather than health.

In hierarchal systems, it is a fairly easy matter to come up with a little therapy for perpetrators. Most are covered by health insurance which offers 10-15 outpatient mental health visits per year. Provided that coverage can be kept through provisions within the system, the denomination may not be out a penny. Some denominations are even willing to supplement what is provided. In the past few years, in some denominations, a limited amount of therapy is also provided for survivors.

In cases of denominations with autonomous congregations (such as Southern Baptists), help is often found for sexual offending ministers under an umbrella fund which helps rehabilitate terminated ministers. Yet rarely are therapy bills paid for survivors.

This author has strong suspicions that the resistance to providing survivors with adequate funding for therapy is not always about money. Knowledgeable church leaders know that the more therapy a survivor gets, the more likely she or he is to realize that there are many choices, one of which is speaking out as much and as long as one wishes to do so!

Still the greatest resistance may have something to do with where the church leadership is in its own healing.

If one has not done the hard work of reality-based grieving, it is impossible to know how long and hard a process that is for anyone who is sincerely trying to do it!

Remember that there are TWO ingredients required

for healing an institution suffering from the

Systematic Thinking Disorder of Collusion.

Those TWO ingredients are EDUCATION and GRIEF

**Several surveys have been published showing this as fact. For further information, contact the author or The FaithTrust Institute.

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)