the Hope of Survivors

License to Prey by Ruth Collins*

My story is ongoing, as my perpetrator lives in the same small town as my children and me. He continues to tell anyone who will listen that I “lied” to the New England UCC Conference investigating committee; but I have extensive, written proof of his professional misconduct.

Ralph*, my former minister, and his church leaders have attempted to commit slander against me—both verbally and in written newspaper print—and have done all they can to discredit my character.

However, I have been telling the truth—the truth that some do not want to label as clergy professional misconduct and abuse of power. Those who are able to reason, who understand right from wrong, and who are familiar with the character traits of an abuser also know the truth.
 
My perpetrator, as most do, portrays himself to his current congregation as the victim, as he truly believes he has done nothing wrong. To this day, he continues to deny wrongdoing, has not displayed repentance (that I have witnessed), and blames me for “ruining his career” (quotes are his exact words). However, my former UCC minister did do something very wrong. His actions eventually led him to be suspended for clergy misconduct and I was one of his victims.

In general, a clergy person, a priest, or a Rabbi’s powerful and authoritative vocation, the blind faith of his followers, the colleagues who choose collusion over transparency, and the antiquated legal system give my former pastor—and all other unethical church leaders—a license to prey. At this very moment in time, my offender is back at the pulpit and, consequently, has been given authority to abuse again.
 
My story—my truth—began in the early winter of 2007.
 
My offender was my trusted UCC minister of seven years. I thought he was my friend and a man whom I could trust. Little did I know that he was grooming me for what many congregants considered an “affair” and no one else’s business. But, it was clearly professional misconduct, clergy abuse of power, and NOT an affair.
 
My minister knew I was vulnerable and just coming out of a nasty divorce. He had counseled me on other occasions, about other topics; but now, both newly divorced, we had a new topic of conversation: divorce and Christianity. Initially, our conversations were over the phone; then, he had me at his home to discuss the after-math of divorce and how it affected one’s spiritual life.
 
My minister offered me compassion and healing words. He knew my former husband was cold and inattentive. Ralph went out of his way to pamper me, make me feel special, and loved.
 
He also knew I was considering becoming a minister as a second career. Therefore, he offered to mentor me. He suggested I assist him with the upcoming confirmation classes and anything else he was involved in, in order to give me more exposure as a Christian leader.

Since my family joined the church, officially, in 2000 or 2001, I had always been an active member as a church schoolteacher and I participated in various church fundraisers. So, assisting him with the confirmation class made sense to me. There was no cause for red flags yet.
 
Now, winter of 2007, my minister invited me out to dinner—on two different occasions—to prepare for the upcoming confirmation classes. Later, he confessed to me that he viewed those dinners as our “first dates.” In hindsight, I now realize an ethical minister, with good boundaries, would not have invited me out to dinner under the guise of preparing for confirmation classes. Our dinners together provided us opportunity to discuss our personal lives, as well as the church business we were meant to discuss.
 
When I spoke of my reuniting with an old boyfriend from high school, my pastor suggested to me that I “date around...” This was my first RED FLAG.

A month or so later, my minister told me he was attracted to me and would like to date “someone like you [me].” In jest, he stated the associate minister could be my minister thus allowing him to date me. I was flattered and confused. But, what exactly was he telling me?
 
By the end of March 2007, our professional relationship and long-time friendship took a drastic turn toward a romantic and very intimate nature. Ralph suggested I be open to “a love that I was so deserving of...” and that he could provide for me. Up to that point, I considered my minister to be my moral compass. I looked up to him for spiritual guidance. I trusted him. He was the authority figure, the experienced and educated professional, and the one whom I had learned to trust. Since he initiated our romantic relationship, it must be appropriate to participate as his new love interest, I concluded.

In the beginning, I did not question him because he had my blind trust; that was my fault. I do own the fact that I was extremely vulnerable and naïve. But, we parishioners are conditioned to give our faith leader “blind trust.”
 
My pastor made me feel special. As of May 2006, I was newly divorced. So, it was comforting to be with someone who made me feel special. In hindsight, with his background in psychology, I believe my minister knew how to target a vulnerable woman and use her for his own selfish needs. I later concluded I was just that: his latest target.
 
My UCC minister used his vocation, Scripture, and his calling to seduce me. He told me that “spiritual heat” was “hotter” than physical heat. He read to me Song of Solomon. He spoke of a love between us that was like no other he had ever experienced. He told me when he was with me he was “home”(again, the quotes are his exact words).
 
Months into our relationship, whenever I questioned his obsession or preoccupation with sex, he claimed he was extremely deprived in his marriage of many years. But, my intuition was telling me there might be more to his obsessive and quirky behavior.
 
