So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
John 8:31-36 ESV
Yesterday I met with a representative with The Hope for Survivors, an organization dedicated solely to adult victims of clergy abuse, for almost four hours at a local restaurant. I was absolutely blown away by the conversation, as well as greatly encouraged.
If you suspect that you or someone you know have suffered as a result of clergy abuse, please contact The Hope of Survivors for help. They are a tremendous ministry doing so much good.
Tammy, a volunteer with The Hope of Survivors, is also a victim of clergy abuse. She’s a redheaded fireball who is working diligently to get laws passed in our state to make clergy sexual abuse illegal. All I know is Senators look out, because Tammy isn’t going to give up easily. And she’s going to have my support, but the most important thing is God is on her side. She is a truly an overcomer of clergy sexual abuse, and her eyes revealed the compassion of the Lord. Talking with her revealed how much God hates to see His sheep victimized by those who are called to lead. Tammy’s story gave me great hope.
As I walked away from that meeting, I recognized that I still have a long way to go in understanding and overcoming clergy sexual abuse. The battle with confusion and shame and guilt over all that has happened is crippling at times. This struggle was clear the other night in group therapy when another lady who was attempting to comfort me labeled my relationship with the former pastor as an affair rather than abuse. I understood why she said what she did, and I know in no way did she intend to bring me harm, but the label brought in a flood of shameful accusations from the dark side.
It is so important that clergy sexual abuse be made against the law in all 50 states (it is in only 13 now), not only to help protect other victims, but to help those of us who are still struggling with shame over what happened.
Tammy reiterated to me that whenever a pastor is involved in an inappropriate relationship with a congregant that he is always 100% responsible, not the victim. She also told me there is an estimated 55,000 victims in our state alone. And these are the ones we know about. Check http://www.adultsabusedbyclergy.org/statelaws.html to see if your state is on the list.
But how does one become an overcomer of clergy sexual abuse? Tammy, who is a few years ahead of me in the healing process, talked to me about the importance of understanding how heinous clergy abuse actually is in healing.
When one is harmed by the very one who is supposed to lead them towards hope, a victim is damaged in the deepest part of her soul. I know only too well about this kind of damage, so does my husband. We have both struggled to survive these past couple of years by the hardest after having our hope torn to shreds.
Just as it is important that a victim of childhood sexual abuse recognize that she was truly a victim of a horrendous act, it is crucial that a victim of clergy abuse recognize the same thing. When a victim of abuse does not recognize that she is a victim, she will the majority of the time blame herself for what is happening and self-condemnation will consume her.
Clergy sexual abuse is not the victim’s fault.
I’ll never forget the day one of the elders in my church, after I disclosed the abuse, told my husband that he did not believe I was a victim. His words felt like a knife stabbing into my soul again. When I talked to this elder’s wife, who was one of my closest friends, she explained to me that her husband wanted me to understand if I labeled myself as a victim it communicated to me that I didn’t have any control over my life. But what he didn’t understand, nor did I at the time, was how important it was for me to realize that I was a victim so that I wouldn’t drown in the same self-condemnation that had kept me in the abusive relationship in the first place. If I didn’t recognize the truth of this, I’d never have any control.
Another reason clergy sexual abuse needs to be against the law, is that most of the time churches do not understand what has actually occurred and wind up re-traumatizing the victims. A law would help so much to clarify this, and a victim could report the abuse to law enforcement, not the church!
I’ve said it before in this blog and I’ll say it again. When one is in an abusive relationship, things feel so out of control that the only way to feel like one has control is to blame oneself. If an abuse victim feels she is responsible, then she can convince herself that she can make it better, however when it doesn’t get better she takes on the responsibility that it was her fault and is overwhelmed with self-condemnation and shame. This was a vicious lie that kept me locked in the abusive relationship with my former pastor for ten years. It was only when I recognized the truth that I was a victim that I began to break free from the self-condemnation and the shame and told someone else.
Secrets are usually the lock on the door of an abusive relationship. The only way to escape is to tell someone. When one is able to tell the truth about their abuse, the lock on the door is removed and an abuse victim is one step closer to becoming an overcomer.
But I’ve found it’s so easy for me to step back into that cell even though I’ve been set free. The battle in our minds with self-condemnation still goes on after escaping the abuse. Every trigger is a reminder of the shameful scenes. I find myself asking when I’m triggered again – How could I have been so stupid? What was I thinking? And finally shame’s biggest lie, I am a bad person who is unworthy of real love. And of course when one believes this lie about themselves it feels like they are locked back in their cage.
It’s also easy to go back in that cage by being consumed as a victim and taking no responsibility whatsoever. This is a tricky area when dealing with those who’ve been abused and consumed with shame. It is easy to miscommunicate about this and heap more shame on a victim. But please hear me loud and clear, the perpetrator is still 100% responsible for the abuse. The only thing a victim needs to understand and repent of is how she responded to the abuse. Repentance means to change one’s mind and turn. And often what the victim needs to turn away from the most is the self-condemnation that resulted from the powerlessness and shame they felt that kept them locked in the abusive relationship. Repentance simply means embracing the truth of who one really is. And a victim becomes an overcomer when she sees that God does not want her to be enslaved to abuse. He wants her to see how much He loves her and wants to set her free from the abuse and all the shame and self-condemnation that has consumed her and brought her much harm.
With a clearer view of who she really is, not someone who is responsible for the abuse, but truly as a victim, one is no longer blinded by guilt and shame and is able to recognize who the abuser really is. And as my counselor reminds me often, one cannot unsee what they have seen.
Believing the truth about who God says we are is what sets us free from the lie that passes through generations of abuse victims that says they are bad and deserve the abuse. Don’t believe it. It is not true. God loves you and wants you to know that because of His death on the cross that we are His beloved. And herein lies real hope for those who are the survivors of clergy sexual abuse.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
Matthew 7:15-20 ESV