Adult Clergy Sexual Abuse
Season 1: Episode 4
Dr. David Pooler
Ann Maree: Hello and welcome to the Safe to Hope podcast. My name is Ann Maree and I'm the executive director for HelpHer and the host of this podcast. On the Safe to Hope. Hope Renewed in Light of Eternity podcast, we help women tell their story with an eye for God's redemptive purposes. All suffering is loss, but God leaves nothing unused in His plans.
We want to help women see His redemptive thread throughout their circumstances, and then look for opportunities to join with God in His transformational work.
Ann Maree: Today I will be talking to Doctor David Pooler, an occupational social worker who has more than 20 years of practice experience with several different populations, including at risk and abused children, adults with severe and persistent mental illness, and adults with complex developmental trauma. Doctor Pooler is also considered an expert and hero in the area of clergy perpetrated sexual abuse of adults and he has a strong interest in empowering congregations through restorative justice models and practices.
Welcome, Dr. Pooler.
Dr. Pooler: Thank you. It is so great to be here. Really a privileged. Thanks.
Ann Maree: Agree. We are privileged as well. Maybe for the audience members, who might not be familiar with your work, can you share a little bit about yourself.
Dr. Pooler: Sure. Well I’ll go back to childhood for just a moment. So I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and the son of a professor at Emory University, so that is part of what shaped me. But I also had a very religious mother who honestly wasn't all that well in some ways. And so I sort of grew up in this strange mix of ideas and ideologies and worldviews of each of my parents. And I will just say this to the audience: I myself experienced different types of abuse as a child, not by a clergy person or church leader, but I am sensitized to the challenges of dealing with post traumatic stress disorder, for example. And I honestly think in some ways this took me towards social work, but before I actually got to social work, I felt an interest in a calling to ministry. And at the time this - is back in the 80s - and that was primarily framed by a calling, was framed primarily as full-time ministry. And anyway, as as I sort of grew and matured and finished my undergraduate degree and got out of the military, I was in the military for a little while anyway, my sense of who I was began to expand, and I came across other options than just full-time ministry, but social work became a place where I could live out the values of, of being a sort of a healing or transforming presence in the world with tools that had some research and evidence behind them. And so I did my bachelors degree and did a double major in religion and psychology at Lee University a small private Christian school in East Tennessee. And then I ended up doing my Masters and PhD in social work at the University of Louisville. But I also was an ordained minister for about 20 years in the Church of God out of Cleveland, Tennessee. And I actually did one year of a Master of Divinity that I didn't complete. And that's a whole long story. So anyway, that's a little bit sort of about who I am. I will say I'm at Baylor University now as a professor, and I've been here - this is my 14th year here - and I did have the privilege of working with Diana Garland, the namesake of the school. One other thing I wanna tell you a little bit about is sort of how did I get on to this work if you will? How did I end up here? So when I was a young ordained minister, not not working in a church full time. I became intrigued with why are some clergy persons impaired? And I actually focused my dissertation research at the University of Louisville in a PhD program in social work, and I started out wanting to better understand that. That was 20 years ago, 2002. And this is the same year that the Boston Globe released all of this information about priests abusing children. And so my dissertation committee said, ‘You know David, now might not be the best time to do a study of clergy. They might not be so willing to self-disclose anything.’ So, I had already done a literature review that looked at well-being in a lot of different helping professions. So I would just say I’ve, - I just and I will say that for many people, not all, but many research is me-search. So some of this interest in impaired clergy was like I struggle with anxiety or depression or you know, how do people stay well doing this? So I just have these deep, deep questions and I think, you know, when I look back, I've just always been an authentic person, I found it hard to pretend to be OK when I wasn't. So I think all of that then had me oriented to interest in ministers, but as my social work training, doctor training moved forward, I realized that context and systems and environments really, really matter. And I began to tune in more to the voices of multitudes of people, especially people that are being excluded or harmed. And so all of that basically led me - well when I started working at Baylor in 2009, of course Diana Garland is here. And then we have this sort of, I have this reemergence of that interest from 2002, and she's already been doing this great work - and so we've tried, we tried to write a grant together, didn't get funded. But the bottom line is I learned from her for several years before she passed away in 2015. And 2015 is actually the same year I did a national study of survivors, adult survivors of clergy perpetrated sexual abuse. So that's anyway that that's a little bit about - I'll say one other thing that I think is important - it was the research, especially the qualitative interviews - I interviewed 27 survivors, in-depth interviews, about 90 minutes each - that absolutely transformed me because I, at that point, after hearing that many stories of like, ‘I get this. I understand what's going on. I understand how people are groomed.’ It's like just something inside settled, like, I get this, I see this. I understand this. And we need to do something about it. I mean, and it just, yeah. And for me, doing this research is just sort of doing the right thing. I don't know. That's it's just that simple. It's like, this is right. This is good to absolutely look critically at the deepest level of what's right in our churches and what's not and when it's not OK let's do something about it. That seems to be the right thing to do.
