The Difficulty of Listening to Truthtellers

July 2, 2015

A talk given at UUA General Assembly 2015
By Dr. Doug Pasto-Croby

All human beings need to believe that the world that they live in is safe. It is a basic biological need. We can’t function in normal, healthy ways when our environments are not safe. And no place needs to be safer, than our UU churches. In our churches, we share our joys and concerns, admit our shortcomings and depend on each other as we strive to be better people and to fully live our Seven Principles. Any perceived threat to a person’s feeling of safety, not only negatively affects that individual, but negatively affects the entire church community.

So, when we hear of a threat to that safe environment, such as an accusation of clergy misconduct, we immediately resort to any means possible to try to re-store the perception of safety as soon as possible. The quickest and simplest defense mechanism human beings have is denial. So, our first reaction on hearing of an accusation of misconduct is denial. “It never happened.” “My minister would never do that.” “I’ve never seen it so it must not be true.” The message is so painful that it must be denied. “Not in my church.” Then the messenger must be denied. “He’s lying.” “She just wants attention.” When you realize how important a safe church environment is to us, you must also realize how threatening the message of misconduct is. Denial is the easiest way for most people to restore a church to a perception of safety. For many people, this quickly progresses to anger. “How dare he make that accusation?” “She’s crazy.” Anger is used to suppress the painful information. The congregation tries to restore safety by silencing the voices. If the misconduct can be suppressed, then the congregation believes that it can make the church safe again.

But it doesn’t make the church safe. Just as secrets in a marriage damage the relationship, secrets in a church damage the congregation. When a congregation is collectively hiding a secret, the tension in the church is palpable, even to visitors. Without knowing why, visitors sense the problem and the congregation fails to grow. Within the congregation, cliques form. Power is concentrated in a select few. Trust is eroded. Not just trust in the minister, but trust with each other, with the denomination and with religion as a whole. The individuals, the church and the denomination fail to thrive.

Newer perspectives indicate that ministerial sexual misconduct is not so much about sex, as about power—The minister inappropriately taking advantage of the imbalance in power between the minister and the church member. While UUs believe in the equality of everyone’s worth, we often forget that peoples’ relative power varies. The minister almost always has more power than the member in a church setting. Even if the member is successful in the community and even if they are President of the congregation, the minister will usually have more power. In addition, most cases of ministerial sexual misconduct occur in the setting of ministerial counseling when the power ratio is even more disproportionate. When a member makes an appointment with the minister for counseling, it is usually because they are upset about something—something that affects them strongly emotionally such as personal or family problems. When the member is seeking counseling, their emotional state significantly increases the power of the minister.

In my church, when I am teaching about power ratios, I use the example of Gail and myself. In church, she is my minister and she has more power than I have. If I seek counseling from her for a traumatic event in my life, her power over me is greatly increased. However, if Gail is sick or injured and comes to my emergency room as my patient, I have power over her. Power ratios vary depending on the circumstances. In ministerial sexual misconduct, the minister takes advantage of the increase in power they have over the victim who came seeking counseling.

Victims of Ministerial sexual misconduct are thus triply damaged.

First, they are upset about what brought them to seek counseling in the first place. Second, being treated inappropriately by the minister, damages the individual further. They are distraught by what has happened to them—having been mistreated by a person they trust who had in power over them. Thirdly, the congregation’s denial of the act and anger targeted at them, damages the victim a third time. For the victim, the initial emotional distress followed by loss of both trust and safety with the minister and the loss of trust and safety in the congregation is devastating. Given this one-two- three massive blow to the psyche of the victim, it is not surprising that, occasionally, a victim may not always behave rationally. The congregation sometimes looks at the behavior of the victim and jumps to the conclusion that the victim is “unbalanced and therefore, my congregation is still safe.”

While denial and anger are normal human reactions to threats, we must learn to overcome our initial defensive responses. Not wanting to hear bad news, denying that news, lashing out in anger against the messenger, does not make our congregations safer. It actually makes our congregations more dangerous, less open, less friendly and less welcoming to visitors. Ministers and staff turnover becomes more frequent. Church work becomes more of a burden than a pleasure. Congregations stagnate or even shrink because of the festering negative energy.

