Recently I received an email from Michael, an acquaintance of mine who is a survivor of clergy sexual abuse. Every time I ask him how he is, he responds the exact same way: “Hanging in there.” Which is indeed an understatement. I am always so amazed at how much this remarkable individual epitomizes grace, forgiveness and resilience. Rather than lash out that those who abused him, or the church which ignored his pleas for help, he’s managed to rebuild his life and to dedicate himself to helping other victims heal and grow.
And before you jump to conclusions … no, not a Roman Catholic. Michael was raised in a relatively moderate evangelical denomination, yet one still afflicted by similar problems of denial and ignorance. Michael has since left that church, but still takes the time to share his experience and insights with religious leaders. His number one piece of advice: Prevention. “Too often we only react to stories of abuse. If we are really against abuse, we should do all we can to keep it from happening. Speak the truth, break the silence, empower people and hold leaders accountable before any of this happens.”
One way of breaking the silence is to talk more openly about sexuality in our religious communities. Even in many liberal congregations, it’s not considered appropriate to talk about sex in the same sacred space where we revere the Divine. But if we truly believe that sexuality is a divine gift, then it’s not only right but necessary to speak about it, learn about it, and celebrate the diverse ways in which erotic love can be expressed without exploitation and harm.
While knowing the truth can set us free, it is empowerment which gives us the tools to do right in the light of that freedom. Teaching people to think critically and constructively, to move beyond mere adherence to rules into an authentic ethical discernment, gives us the power to live our lives with integrity and wholeness. Such empowerment also means we have the confidence to set boundaries for ourselves, to choose who will lead us and to what extent, and to hold them to account when they fall short.
A rather general set of points, I agree, but hopefully useful as a guide to finding the specifics. George Bernard Shaw said that there is one religion, but a hundred versions of it. Let us hope and work for every denomination to find the specifics of how to speak truth and empower one another in their sexual lives -- and not let anyone else take that power from them.