Ann Maree: Yeah. I mean you're speaking all of my languages. All of my love languages. Social work, the research, the studying and yes, I mean, the interviewing of victims is a career in learning of a typical or a certain type of abuse. And so I really appreciate that you said that. Also research is me-search. OK, I'm stealing that one. That one’s, going on that the promo. That's really good. It is. And all of us as counselors also would say we're all counselees at the same time. So kind of the same philosophy. But anyway, so you just mentioned Doctor Diana Garland and as your predecessor at Baylor School of Social Work, she previously used the term clergy sexual misconduct. We commonly see that term used by denominations when they provide instructions on how one can report abuse by clergy. But the terms clergy sexual abuse and clergy perpetrated sexual abuse against adults might also be used interchangeably. Can you clarify the terminology? And then why you landed on the term clergy perpetrated sexual abuse against adults?
Dr. Pooler: Sure. Great question. I just wanted to say this, I still think we’re - when I say we sort of the entire community of people who are studying this, as far as survivors and advocates and allies - I think we're all still trying to figure out what's the best, most helpful language to use. Language matters, and I think, you know, kind of figuring out ways to use language that encapsulates the experiences appropriate. So I would just say the term clergy sexual misconduct to me looks sort of at the ethical professional side of what's going on. That this person has engaged in this conduct. So that means just in their professional role, they've engaged in something that was not appropriate, was unacceptable, ethical, unethical, or immoral. The reason I have started to pivot the term clergy sexual abuse is literally just listening to the stories of survivors and it became really, really clear what misconduct was not capturing that experience of survivors, which is being - you know, hurt on the deepest level, deeply injured, traumatized - and what was causing that injury was abuse. Misconduct honestly just sounded too benign. Now, I'm not opposed to using that term, especially on the denominational side if you're sanctioning a minister or disciplining someone or removing someone from ministry for clergy sexual misconduct, I mean, that could sort of be the official charge, but when we're sort of talking about the whole phenomenon, I think abuse is a better term. It captures what's going on. It captures the experience of the survivor. And that, honestly, is where the focus should be, in my opinion, is on the person who was injured in making that injury right. And I would just say the clergy perpetrated sexual abuse against adults, I think sometimes if we just simply say, oh, it's clergy sexual abuse, it doesn't differentiate between adults and then adolescents or children. So I think sometimes, it’s just important to put that qualifier on, you know, adult clergy sexual abuse or clergy perpetrated sexual abuse of adults. Either one, I think then we're sort of talking about this. Yes. Now we know we're talking about basically people 17, 18 or older.
Ann Maree: Yeah. And that's a helpful distinction. Yes, because even if I abbreviate CS, excuse me, CSA, there's a lot of confusion thinking that it's childhood sexual abuse. Yeah, so that adult clarifying that word. And yes, language matters, and we talk about that often on the podcast. Survivors of clergy sexual abuse tend to have a very similar response to the sexual advances of their spiritual leader. And, and we've heard about these responses and other in other discussions about abuses. So freeze, fight, flight - like those things - but, in clergy sexual abuse for adults they either freeze or they do what can be called appease or fawn. So help us understand; explain those terms and maybe even what they look like.
Dr. Pooler: Sure. Yeah and I will just say in my experience, every person that I interviewed had the freeze or fawn response. I honestly think for some a fight or flight response just doesn't seem a viable option. The other thing I would add to this that I have learned is that in it - and I haven't written about it yet, but I plan to - is that perpetrators target people that are very devoted. They're very committed, they're very invested. They are loyal to the faith, if you will, and so these are folks who naturally want to do good and want to do the right thing, interestingly enough. And these very sort of devout, devoted people that I've seen targeted the most, almost as if they're not going to fight or flee, if you will. So the freeze response is, I'll just say this, it's really just kind of a shutting down. Going numb. The fawning response or the appeasing is really pleasing. And I think we would see that because it looked like, for all intents and purposes, to the sort of the immediate outside observer, they might not notice that anything seems out of the ordinary and how that person's responding, but I would just say that, the fawn response is just a continued effort to sort of please their perpetrator, their abuser in some way. And one of the other things that I have seen that I want to add to this - is something that I think we're, we've seen in some other areas like domestic violence - but it's what's called intermittent reinforcement. And what we've learned about through intermittent reinforcement, and often narcissists use this, is they kind of give a love bomb, if you will, to the person that they're injuring every now and again. There's no regular schedule to it. It's intermittent. But what we've learned about people who experience intermittent reinforcement, their toleration for distress and frustration and disturbance goes higher and higher and higher. And so what we're seeing is that this is one of the ways that abusive pastors keep someone in their clutches, is through intermittently reinforcing some need that they have for affirmation or to feel important, but they're not sure when it's gonna come. But generally as this abuse goes on, it gets more and more toxic and more and more difficult for survivor to deal with and manage. But I would just say that intermittent reinforcement, to me, is a part of then the dynamic of the fawning and the pleasing and trying to sort of figure out how to please that person because it's really frustrating. Like I'm trying to be a good Christian. I'm trying to be a good disciple. And I'm trying to trust. I'm trying to do the right thing and it's all of that is actually exploited and taken advantage of. So I hope that was helpful enough to sort of - the freeze, I would just say this, you know, - I think freeze is often more of an internal kind of thing of shutting down, going numb, avoiding. But I would say what I have seen, and there's not like research per se, this is just sort of anecdotal, is that fawn, that pleasing, appeasing response is extremely common as an adaptive, functional way for that person to navigate getting through this.
Ann Maree: So as you're talking and thinking about other forms of abuse, what you’re saying with love-bombing is so key in domestic abuse, but I’m also hearing where it could carry over into spiritual abuse in the church as well, even if it doesn't involve clergy sexual abuse, clergy perpetrated sexual abuse. How does those responses that impact the way people perceive what happened to the victim? I mean how are people hearing things like appeasing and and fawning?
Dr Pooler: You know, that's a great question and I’m really not sure what people are doing with it, but I’m concerned that, I mean, there's often a very typical response to many people who see someone who's been abused, like, well, why didn't they say, ‘no’? Why didn't they get out or why didn't they stop it? But I think what we need to understand is that fawning very much is a response to trauma. So if someone didn't fight to get out, that actually does not mean that they were somehow complicit or that they wanted it. Does that make sense? So I think we just have to be really careful. So when we're actually naming this fawn response or a freeze response, this is actually a response to some really severe trauma. Oftentimes that sort of - the fawning and freezes is almost like an animal that plays dead right -and that is absolutely a survival mechanism. So I just want people to understand that when we see this response, that person's body is engaging in obsolete survival.
Ann Maree: Yeah, that's very helpful distinction thank you. So can you think of any other - for our audience, the church leaders that are listening, pastors, counselors - any other technical aspects of adult clergy sexual abuse that church leaders should understand that I haven't brought up yet?
Dr. Pooler: Well, one of the things I would just say - this is what came to mind when you asked that - is just simply about boundaries. There are a lot of things that, if you will, we are very aware of and in the professional sort of world of 2022 that terms were not used in the Bible, like power or boundaries, right? But yet we know these things are absolutely essential, you know, it’s language used to how we frame relationships that keep people safe and allow people to navigate them without being injured. And so I would just simply say, it is always the person who has more power, it’s their job to delineate boundaries, articulate boundaries, maintain boundaries. And so, I just say for counselors and leaders, it's always your job to set up what is going to be healthy, that's gonna allow people to flourish. So I would just kind of throw that out, like we have got to hold on to that. And just because the Bible doesn't mention those terms, don't mean that they're not incredibly important.
Ann Maree: Yeah and I think the context of what you're saying there is that, as leaders, in any power structure, any place in the power structure, it is our responsibility for the people we lead to help them flourish, to help them. So I think you are speaking biblically about that, even though the term boundary is only used in Israel. It's just it's used in a different way for us as we're talking about it, and that's fine for me. So moving on just a little bit towards the discussion about helping the church better respond to this type of abuse. So when church members hear, the pastor or any other spiritual leaders sexually contacting a person under their care, their typical first thought is that it was a quote unquote affair, right? Yet if that same circumstance happened between any other trusted caregiver, like a counselor for instance, or from a teacher, it would not be considered an affair, rather an assault. And in fact, in 14 states, adult clergy sexual abuse is considered a crime. So what, in your opinion, makes our thinking so different in the church?
Dr. Pooler: Well that's the million dollar question! I don’t fully understand why the church has not come around. I do think there is an ‘ism’ that the church deals with that is the church's own ‘ism’, where we're talking about sexism or racism, but I would say clericalism is the church’s ‘ism’. And clericalism is that elevation of leaders and clergy persons to a place, where we almost see them as beyond human. And clericalism often is almost a giving away of congregational power to, sort of, elevate that leader. And I think in somehow this intersection of this person is not quite human, is a little more God like - we don't want to see them as capable of really injuring someone or doing misconduct. And somehow I think, the path of least resistance, for the church is to name it something that we can just quickly forgive. I honestly think that's part of it is. We're trying to minimize our cognitive dissonance. We're trying to minimize our distress and disturbance. And disequilibrium that has been created with information that, ‘Oh my God, someone may have injured and hurt or sexually abused or assaulted someone in our congregation', it's like that creates an enormous amount of - what I would call it the deepest level - almost an identity crisis for many Christians because it just does not fit with this elevation of this person. So if that, I'm hoping my little story there is making sense about how clericalism and sort of leads to this elevation which leads to us not being able to see people as fully human. Us, when I say us and the congregations sort of disempowering ourselves a bit by elevating that person and sort of at this intersection, it's just we then find that path of least resistance. ‘Oh no, it was an affair. OK well, OK, well.’ Makes it easier than to victim blame. ‘Oh, she did something wrong? Sure. OK. Surely Pastor didn't OK. I guess it was OK and I guess we just. OK, maybe pastor did have a moral lapse or slip. But surely he was tempted by her.’ And we, we just go through all these shenanigans to try to minimize and reduce our own distress. So I think that's one of the things. It's not only maybe coming from leadership, but I think we, we in the sort of church are complicit in this whole thing of calling it an affair because it would require more of us to actually acknowledge clergy sexual abuse. We would have to be more invested in our churches. We'd have to, - when I say invest in our churches - more invested in keeping people safe. Honestly. And having direct, clear, honest conversations about hard topics like abuse. So if so, if we're going to call it that, we're gonna have to go there, right? If it's just an affair, it's not my problem, it’s their problem. But if it's abuse, then we're starting to look at what - how did this - what set this up to happen, right? So it's almost like in an abusive family, it's like, well, how? What other players in the family are dancing around all of this? So we see that same thing happened in churches. So that may have been a long answer, but I think that's part of why we just wanna call it an affair. I think in the church it's the path of least resistance and I would just make a call to all of us…It’s time to wake up. It is time to start talking honestly about a problem that's faced us for ever, really.
