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Ravaged Faith:

Other types of psychological damage caused by clergy sex abuse: inability to trust, nightmares, suicide ideation, anxiety, depression, withdrawal from family, isolation, flashbacks, fearfulness, intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, low self-esteem, and intimacy problems. Read more >

When faith has been used as a weapon, its

possibility as a resource for healing is ravaged. That’s just one part of the damage that is caused when sexual abuse is committed by a trusted spiritual leader. Here is how I tried to explain it when a well-intentioned friend sent a long email saying that God would heal and restore me if only I would put my trust and faith in Him.


Dear Jane,

When I read your email, my hands shook so much that I spilled my coffee. My chest began to pound. I started being short of breath. I felt literally sick. I had to get up and take a walk with headphones to try to shift my brain into a different mode. That's what talk of God's love can do to me. It's a  physiological response.

I do not believe you intended to inflict any hurt on me, and to the contrary, I expect that you intended to offer some comfort and hope. But, from my perspective, it is as though your email brandished in front of me the very weapon that was used against me. It is as though you are telling me that I should pick up that very same sword that was once used to eviscerate me and should fall on it all over again. I can’t do that. My love of God, my faith, my own extraordinary desire to live the will of God...those are the very parts of me that were transformed into weapons that savaged and destroyed me. As a result, that part of my brain, that part of me that was once able to turn to God, to surrender to God, to pour my heart out to God, to put things in God’s hands, to believe that God would take care of me...all of that part of my brain is inaccessible. It is electrically charged and it is the land of the is a ravaged land that is there within my own head.

I think it is somewhat analogous to a person who has a stroke. The person's brain tissue is damaged by the physical trauma of oxygen deprivation, and because of that trauma, a part of their brain doesn't get the connections right anymore. It is as though it is short-circuited out and (depending on what part of the brain is affected) the result may be that they can't form words anymore even though their thought-making process is still intact. My brain has also been damaged by trauma, although it was a severe psychological trauma rather than a physical brain injury.

Sometimes, with rehab work, people who have had strokes can learn to attach words to thoughts again, but they do so consciously and with great effort. In effect, they work at rewiring their brains around the place of trauma. In some ways, I think I am engaged in an analogous process. Now that this has finally been brought forward into my fully conscious brain, I can at least try to use the skills of my conscious brain to try to rewire myself around the place of trauma. The extent to which I may or may not be able to do so remains to be seen. But at least I have the possibility of now trying. It’s why churches ought to provide to clergy abuse victims professional counselors with experience in dealing with it so as to try to cut short some of the damage. It’s why secrecy is so damaging – it just shuts down that part of the person’s brain and leaves it in an injured state.

Another possibly useful analogy is to think about a victim of torture whose torturer always played Beethoven while he beat and brutalized the victim. Years later, that victim of torture is unlikely to much appreciate the music of Beethoven, and he may feel great anxiety when he hears the music even if he is merely at a shopping mall. And perhaps he won't even realize why he is becoming so short of breath or why he is feeling the need to leave the mall immediately. The music is just background noise. But on some level his brain is still processing it as something that is linked to degradation, pain and fear. The sort of talk of God’s love that is in your email is the sort of talk that transports me to the torture chamber that is in my own head.

Even a monkey, if it is made to feel pain or fear every time it hears “God loves you,” then the monkey will eventually cower and run whenever someone says “God loves you.” It’s how the limbic system of the brain works, and experiences during critical developmental windows, such as adolescence, are often much more powerful than experiences as an adult.

One of the things that has impressed me the most in my meetings and sharings with other survivors of clergy sexual abuse is the extent to which so many of us make such efforts to try to rewire our own brains so as to recover some avenue of faith. I think this is in part because, for most clergy abuse victims, faith was an integral part of their identity and so they try to reclaim it. Kids who are abused by clergy aren’t likely to be trouble-maker kids (who would likely have more street-smarts) but are more often kids for whom faith was something real. It’s their very love of God and their devotion that make them gullible and more easily manipulated by predatory clergy. That people such as me - who have been degraded in unspeakable ways - all in the name of God, in the house of God, by men of God, with words of God - would still make any effort at all to seek God is something that amazes me. It makes me think that, in some very fundamental way, human beings are essentially hard-wired to seek out the divine.

That’s part of the reason why I asked of the church in Farmers Branch that they place a stone labyrinth into the ground, surrounded by a small meditation garden, with a plaque saying it was dedicated in prayer for victims of clergy sexual abuse and in honor of their efforts to reclaim life and faith. I think churches should honor the efforts of clergy abuse victims and reach out to them. I thought it would be a way of using what happened to me to work for something positive. (Since I don’t live anywhere close to Farmers Branch, it wouldn’t have benefitted me at all other than in the simple knowledge that something worthwhile had been accomplished.) In any event, I know that it’s not going to happen. I’ve lost any hope at all that this church will ever care one iota about what their minister did to me. It would have been so much more healing if I could have believed that someone in the church actually cared.

Please don’t think that I’m in any way critical of your faith. I’m just trying to explain to you why that sort of similar to the sort of talk that I grew up so difficult for me to hear. It’s part of why I have such trouble understanding why church and denominational leaders are so resistant to helping clergy abuse victims. The impact of it is a profound damage to the part of the brain where faith resides.

For most people of faith, it is their faith that they can use as a resource to help them weather life’s difficulties and griefs. But for me, because my faith was used as a weapon, it is very difficult if not impossible to try to use it as a resource. Faith is linked to a nightmare. I wonder why denominational leaders – people for whom I presume their faith is something very important to them – don’t seem capable of seeing the loss in what Gilmore took from me. If they value their own faith so much, why do they not see the great harm of what Gilmore did to me?

All of this does not mean that I am utterly without a belief in God. I’m not. But it’s a very tricky thing for me. I thank God every day for the simple fact that I was too inept to kill myself off in my younger years. My daily life, however simple and mundane it may be, is not something I take for granted. I am not at all oblivious to the goodness in the life that is still mine.