I have since learned three facts: (1) at the time he seduced me and invited me up to his bedroom, he was still romantically involved with a woman from out of town. In fact, he had plans to travel with her, out of state, in order to celebrate his upcoming birthday that following April; (2) UCC ministers do have an Ethical Code of Conduct that forbids romantic relationships between parishioners and clergy. My minister led me to believe our relationship was sanctioned by his UCC superiors; and, (3) in nine states, what took place between my minister and I would be considered a criminal offense in the eyes of the State’s law. However, it is not yet a criminal act in the state in which I live. Thus, my minister has a license to prey.
 
I have since learned clergy/parishioner relationships are never consensual because of the imbalance in power. Web sites such as The Hope of Survivors have been a Godsend to me; teaching me, among other things, about what imbalance in power means. In hindsight, I now realize my minister was being immoral, unethical and, in the eyes of the law of some states, engaging in a criminal act.
 
Back to my story…red flags came and went. My minister gave me many mixed messages. For example, he stated our relationship was “the best” he had ever experienced; he was “in love” with me, and promised “to marry” me in the near future. But, he did not want to go public with our relationship quite yet. He asked that we be discreet; which was another RED FLAG. And, by being discreet, my children and I could remain at his church; the only church we ever knew since moving to town. So, discreet I was.
 
The other red flags led me to ask many questions. My minister was able to talk his way out of every tight corner he put himself into. I believed him because of WHO he was; he was my trusted minister. He was articulate, charming, romantic, and obsessive of me; which, at the time was flattering. I thought I was special; an exception to the rule.
 
Toward the end of our relationship, whenever I questioned his intent or ethics, he used the threat of postponing our eventual engagement as a way to silence me. Our time of engagement went from spring of 2008 to December of 2008 because I was asking him too many questions; questions he could not truthfully answer and questions that seemed to agitate him.
 
I eventually found out I was not his first parishioner romance. He confided in me that a few years back (approximately 2004-2005), he had sought “counsel” from another divorced women who was also a member of our church. He went to her for “advice” about raising boys and “one thing led to another,” he stated. They now remain “friends”(quotes were his words). I believe she currently serves on his church diaconate committee. He was still legally married when that parishioner relationship took place. It leads me to the questions: how many other parishioner romances did he engage in or will engage in, in the future? After all, he did admit to me he knew he had issues with boundaries but would not specify to me what those boundary issues were.
 
My minister was consumed by the topic of sex. He spoke of it all the time. He spoke of the TV show “Desperate Housewives” as being one of his favorite shows. He claimed it had “Christian themes” to each episode. He even mentioned, in one of his youth group emails, he intended to watch the show after the church Youth Group meeting. I saw the email, as I was also included in that distribution list, as I was recruited, by him, to assist him with church work whenever time permitted me to do so.
 
In hindsight, I now worry about his close association with his youth group. He told me that he discussed sex with his youth group and usually coupled that discussion with his youth group around Valentine’s Day. He also made comments about the young boys involved with the mission trips. Those comments were in reference to the showers and how he thought it strange the boys felt the need to “cover themselves up” while they changed. He told me they had bodies like “Greek Gods” and, if it was him, he would flaunt what he had; another RED FLAG.
 
During the summer of 2007, my minister was due to go on sabbatical for the months of July and August. He wanted to take me away to his favorite vacation spot. He owned a trailer; so, off we went. Ralph told me it felt like a “honeymoon” to him. It now appears that his modus operandi included romantic trips away so he would not be seen with a parishioner. How many other church parishioners has he gone away with on romantic trips? I have since wondered. As I stated before, he admitted to me that I was not his first parishioner romance; which was another RED FLAG for me.

By the end of summer of 2007, my minister promised me marriage and spoke of the idea that once public, I would have to find another church but added it would be only “temporary.” He then promised me that my children and I would soon return to my church—our church—as his new wife and as his children.
 
He forgot to tell me he had also promised marriage to his last girlfriend; the one he went away with during the beginnings of our romance. The one I later found out he continued to call and ask to get together with as he found her to be “hot and sexy.” You see, the other lady had since moved to our small town and I was able to converse with her, via telephone, one week after Ralph terminated our relationship. Yes, he lied to her as well. She suspected he had involved himself with someone else during the last remaining months of their relationship; but, when questioned, he denied it. Lying comes easy to my former pastor. Most predators lie well. Pastor Ralph was also an adult child of an alcoholic—thus learning at a young age to manipulate the truth, reality, and to get his needs met with lies. 
 
By mid-winter of 2008, I had more questions; questions Ralph would not answer. Questions I needed to be answered before I would accept a ring of engagement from him. So, I conferred, via telephone, with another UCC minister 50 miles north of our community. She stated I should speak with our State’s UCC headquarters.
 
I then sent an email inquiry to the State’s UCC headquarters. That inquiry prompted an investigation into the ethical practices of Reverend Ralph. I was then asked for an interview numerous times by the State’s UCC Conference committees. However, I NEVER met with the 19-member Diaconate Committee of my church. They—my church family—shut me out.  They quickly turned their backs on me and held tightlyto my minister’s slanted and twisted version of our story.
 
