the Hope of Survivors

Betrayal of Innocence by Curt Szajnecki

How can a person prepare for the devastation caused by a trusted pastor? The church is a safe haven. Isn’t it? I thought so. My children trusted their parents not to put them in harm’s way. I was so proud of my family. They were good church-going girls, participating in the choir, Bible study classes and youth group activities. We were a very close and loving family. The girls were brought up with structure in their lives, stability and two loving parents who parented together. Then came a new pastor to our church of several years named Rev. S____. He nonchalantly and gradually ripped my family apart with such calculated expertise that I never saw it coming. And when I figured it out, so much damage was done and he was going full speed ahead.

Rev. S____ entered into the lives of a family that loved and cared for one another. We were a family that had fun together, played sports, traveled, and were close to our extended families. Rev. S____ came in and dissected us, separating each and every one of us—from husband and wife, to father and children, to mother and children, and many times the children against each other. Our lives were changed forever, and every day we all struggle to survive the daily thoughts, feelings and emotions that those who have been abused by a trusted religious person have.

We’ve been living this nightmare since 1996, when our church turned against us and chose to protect a religious predator instead of the victims seeking help. I’ve been seeking help since 1996, when Bishop O____ told me that the affair between my ex-wife and Rev. S____ was consensual and that there’s nothing he would do to help. The church’s own Book of Discipline explains that there’s no such thing as consent between a pastor and parishioner because of the imbalance of power. At a recent United Methodist Conference, the Rev. Mary Jane Wilson-Parsons, a sexual assault counselor, told Western North Carolina clergy members to guard their roles as pastors. “It is never appropriate for clergy to engage in a consensual love affair with one of their parishioners.” She went on to describe that it is a form of rape. But I didn’t know that the Methodists had their own book of rules against this type of behavior from a minister and that they were supposed to at least hold an investigation. I had so many plates spinning that I began spinning with them.

Haunted by what continued to happen to my family, I continued seeking justice and contacted Bishop L____ in May 2003. I told her my horror story and asked for her to remove the predator from the ministry before more people were harmed. She never let on in my conversation with her that she had been Rev. S____’s supervisor the years that I was reporting trouble with him. But I did report it to another office, and had a 45-minute phone discussion with someone, who was Bishop O____’s assistant at the time. I was very emotional in describing what was going on with Rev. S____ and my wife. She told me she would take the information to Bishop O____. But this was the last time anyone from that office would ever take my call again. And that seems where the cover-up began.

In his interview, Rev. S____ didn’t let the hiring committee at the church know that his wife was dying of cancer, when he got the job at my family’s church in 1994. We were a young family and felt that we had it all. My wife, Linda, and I were loving parents to our four gorgeous little girls, ages 13, 11, 9 and 3, who were involved in our church’s youth group and choir at the D____ First United Methodist Church in D____, Michigan. Rev. S____ began using sexual language with the older girls immediately, and they felt he was perverted. He convinced my wife to chair the committee equivalent to a board of ethics for the church. No woman ever held the position, and my wife was the first to admit that she wasn’t qualified. She was confused at his insistence, but not a strong person and one that had a hard time saying no. She accepted after he dumped it on her lap. I have a copy of the original Myers-Briggs Psychological Test Rev. S____ gave my wife while she was in his Bible study class, so he most likely knew her weaknesses and strengths. He then got her involved in so many church committees that she was literally at the church seven days a week, and never home for the girls after being a stay-at-home mom and very attentive to her children all their lives.

In 1996 when Rev. S____’s wife died, his attention to my wife escalated immensely. He gave her his wife’s car against my wishes and my daughters’ angry outbursts that she accepted such a “gift.” I have a copy of the original title, dated August 29, 1996, while we were still married. He had the audacity to give my wife a car against my wishes, and no one would stop him from the church. My wife began defending Rev. S____’s behavior. The girls were upset that their mother allowed him to talk in a sexual manner with them, but she’d tell them he didn’t mean it after the pastor made excuse after excuse for what he did.

