To draw attention to the ever-present and devastating reality of clergy sexual abuse and to provide resources for churches, lay members, and ministers, the Clergy Sexual Misconduct Task Force formed jointly by Baptist Women in Ministry and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will sponsor an ongoing blog series featuring informational articles, helpful sermons, and relevant materials.
The following story may be disturbing for some. Links to helpful resources are included at the bottom of this blog.
What are you supposed to do when a man who was an instrumental part of your faith development as a teenager obliterates ministerial boundaries and makes repeated sexual advances towards you? How do you respond when he attempts to reassure you by saying “This is okay in God’s sight” or warns you that “This is our little secret that we’ll take to our graves”? Who in the church will believe your story about their beloved minister?
Three miserable years passed before I was able to muster the courage to schedule an appointment with the senior pastor. At that meeting, I planned to report his subordinate’s abusive behavior. Why did I wait so long to speak up? I doubted that anyone would believe my story. I also realized that once I told my story, I would not be able to control what might happen next. Despite the fact that I was being hurt, I didn’t want to hurt anyone else. I didn’t want to harm the minister’s family—his wife and children were like family to me. Perhaps the biggest obstacle was my deep love for the church that had nurtured my faith when I was a teenager—a church where I was now working part-time as a young adult. I did not want to do anything that would cause chaos in the church.
Finally, the pain became unbearable. When I started to have suicidal thoughts, I came to my senses. I knew I needed help. I desperately needed to tell someone what had been happening. I needed to make the abuse stop. I scheduled an appointment with the senior pastor. I would tell my story and live with the consequences.
But it wasn’t quite that easy. The pastor’s office and the abusive minister’s office were located in a remote part of the church building, far from the main office suite. As I approached the pastor’s office, I heard the voice of my abuser. I sought a convenient hiding place and ended up crouched in the baptistery stairwell, listening as my pastor and my abuser chatted amicably. After the coast was clear, I went to the scheduled meeting, but my courage had evaporated, and I did not tell the pastor my story that day. I talked about other things.
I tried again at a later date, not long after my abuser had declared, “I’m not worried that you’re going to tell anyone. This is our little secret that we’ll take to our graves.” But on that day when I tried again as I was sitting in the pastor’s study, the intercom buzzed and the voice of my abuser spewed forth. The interruption seemed innocuous to the pastor, but I was unnerved. Surely my abuser knew that I was in the pastor’s office. I did not feel safe.
The abusive minister’s sabbatical was my salvation. With him out of town, at last I felt safe enough to tell my story to the pastor. His initial reaction was reassuring, for he received my story as truth. The first words my pastor uttered were powerful: “This is not your fault. This is an abuse of power.” He promised he would confront my perpetrator. He assured me that he would do everything in his power to protect my anonymity.
The pastor did confront his subordinate and elicited an admission of guilt. Much to my chagrin, the abusive minister was permitted to resign rather than be fired. A vague resignation letter confessing “a breach of trust” was read to the congregation. Despite telling me privately that this was an abuse of power and confiding that he suspected that other women in the congregation had also been abused, the pastor never employed that kind of language when discussing the situation publicly. Rumors swirled in the congregation. People felt sorry for the minister—did he really have to go? One woman joked that she had recently spoken to the minister and expressed her wish that he had picked her because she wouldn’t have told anybody.
When I questioned the pastor about his handling of the situation, he was offended. The abusive minister was gone, and the pastor wanted the situation to simply fade away. I warned him that my perpetrator was likely to find a new ministry position and do the same thing again, devastating other lives, wreaking havoc in another church. My concerns fell on deaf ears.
Although the pastor had promised to protect my anonymity, I learned that he had revealed my name to other staff members privately. Fortunately, the identity of “the woman who got the minister fired” never surfaced publicly. But the pastor began to treat me like a pariah. He wanted me to disappear. He was desperately afraid that I was going to sue the church—“You would win!” he told me. I never contemplated suing the church that I loved so deeply.
I hung on for over a year, hoping in vain that I would be able to remain in my beloved church home. Alas, it was not to be. Deeply wounded, I finally left and joined another church. Not long after I made this move, a staff member from my former church called me to report unsettling news. My perpetrator had been hired by a sister Baptist church just ten miles down the road. Two years later, my prophecy was fulfilled. My perpetrator was fired from his new church after the pastor discovered he was abusing his power again. This time there were multiple victims.
If you or someone you know is looking for help, here are some trusted resources: