Clergy sex abuse: the damage done when faith is weaponized (substitute out "church" for "yeshiva" or "shul"...)
“Get your hand off me!” I wanted to yell. But I didn’t.
More than a month after the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Birmingham, I am still processing something that happened there. After the For Such a Time as This Rally, abuse survivors and advocates gathered at a coffee house to decompress. It was a warm-hearted event, filled with a sense of “beloved community,” and I felt gratitude to everyone who was there. There was even a lovely candle-lighting ceremony honoring me for my years of advocacy work against sexual abuse and cover-ups in the SBC.
Then, as the evening drew to an end, one of the event’s organizers called on a prominent Southern Baptist woman to offer a closing prayer. Suddenly, the woman was standing right over me, and with me still seated, she put her hand firmly on my shoulder and launched into an out-loud prayer for me.
“I felt powerless, unsafe, targeted, disconnected and manipulated.”Ironically, this was a woman who has written extensively about sexual abuse in general and is a survivor herself, though in a different context – i.e., she is not a survivor of sexual abuse by clergy nor a survivor of religious institutional cover-up.
I’m sure her prayer was well-intentioned. Yet I felt the urgent need to shove her hand off me and run. I came pretty close to doing just that. But I restrained myself, and amid the panic of my hyper-triggered brain and body, I tried to figure out what to do.
I thought about standing to my feet and walking out of the room. But she was looming over me so closely that to even rise from my chair would have required pushing her aside.
I felt trapped. Trapped by the weapon of her hand-on-the-shoulder, wanting-all-to-hear prayer. Trapped by my own good-girl, don’t-make-waves upbringing. Trapped by past trauma.
I felt powerless, unsafe, targeted, disconnected and manipulated. In short, I felt mightily triggered.
My self-anger and self-loathing went from zero to 100 in a split-second, and I felt myself getting short of breath. It was as though a sink-hole had suddenly swallowed up the normal me, and I was suffocating.
So, despite my instinct to shove aside her hand and yell, I focused on breathing. I prayed that her sword of a prayer would be short and dull, and that I wouldn’t bleed out completely right in front of everyone. I stayed passive and quiet.
Now, here I am weeks later, still kicking myself for my failure to honor the truth of my own reality and my failure to set an honest example for other clergy abuse survivors who were in the room. I was inauthentic.
Why didn’t I have the courage to show up in the world exactly as I am – as someone whose adrenaline can surge mightily if confronted with triggering religious trappings? Why could I not be fierce with my own reality? Why did I not protest? Why did I not immediately stand to meet her eye rather than cower under her hand?
The answer, of course, is that I was having a PTSD reaction. Her hand-on-the-shoulder, standing-over-me style of prayer was too similar to what my SBC pastor-perp used to do when I was a kid.
And then there were the weaponized prayers of so many others who used God-talk afterwards to try to silence me.
Intellectually, I understand a lot about my complex PTSD – I’ve been fortunate enough to have years of therapy – and yet, in that moment, cognitive understanding wasn’t enough to stop the cascading feeling of doom in my body.
“Once faith has been used to eviscerate, it doesn’t serve well as a healing balm.”Right after the event, I talked with several other clergy survivors, and one of them likely told the woman how distressing her prayer had been for me. She sent a gracious apology for causing me stress, and I thanked her. Nevertheless, I’m still left reeling and trying to return to normal.
Once faith has been used to eviscerate, it doesn’t serve well as a healing balm.
I think this is something many religious people – even well-intentioned people – just don’t understand. For them, faith can be a powerful resource for healing in all manner of life’s travails, and they can scarcely imagine it otherwise. But for people like me for whom faith was weaponized for sexual assaults and church cover-ups, the rituals and indicia of faith can be a minefield.
This is one reason why many clergy abuse survivors sever all relationships with institutional faith.
For the sake of health, sanity and self-preservation, we turn away from the minefield.
It’s why many clergy abuse survivors nodded in solidarity at the words of SBC survivor Anne Marie Miller: “It is going to be a cold day in hell when I step back into a Baptist church.”
And while many people understand that survivors are often triggered by being in the same place where sexual assaults occurred, what they often fail to comprehend is that a triggering “place” may be something as simple as the context of a prayer or a particular piece of scripture. It may be any sort of stimulus that brings about the feelings of trauma in a “place” in our heads, and that includes sights and sounds associated with church and faith.
When Bible verses, prayer, hymns, faith, God-talk and church rituals are perverted into weapons for sexual assault and then hammered into shields for church cover-ups, they become neurologically networked with trauma, and this renders them polluted and often toxic for the survivors.
This is the truth of the damage done by a faith group that enables abuse and turns a blind eye to clergy-predators in their midst.\