Mar 7, 2023
Season 1: Episode 5
Adult Clergy Sexual Abuse
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.
Previously, Tamra (an advocate and survivor) shared her story of adult clergy sexual abuse. After she shared her story, she helpfully articulated some of the characteristics of clergy sexual abuse and how it might also be called clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse of adults, clergy abuse, pastoral abuse, or clergy sexual misconduct.
Ann Maree: Tamra, thank you for returning to the Safe to Hope Podcast for another episode.
Tamra: Thank you for having me.
Ann Maree: 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’d like to remind the audience listening at home 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 might 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.
Today, we’re going to look at God’s redemptive thread throughout Tamra’s circumstances. She certainly didn’t see God’s plans while she was living through the abuse. But today we can look back — perhaps even reframe her story in His Story — and see how she learned more about God’s care for the oppressed through her difficult experience.
Ann Maree: Tamra, what has life been like for you since you disclosed the abuse?
Tamra: Thankfully, I’ve been able to rebuild my life. Today, I’m happily married to an amazing man who understands my story and supports me and loves me like I never thought possible. I didn’t even think men like him existed. But they do! And I have beautiful children who I cherish and enjoy. I read them children’s books on consent and body boundaries because I want to do as much as I can to help prevent them from experiencing anything close to what I endured.
The life I have now was unfathomable to me during the abuse. It breaks my heart reflecting on the pastor’s incredible abuse of power in teaching me to forgo marriage and children for so long while he abused me. It’s horrendously evil. But I’m so grateful to God for the healing that’s continually taking place in my life and it’s a process.
Ann Maree: It is, and part of that process includes your “outer” woman though right?
Tamra: Yes. Even as my mind and spirit heals, I do have ailments in my body that I believe are related to the trauma.
For example, the COVID lockdown in 2020 was incredibly difficult for me and caused my body to react. Those feelings of uncertainty, vulnerability, having to stay away from people, and not being able to move about freely distressed me because it reminded me of the isolation of the abuse and sent my mind and body into a tailspin.
And because of the way I reacted, I felt like there was shame heaped on me by others as if I just didn’t have the faith to endure the pandemic. It was an all too familiar feeling. I didn't make the connection to the trauma until much later but when I did, it all made sense. I was triggered.
I also suffer from recurring PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) symptoms, specifically recurring nightmares about trying to escape the abuse again or the abuser coming back to get me. But in most of my dreams now, I actually tell the abuser that I’m not captive by him anymore. So, those dreams aren’t scary. Even in my dreams, I’m stronger. I’ve grown. I’m a different person now.
Ann Maree: Would you tell our audience some of the ways you are different now?
Tamra: I remember someone saying how much I had changed since disclosing the abuse by describing me as “fun.” During the abuse, I didn’t do fun things. I just did ministry. I had coworkers, not friends. I could never truly get close with anyone without the pastor eventually accusing me of becoming quote “worldly” or “carnal.” To him, they were bad influences on me. There wasn’t anyone I could just hang out with and be my true self. I missed all that. While everyone else was going out to the movies, dating, getting married and having babies, I was being abused.
Plus, people were constantly coming and going from that toxic church so it was hard to maintain long-term friendships. So, I just kept people at a distance.
Now I can choose my friends freely. I can choose to be real with them about my struggles. Those who are Christians can encourage me in the Word and I can encourage them. I can enjoy fellowship the way God intended me to.
Ann Maree: You talked about serving in an ill fitting ministry role in that toxic atmosphere. What changed for you now as you regain your footing?
Tamra: One of the most positive changes was that I rejected the spiritually abusive teachings I was taught right after I disclosed. I was so happy to throw off the chains of being a leader in a toxic church. I really didn’t like participating. It wasn't my personality. It was his. It was how he taught me to lead. After I escaped the oppression, I felt like I could finally be myself again or some semblance of my old self. But it does grieve me that so many people were harmed by that spiritual abuse.
Ann Maree: One might think, having watched you in that role, that you were strong and decisive, a natural born leader. What differences do you see in yourself now?