Ann Maree: And as you as you're saying that I'm thinking myself, you’re articulating that vey well. But you’re also articulating, pretty much the evidence, that human beings just don't have categories for thinking about this kind of evil. So, not just trauma victims not having categories, but as human being, you know, we can't wrap our brains around the the depth of evil that could come from the people who are leading us in our churches, right. Or you know, domestic abuse, the person you married, it's I guess it's just more proof that we we aren't made for this. We're not made for this. But you know, note too, what in scripture, might you share, as far as God's heart for these victims?
Dr Pooler: One of the things that - this is just a story that and it comes from John 8 - it's often sort of titled the woman caught in adultery and it even sort of the the language actually starts out that way. And it's so interesting to me. But I honest - what - why I go with this is that Jesus did something that was super radical and disruptive that we just don't really sort of take to heart and understand as much. But it was pretty common, you know, to blame a woman or, you know, denigrate a woman. And you know, it's interesting. It was the woman caught in adultery. So where was the guy and who was he? And where was he around? Is he in this group? Where is he? And why are all of these people picking on this woman? Well, I think in some ways we're seeing Jesus disrupt some of the structure of society back then, but also disrupt some of how we do it today. So He, basically, I almost, you know, maybe I have too much of an imagination here, but I almost picture Jesus standing in front of her - because they're ready to stone her, right? They're like, hey, the the law says to stone her - so what do you say, Jesus? - and I kind of see him standing in front of her, you know - these people around maybe already have some rocks, I don't know. But He's just like - He calls them out. He actually asks them to self examine. He says you know, you take a look at you and if you're without sin go ahead and chuck one. But they all start walking away. Some of the older first, obviously older, wiser, more realistic maybe. But he completely disrupts this whole thing and actually causes, I mean sort of, the gender nature of some of this is the people with power in this society says, ‘no, leave this person alone you take a look at yourself and do your own work.’ Well, they all walk away and Jesus looks at her and says, ‘I don't condemn you.’ And I guess part of what I'm I think - I bring that story up - because I think the Christ, this Jesus, amazing guy, - totally, just, I mean, I can't imagine the talk of the town after that, right. Like Jesus stood in front of this woman and He likes said, ‘no’, you know. He stood in the way. He stood up for her, when she was the one being called out and blamed. So anyway I just, there's our radicalness and I would just go so far to say radical love and I used the term radical with sense of disruptive. It was not, it was absolutely challenging the status quo and that's what I mean, it's like the status quo was blame the woman's take on her, take her out. Don't even look at who the man was involved in this. And so Jesus just turns that upside down. And I think that gives permission for survivors to speak up. To report. To name what's happening. And it gives all of us permission to stand with that person who is being excluded or blamed, because that's often a common response. So that's my story.
Ann Maree: Yeah. Well and it's God's story too. It's in His Scripture. So yeah, thank you for articulating that. So you mentioned this, a little while ago, you're talking that in 2015 you conducted the first national survey of adult survivors of clergy perpetrated sexual abuse. 280 survivors participated in that study, including actually our guest storyteller. What did you glean from that study that would be important for church leaders to know?
