the Hope of Survivors

We Are Not Alone by Catherine Thiemann

What do all survivors of clergy sexual abuse have in common? Isolation. Whether a pastor preys on adults or children, whether we are his only victim or one of many, whether the abuse is physical or “merely” emotional and spiritual, we become isolated. First, we are asked to bear the terrible secret of the abuse. Then, if we report our abuser, we are silenced and shunned. If we try to talk to families and friends outside the church, they may blame us for our own misfortune. As a result, many of us stop talking about our experience altogether. Although a landmark study by the Baylor University School of Social Work found that more than 3% of churchgoing women have experienced clergy sexual misconduct as adults, each of us feels uniquely shamed and tainted.  

If we are blessed with wise spiritual friends, we will hear that God is always with us. God tells us in Hebrews 13:5, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” But because of the evil of pastoral sexual abuse, many of us find it impossible to trust the word of God. We feel betrayed and abandoned by God. Our friends’ words, and even the Word, seem like a hollow promise and a cruel cosmic joke.  

That was my condition when I found The Hope of Survivors. I had already joined a new church, but a year later I still lacked any sense of God’s presence. My church met my need for community, so I had simply stopped hoping for God. But I had not stopped hoping for healing, and that is what brought me to my first Hope & Healing Conference in 2011. At that conference, I sat in the back row wiping tears from my face. I don’t remember most of what was said, but I do remember these words, repeated many times by every single speaker: “This was not your fault.” 

Slowly, over the next year, the reality of those words began to sink in. I was not to blame for my pastor’s evil actions! What happened to me was not my fault! The shame belonged to my pastor alone. Relieved of that terrible burden, I found the courage to open up to a trusted group of women at my church. Over the course of several months, I gradually exposed the truth: I had left my former church because of clergy sexual misconduct, and an entire community of good people had cast me out and declared me worthless. My new friends did not cast me out. They listened, wrapped me with their loving support, and surrounded me with prayer. When I was finally blessed with a sense of God’s presence, I wept with joy—and my sisters rejoiced with me. 

I attended the Hope & Healing Conference again on August 26, 2012. This time, I felt entirely new. Rather than weeping in the back row, I was able to reach out and connect with some of the other survivors. We shared stories, and I felt less alone. Again I heard, “This was not your fault.” I heard two more truths that may bear fruit this year. These insights may be helpful to other readers, so I will share them here.  

First: our pain is real and profound. Dr. Martin Weber, the Chairman of THOS Board of Directors, is a former law enforcement chaplain. More than once, he had to ring a doorbell in the middle of the night to tell someone that his or her loved one had been killed on the highway. He sat with them during the early hours of raw grief. Yet he has never witnessed greater emotional devastation than what he sees in victims of clergy sexual abuse. In my case, when I was suffering the most deeply, I was also providing support to a friend whose child had leukemia. I admit: a part of me sometimes wished she and I could change places. She had strong support from dozens of friends, and I couldn’t even tell her what had happened to me. What we suffer is real. 

Second: just as I grew from victim to survivor, I can grow from survivor to something entirely new. I don’t have to be defined by the terrible thing that happened to me. I am, first and foremost, God’s beloved daughter. My identity in Christ is already bearing fruit in my marriage, in my relationship with my children, and in my community volunteer work. But Dr. Weber gave me a new insight—it can even bear fruit in my physical appearance. When we recover from clergy sexual abuse, many of us try to protect ourselves by becoming sexually invisible. Perhaps we overeat; perhaps we dress with less care. My case is more complicated, but by no means unique: I developed anorexia because of the abuse, so my healing required a substantial weight gain. In healing, I learned to focus on emotional balance and wholeness rather than physical “perfection.” And yet, as Dr. Weber says, “It’s OK to be pretty.” What will that truth mean in my life? Only time will tell. 

Fellow survivors—sisters and brothers in Christ—we are not alone. The Hope of Survivors is for us and with us. God is for us and with us. We can find strong, true support in our own communities. I pray that all of us will live into this truth and find the courage to tell our stories, and in the process heal our souls and heal our church.

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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