Tamra: I let go of that persona I created to cope with the abuse – the version of myself that acted like all I wanted to do was ministry and was so strong and decisive. The reality is that the moment I disclosed and came out from under his oppression, I could barely make a decision for myself.
In reality, I never learned how to make my own decisions. Every choice I made was filtered through the question, “will my pastor agree or will this make him upset?” All of my important life decisions were made with his direction and approval. After I disclosed, that all changed.
I remember, right after I disclosed, I had to write an email to the people who had participated in and donated to the ministry and I was struggling to find the language. Before I typed one word, I asked the good pastor who I disclosed to, to tell me exactly what to say.
He was the one who told me that I had to learn how to make my own decisions and to speak with my own words, and that the reason I was even asking him what to say was because I was so used to always going to my pastor to tell me exactly what to say and do.
That woke me up to some of the damage that was done – damage I would have to wrestle with and learn to overcome. There was so much more to be discovered.
Realizing how much of me had been controlled made me so sad. Everyone else in my age group had become adults in charge of their own lives and here I was like a child who never grew up because I lived under oppression for so long.
But thankfully, I learned how to make my own decisions and navigate the world. And life is so enjoyable and exciting when you are not living under oppression. I’m my own person now. I’m free to be who God made me to be.
Ann Maree: I think what I hear you saying is that the sexual abuse was not just physical, right? Sexual abuse always includes elements of emotional abuse and spiritual abuse and healing involves both a recognition and acknowledgment of all forms. Can you speak more to that?
Tamra: Absolutely. Spiritual abuse and clergy sexual abuse go hand in hand. Much of what I experienced I read about later in literature about cults who twist Scripture to justify abusive behavior and demonize those who dissent. Those who disagree are labeled with spiritual terms like “demonic,” while those who comply feel special because we are the “anointed”, but only if the leader’s commands are followed.
The pastor who abused me was of course always right because he had this supposed discernment from God. He would tell me I was destined by God to be by his side and that God showed him that I was in love with him, which were all lies and incredibly twisted.
There was also much psychological abuse like gaslighting – manipulating me to make me question my own sanity and believe I could not rely on my own memory or mind. The message was, I had to rely on him because apparently he was the only sane one.
There was emotional abuse. He’d blow up at me when I did something wrong in his eyes… or not — it was unpredictable. He’d humiliate me publicly at times and then in private would belittle me by calling me delusional and a “whore”. He used demeaning and threatening behavior. Twice during disagreements, he tapped my face with an open hand like he was slapping me and pointed in my face, telling me to shut up. This was supposed to be my pastor.
Adult clergy sexual abuse isn’t merely about the spiritual leader sinning sexually and violating the victim’s body. The wound that is inflicted upon the victim is a deep spiritual wound to their personhood.
We also know that these forms of emotional and psychological abuse result in actual damage to the brain. It’s traumatic. Many people expect survivors of adult clergy sexual abuse to simply move on, because they wrongly classify the abuse as a consensual act of sexual immorality. They don’t understand the trauma that results from these various forms of abuse, which can also include physical violence.
Ann Maree: Thank you for shedding light on the incredible darkness that surrounds adult clergy sexual abuse. If we can, let’s turn the conversation a little bit more towards that light. After experiencing darkness, how has God helped you hold onto hope?
Tamra: Because of this pastor, I spent many years believing cognitive distortions – irrational ideas based on fear and negativity that kept me bound and silent. So now I try to avoid that extremist mentality – going from one extreme end to the polar opposite based on groupthink and fear of the other, never really learning my lesson and how to think for myself. I don’t want to trade one fundamentalist ideology for another.
When you’ve been so deeply and repeatedly harmed by the church, it’s natural to conclude, “I was abused by a pastor, therefore all pastors are bad and none can be trusted” or “my church was bad therefore all churches are bad.” “There’s nothing in between and no hope for change.” But, personally, I’ve lived with so little hope before and I don’t want to return to that hopelessness. Because of what I’ve seen God do in my own life and others, I have incredible hope.
Ann Maree: That’s not to say it’s easy though, right?
Tamra: It’s all a healing process. Sometimes I have to actively fight those internal messages of hopelessness and fear, especially when I am triggered in my body because of something a pastor or Christian says that is so ignorant and deeply harmful. But I want to recognize the humanity in people – recognize the possibilities for change, the possibilities for them to choose to become educated, to choose to listen, to truly take time to learn about adult clergy sexual abuse from those who have actually experienced it, to read the research, to change their minds. Those possibilities bring tremendous hope.
Spiritual abuse presents only one way of thinking, just one possible outcome – one mindset trapped in one little box. Even though it can be hard, I’m not going back to that way of perceiving the world.
Ann Maree: Tamra, you shared the way your relationships with others and outlook changed as you healed from abuse. Did the abuse have an effect on your identity in Christ?
Tamra: It absolutely did. As I heal and learn more about spiritual abuse, I see how it stripped me of my identity – both who I was as a person (what I liked, what I didn’t like), and who God made me to be in Christ.
For example, when I joined that church after I converted and was estranged from my family, I was early in my sanctification process. Instead of my identity being built up in Christ, it seemed like the identity assigned to me was “young, single, Christian woman, threat to men’s spirituality.”
I was constantly hearing messages on how sinful I was – how sinful everyone in the church was, how in order to be who God wanted me to be, I had to be loyal to the leadership. It seemed like almost everyone was accused by the pastor of being controlled by some evil spirit at some point in time. So, my identity was determined by who the pastor told me I was, not what the Word of God says about me.
What happened to me is in no way a one-off story. As I communicate with clergy sexual abuse survivors, it’s clear that spiritual abuse is present 100% of the time and the abuser and also their enablers assign a false identity to the survivor — an identity that keeps them in bondage to the oppressor, not their true identity in Christ where they are truly free. It’s taken me a long time to truly understand what it means to have my identity rooted in Christ and I am still discovering that.
People-helpers who want to walk alongside adult clergy sexual abuse survivors need to acknowledge the harm done to the survivor through the spiritual abuse they endured and not treat this issue as a consensual affair, because it’s not. Otherwise, the people-helpers may find themselves inadvertently repeating the same messages that the abuser planted in the survivor’s mind – that she was complicit and that it was her sensuality that caused him to sin.
It took me a long time to truly believe that I was not the identity I was assigned, to truly believe that I actually deserved to be treated with authentic Christ-like pastoral care. I actually did not deserve to be exploited. These truths were revolutionary to me.
Ann Maree: Were there any specific Scriptures that helped you see yourself as God sees you?
Tamra: I am still learning about how God sees me through His Word. It’s a process. But, here are some truths that have stood out to me:
1 John 5 teaches I am born of God and the evil one cannot touch me. I wasn’t inhabited by a lust spirit that supposedly connected me to my abuser and the only way of keeping this quote “spirit of lust” from infecting others was to appease the pastor and comply with his perverse demands. That was a lie.
Romans 8 teaches that I am free from condemnation (Rom. 8:1-2) and free from any condemning charges against me (Rom. 8:31-34). The pastor treated my confessions of past sins as evidence that I had some generational lust spirit and even almighty God couldn’t break those chains so I was condemned to struggle. My past sins were viewed as an outpouring of who I was, and that I shouldn’t fight it. The sins I committed in my past supposedly connected me to him spiritually, because it resonated with him. This is why God supposedly gave us one another. This is an idea that many survivors have been told. Spiritual counsel is used to convince victims this is who they are, so they can be sexually exploited. But, that’s not what God says about us in His Word.
The reality was and is I am a new creation of God, made to do good works. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” I was not created and given to this man by God to pacify his sinful desires. That was a horrendously evil lie.
Even after the abuse ended, it took years to truly believe I wouldn’t tempt a man by my mere presence. That burden was the opposite of the gospel. It’s bondage. It’s the lies of Satan, the accuser of the brethren – that even as a new creation I was incapable of being anything other than a Jezebel.
