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Transcript of Safe to Hope Podcast: Season 1: Episode 4

Adult Clergy Sexual Abuse - EXPERT CONTRIBUTOR 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.

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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?