Dr. Pooler: I think the most important thing for church leaders to know is that, by and large, the churches don’t respond well at all when someone makes a report, and that was really, really clear from this research. Survivors were not believed. They were not supported. They were not communicated with. They were often shunned or excluded. They were often blamed. Most churches had no policies whatsoever to guide someone in making a report about this. And so again this is seven years ago but I don't think much has changed to be honest and our world around how churches respond and I think it goes part and parcel with some of the things I was talking about before the clericalism and the cognitive dissonance, like we're just not prepared. I think the other thing is we often don't use - we have well, I'll just say this one - we have some really incredible language to use now around trauma. It's very helpful. It helps frame things and not pathologize things that don't need to be pathologized. But I would just say most churches are not equipped with trauma-sensitive language that's helpful to people, and so those are several things I would want people to know. The other thing is, it’s really clear that most people actually want to be in their church. They want to stay in community. They actually aren't looking for money, they're looking for justice. They're looking for someone to be held accountable. I think though the other thing I would want someone to know from that research is that the multi layered betrayal trauma became very evident in this study. You know, you're basically abused by a trusted person and then if the system of the environment around them does not respond in a helpful or healing way there, that trauma is exacerbated. And so what I've learned is that a poor response by the church adds a layer of trauma that is incredibly difficult for that person. Several of my respondents even reported that the way they were treated by the church afterwards was even worse than the abuse itself.
Ann Maree: I hear that all the time.
Dr. Pooler: I thought that church leaders need to know this, that folks, this is not just some, oh, a little tiny injury. We're talking about a life-changing, transformational injury. That doesn't mean that someone cannot heal from it, but they're not getting over it rapidly. It's gonna require intervention. Someone's just not gonna sit on the sidelines and get better. They are going to need help.
Ann Maree: Almost every victim and survivor I remember talked to has said that the secondary trauma is far worse than even the first thing that happened to them. The abuse that happened to them. So what, what type of education do you think would help the church respond better?
Dr. Pooler: So if we could honestly manage the cognitive dissonance that occurs when we hear this happens, that would be profound. And I think we do that by what you're doing now, a podcast, more information that finally sort of saturates our awareness that there is such a thing as clergy sexual abuse. It happens with children, adolescents, and it happens with adults. The trauma is real and profound. There are ways to prevent it. There are ways to deal with it. And I just think, you know, in many churches we are becoming more and more aware of different things that happen. You know, we might have many churches will have it like a domestic violence awareness week in May and they talk about that. I honestly think on an annual basis, if we could get into sort of the a cycle with churches of, hey, this is the annual clergy sexual Abuse Awareness Day and where it was that we understand there may be people in this congregation who's been abused by a trusted leader in some point in their life. We see you. We acknowledge you, know this happened. This is a place for you to continue to talk about that and heal. And you like just sort of make it normative. But even for me, as I'm saying that, there's even a little bit of bodily discomfort like, Oh my God, what? Yes, but we have to start talking about this. And I'm just saying so even for me, someone who's been studying this for a long time, I just, I felt that like, as I said that it's like. It's almost like this reaction. We shouldn't have to. No, we shouldn't. That would be ideal not to. But that is reality. And if we're gonna get better at preventing this or working with survivors after it happens and helping churches after it happens, we have to just talk openly about it. So that's part of the education. Part of it is around learning more about the nature of the trauma and the nature of the injuries. And I'm actually working on a study right now to actually look at PTSD scores of the study I did seven years ago. There's still data that have not been mined and examined, and I'm working with a doctoral student right now to take a look at that. So that's going to be very interesting. There are certain symptoms among samples of, you know, survivors of clergy abuse where certain PTSD symptoms are elevated more than others. So we'll learn more about that. I just think, you know, if you, if you hear, you know clergy sexual abuse, also think PTSD from most. And the other thing I would say, I think it's important and is that 70% of my respondents had reported unresolved prior trauma. So that's another thing that apparently these abusive leaders are targeting - is looking for, and that may also explain - goes back to making making a link between that fawn, that please and appease - is that about 70% of these folks had some kind of trauma that had been unresolved. And I think that these perpetrators, then, are looking and targeting something. I don't know exactly what they see. I hope I didn't get too far off topic there, but I was sort of like what are… what kinds of things do we need to know about trauma? Well, it's I think we need to know a lot more about trauma. I mean, you keep using that word, but how does that show up? What does it look like? How do we encourage people broadly in our churches to get support around that? And working through that and what does healing from trauma look like? And something else you mentioned earlier was just sort of broadly around spiritual abuse, I think we actually all have to get more comfortable with questions, with criticism, with pushback, with dissent. And some of like the sort of a culture of conformity. It's a breeding ground for this to grow in, and so we have to get more comfortable with not always being right. And I admit I was wrong or I'm sorry. That is, that's differently. Like we as a church need to get it in to our sort of DNA that we can be malleable and transformable as we get information. So anyway, those are just some things I think… I gave some specific things with sort of broadly at what I just wish we could sort of be broadly as the church.
Ann Maree: Yeah and so part of the education then too, is going to be getting into a little bit more are those specifics. So, grooming, coercion, and you just mentioned spiritual abuse. All of them are unique to every story. But our storyteller shared many details about her experience that those listening in the audience might think was extreme. So they are uniquely carried out in each situation, how would you say these tactics might also be predictable?