Ann Maree: Right, which goes back to what you talked about before – how those of us who hear these types of stories respond (also in biblical ways) is so important for the victim as they work so hard to hear God’s voice.
Tamra: Absolutely. When people victim shame and blame, they reinforce the same weapon of lies that the abuser used. Comments like, “Well, you shouldn’t have been alone with the pastor. You should know that he would be tempted by you.” Or, “Yeah, she has a past, so hearing about her and the pastor doesn’t surprise me.” These lies feed into the shame that a survivor experiences – sometimes for a lifetime. Shame that says there’s something inherently wrong with her and the abuse is therefore a result of who she is.
Shame is felt emotionally and physically. It produces physical pain and discomfort. In order to avoid feeling that, many spend their lives hiding, not living in the freedom Christ has given them. It’s painful and I’m still healing. Actively rejecting those lies with the truth of God’s Word isn’t easy. It’s hard to believe at times, because of the abuse I endured and all the lies I was taught. But, it’s true nonetheless.
Ann Maree: Tamra, alongside your identity in Christ, are there other ways in which God reframed your story through His Word?
Tamra: Oh, yes. When I came to that church, I came with a heart ready to learn everything about Jesus and receive it with joy – a child-like faith, like it says in Mark 10.
I also was naive and believed almost everything people said because I believed the best about people, so much so that in high school someone constantly referred to me as “Tamra Gullible.” It was a bit hurtful but I got the joke. Unfortunately, my naivety coupled with my new childlike faith in Jesus made me vulnerable and I was taken advantage of by my pastor.
Some people understandably, become cynical and suspicious of others after experiencing that type of abuse of someone’s sacred trust, causing them to think that having a childlike faith is incredibly dangerous. But hearing how Jesus refers to vulnerable children and calls us to believe with a simple and tender faith, I realize that my trusting faith, and hoping for the best in people, is precious in God's sight.
I’m certainly more discerning now and can spot red flags, but I also know God rejoices in my tender faith. It wasn’t my fault a wolf exploited it. When wolves exploit this kind of trust, victims are not to blame. So I embrace my childlike faith as part of who I am, my identity in Christ. It’s not a character flaw. The pastor exploiting my childlike faith shows his character flaws.
Survivors need to know that their abuser doesn’t have the right or the authority to define them or their identity. Their abuser is also not the gatekeeper to God’s blessings and approval. I had to learn that. I know now that I am loved by God and as Romans 8 tells me, no one can separate me from the love of God. As Paul says in Ephesians, I have direct access to God through the Holy Spirit. I don’t need a pastor with some supposed gift of discernment to tell me what to do. I have the Holy Spirit. I have the Word of God.
Ann Maree: Tamra, you shared about how the Word of God helped you to see yourself as God sees you, combating the lies of the abusive pastor. But what has God shown you about Himself?
Tamra: I’ll never forget the moment when someone spoke of abuse using the biblical term “oppression.” It was like a rushing, cleansing wave washed over me. In my 20+ years of being a Christian, I had never been taught about oppression in the Bible. It was a forgotten idea – that God cares for the oppressed. Yet, it is all throughout Scripture! It is used 116 times in the ESV.
The only time I heard oppression referred to in the toxic church was to convince me that I had some evil spirit oppressing me or that others did, so I should stay away from them. It was often used as a means to demonize someone who either struggled with a particular sin or left the church, because everyone who left the church was branded in some way. It was always spiritualized, but certainly didn’t refer to abuse, even though the definition of oppression is “prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or control.” That certainly captures my experience of clergy sexual abuse.
Once I realized that oppression was abuse, I immediately remembered how the God of the Bible is constantly speaking of His deep love, concern, and care for the oppressed and His anger toward those who oppress others. He also clearly commands God’s people not to oppress others and to seek justice for those who are oppressed. God’s heart towards the abused is all throughout Scripture. The heartfelt, raw cries of the oppressed and abused are written throughout Scripture for all to see.
