Transcript of Safe to Hope Podcast: Season 1: Episode 3
Adult Clergy Sexual Abuse - STORY
In a previous podcast, Tamra (an advocate and abuse survivor) shared her story of adult clergy sexual abuse. Of course, when Tamra was living in it, she didn’t have such a clear definition. So, today I’d like to talk about what Tamra learned about herself and her circumstances and about some of the difficulties for people as they seek to understand adult clergy sexual abuse.
On the Safe to Hope podcast, names have been changed in order to protect those associated with these stories. The HelpHer ministry exists to help people in crisis and to train people helpers, so integrity is one of our concerns. To the best of our ability we have sought to honor the privacy and dignity of those who share their precious stories with us.
I encourage you to listen to episode 1 if you have not already. Tamra did a great job explaining how she was groomed by an abusive pastor, what made her vulnerable, and why she didn't speak out for so long. Tamra, thank you, again for coming back again to share the second part of your story.
Tamra: Thank you for having me on your podcast to share about this important topic.
Ann Maree: Once again, I’d like to remind the audience listening at home that there may be some things discussed that can be triggering. If you’re a victim or survivor we want to just let you know Tamra’s story may be hard to hear. Maybe find a trusted friend to sit with, or someone you can talk to and process after you’ve heard her experience.
Tamra, before you disclosed the abuse, was there a point in time when you learned that what was happening to you had a name–adult clergy sexual abuse?
Tamra: Yes, there was. During the time I was being abused, I found a website. Somehow–I don’t remember how–I found a ministry online called The Hope of Survivors, and it finally gave me the language to describe what was happening to me: clergy sexual abuse. I had no idea this form of abuse existed or that pastors abused adults. Having been trained by the pastor in spiritually abusive practices, labeled “leadership training”, I normalized abusive behavior.
But I was blown away because it was like reading about my own life. It clearly described what I was going through, as if I wrote it myself, and stated emphatically that this was abuse, not “love” as the pastor had framed it.
It helped me see that the way I responded to my pastor was the result of grooming–that I had been conditioned to respond the way I did. The bond I did have with my abuser, one of dependance, subservient to his every wish, overly reliant on his approval, vulnerable to his opinions and desires, and defenseless when he wanted me physically, was anything but love.
Still I was too confused and scared to say anything, I thought: what will be the response if I say something? Maybe I’m just delusional like my pastor says I am. Besides, who would I tell? Many Christians I hung around with were quite zealous like me, and some were a bit judgmental, and back then, I was quite judgmental myself. I thought, no one is going to believe I’m being abused. I don’t even know if I’m being abused.
Others thought so highly of me that I was afraid that if they knew what was happening to me that they would label me a charlatan and maybe even lose their faith because of me.
Even though I was able to see it right there on that website —that I was being abused, I couldn’t believe it, or maybe I didn’t want to believe it. I was horrified that this was happening to me. This couldn’t possibly be my life. So, I put it out of my mind.
It wasn’t abuse according to him. It was “love.” He had a way of explaining away everything and putting fear in my heart so I wouldn’t protest. So, I just hid everything from that website in my heart–just in case it was true. But ultimately, I put it out of my mind. That simply couldn’t be my situation. The pastor doesn’t think so. That’s their situation. Not my situation.
Then, something happened. It was that “something” I had been waiting for. A former participant in one of the connected ministries, who had already left, was able to put language to what he had experienced in the ministry. He was the first one to define the system and the behaviors. He had learned about spiritual abuse and decided to sound the alarm and alert people in the ministry and supporters of the ministry to what was going on. He wasn’t aware of the sexual abuse I was enduring, but he was able to identify the toxic practices.
His whistle blowing, which I look back on now as a gift from God to me, sent shockwaves through the system. A young woman who had also left joined him by sharing that the pastor had actually spoken to her inappropriately. When she spoke up, and put questions in the minds of people about the pastor’s integrity and behavior, I believed that if I didn’t squeeze through that slightly opened door and flee, I would be locked in that jail cell of oppression for the rest of my life. This was my chance to finally say something and possibly be believed.
Ann Maree: Since there was no one else with oversight in your church except the pastor, to whom did you disclose the abuse? How did you find someone to trust?
Years prior, I had made a sort of escape plan, or what many people refer to in the domestic abuse advocacy world as a “safety plan.” I didn’t even realize I had done it. But, I had spent years in silence looking for a trust-worthy person–looking for a person who seemed like if I shared this, they would care, and they would not call out all the townsfolk to grab me and slap a scarlet letter on me and lock me in stocks and throw stones at me. Before I disclosed, I was always silently observing and thinking who could actually help me if I told or who would be dangerous if I told?
If I saw that a person reacted in judgmental or harsh ways toward others, especially people they didn’t agree with, I would deem them as someone I should not share with. I didn’t trust that they would give me the Christ-like care I needed.
Survivors and victims are always silently asking these questions–how would this person respond if they heard my story? Even today, I don’t share my story with many.
After I disclosed, there were people who would ask me “Why didn’t you tell me?” It made me feel so ashamed, like I was a child and they were scolding me. The question implied that I could’ve said something sooner, so shame on me for not knowing that I should’ve told them. The implication was that if I had only made the “right choice” to tell them, then I wouldn’t be in this mess.
But, there was only one person that I felt safe disclosing to–one pastor from another church. I told myself, “If you ever get the chance to finally tell, tell this guy. He’ll care. He’ll help you.” When that young woman who had left the ministry shared that he had spoken to her in a way that made her uncomfortable and was believed, I felt like this was my opportunity to tell.
Ann Maree: That is an important message for us in the Church to hear: we need to handle these stories with care and not further harm the victims. What was it about this pastor that made you feel like you could disclose to him?
The person I chose seemed to always speak with grace yet was firm in his convictions. He seemed to see humans as humans, and not just objects to be preached at or rebuked, to be put into categories and then treated according to their label. I just felt like he saw me. Like he cared for me as a person–not just because I agreed with him theologically or wowed him with my ministry skills. He saw me apart from my ministry work and apart from my matching belief system. I was an actual person to