Dr. Pooler: Yeah, well there’s no question that grooming has to be a part of this. And what I have noticed in my work is that the perpetrator literally is boundary testing and they push just a little bit early on. And what I mean by that, that's part of the grooming, is testing boundaries, often physical boundaries. Will this person tolerate me coming beside them and giving them a hug? You know, and then after time, will they tolerate a prolonged hug? Will they then tolerate a kiss on the hand? Will they tolerate a kiss on the cheek or on the neck? This is sort of what happens. And most of these perpetrators know that if there is this immediate boundary breaking that would probably stop this. So, I think the perpetrators are very intentional about targeting and using these blurring of boundaries and I would also say that goes with that, is sort of targeting core needs of people. Like the need for belonging, a need to feel important; a need to feel connected. And these perpetrators do, unfortunately, a great job of doing, of intermittently reinforcing that need for belonging or to feel important. And most of these perpetrators actually make the survivor feel like they are essential almost to their ministries. Like I can't do this without. I can't be successful without the support and the relationship we have matters so much and it means so much to me and how I do my work. And so that person almost feels indispensable to the person who's abusing them. And that's another sort of way that they grab a whole. And then, once explicit, clear boundary breaking, explicit sexual activity is going on, more often than not, the narrative starts to shift to we're in this together. You, if you say something not only will harm me, it will harm the church. People will fall away. And everything…the whole thing, the responsibilities sitting on the shoulder of that victim, which is completely wrong and not true at all, but that's the way it's framed. And the other thing I should mention this, what I learned in my research is that this abuse on average last four years. This is not a one or two or three time experience - on average four years.
Ann Maree: It’s interesting.
Dr. Pooler: And I have had, I've had survivor - I’m trying to think of the most I've heard, I think 14 is as high as I've heard - And people say, well, of course, then they must have wanted to be in that relationship they're in it for that long. It's like, no, absolutely not. They're being tortured. They hate it. They wanna get out. They don't know how to get out. They stop trusting themselves. I mean, they are literally being abused in every which way, including sexual. I hit the grooming there sorry I don't know if you wanted to have another piece on top of the grooming but that I sort of tried to kind of get it how that happened so what it looks like.
Ann Maree: Yeah grooming is definitely something that we need to learn more about so that's fine, that’s great. And I think you even explained that’s what makes these tactics not be… they're not gonna make it appear like it's in a fear…. it's gonna appear as it's nonconsensual with the tactics involved. So yeah.
Dr Pooler: Could I add one other thing there because I think this is important, and this is what makes it harder is that the perpetrator will use the language and the culture of the church as part of the grooming. So they will use Bible verses. They will use pastoral phrases and sayings, sort of the whole role and purpose of being a pastor, like they used all of that then to convince the person that what is happening is either OK or acceptable. Or even if it's not that, God will forgive and it's still OK or that…and in extreme cases, I mean, I've heard many perpetrators basically say God wants us to be together. God told me we should be together, you know, literally using almost hearing the voice of God sanctioning this. And of course, it creates an enormous amount of confusion on the victim side for sure.
Ann Maree: Oh, gosh, yeah. And actually, our storyteller does talk about that. I'm not sure if it was in this episode or another. And on that note, she also said something else. I think it furthers our conversation here. Let me just let me play her direct quote about this.
Tamra recording: “I think a common misconception of adult clergy sexual abuse is that the victim was complicit because of their own sexually immoral desires and lack of godliness.”
Ann Maree: So can you speak to other myths? Or what has your professional research revealed that proves these assumptions are false?
Dr. Pooler: I have yet to actually hear anyone, that I’ve ever talked with say, ‘I'm in this because this sort of you know I've realized I was sinful’ or ‘I had desires to just be sexual with my pastor or something like that.’ So I just the opposite. You know I mentioned earlier in the podcast and these tend you know in my experience what I'm seeing are devout committed highly, if you will, religious people. In fact, it's the opposite of that sort of myth or stereotype. In fact, it's quite the opposite. If you were to interview, I think a group of 50 survivors, probably 40 or more of them would describe themselves as highly devout. Trying to think of some of the, I mean, I think there's, I'll just say it this way, there are a lot of myths around the victim herself, tends to be, you know, women victimized and about wanting it or liking it. In fact, for many people what I've learned is that actually the sexual part of it was the sort of most yucky like, I'm having to sort of almost like put up with this to try to continue to serve this pastor. And I don't know what this pastor is doing or why this is happening. You know, am I in it? You know, just absolutely confusing. But sort of in being in this because of their own sort of sexual immorality seems to not fit any of the stories I've ever heard. And if I heard otherwise, I would be, I mean, no reason not to just name it. Like if I started hearing stories of people, I would, yeah. I hear stories like that. I just never have, right. I've talked with a lot of survivors through the years.
Ann Maree: No. Good point. Why would you hide the the research? I wanna play another clip of something else that Tamra said.
Tamra recording: “Mislabeling the abusers actions as a lapse of judgment or misstep signals to other leaders that this could easily happen to anybody, so don't be too harsh on the guy. So they give the abuser the benefit of the doubt because hey, we all mess up sometimes, not understanding that this was actually calculated predatory behavior.”
