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Transcript of Safe to Hope Podcast: Season 1: Episode 2

Updated: Feb 18

Adult Clergy Sexual Abuse - EXPERT CONTRIBUTOR Dr. Heather Evans

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.


It is my privilege to introduce to you today my professor at the Global Trauma Recovery Institute, Dr. Heather Evans. Dr. Evans is a licensed clinical social worker with a private group counseling practice in Coopersburg, Pennsylvania. She has over 20 years experience providing therapy, particularly specializing in sexual trauma and sex trafficking. Heather has authored two books and started the Voices of Survivors Project Photo Exhibit from her research on complex trauma and post traumatic growth in sex trafficking survivors. She is the cofounder and board chair of Valley Against Sex Trafficking in Pennsylvania, board member and global director for Quest Trauma Healing Centers, and an adjunct professor, as I mentioned, of the Global Trauma Recovery Institute. Heather regularly travels internationally to train trauma healing caregivers. Recently, she served on the task force overseeing the investigation of the mishandling of sexual abuse cases in the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee, and she is now serving as a consultant to Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force for the Southern Baptist Convention.

What a pleasure it is to have you on the podcast Dr. Evans. Welcome.

Heather: Thank you so much for having me. I'm honored to be with you.

Ann Maree: And we are honored as well. Maybe for the audience members who might not be familiar with some of your work, can you share just a little bit about yourself? Whatever you want to tell us.

Heather: Absolutely. I live and work in the Lehigh Valley Pennsylvania region. I have over 20 years of experience in clinical social work. Social work is my degree from undergrad on up to doctoral level, and I have largely done clinical social work otherwise known as counseling. They've had a group counseling practice for seventeen years in Lehigh Valley and beyond that I would say that the thread of all of my work is trauma, trauma and abuse. And that just became something that kind of came towards me and kind of God called me in to be an ongoing student and involved in that in different ways. Some of the other ways that you kind of just mentioned, in 2011, I started learning about human trafficking which led to helping cofound a coalition, a nonprofit organization in our region, that addresses human trafficking that's still in existence, Valley Against Sex Trafficking, and that also led me to go back to school and get my doctorate degree. And my dissertation was focused on The Voices of Domestic Sex Trafficking Survivors looking at both complex trauma and post traumatic growth and sex trafficking survivors both through interviews but also something called Photovoice.

You mentioned the Voices of Survivors Project and photos that expressed the experiences of survivors so that has been a really powerful thing. You also mentioned Global Trauma Recovery Institute which has just been an opportunity to look at what trauma looks like worldwide. How to equip other people who care about culture and trauma and entering into other cultures where there's been brokenness, where there's been trauma.

And I had the opportunity to travel mostly to East Africa to equip chronicling caregivers there. So really kind of at the heart of my mission in life is addressing trauma. I'm really hoping to helping survivors of trauma and abuse to find healing and hope and restoration again.

Ann Maree: And I think that comes through pretty clearly in our Global Trauma Recovery Institute classes. I appreciate that about you but you are so well-rounded, if you will. I mean, how do you even find time to sleep since there's so much going on in your world?

Let's kind of transition to talking about this topic regarding our story which is about adult clergy sexual abuse. How prevalent would you say is this issue against adults?

Heather: Here’s the thing, it's really hard to know. I don't know if you've heard of the name Boz Tchividjian? He’s an attorney now operating privately but he started GRACE which stands for “Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments,” and he has said that sexual abuse in general is the most underreported thing both in and outside of the church. And then there's another guy called Joshua Piece who's written an article on adult clergy sexual abuse in the Washington Post (and I can even provide a link for that for your notes), but he talks about how diagnosing the scope of this problem isn't easy because we don't really have hard data. There's one report in 2007 that is very commonly looked at and referenced where they talk about three large insurers of churches in Christian nonprofits that have received about 260 claims of sexual abuse in a year but that's against minors. He says that that figure those excludes groups that are covered by other insurers – so victims older than 18 people whose cases weren't disclosed to insurance companies and many who never come forward. So basically, research doesn't include what is certainly the vast majority of sexual abuse. The majority of sexual abuse is probably adult sexual abuse, but we don't have the data. And one reason we don't have the data is because it often isn't disclosed. It's often not reported or it's misrepresented if it is reported.

