Jan 17, 2023
Season 1: Episode 2
Adult Clergy Sexual Abuse
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.
It's just so rare for women to have false accusations. If anything, women are so afraid to report rather than falsely accuse a pastor. But I think sometimes we're afraid that if we talk about it too much it's going to become this big thing. I’ve heard that a lot.
The #MeToo movement and the #ChurchToo movement of a few years ago, people were saying, “Oh, now we're gonna get all kinds of reports,” or “They're gonna come out.” I think that the individuals who were saying that felt threatened by this idea rather than saying this is something that we need to talk about. If we look at the historical and predictable patterns of response of our church, it frankly shows that we don't really believe that it happens, and we don't really care.
Ann Maree: Thank you. Thanks for sharing some of that. We're gonna be talking with Dr. Pooler from Baylor and the Diana Garland School of Social Work about some of those statistics in the states and what he's been doing to get all 50 states to have some sort of law. What drives your passion to speak about this and to try and educate?
Heather: That's a really great question. As you mentioned at the beginning, in 2021, I served on this task force to address the mishandling of sexual abuse another church that's not in my denomination, but I was asked because of my experience working with abuse survivors and trauma. And at the time, they really wanted somebody who was actually outside of the denomination that had expertise so I oversaw this investigation. And now I'm serving on the Reform Implementation Task Force. I was skeptical when I was asked whether or not I should say “yes,” but the reason I did say “yes” – well let me back up. I was skeptical to accept the invitation because I was not really sure if change was possible. I wasn't sure there was hope.
But I said yes for three reasons: my commitment to survivors, my commitment to the truth, and my commitment to the purification of the Church of Jesus Christ. I do love Jesus, and I do still believe in the church and His vision for it, though I think we have really lost our way and become quite sick. The other thing I will say is that my work both with survivors of clergy sexual abuse as well as other types of sexual abuse has changed me.
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor never the tormented.” This was actually something that I had to learn in doing this work, and it went against some of the messages that I received from Christian culture. You could say there were messages that emphasize peace and grace and forgiveness sometimes at the expense of truth and justice and just doing the right thing.
But my work has taught me that neutrality is not helpful and it's not Christ- like. This work has brought me front and center to understand power and power abuse and how power abused within a church system does not need neutrality. It needs somebody who will stand up to that.
I remember two moments in 2021 where things were really difficult going through the Southern Baptist task force where we were experiencing some resistance and opposition from leadership in order to really carry out the task that was entrusted to us. And I remember reading Ezekiel 34. It's something that gives me great hope. Number one, God was calling out shepherds who were feeding on the sheep. He was calling out shepherds who were not taking care of the sheep. But then God Himself says, “I will go and look for my sheep to bring them back. I will be like a Shepherd who looks everywhere to find his lost sheep. I will find them and I will rescue them. I will bring them back from the place that they have run away to.” That is our God. That is the True Shepherd and that’s who I follow and that keeps me going when this work is difficult.
And there was one other really challenging time when we were getting ready to present our recommendations in 2021. I was at the convention meeting and I just took some time to read through Matthew 23. Now this is Jesus talking. And Jesus was calling out the religious leaders he was saying, “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees! You shut the Kingdom of heaven in people's faces. You neglect the weightier matters, justice and mercy and faithfulness. I sent you prophets and wise men some of whom you will kill and crucify and flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town.” That section appropriately ends in lament in kind of crying out saying, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you were left desolate. I wanted to help you.”
The more I do this work and the longer I am a Christian, I can understand what Jesus means when he says you've neglected the weightier matters. And I see more and more of the heart of Jesus for people and the need to just love people and meet them where they are. We see Jesus turning over tables not afraid to just blow up a system or an institution. We see Him calling out hypocrisy, but then we see His meekness, His compassion for the vulnerable, the marginalized, for the one. So when I read that about the prophets and wise man who were sent by God to the church it says they were killed, crucified, flogged, and persecuted.
