I Was A Victim Of Clergy Sexual Misconduct

by Lesley Butterfield
Originally Published: 
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Around this time of year, leaves begin to change brilliant colors, trees shed their growth, there is a crispness in the air. It is also the time of the anniversary of when I experienced horrific spiritual trauma at the hands of my trusted church leader.

You see, I was the victim of clergy sexual misconduct.

This happened four years ago in the city I call home — Roanoke, Virginia. The perpetrator is a now-former Bishop of my former church, the Mormon church. He is still active in the church and enjoys full rights and privileges, despite multiple women having complained about and reported his problematic behavior.

I have been public with my story. I will continue to be public about my story. I have shared it with news outlets, on podcasts, in written articles simply because it is simply so shockingly unbelievable that it is believable—because it is ubiquitous. It is all of our stories as survivors; sadly, my experience is far from unique or isolated.

I have completed many years of therapy and in-depth trauma work because of how this situation of spiritual abuse and religious coercion impacted my life, my self-worth, my dignity, me. None of this is my shame to bear … though the responsibility of healing the trauma it has caused is mine to carry and sort through. And that work is ongoing forever and really tough sometimes. 

In a recent article on Betrayal Trauma Recovery, an organization that aims to help women in abusive situations find safety and peace, Dave Gemmel, Associate Director of the NAD Ministerial Association, states, “Clergy sexual misconduct is a betrayal of sacred trust and can be on a continuum of sexual or gender-directed behaviors, either a lay or clergy person with a ministerial relationship, whether they’re paid or unpaid.” Clergy sexual misconduct is not limited to sexual harassment or sexual assault of a clergy member on a lay member but also involves a much larger broad-scope of definitions.

It has taken me years to unpack the trauma shoved on me from a reckless, unethical, irresponsible, and misogynistic bishop who I trusted to keep me safe.

A bishop who instead told me to “submit” myself to him so he could “fix me” because he has “a special way with women.”

A bishop who told me that I needed to divulge intimate details about my personal and private sexual history to him.

A bishop who told me to be more sexual while also being more submissive.

Over the years, I’ve come to learn that not everyone believes my experiences with this bishop. Some are even outspoken about how I am the dishonest one. Is it difficult to believe that someone you trust as having the spiritual power to speak for God has treated someone else inappropriately and has engaged in abusing this power?

Yes. Yes. Yes.

And what do I stand to gain by coming forward with what happened to me? Nothing. Absolutely not a thing. But I stood to lose a lot — and I have lost a lot. The alienation by some in my former faith community has been devastating, along with “friendships” that could not survive the dissonance placed upon them. My name dragged through the mud by some more vocal members who are close to this bishop and defamation of me by this bishop himself. I tell you, it’s been an absolute dream come true (and that is sarcasm).

Admittedly, it is so difficult to let ourselves believe something like this about people we know and trust, likely because we may have had positive experiences with the abusive person ourselves. Abusers are not all good or all bad. This is a myth. Instead, they are abusive people that do abusive things, and sometimes they are abusive people that can do good things. They also don’t abuse everyone they meet. Instead, they assess, groom, exploit, and abuse certain ones.

So, no, not all people have to believe my experience. And that is okay. It doesn’t take anything away from me if others choose not to believe that this happened to me. I do not have any overwhelming need to be believed by everyone, because being believed does not validate my experience or my trauma any more or any less. And here’s a fun fact: They weren’t in the bishop’s office with the door closed late at night when this happened. I was.

So often we don’t want to see what our minds cannot make sense of. This is how and why abusive people continue to hold positions of power and how they continue to encounter, access, and abuse victim after victim after victim.

Later, after I went public with my story, I learned that this Bishop paid the only partial witness to this event (a family member who saw me before and after the incident and knew how upset I was) nearly $20,000 of member donations and sacred tithes for no apparent reason other than what I suspect was to keep him quiet and ensure that this person will never corroborate my story. The layers of unrighteous abuse of authority can often be compounded, one upon another, when victims choose to come forward in an already traumatic and difficult situation.

So what can we do about clergy sexual misconduct?

1. Make sure your faith community has safe policies and practices in place that everyone knows and that are posted in all locations within buildings, etc. One thing that completely failed me in my situation was the fact that my faith community had NO safe measures for a lay member to report an abusive or rogue bishop. This is a huge red flag.

2. Advocate for diversity among church leadership. This includes women in roles and positions in the very highest of the leadership tiers and all throughout. No decisions about female church members should be made without their involvement. Dave Gemmel goes on to state, “If you just have one gender, you only get half of the picture. If there are only men on these committees, you’re half-blind. Many times, women can pick up on things that us men are clueless to.” This is another area that failed me in my church organizational system. There was no other woman in a leadership position that I could go to that was not presided over by a man. In fact, only those with the priesthood can hold leadership positions with independent, autonomous decision making authority and the only people that can hold priesthood within my faith are males. This is a huge red flag.

3. Do not expect and do not go to your clergy for therapeutic counseling of ANY type. Therapeutic counselors receive years of training. Even if a clergy member has received pastoral training, this is still not enough to equate to the specialized expertise that a therapeutic counselor has. Dave Gemmel explains, “Formal training of pastors and, particularly, lay leaders do not equip them to engage in therapeutic counseling.” This is another way in which my faith community failed me. I was taught that our bishops speak for God and have a the spirit of discernment. So naturally it made sense to seek his advice for personal problems I was experiencing in my life. Naively, I substituted my religious belief in priesthood and magic discernment for real, substantiative, concrete education and training in ethics and pastoral care because this is what I was taught from a young age. This is a huge red flag.

4. If you must be with your clergy for some reason, always take a trusted person with you. The door should remain open at all times. Never meet with them alone, and maintain boundaries of appropriateness in all communications. This is another way in which my faith community failed me. I was alone at the church late at night meeting with this church leader. When I finally left this meeting, I ended up running out of his office in tears, but there was no one to see me or witness what happened. This is a huge red flag.

Overall, I have learned more about how destructive spiritual trauma can truly be to a person. The effects are so damaging and can last lifelong. They aren’t leaves that shed with ease in a new autumn season. I was so ashamed and so broken — it was even hard to put into words what happened to me at first and for months after.

But now, I can say this with an unequivocal conviction of fortitude and stoicism: I was the victim of clergy sexual misconduct. It was not okay, and it was not my fault.

The leaves are still changing brilliant colors, trees are still shedding their growth, and there is still is a crispness in the air. My trauma is also still here.

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