Once I made that connection, I saw myself in God’s story. I saw His heart for me, right there in His Word. I had no idea it was even there. God speaks about abuse. He speaks about me and His heart for me. I am not forgotten. He hates oppression. He hates abuse. I'm not sure why we don't hear that in our churches very often.
Ann Maree: Me either! Once you heard that truth, once you understood God’s heart for people specifically like you (with all of your thoughts, feelings, giftedness, and unique experiences), how did it help you begin to reinterpret your story?
Tamra: Seeing His heart for me in the Bible helped me reframe my story in that it helped remind me God doesn’t see me how my abuser portrayed me – a wayward woman who would never be able to rid herself of some supposed lust spirit. It helped me to see God was angry, at what happened to me, and what happened to me was oppression and He speaks to that.
Here is a scripture that gives me hope, and I hope encourages the listeners today: Psalm 9:9 “The LORD is a shelter for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble.” Psalm 72 is also greatly encouraging to me as it describes what a righteous ruler looks like – one who cares for the oppressed, gives them justice, and crushes the oppressor. It gives us a picture of what a godly king does and what the leader cares about. This Psalm points us to King Jesus. So I suggest reading Psalm 72.
I’m no longer living in oppression, though. I am, as the Scriptures say, free – in more ways than one. Oppression is part of my story. But, as my life unfolds, I see God’s work in my life and His heart for me in so many additional ways. My identity is in Christ and I am free.
Ann Maree: That is so true. Christ came for the oppressed, those oppressed by sins of the world, sins from the fall, and sins of the flesh of course. But He also came to rescue us from the oppressor! What a comfort in knowing His redemptive plan. What are some of the comforts you’ve experienced along the way?
Tamra: God has comforted me in so many unexpected ways. Oftentimes, I don’t even realize He is doing it until I reflect back. For example, after I escaped the abuse and returned home, I launched out with a great sense of new found freedom and awe of the world that I had missed out on while I was trapped in the oppression.
Everything in God’s world seemed beautiful. I remember looking at the clouds and thinking, I hadn’t relaxed and just stared at the beautiful sky in so long. I took in all of God’s beauty. I sat on the beach alone for hours, taking in the ocean and sky, reading, learning, grieving. Grieving incredible loss. I traveled to other countries and saw how big God’s world is, especially in comparison to the tiny dark jail cell I had existed in for so long. Then, I moved far away and landed in the prettiest city. I hiked, made new friends, met my amazing husband. I embarked on a new life – my own life, with tremendous joy. All the time healing.
It was only years later that I realized everything I had experienced is helpful and healing to those who are recovering from coercive control and suffering trauma – getting away from the abuse and into a place of safety, taking in the beauty of the world, exercising my independence such as traveling alone, making my own decisions, creating new friendships and new memories. God gave me what I needed in the healing process and I didn’t even realize it. He comforted me in so many ways.
Ann Maree: 2 Corinthians 1:3 says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.” Lamentations tells us those mercies are new every morning. Every sunrise –in other words, watching God’s revelation in creation each morning –reminds us that His mercy and comfort are available every single day. Tamra, how did you take those blessings and turn them into praises?
Tamra: I try to have a heart of gratitude and constantly look for God in the little things, not just the big things. Every time I was shown kindness by someone who knew my story, I thanked God and gave God credit. Anything that brought joy, I accredited to God. That helped me recognize His hand in my life and circumstances. To feel Him near, even as He worked through others.
When I was at such a low place right after I disclosed, friends would send me scriptures, many from the Psalms. I ate it up like bread crumbs on a trail taking me in the direction toward God, whenever I felt so lost, disoriented, and frightened. I will always be grateful for that, because for me personally, it helped. I couldn’t even open the Bible to read, I was so weak. But God would touch their hearts to text me His precious Words.
I know for some survivors that might not be helpful. It could actually be triggering, especially if their abuser misused scriptures to harm. So, I’m not saying this is always the right thing to do for someone after they disclose. Ask how you can best support them and let them tell you how you can help. If they’re open to it, maybe ask if there are any verses they love or consider a life verse. But for me personally, friends sending scriptures about God’s love really helped, and I attribute those graces to God.