And I could only think about the precious survivors, often leading the way and advocacy for this topic. They are prophets, they are the ones who are calling the church back to Jesus. But when speaking up for truth, they're crucified, they're persecuted. Literally sometimes, sadly, some survivors lives end in actual death. They keep crying out, and perhaps, my role is to help remove some of those flogging whips from the hands of so-called church leaders and church members, and join with and lead the way for the survivors who are so tired. They are tired of trying to speak out but not be heard just like those prophets. That's what keeps me going.
Ann Maree: Wow, yeah, I've heard the question so often from church leaders, “Why is this so prevalent in the church today?” And I think about some of the passages you just brought up and think, “It's not just today.” The Lord saw fit to address it in Ezekiel. It's been happening for a while. But also those were really good words there. We need to thicken our doctrines a little bit – doctrines of peace, of love, and definitely like you said, of power. And that in itself, I believe impassions us to care much better for the people sitting next to us in the pew, right?
Just speaking personally about the woman who was telling her story, Tamra, did anything about what you heard stand out specifically?
Heather: Uh, so much. First off, it took so much courage and bold vulnerability to share so openly in the way that she did. It's just a powerful example. Interestingly one thing that stood out is how much of what she said reminded me of my work and my research on survivors of sex trafficking and what happens with traffickers. There were quotes of hers that could have been pulled out of my research on survivors describing your experiences with traffickers. For example, just the way she described him exploiting her vulnerabilities and setting the stage for control over all aspects of her life. That could be said about a trafficker.
But the sad part is she is describing someone who is supposed to be a man of God, a shepherd, a representative of God, a church leader. It was so wrong the way he exploited this idea of protection, the way she felt like she couldn't leave because if she left she'd be leaving God's authority. There was so much pressure that kept her in fear, that kept her trapped. She literally at one point talked about how she felt like the advancement of the gospel was riding on her not saying anything. That is just so real for survivors of clergy sexual abuse.
Ann Maree: And it was enlightening when I heard it from her as well. So in your experience you've talked a couple times about working with survivors, do you find they have some form of previous trauma or vulnerability? I know this is tough for them to hear, but what’s your experience?
Heather: I would say, yes, quite often. And you know, I found Tamra’s statistic interesting. She quoted that in a survey on adult clergy sexual abuse survivors that the average age when the abuse started was 30 and 62% of them were being counseled. And she said that 65% had unresolved trauma from past abuse. What I would say is that there's a keyword, and that keyword is “vulnerability.” And Tamra also said that we should not underestimate the depravity and deception of wolves. She's absolutely right. Vulnerability in and of itself is not a problem. I work with victims and survivors and talk about this (it can be, as you said, a sensitive topic), but vulnerability is just an aspect of our humanity, and vulnerability looks different for different people. Some people's vulnerability is a previous history of sexual abuse and trauma but some of it is just that we have vulnerability because we have human need. They have legitimate human needs for love, acceptance, security, and belonging. But someone who is a wolf, someone who abuses power will take those legitimate human needs and exploit them for their own gain. So getting back to your question, if somebody has previous abuse or trauma, they already have beliefs that have been formed from how they interpreted those past events. Especially from events that happened in childhood, they might have learned, “My body is not my own. I don't really have a right to have power or boundaries over my own body.” Perhaps previously, those boundaries were violated so they may have already learned that they don't really have a voice to speak up, and even if they did speak up, it doesn't really do any good. They have learned to yield power to a previous abuser out of survival. In their body, they may still have that trauma response of fight, flight, freeze or appease as described by Tamra. That is an involuntarily reflexively happening thing with abuse of power by the church leader. So they previously learned from their environment beliefs about themselves that are actually often distorted beliefs about God, their voice, their power that leaves them less prone to speak up, to push or fight back. In Tamra’s case, she had already lost family. This pastor exploited that by putting himself in a position of family. Depending on what you've been through in the past, you might just think some things are normal and to be expected. Or maybe this is better or the best that you can get. So yeah, to whatever extent, the vulnerability of our past experiences, could leave us at risk, but that is not, in and of itself, the reason abuse happened. The reason it happened is because someone exploited that precious vulnerability rather than protect it.
Ann Maree: Right. It's not their fault or not the reason it's been exploited. “Exploit,” that's a good word to remember. So we're going to talk about the grooming issue because it's so important to understand better. In your experience, do you find that grooming is common in this type of abuse?
