"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Many clergy abuse victims ask me what they should do. The answer is “I don’t know.” You have to decide for yourself what to do. So these are just my opinions. (See the Disclaimers.) Some of them I feel strongly about, but they’re still just my opinions.
1. Take care of yourself. Get counseling. Work on healing. It’s a life-long journey - keep on keepin’ on. Can’t afford counseling? Phone your local rape crisis center or county mental health center. Ask for a referral to a fee-reduced counselor. Ask for someone with experience in "trauma counseling." Find a counselor you’re comfortable with. Keep trying. I do NOT suggest that you go to a pastoral counselor. There may be some good ones, but I’ve heard way too many bad reports about pastoral counselors who show more concern about protecting the church from scandal than about helping the victim heal. Find a professional counselor who works independently of any church or denominational group.
2. Talk to a lawyer. Talk to several lawyers. Talk to them BEFORE you talk to church or denominational leaders. Most lawyers will provide an initial consultation at no charge. Get some professional legal advice. Talking to a lawyer doesn’t mean you have to file a lawsuit.
Know this: Denominational leaders have lawyers standing by and at the ready. Their lawyers have dealt with countless abuse reports before yours and they already have strategies in mind. And if you talk to church leaders, they will likely pick up the phone first thing and get a referral to one of those experienced denominational lawyers.
In published brochures, the Southern Baptist Convention gives churches 4 recommendations for addressing clergy sex abuse, and one of those is this: "Always Consult an Attorney When a Complaint Is Made." So, since Baptist churches are specifically instructed to "always" consult an attorney, and since the denomination has lawyers at the ready, why shouldn’t you get just a little bit of legal advice of your own?
3. Consider using the legal system, if it’s possible. I know you probably don’t want a lawsuit. Most people don’t. But until Southern Baptists start keeping nationwide records of clergy abuse reports, and warning other congregations, a public document on-file at a courthouse may be the best way, and perhaps the only way, for trying to make a record that might prevent the man from doing to someone else what he did to you. Too many Southern Baptist clergy abusers have been recycled from church to church and state to state. A lawsuit may be the best possibility for trying to protect others.
Most lawsuits don’t go to trial. But if a lawsuit really gets into gear, there is no amount of money that you could ever recover that would make it worth the additional pain that you may have to go through in the process of pursuing the lawsuit. It will be a sacrifice for you. (And while you’re going through that sacrifice, you’ll have to listen to ignorant others who will accuse you of being in it for the money. They haven’t a clue. So why should you care what they may think?) You will have the knowledge in your heart that you did all you could to try to protect others. That’s the best reason for filing a lawsuit. At this point, without any denominational procedure for accountability, a lawsuit may be the best possible way of trying to make some small bit of good come from the horror of what you lived through.
Most reporters will not be able to write about your story unless there’s a lawsuit or some type of public documentation. So again, if you want to make known what your perpetrator did, and if you want to warn others, a lawsuit may be what’s needed. (Perhaps you’re thinking now that you can’t ever imagine wanting to talk about this with anyone, much less a reporter. But it may be possible that you could file a lawsuit as a “Jane Doe,” which might still afford the possibility of exposing your perpetrator.)
If enough clergy abuse victims file lawsuits, perhaps insurance companies will begin to put pressure on church and denominational leaders to put in place effective accountability procedures for getting rid of clergy predators and for reducing the number of claims about clergy sex abuse. So filing a lawsuit could work for good in that way as well. Sadly, I no longer believe that helping victims or protecting others will ever be enough motivation for church and denominational leaders to do the right thing on dealing with clergy sex abuse. I’m an almost relentless optimist by nature, but when it comes to Southern Baptists and sex abuse, I’ve seen and heard too much. What I now believe is that Southern Baptist leaders will take action only when they are pressured into it by outside forces – by their own insurance companies, by too many lawsuits, or by the negative media exposure that lawsuits generate.
If you file a lawsuit, make sure you have support systems in place. Get counseling. Stay in counseling during the legal process. See Number 1 above. It’s Number 1 because it’s most important. Take care of yourself.
