Trauma and Clergy Sexual Misconduct

March 4, 2015

“I wrote this book as both a guide and an invitation – an invitation to dedicate ourselves to facing the reality of trauma… and to commit ourselves, as a society, to using every means we have to prevent it.”

– Bessel van der Kolk, MD. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

In recent months, members of Safety Net have become increasingly aware of the significance of trauma in the wake of sexual abuse within UU ministerial relationships. Arguably trauma can extend not only to affected congregations, but also to the denomination as a whole.

Viewed through this lens, Safety Net’s mission is one and the same as Dr. van der Kolk’s — to face this reality and do everything in our power to overcome it. And what better place to begin committing ourselves as a society to preventing trauma than in our faith communities?

This month, our congregation’s worship theme is “brokenness” and our senior minister, the Rev. Gail Seavey, is focusing on trauma. The sermon from this past Sunday, March 3, 2015, is available to download as an MP3. And here is her weekly email.

Minister’s Message in FUUN Weekly Email

After our annual healing service last Sunday, I was overwhelmed by your responses. People here who work or volunteer as teachers, in the prisons, with people in recovery and suffering from mental illness symptoms, with sexual assault and abuse, with family violence, with veterans, as responders to suicide or hate crimes, or are trying to raise children without using physical punishment, made comments about how difficult it is to talk openly about the effects they see on people of all ages who have been traumatized. It is overwhelming.

Van der Kolk believes trauma-prevention is the public health issue of our time. After your response, I am starting to understand why.

I have spent my whole life trying to figure out why people in my family, my church, and in society at large – including me – were so good at “denial.” I struggled mightily to know the truth about things that happened around me, which made me a curious researcher, but was also motivated by a deeply personal desire to know what people didn’t want me to know.

As some of you know, I was treated successfully for PSTD four years ago and it changed the way my brain worked. I now remember what my overwhelmed brain experienced only in “fragments.” This “cure” has made life better for me. My body is much less stressed and at least I know what I want to know about my own life.

I am very fortunate that I live in a time in which the scientific study of the brain and body have allowed us to know the effects of trauma on people and to begin to understand some of the ways that people can heal. I was stunned looking at an MRI showing the activity of the brain of a person who is dissociating (the scientific term for “denial”). The brain looks totally blank except for the most primitive of brain stem functions – a different view of a person frozen in fear – sometimes fear they experienced decades ago. I know the view of the world from that brain personally and know that many of you know that view as well.

The most frustrated responses in the congregation Sunday came from teachers and people involved in the criminal justice system. They are not taught, or if taught, not encouraged to respond to people with PTSD in ways that don’t re-traumatize them. It would take a huge paradigm shift to move institutions we work with to change from a model of punishment to one of healing from injury.

This shift is no easy task because it is actually counter to our biology.

We initially dissociate from experiences as a way to survive. It has an evolutionary advantage up to a point. So how do we talk about something in our society that every cell in our body doesn’t want us to talk about?

Thank goodness for research scientists like van der Kolk who help us talk about this in constructive, objective ways. Visionary scientists like him have made my life much better and give me the courage to keep talking about things that most people do not want to hear.

Thank you all for your responses. I pray that we can each find ways in the little corners of our personal worlds to prevent trauma and help heal from all the harm that has been done.

With faith and love,

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