Ann Maree: We touched on language a little bit earlier, so tell me, what damage do you think is done when we soften the language when this type of abuse happens?
Dr. Pooler: I honestly think the softening of the language is part and parcel of clericalism - something I mentioned earlier - this elevation of people in leadership positions. I think there's an enormous amount of damage because I think…so one of the things I teach, you know in social work, is how to solve problems clinically. But you can't solve… you can't develop a solution unless you've actually named and defined the problem adequately. So if you have strategies or solutions that actually aren't solving the problem, oops. So here's what I'm getting at, is that we have to call this what it is, and so when an abuser abuses, we need to call them an abuser. And I think in many cases, I mean our first thought should, and this is just my very strong opinion, our first thought should be immediately should this person even continue in ministering? Like in other words, instead of oh, what do they need? As far as it's like, none of them. Should we? Should they even continue administering long term? And and I also think that softening that language on the perpetrator side also then diminishes the impact in the injury on the survivor side. So I think that it’s, just inaccuracies, that allow the systems and structures around this event happening to be complicit and it continuing. So, I mean I think there's great harm by not using appropriate, effective, clear language.
Ann Maree: And we are people of the word so yeah, language is important overall… Let’s take a turn towards wrapping up, that a very important topic about how we help, or how to help victims. The impact of this type of abuse on the lives of victims and survivors is significant. We've touched on trauma. I know there's some reticence to hearing that word in that church. Let me just play something, Tamra said one more time here,
Tamra recording: “Many people downplay clergy sexual abuse and treat it as if it were a mutually agreed to romantic relationship or some sexual fling between two consenting adults. But a mere fling does not result in trauma. Survivors are traumatized because what happened to them was abuse. Spiritually, Ann Maree: psychologically, sexually.”
Every time I hear her say that one, I get choked up. So our churches are often failing to take this abuse seriously. As I said, trauma as a term, might not be taken seriously. The way the story and subsequent response unfolds and the trauma that results, causes additional damage to the survivor, though. What's the aftermath of this type of abuse in the lives of survivors? So I guess what I'm asking to do is flush out trauma for us.
Dr. Pooler: Yeah. In my research about a third of the respondents are not a part of a congregation anymore, so there's an immediate, is that the church is no longer safe. It's not a place people want to be. You know, opening the front doors of the church can be a trigger. So I think that's a huge part of it. Just sort of the physical spaces that we have created for us to go are triggering. The… I think another piece, and it's really hard to describe the impact and I think it's widely varied, but there's a whole sense of God consciousness that can change for people. Like who is God? Why would God allow this? Spiritual questions emerge that had never emerged before. Sometimes I've seen there is maybe a positive in this and that I don't know, positive might not be the best way to say it, but is that people learn to differentiate between God and the institutions that we've created. And I think for some people that's a good distinction they're making as part of your healing journey. But I would just simply say for many people, who have also trusted in the institution feel an enormous amount of institutional betrayal, which is extraordinarily difficult to get over. And so what we're really talking about here, specifically is betrayal-trauma and two of the primary symptoms of that type of trauma are avoidance and numbing. And so people are not able to be fully present with themselves. They're struggling with dissociation, which is kind of not being fully present. And their relationships are disrupted. Their ability to self-regulate and feel OK in their own body, that’s a problem. You know, ability to form trusting relationships with people that's affected. So, you know, relationships with spouse, children, family members, other church members, relationship with self, how one sees self, how one experiences God, all of that is impacted with this kind of abuse. When we're talking about abuse with that many layers, right, we're talking about PTSD and complex PTSD that literally will take several years to treat for most people. It just is not gonna. I'm not gonna go into discipleship group that talks about this for eight weeks and it's done now.
Ann Maree: Yeah, comprehensive. It impacts whole people. Whole persons. Emotional. Physical. Spiritual. I often work with churches who are just scurrying behind in a report of abuse and trying to catch up, and so safeguarding the church before the abuse happens is of course, and that's the preferred best practice. Can you share some of the best practices from the guide that you have produced to help prevent adult clergy sexual abuse?
Ann Maree: Right one of them out just reiterate: name it what it is. Have clear definitions available to people. Regularly from the pulpit describe what clergy sexual abuse is, what it is not. Also, we need to just screen our leaders, right? We need to do a better job of doing background checks, asking hard questions. We need to have, you know, depending on the size of the congregation, but you know, closed circuit cameras, you know that give feeds of what's happening around the church. Having on campus security. That’s always helpful. I think another big thing as far as accountability for leaders is I think churches just need a policy of when, how and where church leaders are going to be communicating with congregants, like on social media or text or telephone or other kinds of things. One big thing that I would also say, - and this is something Diana Garland really hit hard on - is she felt strongly that if you are a lead pastor, you should not be engaging in counseling with people in your congregation. Because that forms a dual relationship. You’re both their pastor and you're their therapist or counselor. And so what she was basically saying is that's difficult for a congregate to navigate. So either functioning the pastoral role or if there's going to, you know, if you can do pastoral care, but any kind of long term complex counseling should not be done by them. So that's another thing that Diana suggested and I think that churches just should be aware of things like the Hope of Survivors, the Faith Trust Institute, GRACE: Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environments. Just some of these resources that are out there available. And, you know, there's a new group called Restored Voices, Collectives of Survivors that, so survivors are… Like we just need to sort of normalize that there are support groups for this and there are resources and that there are, you know, nonprofit organizations who are sitting at the intersection of this work.