4. Don’t go talk to church or denominational leaders alone! If you want to go talk to church or denominational leaders, at least take a trusted friend or relative with you. Take the most strong-willed, assertive friend you’ve got. Too many times, victims have met with church or denominational leaders, only to come away feeling even more shamed and a whole lot worse. It’s a strategy: If they can make you feel even worse, then maybe you’ll go away and stop talking about this and won’t continue to pursue it. Don’t give them the possibility of doing that to you. Have someone you trust there with you. Another thing we’ve seen is for church and denominational leaders to appease people by saying they’re going to do something. Down the road, if they don’t follow through, you may wish that you had someone else who heard them say it.
For survivors in Texas, please don't be fooled by what you may read in the BGCT's booklet "Broken Trust." It's just words on paper. I've talked to way too many survivors who recount very negative experiences with the BGCT, and I've talked with no one for whom the BGCT provided any assistance in locating the perpetrator or in warning people in the pews. No one.
I know this kind of thinking runs contrary to instinct for most of you. If you were raised in a church, your every instinct is to want to trust religious leaders. This is one of the rare times when I would say that there’s a high probability it will be a mistake if you rely on your instincts. Don’t go alone!
For a helpful piece on reporting abuse within denominations (and on what denominational officials should do but so often don't), see this MK Safety Net article.
5. Do not sell your voice! One of the most common tactics of many church and denominational leaders is to get the victim to sign a confidentiality agreement in exchange for a few thousand dollars for counseling. It’s hush money. You're being bought. It’s how they keep clergy sex abuse victims quiet and avoid scandal. They aren’t trying to help you; they’re trying to help themselves. If they really cared about helping victims, they would automatically extend counseling costs in an effort to minister to victims and help them heal. Instead, what we often see is that they shove a contract under the victim’s nose and she winds up signing that she will never again speak of it with anyone but her counselor.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame the victims who sign such contracts. They are wounded people who are in desperate need of counseling. For church and denominational leaders to use that vulnerability to extract a contract for secrecy is to exploit the victim all over again. It’s unconscionable. It contractualizes the victim's shamed silence before she can even get enough counseling to fully understand that the shame isn't hers. And worst of all, it does nothing to assure that the perpetrator can't hurt someone else, and it doesn't require any accountability for other church leaders who may have turned a blind eye. In effect, it's still more of a cover-up.
In 2002, the National Conference of Bishops put into effect a policy that Catholic churches and their lawyers were NOT to use confidentiality agreements in dealing with priest abuse reports. Apparently they finally realized how deplorable these sorts of hush money agreements are. You’d think Baptists might have learned something from that, but apparently not. Baptists still use confidentiality agreements to keep clergy sex abuse victims quiet.
I know what some of you are thinking. You can’t even imagine the possibility that you might ever want to talk about this - it’s so ugly and awful - and so why shouldn’t you sign an agreement for secrecy? As recently as 2 years ago, I couldn’t imagine EVER talking about this with anyone I knew. I didn’t want anyone in my family to know; I didn’t want any of my friends to know; I didn’t want anyone I worked with to know. And I sure didn’t want my daughter to know this terrible dark and awful thing about her mother. But I changed. Maybe your feelings about all this will change too. Maybe they won’t. But at least give yourself that possibility. Your own story is the most powerful thing you have. Don’t let them take it from you.
6. Put a police report on file. Even if you think it's too late for prosecution, try to make a criminal complaint anyway. Talk to police in the city where the abuse took place.
7. Keep on healing and raise heck when you can! You were wronged - horribly so. You’ve got a right to be angry. But when you’re able, I hope you’ll turn that anger into action.
I stepped into a small nondenominational chapel a while back. It was octagonal in shape - like a roundhouse - and the organ pipes hung straight down from the center of the ceiling. It wasn’t fancy, but it was beautiful. On my way out, I saw the dedication plaque in the front entrance. This chapel was dedicated to the glory of God as manifested "by the exploding of righteous anger into action.” The anger you feel is a righteous anger. Don’t doubt it. Put it into action.