Ann Maree: That is so beautiful to hear how God has comforted you in your healing journey and also taught you lessons along the way. It’s also great to know that you are endeavoring to comfort others with the comfort He has given you through advocacy work. How is God using your Christian advocacy work?
Tamra: God has really opened my eyes to different forms of oppression. Recently, I’ve been taking advocacy training to walk alongside those who experience coercive control and domestic abuse in marriage, especially in the church. I’ve found that the tactics of abusive spouses and the traumatic impact on the victims is almost exactly the same as what I experienced when I endured adult clergy sexual abuse.
The abuser wasn’t my husband, but he was the one I looked to for care, meaning pastoral care and counseling, and as I shared in the previous two podcasts, he had groomed me to the point that I was dependent on him – financially, because he employed me, spiritually and emotionally because he counseled me using spiritually abusive tactics, isolated me, and he even convinced me to give him my apartment keys and car keys. So, he controlled my movement and would show up unexpectedly in my home any time he pleased.
So I’ve learned that many tactics of abusers are the same. The victim just changes – wife, congregant, child. The vulnerable. And God speaks expressly about protecting the vulnerable from oppression and making sure they receive justice. That comforts me. God acknowledges this issue and expects the church to be a place where this doesn’t occur.
Ann Maree: It’s hard to realize that abuse occurs in the church – the very place God wants to be a safe place for the vulnerable. Tamra, how does learning about various forms of abuse affect your experience in Christian environments and how does God help you through that?
Tamra: I do struggle with anxiety in the church. Not always, but a lot of the time. There was a point when I felt I couldn’t breathe on the car ride to church. I am not 100% over that. But one thing that helps me is attending a church that is quite different, even the polar opposite of the type of church I attended before. Everything from the preaching style to the church culture to the church government, is different.
The church where I was abused had no governing authority, held to no specific historical creed that I was aware of, and the pastor had no seminary training or theological degree. It was often a surprise what he might say on a Sunday morning. Sometimes shocking. Unorthodox. He wasn’t part of a denomination so there was no one to defrock him.
So I feel more comfortable in a confessional church that is connected to a denomination. I can clearly see the historical creeds and practices they hold to. The pastors are seminary trained and vetted to some degree before serving, the services are very structured, there are multiple elders, and denominational oversight.
I know that abuse happens in churches like this, as well. Sadly. But for me, the predictability and structure and expectation of orthodoxy and orthopraxy helps.
Ann Maree: You’re so right, Tamra. Abuse can and does happen in all types of churches and Christian organizations. As we come to a close in this series on Adult Clergy Sexual Abuse, what can you share with people- helpers that will help them care better for victims who struggle in Christian environments?
Tamra: Many cannot tolerate being in a church environment and they deserve much grace regarding this, not further condemnation. Many of my survivor friends have held onto their faith while not being able to sit through service because of the trauma — the constant triggers that cause such distress. Even when we try to block out the thoughts, the body remembers and reacts. We should not be shamed for that.
Once, I listened to a preacher who was actually addressing clergy sexual abuse and he was speaking truth. But because his style of preaching was similar to the abusive pastor, I could barely breathe or concentrate. That speaks to how trauma affects the body and causes incredible responses many years later even when the person is not being threatened.
Many who wrongly view adult clergy sexual abuse as a “consensual affair” can’t understand why survivors can’t just “get over it.” They can’t fathom why it’s hard for them to join back in the Christian community once the so-called affair has ended. That’s because it’s not an affair. It’s abuse and causes trauma.
The Bible says, “don’t forsake the fellowshipping of the brethren.” Yes, it does. But it also says don’t oppress people and when you see that happening, we are to rescue those under oppression and seek justice. But too often that doesn’t happen in the church and so the survivor is further oppressed by the very ones who should be seeking justice for her after she’s been fed on by a wolf the Bible warns about. If survivors weren't sinned against in so many ways — abuse, victim shaming and blaming, then fellowshipping with the brethren wouldn’t strike intense fear in their body.