Consider the trauma: On February 5, 2008, I was in love, planning a trip away with my minister, his boys, and my two children for that April school vacation. After all, we were to be engaged soon and blending the families was our next step.
 
On February 6, 2008, my minister—in a fit of rage—terminated our relationship stating I put his career “at risk” by conferring with a UCC minister about us. I felt total shock and disbelief. All along, he had told me our relationship was sanctioned by his UCC superiors and mentors. How could one conversation with a UCC minister, from miles away, threaten his career? BIG RED FLAG.
The light bulb finally went on; I quickly concluded my former minister used me for his own self-gratification. He cared not that he was stripping me of my faith in church, my faith in men, and my faith in my church community. I had been spiritually raped by my own minister.
 
One week later, February 13th, I was able to speak with Ralph’s previous girlfriend and we were able to exchange information, emails, and dates of our involvement with him. It then became quite clear that all of those red flags were accurate. He had over-lapped our physical relationship with him for three month. Therefore, confirming my former minister was not trustworthy, nor ethical, nor moral.
 
During the investigation process and eventual suspension of my former minister, I was harassed, with two separate anonymous letters that had been mailed to my home, from an angry church parishioner. They even sent one letter to my workplace president suggesting they should fire me from my job! The head diaconate’s wife left a threatening voice message on my phone machine and sent me an angry and accusatory email. Together, they made great efforts to blame me, shame me, and to silence me.
 
Letters of support—for my minister—found their way to the local papers; all from people who neither knew me nor spoke to me to hear my side of our story. They publically responded to a situation they truly knew nothing about. Hearing Reverend Ralph’s twisted version of our story was their only source of information. It was unreal how these self-proclaimed Christians behaved.
 
On April 15, 2008, a church group hung gold foil ribbons throughout town; near my home, work office, around the church itself, and near my favorite lunch establishment. Ralph knew where I worked and where I frequented for lunch. The ribbons were accompanied by large posters stating, “Ribbons for Ralph.” I truly believe they were meant to shame me for being forthright. The placement of the ribbons, I believe, was not haphazard which makes me believe my pastor was a part of the planning process that led to the act of shaming me. Few people knew which part of my workplace campus held my office. Ralph had to have been a part of the process to determine where the ribbons were to be hung.
 
The local UCC church leaders shunned me like a modern-day Hester Prynne from the Scarlet Letter. The State’s UCC leaders gave me validation that the actions of my former pastor was not condoned behavior as they recommended he be suspended for three months without pay.
 
The aftermath: My children were deprived of the only church they ever knew. I lost my church friends and church family. I was re-victimized by the words, actions, and inactions of the local church leaders. As a result, I felt pain and a level of betrayal so deep I contemplated ending my life. Thank God I have two precious children and my faith to keep me on my two feet! I have lawyer bills, medical bills, and lost wages from time taken off work, as some days were just too hard to bear.

It saddens me that so many parishioners are still blinded by my charming and charismatic former minister. He is back at the pulpit. I am sure he continues to counsel troubled teens and vulnerable women. His vocation allows him to do so. His vocation allows him to have a license to prey.
  
The Hope of Survivors web site and their work are a Godsend. We survivors need to support such organizations, as they have been the true catalyst to my healing. Without them, I was left to suffer in silence. I had no voice. Now, I have a voice. I have validation. I have the ability to truly heal and recover from the worse trauma I have ever experienced in my life.

Silence sanctions abuse and I refuse to be silent. And, the silence of victims/survivors of clergy abuse and misconduct are what these perpetrators are banking on. If you too are a survivor, turn your outrage into action as I have! I ask you to also speak truth to power, please. Together, we will be unstoppable. 
 
We all have the power to put an end to hypocrisy and to shine light on the church’s hidden secret. Current laws, for the most part, do not protect parishioners—young or adult—from clergy professional misconduct or clergy abuse. I believe there should be transparency within all churches and synagogues so parishioners can find out if priests, clergy, rabbi, and church leaders have had allegations of sexual harassment, professional misconduct and/or abuse charges against them.
 
If church is a business, and parishioners are consumers of such a business, we need consumer protection laws to slow down the rate of clergy misconduct and abuse. I suggest we work collectively to support legislative changes to slow down the rate of clergy abuse in our country. After all, what would Jesus do? I believe Jesus would speak out against injustice. I believe my strength to speak out against injustice and abuse comes directly from the Holy Spirit.

As a survivor, I am not alone and neither are you. God has been with me all along, assisting me on my journey from victim to survivor. I am hopeful that we survivors, as a united front, will be the conduits for change that will eventually lead to safer church environments. Please join us as we learn to speak truth to power and be a voice for all of the clergy abuse victims who are today suffering in silence. Together, let’s give them a voice!

Names and geographical location have been changed to protect the privacy of the survivor, the perpetrator, and his family—whom I consider secondary victims of his misconduct.

[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