Heather: Yes, absolutely. I would say a church leader has too much to lose to not groom. Just as a wolf finds ways to learn how to attack a sheep, so an abuser intentionally finds ways to lure his or her victim until attack. Grooming is a process that slowly dulls the instincts and offenses of the victim and surrounding community. Grooming is a way of building an impenetrable trust and a sense of safety and protection. So that if the truth came forward, both the victim and the surrounding community would doubt their own judgment, question the truth, at all costs protect the pitiable trusted “nice” leader.
So in Tamra’s experience, she gives us a kind of a classic example of what grooming looks like. We already talked about how he preyed upon previous vulnerability. She had the loss the loss of acceptance and safety of family. She came with nothing and he just took her under his wing and slowly, slowly gained more and more power. He took special interest in her. That’s kind of another classic thing. It was flattering but it was also a form of isolation. You know, “You're special compared to others.” It sounds great, it feels great. It hits on that vulnerability of those human beings, but it's also a way of isolating you from others.
And then that isolation goes further into, “Not only do you stand out from others, but I stand out from others.” Other people cannot be trusted I am the most trustworthy voice in your life. She talks about how he caused her to distrust her skepticism of anybody who left the church, so he would automatically dismiss and denigrate anything that they said by accusing them of being sinful, of being evil. He wanted to be the number-one, ultimate authority. He was putting himself in this position saying, “You have to submit to me because I am appointed by God.” She believed that following him was following God, and not following him was following Satan. So the other aspect of grooming besides isolating is establishing as the only authority that I am the one who has the gift of discernment so I am the only one that can speak into your life. He also gives shame and humiliation which is a tricky form of grooming. But again, if you're in this position of power and you're shaming people for the sin that they're confessing, it puts this warning out there that I shouldn't do those things because I will be I will be shamed, I will be humiliated. Again, it's creating this this power dynamic. And then affirming the bond that's being formed. She would get praised even from the pulpit, and again, who wouldn't want to be praised? It hits all that human need. But he eventually exploited it leading into flirtation and leeding into sexual activity.
Ann Maree: And she says she appeased that you brought up a few minutes ago by fight, flight, freeze, or appease. This particular situation. she appeased her abuser, and she was conditioned, actually, to respond in that way. At the same time though, Tamra says, “It was a trauma response.” Can you help us understand these two seemingly contradictory ideas?
Heather: Yeah, actually those things do work together. Our brains and bodies have this built-in alarm system that's designed to alert us to danger. We have an amygdala part of the brain that is our alarm. And it hijacks the rest of the brain when a threat is experienced. It alerts the rest of the brain to respond to danger, and that's when we get pumped with chemicals so our heart might start beating fast and we're prone to respond in fight, flight, freeze or Tamra also brought up appease. These are different ways of responding to the threat in order to survive. Now in normal situations when the danger passes, our body calms back down again. If I were to go outside today and all of a sudden as I'm crossing the street and I realize that a car is coming at me fast, I don't have time to decide whether I am going to freeze or run because my body involuntarily decides that for me. Once I cross the road, it might take me a while to calm down, I'm breathing fast my heart is beating fast, but I do eventually calm back down again. But if in the future, something else reminded me of that threat, whether it's actually dangerous or not, the body can automatically send a danger signal for me to respond again with the fight, flight, freeze, or appease. So our body remembers and our body responds again according to those threats.
In situations of abuse a few things happen. The abuser causes the victim to question and not believe their responses. So they might be alert and the abuser kind of squashes that down, shuts that off, so that dulls trust in the responses. It can actually even lead to the system being shut down as a form of self-protection. But in other cases the body can get stuck. Tamra talked about how she was stuck had a lot of physical symptoms of dieting , hypervigilance. It was like her body screaming at her that something is not right, something is not okay. But her spiritual authorities were telling her to not even trust her own body responses. You need to kind of squash that back out because I'm the one that you need. I'm the one that you can trust.
Ann Maree: And I think you're already touched on this a little. This is a question we hear quite often in the church context, because that's where I live and breathe, but: “Why don't some survivors just run away or fight back?”