Some have found comfort in home fellowships. I know a survivor and her husband, who was a pastor, joined other believers to start a home fellowship and it has been healing.
For many survivors, it takes a long time to get to a place of safety where they’re no longer constantly retraumatized. There are many struggles. No one should compare my healing to another’s. Though there are similarities, each survivor’s journey is different. Those different experiences after they disclose greatly impacts their ability and timeline to heal.
Ann Maree: What would you share about some of the struggles survivors of this type of abuse encounter after disclosing that makes it hard for them to heal in safety?
Tamra: Some survivors were married at the time of the abuse and their marriages don’t survive. Some survivors have to live with the fact that their abuser is still leading a church and embraced by his flock or selling books or on the speaking circuit. Some are afraid to leave their house because they may run into those who have cruelly shamed them and blamed them. Others are trolled on social media or sued by the abuser, financially draining them. Some have to deal with the news media or the general public watching and commenting — oftentimes in favor of the abuser. Many have to fight against a powerful church, institution or entire denomination. Even in cases where the abuse is recognized by leadership in private, the public narrative is often not corrected by those holding the power to do so, leaving the survivor’s reputation to suffer while the institution continues to thrive.
Some have to wrestle with the loss of family members who don’t believe them, take the side of the abuser, or remain in the toxic church where the abuse happened, and now their family members are discouraged from communicating with them. The list of hurts and grave injustice, most often on the part of the church, can go on and on. So much trauma upon trauma for the survivors, and on top of it all, there are people wrongly labeling them as threats to the church. These are my fellow survivors and it’s because of them, and all those who are still silenced, that I chose to share my story. These amazing survivors encourage me to press on with my advocacy work, such as educating others, and working to increase the number of states that criminalize adult clergy sexual abuse. And I believe the God who speaks expressly against oppression is glorified in this work.
Ann Maree: And I do too. I can’t thank you enough for inviting us in to hear your story. What is your hope for this podcast?
Tamra: I want my story to bring hope, not just to help educate the church, although that is sorely needed, and part of what I do with my advocacy work. But I want to share hope with those who feel captive by the oppression of their spiritual leader. My voice was once silenced, but today I use my voice to speak truth into the darkness, and there is such joy in the light of truth. For me, my journey of healing has been long and is still ongoing, but my faith in Christ is stronger today and I am able to live my life with freedom. There is hope on the other side of disclosure. There are people out there who you can trust to disclose to – those who will believe you and help you and give you Christ-like care.
The safest person I know is Jesus, and that’s where I draw my strength. But I firmly believe that churches can be safer places if leaders choose to educate their people and protect their flock from the various forms of abuse that can occur within a religious community.
Ann Maree: And I agree with you. I firmly believe churches can be safer. And I think, podcasts like this and survivors who are willing to tell their stories are going to be very important to that process. So thank you again Tamra and I do pray with you that many victims and survivors will be blessed from hearing your story.
Tamra: Thank you so much for having me on.
Ann Maree: Absolutely.
That’s all for today. On the final Episode in this storyteller’s series, I will talk with assistant professor of counseling at RTS Charlotte, Dr. Nate Brooks, about how to help victims of adult clergy sexual abuse with biblical counseling and care. Make sure to join us again as we explore how, despite sharing in Christ’s sufferings in a fallen world, we can be Safe to Hope.
For anyone concerned about Adult Clergy Sexual Abuse and looking for more information, go to the Clergy Sexual Misconduct website link in our show notes.
Safe to Hope is a production of HelpHer. Our executive producer is Ann Maree Goudzwaard. Safe to Hope is written, mixed, and edited by Ann Maree Goudzwaard, with assistance from Matt McQuade. Music is from The Detour, from the Integrity Music release "FAITHFUL: Go And Speak" and licensed by Integrity Music.
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 HelpHer resources.com. That's help her resources.com.