the Hope of Survivors

The Hope of SurvivorsóBringing Survivors Together to Work for Justice —Becky Bell

(from the April 2013 edition of HopeSpeak)

On November 12, 2011, the Rev. Robert Carlson committed suicide by jumping off the Penobscot Narrows Bridge in a town 30 minutes south of Bangor, Maine. The Rev. Carlson had held many prestigious positions in the greater Bangor community, pop. ~33,000. He retired after 25 years of ministry with the East Orrington Congregational Church (a small town 6 miles from Bangor). Soon thereafter, because of his very large and sometimes rather intrusive presence, he took on leadership roles in key areas of the community: law enforcement, health care, and education. He was chaplain of the County Jail, then after resigning from that position he was recruited to eventually become CEO of a large, federally funded health care organization in Bangor. In addition to this role, he was also Chaplain of a private University in Bangor. He seemed to be everywhere, and prided himself for doing the most funerals of any clergy member in Bangor.

There was, however, a dark side to ‘Rev.’ Carlson. In 2011, in anticipation of receiving a large award from the Boy Scouts for his years of service, a relative of one of his victims—who was now an adult and still involved with Carlson—came forward to the Maine State Police, which immediately began an investigation in early November. A few days later he took his life, and shortly thereafter the all-too-familiar story of manipulation and exploitation of vulnerable individuals became public, from Boy Scouts to young men in jail to many others. It also turns out that Carlson spent a lifetime hiding the fact that he was never credentialed to be an ordained pastor. He had, in effect, duped thousands of persons living in greater Bangor area and beyond for decades. For the complete story, go to

However, there was a bright spot in this story. In one of the Comments sections of an article written about this case in the summer of 2012, someone mentioned The Hope of Survivors. It caught my attention of course! It appeared that this person was speaking from his/her own abusive experience. I wrote to Samantha Nelson and shared what I had seen, and asked her if she would be willing to ask this person if they were interested in connecting. The rest of the story is now a continuing journey that we hope will bring us to a very positive end, and that is to pass legislation in the state of Maine that would make it a criminal offense for clergy to engage in sexual misconduct with adults as part of a fiduciary relationship.

We are two couples, both of whom experienced abuse by different pastors in Bangor within the past two decades. We realize that, since our time of ‘coming out and forward’, a lot has changed in even the past 5-7 years both nationally and globally that may contribute to a more favorable environment to pass such legislation. According to Dr. Diana Garland of Baylor University—leading researcher on this topic—thirteen (13) states currently have laws in place to protect adults from CSA. Additional resources addressing the matter of state law can be found here:

Currently, we have been in touch with the legislators representing our respective Districts. We have also connected with key persons we believe would significantly help us make a sound and convincing case as to why this should become a law. One of the workers in the State House shared with us a belief that is common: that since there are already 13 states who have such laws in place, those that do not may feel a sense of urgency to approve a likeminded proposed bill because they would not want to be known as one of the last states to vote it into effect.

Six months ago, we had no idea either of us existed—or had knowledge of our individual abuse cases—even though our churches were literally two blocks apart from one another!! Because of the news coverage of Mr. Carlson’s horrific abuse as a shepherd wearing wolves clothing, we were brought together, which we perceive is God’s grace at work at the right time. Working for justice to insure there is both a deterrent to this crime as well as a sufficient means of reparation for harms done feels right to us. As an attorney friend said to me recently, “This is an ecclesial initiative that sounds spiritually sound, emotionally healthy, and institutionally necessary.” We therefore, along with Samantha and Steve, give thanks to God for what we truly believe is divine intervention, and thank Samantha and Steve for being used by God in such a profound and impactful way. Amen!

Becky lives in Maine with her husband Peter. She is an RN practicing in community health. They have 2 grown children.

The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart...Psalms 34:18