Heather: Yeah, because it's part of this whole process, the grooming process, the abuse process. All of that has been set up that you actually physically, psychologically, mentally, spiritually cannot leave. Judith Herman is an expert on trauma she's written a classic book called Trauma and Recovery, and in that book, she describes the captivity in sex trafficking survivors as what makes the trauma so complex. That word “captivity.” Now even with sex trafficking survivors, we might think that that means that they're chained up. No, sometimes there's physical captivity, but just like adult clergy abuse survivors, the captivity is not primarily physical, it's mental, emotional, relational, and in the case of adult clergy sexual abuse, it's spiritual. You can't just leave. So Tamra, as we talked about, had both loss of her family. So who would she go back to? She had also formed this belief that she needed him for spiritual protection, and she believed that the advancement of the gospel was riding on her shoulders. He convinced her of that, that belief had been formed by his actions.
She said, “Leaving him felt like a matter of survival. Leaving him would be leaving God's authority.” So it's not that easy, you can't just leave because of the mental, psychological, and spiritual captivity. Where would I go? What would I do? The cost, the risk is too great for speaking up on this there's just no hope in getting out.
Ann Maree: And the weight of that. I wanna share something straight from Tamra’s story and get your feedback on that. “The manipulation was so effective and so many thoughts were planted in my head that I felt like I didn't even own my own mind. Nothing was mine, nothing, not my apartment, my car, my schedule, my life, my thoughts, and definitely not my body.” So it sounds like part of that manipulation too was convincing her that loyalty to him was, in fact, love. And she believed it. How often do you see survivors of adult clergy sexual abuse wrestle with this idea that they love their abuser when, in fact, it's just another layer of manipulation by the abuser?
Heather: I would say, every time. Every time. Every time, it's there. And it might be hard for people to understand. I wanna go back to something that I don't really know if I emphasized well enough in talking about the grooming, and that is that trust and relationship are the greatest weapon of the abuser. And that becomes very confusing and complicated.
There's a term called “trauma bond” that I think can help us to understand this love dynamic. This term was first coined by a guy named Bruno Bettelheim who looked at the relationship in World War II between some guards of concentration camps and some of the survivors in the concentration camps, and he saw this almost like loyalty and affection and devotion being formed between them, and he was trying to understand this. How could this be that these are the people who are often abusing them who are holding them in captivity, but there seems to be some type of bond that was being formed? We see that same bond with sex trafficking survivors, we see it with childhood sexual abuse survivors at times, and definitely with adult clergy sexual abuse because it's mixed in with this power dynamic where a romantic love relationship that is introduced. So a trauma bond exists when there's a relationship that's been developed over a period of time that combines comfort and love with abuse and terror. There’s an unpredictable nature of the abuse. There’s an imbalance of power in the relationship. And it becomes a means of survival that often distorts or prohibits the victim from accepting or considering any other ways of coping or getting out.
The key to this relationship are these periods of comfort and affection provided by the offender. So these periods of “I love you. I’m the only one who cares about you. What we have is so special. What we have is so intimate.” Now over here, there are other forms of abuse and control that are happening but I'm holding out and waiting for those moments of affection again. I'm waiting for those times when I feel the comfort and the love. Because that is part of what they say. But that imbalance of power is what makes the bond so strong. You become dependent on the person for your survival. As I say, I see this in trafficking victims, and it often adds to the confusion of them leaving or getting help. I get asked that all the time, “Well why wouldn't a trafficking victim just leave?” Even after they leave, they have a bond. They believe that their trafficker loved them. Because maybe they didn't experience love in childhood to even know what love looks like or maybe sometimes they experience aspects of affection or comfort, but it was mixed in with this power that my life is dependent on this person. Sometimes a trafficking victim is even loyal to them and afraid to testify against them in court. So if that's happening with trafficking survivors, you bet that it is happening with your spiritual leader, the man that is supposed to be the nice man of God, the kind man of God, the honorable man of God that everybody else seems to admire and worship. You begin to believe the love and the abuse and the control. It's confusing but you just wait for those moments where you can experience the love and affection again, and you want to believe it's real and true.
