Copyright © 2014 by the Christian Century. Reprinted by permission from the July 9, 2014 issue of the Christian Century. Subscriptions: $59/yr. from P. O. Box 422467, Palm Coast, FL 32142. (800) 208-4097. christiancentury.org

 

A Real Life Story by Catherine Thiemann, San Diego, CA

 

My church now knows the darkest part of my history. They’ve seen how my wounds get in the way, and yet they embrace me. By inviting me to serve, they’ve helped me discover new gifts. By accepting me as I am, they’ve helped me heal. By taking the risk of being in this community, I’ve found my way home.

 

I sat on the edge of a rear pew and clung to my ten-year-old son. It was our first visit to this church, and it had taken all my courage just to walk in the door. After the service we sneaked out the side, but the next Sunday we came back. I was still terrified. What if they knew my history? Would they turn on me?

 

A harrowing journey had led me to this place. I am rooted to a denomination by baptism, confirmation, and love of the liturgy. But I live in a close-knit community, and when I filed a complaint of sexual misconduct against the well-loved pastor, word got around fast. Doors began to close. Friends became strangers. Accusations appeared on my Facebook page. Even other clergy turned against me. One Sunday, in a small parish a half hour from my home, I sat near a retired pastor with whom I had a friendly rapport. During the passing of the peace, I turned to her with an outstretched hand. She greeted the man to my left and the woman to my right but stared through me as if I wasn’t there.

 

It was my Year of Risk. I took the risk to protect other women, to push for transparency, and to claim my place in my faith tradition. Yet what happened exceeded my worst fears. I lost almost all of my friends. My name became notorious. There was no place for me in my church. If we are all part of the body of Christ, I had become the cancer.

 

I stayed away. I could no longer pray; the very idea of God seemed like a cruel joke. I considered leaving my faith. Many survivors of clergy sexual misconduct never return to church. Those of us who do may struggle for years, and if we are open about our stories, we struggle with our new friends’ misgivings. We make people uneasy.

 

And yet only a few months after my old church froze me out, I realized that I needed to be with God’s people. Heart racing, knees knocking, I began to look for a church. Now I had walked into the warm, old-fashioned sanctuary of a century-old United Church of Christ congregation. I knew only that the pastor seemed kind and thoughtful and was gay, which made me feel safe.

 

Could I join? I was still frightened of being frozen out. My former pastor’s behavior made me feel like prey; the cold silence of others made me feel as though I no longer existed. Unfortunately, most church members fear scandal more than they fear the abuse that causes the scandal and will ostracize the congregant who dares to speak a scandalous truth. Would a new congregation do the same thing?

 

There was only one way to find out. I had to risk telling the truth again. Two weeks before I joined the church, I told my new pastor that I had reported his colleague for misconduct. That Christmas I told women in my prayer group. The next summer I recounted my story to an officer of the church. Finally, near the end of my first year on council, I told my story to the church’s senior leaders. Every time I spoke I was terrified, but I always felt compassion from my hearers. And each time I became a little less afraid.

 

My church now knows the darkest part of my history. They’ve seen how my wounds get in the way, and yet they embrace me. By inviting me to serve, they’ve helped me discover new gifts. By accepting me as I am, they’ve helped me heal. By taking the risk of being in this community, I’ve found my way home.

 

– Catherine Thiemann