“It’s the Octave of Easter,” said Pastor Chuck cheerfully as he ate a handful of jelly beans and several pieces of chocolate–all before he and his wife Cheryl and I headed out to a restaurant for dinner. A time of full-fledged feasting.
Last week I visited Chuck and Cheryl, two Lutheran pastors in Ohio. I arrived the day after Easter and left the day after the “octave” ended. I had a marvelous time, nourishing and healing all at once–a time of feasting in many ways, from sharing in conversations with many who taught at the seminary, to enjoying the range of bookstores and coffeeshops nestled here and there in residential neighborhoods in the city, to seeing my first live pro hockey game in over ten years.
One dimension of the Octave of Easter for me was one that touches on the core of church, in every branch. Cheryl teaches at a Lutheran seminary, and she’d asked if I would speak to advanced Lutheran and Episcopalian seminarians about clergy sexual abuse. She’d learned that I’d helped the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA make a video 20 years ago when I was 23, a video which interviewed me and another survivor (the video is called “Choosing the Light”).
I agreed to speak, letting the video set forth some of the spiritual effects of betrayal of trust by a pastor, then speaking for a time about pastoral and congregational responses in a church that’s experienced an abusive pastor. 65 seminarians, faculty, and a bishop appeared. I knew the seminarians received a minimal sort of personal boundaries training, and the ELCA has policies in place that much more effectively remove abusive pastors from the clergy roster than may have happened even 25-30 years ago. So I focused instead on elaborating two points:
1) Take initiative in reaching out to survivors in the congregation. To stay silent in effect says: “You’re welcome here if you don’t say a word about what happened.” Find out how to care for them, and understand that they may never again feel safe in your church–or in any church.
2) Develop rituals that will address the sacramental levels of violation–the way sexual abuse in the church can defile the sacraments and a basic sense of trust in God for those who endure it. Think about offering an annual healing service for victims of every form of intimate abuse, including domestic violence and sexual abuse.
The conversation was rich, meaningful, non-defensive. Later I met with a student whose story illuminated that more needs to be done, even in our relatively progressive denomination: supporting synod staff so that they can be present over the longer haul to congregations that have experienced an abusive pastor; being present in ways that could interrupt the tendency to ask survivors to leave all leadership positions, and perhaps not come to church at all, since their presence “tainted” the church.
Walking with people who’ve been harmed in the place they should be able to feel most safe–this is never a simple or short journey.
While the Catholic Church may be in the news the most of late because of the slowness of the church hierarchy to act promptly and appropriately, and while pedophilia may or may not be of more particular concern in the Catholic Church, clergy sexual abuse happens in every religious denomination. Finger-pointing at only one branch of the Christian church conceals how much also occurs in more decentralized religious communities (Christian or otherwise).
It was a gift to be able to share some of the fruits of my experiences and reflections with seminarians. I felt right, grounded, and carried by the Spirit-led presence of wise, discerning companions in the faith. I wish my congregation in my hometown had been able to do the same–no lay person ever reached out to me, though the subsequent pastor and his wife did take initiative for which I’m grateful.
I’ve noticed over the years that often it’s during the slow stirring of Advent and Lent that I end up making decisions of some major sort, and that Easter in particular is sometimes a season of unexpected grace. That was so for me this year. The scars remain, to be sure, and basic trust and an undefiled sense of sacramental participation can be elusive. But as Chuck said in his sermon on doubting Thomas Sunday: “Blessed are those who reveal their scars openly.”
Such invitations can help knit together the body of Christ in all its broken places.