Rev. S____ ignored the church’s policy on mandatory leave after a loved one dies, and he refused to leave the church. My pleas for help from church administration were ignored. He was monopolizing my wife’s time at church, even asking her to come over to the parsonage alone a couple days after his wife died to get her belongings out of the house. I told her that it was something for his family to be concerned about, and not a church volunteer. He has three children who can help. I said that unless there were other church people involved, she shouldn’t be alone with him. When she spoke with him again, he insisted that he didn’t want to bother his family and that he just wanted her to come and help. This did not sit well with the family, and she went to his house alone. He was supposed to take a mandatory three-week sabbatical after his wife died, but Bishop O___ allowed him to stay. Allowing Rev. S____ to stay, set the stage for him to get my wife alone in his house. Rev. S____ had begun counseling sessions with my wife in his home, of which I was unaware. A few months later, he had her come into his lakeside home on the same property as the church holds their retreats, and had her pack up his wife’s things from that house, too. She left our four daughters in the car while she spent over an hour inside the home alone with the pastor.

Needless to say, our life at home changed dramatically after that. My wife began to sleep on the couch, giving no explanation. Never had we fought or was I able to understand what happened. I assumed my wife was overworked and went to Rev. S____ to ask him to free her up at church because her children needed her at home. I told him she left our marital bed, and asked him to talk with her and tell her what a good guy I am and that I want to help her. I’d do anything to help her. She was losing weight, drinking way too much coffee every day. She began having internal problems, and I just wanted to help her get better. We all wanted to have her back because we missed her so much.

But Rev. S____ had other plans, and he didn’t help me. Another parishioner told me that he started spreading rumors at church that I was sick. That I was abusive to not only my wife, but my children. People at church began to look at me strangely. I didn’t understand. I’m the guy that’s always laughing. I’m the guy that will bend over backwards to help my family. Rev. S____ continued his assault until my wife divorced me, and our girls fell apart. Smoking, drinking, staying out all night. Out of control. I was kicked out of their lives and there was no one home to supervise.

I increased my determination to get my ex-wife to realize that she was being abused by her pastor. I showed her in the Methodist’s own Book of Discipline, that it was never okay for a pastor to have relations with a parishioner. The church also had rules against sexual harassment, yet their pastor sexually harassed all of my girls. I hired a lawyer and private investigator. I sent my wife and children to doctors and therapists. I went to several doctors hoping that it was me who was sick so I could get help. I was told that I was suffering from agonizing grief, and there wasn’t a pill for that.

I hired an attorney and started to pressure the church to do something. No one would return my calls. I found a letter from Bishop O____ that he was supposedly retiring Rev. S____ on July 1, 1998. But, in an act of deception, after a big going-away party from the D____ Church with gifts and money, Rev. S____ was actually moved to the Methodist Church in P____, Michigan, and given the title of “pastor of visitation.” He continues today holding Bible study classes, marrying people, having access to children and women. He now has even less supervision as he goes on the road to “visit” parishioners in their own homes. What kind of damage will he be able to do now?

As I continued to send my wife information about pastoral abuse, trying to get her to see what he was doing to her, the pastor secretly married her in 1999. Then they bought a farmhouse together, taking the girls’ mother away, and leaving them to live with no supervision in the house. They refused to live under the same roof with him, pleading with their mother to choose them instead of the pastor. But he had her, and he wasn’t letting go.

My eldest daughter wrote a letter to us when she found out we were divorcing. She was confused at how this happened when there were no signs. She hoped it was a dream and she’d wake up. She’s struggling today with anxiety and panic attacks, taking medication and seeing therapists.

My second eldest began pounding her head on the wooden floor on hearing of the divorce. She ended up in the hospital eventually, and struggles today with depression, anxiety and panic attacks. In high school she was heading for super stardom on the volleyball court. She barely finished high school, but she was offered several volleyball scholarships to colleges all over the country. She accepted one at a local community college, but she had trouble focusing, not finishing the two years. She hasn’t been able to work for quite some time, and the depression and attacks have progressed to dangerous levels today. She’s recently started seeing a new therapist.

