Disclaimer: For the sake of simplicity (supported by statistics) the survivor is assumed to be female, while the cleric and spouse are assumed to be male. Please insert your preferred pronouns should the genders be different in your survivor situation.
To the Spouse of an Adult Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivor,
This morning I sit and sip while hot coffee seeps into sleepy places. I ponder how to mend what a feckless man has fractured? Can I bring a measure of calm to the chaos? Can I help to reframe what a carnivorous cleric has torn asunder? What language can I borrow to defend your despairing wife? What verbiage will amend the myopia of misery? What writ will recalibrate where despair has distorted sight? How can I bring some clarity to the utter confusion that clergy sexual abuse creates? How can I help you to know what she has known?
Can I give you the gift of living in her skin that was seared by sorrow? What case can I make for her crushing vulnerability? Can I enlighten and educate how coercion cannot lead to consent? Can I even come close to binding the bitterness of not only your betrayal by a trusted cleric but also hers? Can I deliver to you the gift of empathy in a tattered, tear-stained envelope? Will you receive it from my own brutally broken hands? Will you come to my table and allow me to serve you a taste of her shame? Can I reluctantly request that you try to quiet your rage to listen to her ruin?
To write to you means I must remember; to return to the ruin; to descend once again to the shipwreck; the slaughter; the savagery; the trauma; the trainwreck. It is a sojourn into sorrow to return to the scene of the clerical crime.
I do not know your wife and I have not heard the specific details of what she endured at the hands of this cleric. I know nothing of your personal and private situation or your public humiliation. Please do not let that dissuade you with the internal argument that, “If I only knew exactly what happened; what she did; how she lied to you; how long it went on, etc…” I don’t need to hear all the sordid details of her destruction to know something about your situation. Abusive situations have much more in common than they anyone, including me, originally thought.
Even without knowing you and your wife personally, I suspect that you are ruminating on one or all of the following unfiltered questions/statements.
How could this have HAPPENED? How could she? How the hell could HE? What did I do or not do to contribute to this? Will I ever trust her again? How could I ever hold her again after…? I can’t even look at her I am so disgusted. How am I supposed to handle the humiliation of being betrayed by not only my wife but our spiritual leader? How could this NOT be an affair? She is an adult; adults have affairs, they are not abused. If she says that this is abuse, then she is just not taking responsibility for her actions, her choices… she could have chosen otherwise and she didn’t. Damn, just double damn. She bloody well chose this corrupt cleric over me! Why didn’t she tell me? I’m going to kill him. I’m going to leave her. I am going to kill myself. I will never survive this. We will never survive this. What about our kids? Dear God! My kids… I knew and trusted my wife, my God, and this cleric; I don’t even know what or whom to believe anymore.
Did I miss anything? These are what I am surmising, from evidence and experience, are your private thoughts; the ones that run through your the muddy misery of your mind; keep you awake and night and rain torrentially on the trainwreck of trauma. I suspect that you didn’t even know you were on a train until it crashed.
Clergy sexual abuse is a catastrophic betrayal for the primary victim (your wife) as well as the secondary victims (you and your family). If your situation is like the vast majority of other survivors, your wife may have been vulnerable to being groomed and abused by this cleric for a multitude of reasons that may include but are not limited to the following:
- she is female
- she may have a history of abuse/trauma that both you/she may/may not know about
- she may have confided in him about the normal stresses of marriage, children, working and living, as a man of the cloth
- he was/is in a position of power and fiduciary trust where she had every reason to believe that he had her, and your, best interest at heart
I want you to know that I KNOW that this cleric managed through a series of planned and premeditated steps to disarm your wife’s normal internal alarms and self-protection measures. As a man of the cloth, he used a quiet, coercive method of interpersonal violence to prey upon the legitimate needs of your wife as a HUMAN. She had every right to expect spiritual care, nurture, wisdom, guidance, personal growth, and to be fed by this shepherd. Except she was eaten.
To be eaten when you expected to be fed is an overwhelming trauma. This type of betrayal is called traumatic sexualization. The cleric grooms the victim, testing the waters with small innocuous doses of impropriety. He “love bombed” in the name of the God of Love. He spiritualized his sexual overtures in such a way as to mix the truth of the word of God with the gangrenous venom of victimization.
I understand that it is possible that you do not understand, but I assure you that the cleric prepared the killing field a LONG time before he went in for the kill, and kill he did. He murdered something very precious in your wife: her voice; her choice; and her will. Affairs happen between two consenting adults, BOTH of whom know exactly what is happening. Clergy sexual abuse CANNOT EVER be an affair, as only the cleric knows his nefarious intent, the victim knows NOTHING of it until that man of the cloth has her clothes off. She is left bewildered, naked and ashamed, while the serpent dressed in spiritual clothes slithers away.
I urge you to seek therapeutic help from a trusted trauma therapist who has some experience with clergy sexual abuse. Both you and your wife need support and may need this for some time. I urge you to also suspend judgment for the things you do not understand. I beg you not to blame her. She was lured, lied to, eaten alive, and I suspect lied about. If one of your precious daughters were sexually abused by a pastoral predator, you would do all you could to wipe away the foam of his shame and stigmatization of being sexually abused. Would you consider doing likewise for the woman who bore you those babies? I beseech you to see her not as the source of your pain and betrayal, but as an ally in the brutality that is #churchtoo.
And finally, I and my spouse are still here. A few years ago I wasn’t sure we would be alive much less thrive. I will stand with you in solidarity, and sit with you in sorrow while you work hard to know what you have known and speak of the unspeakable.
Lori Anne Thompson