It is vitally important, that congregations learn to get past the initial basic human reaction to a threat to safety by using denial and anger. These reactions help the congregation feel safer initially, but in the end, denial and anger can destroy a congregation.

How do we move past that initial denial and anger to a more balanced and rational response? First, we must recognize that denial and anger will almost always be the initial response to a threat to safety. However, then we have to realize that these reactions do not, in fact, solve the problem of our safety. We must learn to move past these initial responses. The best way to get past is to recognize what is happening and to initiate a plan of action that has been soundly thought out in advance to overcome this initial response. Well thought out policies that allow the victims and messengers to be heard in a safe environment are needed.

Hearing the victims and messengers is the single most important thing that a congregation can do when accusations of ministerial misconduct arise. The policies and procedures need to be written in advance of any incident. These procedures must be set up in such a way, that the victims feel safe to tell their story. The victims have been traumatized. They are hurt, damaged and vulnerable. The mechanism for hearing their story must be safe.

Recent trauma research indicates that when a person is traumatized, the memories of that trauma are stored differently than normal memories. The memory of a non-traumatic event is stored in a way that localizes that memory to a specific time and place. For example, “I saw the Portland Trailblazers win on December 14th at the arena at 8 PM.” Even if the win created a strong emotional response in me, I remember the emotion as taking place at the arena at that time. However, recent evidence shows that traumatic memories are not fixed in a concrete time and place by the brain. That means that recalling the event replays the event in the victim’s mind as happening in present tense, happening right now, not as an event in the past. Re-telling the traumatic event, the victim is not “remembering” the emotion, their brains are actually re-experiencing the emotion as they tell it. They are neurologically re-living the event.

This is why it is so difficult for victims to tell their stories. In order to tell it, they are forced to re-live it. This is why a safe environment is so important to getting a victim to tell their story. Evidence shows that without a safe, welcoming environment, the victim is forced to re-live the trauma again and again as they first experienced it. Or, they are forced into silence.

Brain research also shows that traumatic memories are not stored in the brain in the same neat, tidy way as non-traumatic memories. The traumatic memories are often fragmented, disconnected. The trauma victim is often neurologically not able to tell a logical narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. The traumatic memories are scattered and unconnected in the brain. So the narrative is sometimes non-linear, fragmented and disorganized. Sometimes the victim has trouble telling story the exact same way twice. This often leads an untrained listener to doubt the story. The problem is not that the memory isn’t true, but that the brain of the traumatized person is remembering in a different way than a non-traumatized person.

Telling the story, and being believed, is the most important event in the healing of the traumatized person. Expressing denial and anger while the victim is telling their story only forces them to re-experience that trauma, as it originally happened, over and over again. This forces the victims to have to choose between either painfully re-living their traumas over and over again, or forced into silence. Neither choice is healthy for the victim.

However, telling the story in a warm, safe, welcoming, environment, allows the victim to separate the memory in time and space from the present tense. The emotion becomes a memory of the emotion, not a re-activation of the emotion as experienced at the original time. Often, narrative continuity is restored and the fragmentation is resolved—if the person is allowed to tell their story in the proper environment.

Without a safe environment for victims to tell their stories, the victim cannot heal, the congregation is denied the opportunity to heal and, finally, the minister is denied the opportunity to heal. We must be willing to hear the whistle blowers’ stories. Not a doubting, begrudging listening, but a fully engaged, compassionate listening. If we don’t listen to the victims, we condemn the victims to a life of pain. If we don’t listen to the victims, we condemn our congregations to be dysfunctional and stagnant. If we don’t listen to the victims, we deny our ministers the chance to heal, grow and thrive in healthy congregations.

One Response

  1. Dr. Pasto-Croby, thank you so much for your words and your work on this issue. As a survivor from a different faith tradition, I can affirm what you are saying — that the silence and distrust from the congregation is at least as damaging as the abuse itself. Healing can take years, and most survivors never fully recover their trust in religious leaders. I wish all churches saw this issue as clearly as the UUA does. Again, whole-hearted thanks for what you are doing.

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