My third oldest daughter began smoking and drinking like her two older sisters before her. She’s got a voice like an angel and skills on the volleyball court, but she struggled to graduate from high school and lasted only a semester in college on a volleyball scholarship. She keeps to herself, so it’s hard to say what’s deep inside, but the hurt feelings are in her eyes and her warm hugs.

My youngest wasn’t old enough to refuse being dragged around to church events and out to the farm. When my youngest daughter fell asleep on a chair while watching television with a friend, Rev. S____ was seen by the friend putting his hand under my daughter’s shirt. Our worst fears were realized. An investigation was held, but the request for warrant for the pastor’s arrest by the Huron Township Police Department was denied by someone from the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office, juvenile division, that the hand up the back of her shirt was in a non-sexual gratification area, so Rev. S____ wasn’t arrested. My youngest endured his sexual harassment for years—dropping his shorts in front of her, revealing his boxers, fondling his nipples while smiling at her, making the comment that the people at church hugging looked like they were having a sexual encounter. He let his drool spill onto her face as a punishment for not being able to play her part of the duet he was teaching her on the piano at six years old.

I want to protect my girls. I’m their dad. We’ve had nine years of this hell, and when I took my sister with me to tell my story to Bishop L____, I was promised help. She said that she would get him right in and talk to him. I didn’t want the pastor to brutalize my youngest daughter, however. Bishop L____ was supposed to report this abuse to an outside governmental agency according to a recent Michigan ruling in March 2003 regarding the child protection law that requires clergy and other responsible church-reporting authorities to contact the Family Independent Agency, formerly known as Family Protective Services. But the bishop never reported this. Instead, the bishop was on vacation when I called back to find out about her investigation. If this matter was as important as she insinuated to me it was, then why wasn’t she working on it? I was persistent. I sent her document after document of proof to what I was telling her. She was gathering all the information but not to help me, but to help the church cover up what had happened. After much prodding, I got a letter telling me that she was putting Rev. S____ into therapeutic counseling for a year. Then again after much writing, calling, and then bringing in outside people to help, Rev. E____ wrote a letter telling me that the church would give me $500 for therapy for my family. This offer was made after my family endured 95 months of abuse. The church’s offering to us broke down to $5.26 per month, or $1.31 per person per month. We decided to pass on this inhumane offer. It felt like more abuse.

Rev. S____ sexually harassed my youngest daughter from 1997 to 2003, and an out-of-court settlement was reached, because I didn’t have the money to send a lawyer to obtain Bishop L____’s deposition after the church moved her to Wisconsin. It was my understanding that the pastor was supposed to be suspended while the investigation took place, but it never happened.

No one from the church ever talked with any of my children. Rev. S____ remains in the ministry in P____, Michigan. My daughters struggle every day. I fight for justice for all of us because we are victims of the Methodist Church, who knowingly failed to supervise a minister who was out of control. I’ll not stop my fight until I attain justice for my family. My family and I are still waiting for the Methodist response team to come and help—just for someone to talk with my daughters so that they can tell the church how they feel.

I have been blessed in meeting Janet Patterson and David Clohessy from SNAP. They helped me tremendously by setting up a press conference outside the Methodist Detroit Conference and sending a letter to the newest Methodist Bishop K____ asking that Rev. S____ be removed from the ministry while my story is being investigated. But the Methodists have ignored this request. Recently, Samantha Nelson from The Hope of Survivors has touched my soul with her caring manner, allowing me to tell my story here. These two organizations are amazing, and I now have hope that help is on the way.

I can be contacted through Samantha Nelson at The Hope of Survivors by email for comments or suggestions on how to help bring justice for my family. The good people of the P____ United Methodist Church need to know of the danger in their church.

[END OF STORY]

If you are a survivor of pastoral abuse, we would love to hear your story and possibly make it available on this web site for others to read and renew their hope. You can use a pseudonym if you choose and rest assured that all personal information will be kept private and strictly confidential. Please contact us.

Please note: We do not necessarily agree with or endorse all the information contained in the survivor’s stories. We do, however, feel they have some valuable information that could be useful to you in your recovery. It helps to know you’re not alone, that others have shared your pain and have healed, by the grace of God, in their own time and way.

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