Ann Maree: I hear the echoes of that in even domestic abuse which is what makes that type of abuse so confusing as this is the person I love, this is the person who's told me they love me so there's some similarities there. Tamra also said this, let me let you listen to that quote:
Tamra recording: “The person who is supposedly protecting me from the outside world and even from myself because of my own supposed demon is the same person who is repeatedly violating and controlling and silencing me.”
Ann Maree: So from this quote, the word “protecting” somehow rolls around in my brain since we regularly hear about it in the church in regards to the male role as protector. Can you speak a little bit about how this idea is manipulated in adult clergy sexual abuse?
Heather: Absolutely yeah, that quote really, really got me when I heard her say that. That is an example of that trauma-bond I was just trying to describe, how that can be formed.
You’re right. This really does highlight the danger of this teaching of the male role of protector. If women are told they need to be protected by men, it leaves them in a vulnerable state of being vulnerable to men who would abuse that role and that power.
Going back to that idea of power and that theology of power, there's a concept of “power over” and also concepts of “power to” or “power with.” The concept of “power with” are two people that are equal, that have mutually shared power, an exchange of power. “Power over” this idea that I have authority over you. When you say, “I am a protector of you,” it sounds to me more like a “power over” dynamic rather than a “power to” or a “power with” dynamic. This idea is easily twisted. That men are actually superior to women in every way, especially power and authority, and that women, therefore, are inferior, are incompetent, maybe even not trustworthy, that women are emotional, they're weak, and that women don't have the same level of God-given power, and therefore, should not have a say, they should not really have a voice. There's great danger in seeing a woman having less power and less value because of this idea. And for a wolf, you will exploit this power, and then a woman has little voice in power once again to speak up against that. So if there is an abuse of power, can a woman really have space to speak up about that?
Ann Maree: Many people in the church seem to have trouble understanding that adult clergy sexual abuse is nonconsensual, and we've talked a bit about that already, and that it causes trauma to the survivor. But what do you want church leaders to know about this impact, in particular, to this type of abuse?
Heather: I hope people will really listen enter in to Tamra’s story with a teachable spirit, because her story explains that it's possible and how it happens. It's absolutely essential for us to understand power dynamics in the church. So I would just encourage church leaders to understand their own power and to really think about the theology of power and how that is understood, how that is taught, how that is practiced and implemented in the church.
Fourteen out of fifty states have recognized this power dynamic and we need all fifty to recognize it, and frankly, I can say church leaders could lead the way in making that happen within their states. I also just want church leaders to know that the impact is devastating to cover up, defend, minimize, protect an abuser will have eternal consequences, because it allows the abuse to continue to poison the whole institution of the church. If not addressed, the abuser will have more victims and the system will remain complicit which is an unhealthy system. In this case, we're talking about the body of Christ. Christ is our Head. You have a very sick body that is not connected and not following its head. I also want church leaders to understand the impact on the survivor. Survivors have long, slow, painful journey of impact. There's physical impact, health problems from the body just going through so much stress. The trauma takes a toll on the body. There's financial challenges whether that's related to health and counseling issues, in some cases loss of job if the individual might have worked for the church or the Christian institution. There's relational impacts especially if it's not understood. And we're hearing that most victims actually are not believed and supported by the church. There's emotional impact. They will need to heal and again need to learn things like safety, trust, healthy sexuality. But the most egregious impact is spiritual. They will permanently have the impact of the idea of a spiritual leader. It will take a long time, if ever, to understand God and His truth that were so grossly misrepresented and how God and Scripture were just twisted up with the evil of abuse.
Ann Maree: Yeah, we just can't say enough about the need to not to underestimate the devastation and the disorienting impact on the victim because this is the shepherd, this is a caregiver, this is supposed to be a man of the church, this is a man of God. And what is he doing? So, let's find some hope here. Let's see if we can look for some hope. Do any spiritual leaders guilty of clergy sexual abuse actually recognize it as sexual abuse and have genuine remorse or public repentance?
