In this post, I want to explore how churches heal after clergy misconduct. Specifically, I want to explore the questions, “What does it take for a church to heal? How can church officials help a church heal?”
First, an important disclaimer, which is that misconduct comes in many forms. In a faith too often obsessed with sex, we tend to think of clergy misconduct as inherently sexual in nature. White it is essential that we not minimize the harm caused by clergy sexual misconduct, the reality is that the vast majority of clergy misconduct takes other forms. These include relational, emotional, financial, and spiritual.
Spiritual abuse is particularly troubling, as it is often difficult for adjudicatories to detect, and often even harder to address. Many times, clergy who engage in spiritual abuse do not engage in a single, serious incident of misconduct. Rather, they engage in a pattern of abuse that consists of seemingly petty slights, power plays, and other insidious misconduct. Taken individually, they seem minor, but when viewed as pattern, they are anything but.
Because clergy misconduct can cover such a broad spectrum, it’s also important to recognize that parishioners often don’t realize that they have been abused. In such cases, it often is only after a clergy person leaves or retires that they realize just how unhealthy things have become. Indeed, in some cases, patterns of unhealthy behavior may persist for decades after an abusive clergy person no longer serves a particular church.
It is the latter paradigm that is key to understanding how churches heal. Specifically, just as conflict ignored is conflict multiplied, so too do very few churches heal on their own. Instead, they must bring in outside help, who can assist in building and implementing strategies for recovery.
Thus, in churches that are hierarchical in nature, like The Episcopal Church, diocesan authorities must intervene when there has been clergy misconduct. In denominations that are congregational in polity, regional officers may be able to provide assistance. But in all cases, outside help is essential.
In such cases, it is essential that the truth be uncovered. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free,” is not only biblical, but it is one of the great truths of human psychology. We must know the truth, explore the truth, and understand our own role in misconduct.
The latter is a point with many subtleties. On the one hand, there is one great truth in cases of clergy abuse, which is that clergy always are responsible for maintaining boundaries. There is no exception to this; “they made me do it,” or “she came onto me,” never cut it. Again, clergy always are responsible for maintaining appropriate boundaries.
That said, parishioners may feel complicit for not speaking out against abusive clergy. They may have benefited from positions of power and influence under an abusive priest. Or they may feel remorse for not having recognized the abuse. In other cases, they may have unwittingly taken the side of an abusive member of the clergy, and thus feel that they aided and abetted in the misconduct. Still others may regret having turned their backs on friends in the midst of the conflict that inevitably erupts when allegations of clergy misconduct arise.
These are normal reactions, and their implications are magnified by the hurt, pain and betrayal that parishioners feel when they learn of clergy misconduct.
The only way for congregations to move past the trauma is to talk openly about it in a moderated, safe environment. Participants must know that their views will be respected, even if others may not agree. They need to know that they will be loved and cared for, and that pastoral care is available. And they need to feel safe in moving at their own pace; there is nothing more counterproductive than insisting that those struggling with their hurt and pain “move on.”
As part of this process, diocesan officials must disclose the misconduct. While there is a right to privacy, and legal counsel must be involved to avoid charges of defamation and other legal issues, it is important that parishioners know enough about the misconduct to be able to process it, heal, and move on. This need is reflected in the Episcopal disciplinary canons, which provide that the bishop diocesan may disclose confidential aspects of disciplinary proceedings if necessary, while considering carefully the privacy rights of all parties involved.
Thus, most parishes require at least one parish-wide meeting, and some will require multiple such facilitated meetings in order to move towards healing.
It also is worth noting that people must feel free to not attend such meetings, for there will be some who simply are not ready to do so. Additionally, while such meetings should be limited to parishioners only, it may be useful to invite those who have left the church due to clergy misconduct to attend, as well as those (like parish employees), who may not be members, but have also been hurt by the misconduct.
In all of this, there is an important corollary, which is that simply removing clergy who have been accused of misconduct without more is gravely injurious to a parish. Ignoring an issue almost never results in healing, but instead may be seen by parishioners as minimizing the hurt and pain of clergy misconduct. Even if the alleged misconduct did not directly involve the parish, the departure of a much-loved clergy person will inevitably bring with it feelings of loss and betrayal. And when a diocese or other adjudicatory removes clergy as part of a disciplinary proceeding, failing to help the affected community move towards health and wholeness is itself a betrayal, and likely will result in diocesan officials being viewed as high-handed or arbitrary.
In addition, my experience is that an inadequate response by church officials may result in waves of follow-on conflict among those affected. Such conflict may spread and pull in others who otherwise not be affected by the misconduct.
Of course, the healing process also must be handled with great care and sensitivity. Announcements about clergy misconduct must be made in a way that allows time for members of the community to process the news, and to choose whether to participate in the process. Announcements should not, under any circumstances, be made at regularly scheduled worship services.
Lastly, it is essential that victims of clergy misconduct see that their concerns are taken seriously and addressed. For instance, they may wonder what will become of their church, or how long an interim will serve. While there may not be clear answers to these and similar questions, church officials must share as much information as they can. With this in mind, it is useful and appropriate for church officials to “loop back” with victims of clergy misconduct, and to let them know that they may call, visit, or write any time they have questions, concerns or comments.
A final comment: The purpose of this article is to help those who have been affected by clergy misconduct. It is not intended to address any particular church or situation.