Ann Maree: Right, it gets labeled “an affair” or “an inappropriate relationship” which is the most common designation. What is the typical response of the church?

Heather: Exactly what you just said. I would say most churches look at it as “an inappropriate relationship,” at best, or wouldn't call it “an affair,” would call it a “consensual relationship” because it's two adults. But that being said, what is interesting beyond that, is that even if it's looked at as “an affair” or “an inappropriate relationship,” the tendency is to blame the victim and protect the pastor, protect the leader. There's actually a term coined by a woman named Jennifer Freyd who's a psychologist in the 1990s called DARVO which stands for “Defense Attack Reverse Victim Offender.” This concept of DARVO is implying that there's a reverse – that the one who's the abuser actually ends up receiving the compassion and the support. The one who's attacked and accused is actually the victim. The view seems to be to assume that the woman is a temptress and must have done something to cause this man of God to fall. There's an overemphasis on protecting the church leader and the system at all costs to the extent of blaming the report on someone trying to tear down the ministry, to discredit the reputation of a godly man, distract from the advancement of the Bible. Perhaps it's also a disbelief that their trusted, loved pastor is capable of sin or evil. Remember, the pastor (who we'll get to) has already been grooming, not just the victim but the surrounding individuals, that he is a nice guy, that he's spiritual, he's trusted, he's incapable of something horrific. Christa Brown who’s a survivor of a pastor in the Southern Baptist church has written a book, and it's called This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang, and in her book, she said, “People are blinded by what they want to believe when ugly news involves people they trust and religious institutions they love.” And that quote comes pages after she shared a list of names that she and other survivors in the Southern Baptist church have been called in person via e-mail and blog comments, names like “Jezebel,” “tramp,” “whore,” “whiner,” “church-hater,” “Christian-hater,” “attention-seeker,” “bitter,” “rage-filled." Just tends to be more sympathy for the pastor and shaming towards the woman. There's one study I found that there were 159 respondents. Of those 159 respondents of individuals who experienced adult clergy sexual abuse less than 10% reported receiving help and support from their congregation after they have reported the abuse and about half were blamed for the abuse and ignored by people in their congregation.

Ann Maree: I mean that just mimics the world even. Society is also experiencing something similar so I guess that's not surprising, though it is surprising, because we are the church. But why don't people in church leadership speak openly about this evil and the resulting trauma?

Heather: Well again I think there's just a lack of understand it and misconceptions that drive the lack of response - so a doubt that it really happened, a tendency to believe that it's just falling into temptation or that the woman must have done something to cause this. But in general, I also think that there's a lack of understanding of power dynamics with church leaders and the impact of that power differential. I think we have so far to go with having a theology of power in our churches and actually teaching about power. Diane Langberg has led the way, especially with her new book Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church. It's an excellent resource because I think that is just not talked about. Power was given to us by God It’s derived from at the very beginning of Genesis 1.

It's not talked about, so we don't understand the imbalance of power between the church leader and his congregants, the positional and spiritual power that the clergy holds. He is the under-shepherd and the congregation members of the sheep. It's also harder to prove in a court of law. So, you know, it's not easy. No sexual abuse cases are ever easy to prove in a court of law. But if you're an adult, it's really hard to prove that there has been sexual abuse.

There are fourteen states, but only 14 states, with adult clergy sexual abuse laws that acknowledges power differential. And I'm just going to read two of them because they give us really good examples of states that are leading the way of acknowledging this. Now, I will say that this clergy sexual abuse actually falls in a law that with other positions of power such as a doctor or a counselor or therapist.

Arkansas says this, “A mandated reporter or a member of the clergy and is in a position of trust or authority over the victim and uses the position of trust or authority to engage in sexual intercourse or deviant sexual activity.” Did you catch that? They're in a position of power and they use the position of trust or authority to engage in sexual intercourse.

Texas says, “The actor is a clergyman who causes the other person to submit or participate by exploiting the other person's emotional dependency on the clergyman, in the clergyman's professional character, is spiritual abuse.” We have state laws that are getting it. I'm hoping all 50 states will have this law.

But our churches are so far behind with understanding that power dynamic that was just mentioned in those laws. There is a tendency also I would say to protect our own, meaning leadership, versus taking responsibility. So I think sometimes people think if we talk about it, we might open things up for false accusations.