Heather: I cannot say that I'm the expert on all cases out there, and in fact if there are these cases, I'm very open to hearing about them. It would give us tremendous hope, because it is quite possible. That being said, I often hear that they are sorrowful. Sometimes I'm concerned whether they are sorrowful for getting caught or are they truly repentant. Their language sometimes talks in very general ways about “making a mistake” but, as we talked about, I often find that it's very quick that they are pitied or celebrated or supported versus really given the full consequences for their actions. I find pastors that maybe leave ministry, but they might go to another church and get hired at another church. Maybe they take a short time to get help or do some kind of shortcut so that they can be restored back into ministry. Or worse, this is happening quite recently, I might see lawsuits against their victims for defamation of character or for causing distress. Wayne Mullen, in his book Something's Not Right, talks about abuse. Great book, he's done really excellent work. He talks about the difference between a concession and a true apology. He says that “concession condemns, appeases, excuses, justifies, self-promotes, and asks for sympathy. He says, “A true apology surrenders and resists the desire to defend, and includes confession which means detailed rightly naming each wrong , not just a blanket ‘I made some mistakes,’ but no excuses, no minimizing, no questioning of their victim, no blame shifting, but taking ownership and active role, an active ongoing role of the wrongdoing, and recognition, specifically stating the harm caused by the wrongdoing, and empathy making a true connection for the weight of what's been done.” Sometimes I hear public statements that are not very specific, and they seem to do more to protect the image of the person or the institution versus really showing an understanding of the wrong done. I know this is supposed to be hopeful, but I'm just telling you what I often hear and what I know I would like to hear said in terms of genuine remorse and public repentance.
Ann Maree: You're just echoing to our own - in the PCA and in the Presbyterian Westminster Standards of very specifically that we need to repent very specifically too. So do you have any thoughts about what it would take for someone like this, a predator, to come to full repentance? Do you know what works?
Heather: Well Julie Roys, who is a reporter and often does reports on Christian abuse and Christian institutions, she talked recently in a Christianity Today article about the distinction between restoration to the church of God and restoration to ministry. So for a pastor who comes to full repentance, we may absolutely see them restored to the church and to God, but I would say a pastor really owning full repentance and publicly owning abuse would acknowledge a surrender that he is now disqualified for ministry. He would be willing to go on a long journey of healing, a healing of counseling and accountability, to understand the thought processes that led to that abuse of power, but that he would be willing to lose that part of his identity and reputation versus being himself restored back to a position. They see him as disqualified because of that abuse of power. You know, we going back to what we were talking about. We often get public confessions that may be very general. We don't really hear much about the restoration process. What steps have they taken? What have they learned about their wrongdoing, the cause and their recognition of the damage? I think because the sin is so public because they were a public figure, there needs to be some of those steps taken. We have already talked about what a detailed confession look like.
You know, I guess I should say that a confession should be specific not necessarily detailed, and not these vague generalities, who then also there should be specifications of what the restoration process has included. The confessor should own the full extent of the harm caused, and there has been ongoing acknowledgement and ongoing accountability.
I also think restitution should be a part of that, a willingness to pay for counseling and legal or medical bills for the survivor. So those are just some aspects. I would say that there needs to be a willingness to lay down an identity and a reputation, and to say that I am disqualified from being a shepherd, but also an ongoing process of being restored to the church to God which shows that I am doing the work to understand abuse of power. Which by the way, it is very hard for individuals in positions of abuse to admit to committing the abuse and to recover. I mean, the prognosis is often very difficult, not impossible. I would like to hear more cases of men that are repentant and being restored, but it's usually very difficult to see those changes happen.
Ann Maree: Something to pray for. And I imagine too, just even, from what you described there would be very helpful for the victims and survivors to heal. But what have you found is the most helpful in that healing process for the victims and survivors?