Ann Maree: I had one last question but I think you touched on it a lot but I’m going to ask to see if there’s anything else you want to add. In what ways can those who care about this issue learn more about and do something to help. Maybe that's, yeah, a different direction. So maybe for some like me, who's in advocacy already and maybe doesn't know a lot about this particular type of abuse, how can I, how can I learn more?
Dr Pooler: I think actually great website as a starting point is Hope of Survivors. They do a great job of just sort of knocking out the nuts and bolts of it. We here at Baylor, the School Social Work has - I mean, if someone just did a Google search for Baylor clergy sexual abuse - that should pop up the pages. There's some resources and stories and things there. One of the things that we haven't talked about - you mentioned earlier though - that it is illegal in 14 states. I think if we could do more work around legislative advocacy, there are legislators and there are ministers who actually want to see progress. They want to see this criminalized because we don't have any other mechanism to stop or halt someone unless it's illegal. We really don't have anything else, though. There's not a board of ministry. I have a board of social work that regulates me in Texas and could discipline me or sort of monitor me, right. But most denominations aren't doing that level of accountability for people, so you know that. I would also say if you're, if you're on the leadership of a church side, I mean I think stepping out and taking the risk of disrupting the status quo and saying, ‘You know what, we need to hold people accountable. We need to have better policies. We need to name this. We need to clearly identify what are the consequences of this.’ And then I guess pivoting back to the legislative piece, I think, you know, people could say, ‘OK, I'm in the state of Virginia’, and take a look. Do we have a law there? And if not, what do, what can I do to help work, probably with groups of survivors to get ahold of US state legislator who would sponsor a bill that would then add a statute to the state laws to criminalize this. I mean I think that there these are some really tangible things. It's like wait a second, the church getting involved in making laws? Well, yes. Are we serious about sin, and are we serious about restoration? And are we serious about human flourishing? And if so this is how we do it. I hope that that's giving you a few ideas there of things that I think, you know, people can do. But I just think talking about it, normalizing conversations around this, and I honestly think church leaders need to take the lead by setting an example of what is OK to have conversations about and not make talking about abuse a taboo area.
Ann Maree: Yeah. Yeah which goes along with the minimizing of what’s actually happening, that we see on a regular basis, right. A lot of those resources that Doctor Pooler just brought up, we will make sure to have in our show notes. As well, I can list the states that do have laws on the 14 states that do have laws. But just wanna thank you so much Dr. Pooler. This has been so good and thank you for joining us on the Safe to Hope podcast and sharing your wisdom about and passion for adult clergy sexual abuse victims and survivors. Every time you and I speak, I walk away with much more to think about and implement in my own caregiving in the church. So again, just thank you so much.
Dr. Pooler: Thank you. I want to just say, I still have hope for our church leaders and a sense that while this is a really tough one, I just have this deep inside my body, this hope that there are people hearing this that are going to take appropriate action. And also just wanna say to any survivor who's listening, I see you, I hear you. Your story really matters. And I'm glad that you're in a process of transformation. Just by even hearing these words, that means you're, you're in a place where you're looking for healing and hope and restoration. So hey, I would just sort of end on both sides of those in leadership positions, yes, I believe in you. You can do something different and better and make a difference. And those of you who have been injured, we see you, we include you and we want to see you flourish and be a part of helping transform our churches.
Ann Maree: Thank you. Yeah that's very important thing to say to both audiences. Thank you for saying it. And on that note, in our next episode, Tamra will finish telling us the rest of her story, but she's also gonna share the ways in which it was possible for her to find hope.
You can learn more about Dr. Pooler and clergy sexual abuse research at the Diana Garland School of Social Work at Baylor by clicking on the link, included in our show notes. We will also include information regarding the states in which adult clergy sexual abuse is considered illegal. For anyone concerned about adult clergy sexual abuse and looking for more information, go to the clergy sexual misconduct website link, in our shell notes. Thank you again for joining us today. Make sure to join us again on March 7 on the Safe to Hope podcast as Tamra finishes telling us her story.
We hope you enjoyed this episode in the Safe to Hope podcast series. Safe to Hope is one of the resources offered through the ministry of HelpHer, a 501C3 that provides training, resources and the people necessary in order for the church to shepherd women well. If you'd like more information or would like to speak to someone about your ministry goals, go to help her resources.com. That's help her resources.com.