Heather: Probably you know there’s not just one thing that's helpful or one person that's helpful. I mean, they've lost a lot so they're going to need a lot. And that you know will take a community to recover the loss of finances, health, reputation, church community, faith, trusting God, Scripture, loss of hope, most important loss of trust and relationship. So I think responsive people are hugely important and helpful, people who believe them and can walk with them. I mean, what we could call like the de-programming and the identifying of the truth is a long slow repetitious process. But they will need people that will walk alongside them and help them work through some of the lies, some of the distortions, some of the confusion of that trauma bond. It takes a long time. So they need people that will walk alongside and be willing to listen and walk with them and discover truth. Hitting on that idea of being willing to listen, that's huge someone safe who will bear witness. I think most importantly of anything is at least one person, one example of someone, whether it be a counselor, a friend, a mentor, a family member, someone who accurately reflects the character of Jesus. Using power not for their own gain, but to care for, to protect, to provide consistency, someone that has slowly helped them reorient today. So in general, I've said a lot, but I think if I if I hit on what's most important, it's community, it's safe community, it's relationship. And relationship that would actually accurately reflect the character of Jesus. Because they might feel so far from God and so far from opening scripture, but if they're sitting with someone who is showing them Jesus, showing them the truth of who He is that can be so healing. One other thing besides relationship with individuals that will believe them and bear witness are other survivors. Connecting with other survivors that just get it can also be a really helpful, healing part of the process.
Ann Maree: Good to know and not surprising either since we were made for relationships. So what hope would you want to share with any survivors that are listening today?
Heather: First I think I would want to just say, “I'm so sorry.” But “sorry” is not strong enough for how you've been failed by the church. Christian institutions, I want to acknowledge how this has taken a toll on your life, your body, your mind, your heart, your spirit, your identity, your relationships, your goals, your dreams, your future.
I want to say that help is possible, that there are people who want to be with you, and that you are believed. There is support if you want to tell, if you want to seek truth. You are so worthy of that support. And you are not an exception to God's love. I want to also just say that Jesus was so grossly misrepresented to you. Jesus is nothing like your abuser. As we talked about Ezekiel 34, I encourage you to go read it. It describes your True Shepherd, the one who is willing to turn over tables, to take the whips out of the hands of the exploiters. But who will gently come to you the same way he did with the woman at the well or the woman who was about to get stoned or the woman was bleeding for 12 years who tried to creep in and just touch his coat. He was so gentle with all of them, so caring, so compassionate. Jesus is willing to come find you and gather you up store you. And finally, the hope I would give is something that I've learned from the survivors of trafficking that I've worked with. I studied post-traumatic growth, and what was so powerful in my research with interviews and photos is that all aspects of post-traumatic growth are seen in these survivors. Post-traumatic growth is this idea, not just a bouncing back after having experienced trauma or hardship, but growing from where you were at the point of experiencing the trauma.
Growing further in five areas: personal strength, new possibilities in life, appreciation for life, relationships, and faith. I have seen all five aspects of post-traumatic growth in sex trafficking survivors, and growing beyond where they were before having a deeper appreciation for life, a deeper faith, finding relationships again. There is so much hope. Survivors are the most courageous, creative, deep, resilient, resourceful individuals I know. I've learned so much. And I believe that for any survivor, they are more than their story of abuse. There is so much hope for that growth in their life as well.
Ann Maree: Thank you, and thank you for bringing that up. I would I would like to do an entire show on post-traumatic growth. That was helpful, thank you. What would you want to share with people like me, people-helpers or pastors or counselors even, who genuinely want to help survivors? What would you like to share with us?
Heather: Believe them and tell them again and again as many times as they need to hear, that you believe them. Support them to speak the truth and follow with them to whatever extent they want to go with reporting, going through the legal process. Advocate for them. Encourage laws and authorities to be used to the highest extent. That is a misconception in churches to not make use of the legal system. It is the most loving, kind, gracious, and just thing we can do. Also advocate for clergy sexual abuse laws in your state. That’s a little side note that I'm going to keep bringing up because that's proactive and preventative.
Before coming alongside a survivor of adult clergy sexual abuse, expect that it's a long, slow, repetitious journey. Please stay with them on that journey. Don't give up on them.
There's a concept that I think anyone can hold on to, you don't have to be a clinician to hold on to this concept, it's the idea that trauma healing is the opposite or the reversal of the trauma experience. Diane Langberg in her book Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse, says that, “We are made in the image of God like being given voice, power, and relationship.” She said that, “abuse silences voice, it makes one powerless, and it clearly damages relationship or exploits the idea of relationship.” So everything we do with the survivor should be the reversal of the trauma. That means safety. What helps them feel safe? What helps them feel seen and heard? “How do we help them find their voice again?” “How do we help them make choices rather than us coming to their rescue and telling them what they need? Actually that's still taking away their power but helping them make choices.
What do they think that they need? Of being truthful in relationships, so that relationship is restored? Encouraging them to use their voice and being gracious and patient as they do so, and maybe as they give you feedback on what's helpful or what's hurtful.
Finally, there's a whole concept out there that I encourage individuals to look into especially if you're like in a church setting. It's kind of a buzzword but I think it's a good buzzword, it's the term “trauma-informed care.” Now we have trauma informed care like as a therapist I seek to be trauma-informed, and I'll explain what that means. But we have trauma-informed cities. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has taken steps to say we want to be a trauma-informed city. We have trauma-informed churches. There's actually some trainings that are out are going on out. They are really teaching basically what it means to be trauma-informed, is that you have these lenses through which you see people. You understand that there's a reason that people do what they do, say what they say, behave how they behave, rather than just assigning it what we think it might be. Jumping to a conclusion like, “Oh that person, they're not coming to church that must mean fill in the blank. Maybe we might explain some things as sin issues or spiritual issues, but what if it's that they've experienced trauma and they don't feel safe or they get really anxious coming to Christian community. We start to have new understanding of things. And there's trauma-informed guiding principles out there created by the Substance Abuse Mental Health Administration. Some of those principles include safety, collaboration, and mutuality. That's again this idea of how do we use power. Empowerment and choice, trustworthiness and transparency. It's seeking to you to know, everything that we do from top to bottom in our organizations or in our relationships. It's keeping in mind how trauma might be impacting a person, how they might be experiencing things as a result of that trauma, and that everything we do should be the opposite of trauma. Now that's who we should be anyway as Christ-followers. But it is just being really intentional to come alongside someone in a way that they experience safety, voice, and choice in the context of a safe relationship.
Ann Maree: I'm encouraged to hear that there are initiatives to more trauma-informed churches. That just shows care for me, that there is a desire to be a careful shepherd. But so much good information. Thank you so much Dr. Evans for sharing your incredible wealth with us and especially regarding the devastation of adult clergy sexual abuse. Like I said, I think we could probably do a few shows with you on several of the topics we've touched on. It has been a pleasure to have you on the Safe to Hope podcast and again I hope to see you again soon.
Heather: Thank you so much for this podcast and the work that you're doing because you are highlighting information that Christians and the church desperately need, but the way that you're going about doing it is giving us an invitation to bear witness. And when we bear witness, two people are changed. The one who is giving the testimony courageously, vulnerably sharing is providing an opportunity for them to find their voice again. But we are having the opportunity that as we bear witness, to be changed by what we're hearing. So you are creating that setting. Ann Maree, I can't thank you enough for the work that you're doing.
Ann Maree: Well thank you, and thanks for noticing. That was the goal.
You can learn more about Dr. Evans. Please go to her website: drheatherevans.com. Included on her website is further information regarding the Voices of Survivors Project and some of those photos. And a link will be included in our show notes for those for her site, as well as links for her Facebook page and her Twitter account, and you can follow her there. The link for her book Understanding Complex Trauma and Post-Traumatic Growth in Survivors of Sex Trafficking will also be included in our show notes, however, you can look it up on Amazon, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, or wherever you purchase your books. And then an additional link will be provided to access Heather's article on the #ChurchToo movement called “#ChurchToo Through the Lens of Trauma.” That could be a very good resource for what we were just discussing to see why it would be helpful for churches to be trauma informed.
For anyone who is concerned about adult clergy sexual abuse and looking for more information, I suggest going to the Clergy Sexual Misconduct website , and that link will also be in the Show Notes. I took down several books that Dr. Evans recommended, and we will put those up as well. But thank you again, that's all for today, and we hope you will join us again here on the Safe to Hope podcast on February 7th for episode two of Tamra’s story of adult clergy sexual abuse.
Safe to Hope is a production of HelpHer. Our Executive Producer is Ann Maree Goudzwaard. Safe to Hope is written and mixed by Ann Maree and edited by Ann Maree and Helen Weigt. Music is Waterfall and is licensed by Pixabay. We hope you enjoyed this episode in the Safe To Hope podcast series.
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