I don’t think of myself as a survivor. The period of my life during which I experienced clergy sexual assault is long ago and feels far away. I was lucky. The time frame during which I was assaulted and endured harassment coincided with the revelations from Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings. The topic of debate on Capital Hill provoked discussions everywhere about the nature of sexual harassment, raised consciousness about power differentials in the workplace, the Church, and elsewhere, and created an environment of listening and learning which led to my own very personal disclosure of what had happened to me. Had it not been for Anita Hill’s courage to speak, I can’t begin to think of how things might have gone differently, not just for me, but for others as well.
Whether it was coincidence or serendipity, Marie Fortune made a visit to my seminary campus around the time of the Thomas hearings. I was a junior, two months into my tenure as a graduate student and a seminarian. Fortune’s area of expertise is sexual and domestic violence, and as a pastor herself she is uniquely qualified to speak on matters of clergy sexual abuse. It would be an understatement to suggest that she had my attention when she spoke.
I have some distinct memories from that time. One of them is that on one occasion of being assaulted by the priest/supervisor with whom I worked we had a conversation about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. In short, the priest dismissed Hill’s claims as spurious and calculated. He wasn’t alone in his opinion.
One of the things I came to understand during the debate about sexual abuse and violence is that persons of privilege—especially white males—have difficultly appreciating the out-of-balance dynamic of power in subordinate relationships. I came to understand this most fully thanks to Marie Fortune’s book Is Nothing Sacred?, which explores the dynamic of clergy sexual abuse (and though Roman Catholic clergy abuse makes headlines, there are a multitude of untold stories of women who also experience violation from clergy). Another book of tremendous value to me at the time, whose title and author unfortunately escape me at the moment, went further in probing the nature of this dynamic. It is something about which all persons should be informed.
I also came to recognize something else. The effort to raise our collective consciousness to consider people equal to one another regardless of gender, race, age, and every other label that has been used to divide and oppress members of our society showed evidence of bearing fruit. The question so often raised in an effort to discredit Anita Hill’s testimony was why she didn’t bring to the attention of superiors the incidents of harassment she described during the Thomas hearings. I can tell you why. At the time, they were normative. It was accepted that men could speak to and treat women they way they did because they had power. Oddly enough, I have come to have compassion for men accused of actions prior to this consciousness being raised. I don’t overlook the actions, but I don’t feel that they can necessarily be held accountable for things said and done in a time when, right or wrong, they were “acceptable.” Call it anachronistic punishment.
I was fortunate during that year in seminary to have people in my world that I could trust: the friend to whom I first disclosed my experience as we left chapel one morning; the Director of Supervised Ministries; my Dean, and ultimately, my bishop. In spite of feelings of shame and the all-too-typical tendency toward self-incrimination, I thank God for finding within me, and with the support of others who believed me, the courage to speak about my experience, to accuse the offender, and to risk being vulnerable enough to put everything about my future on the line.
On the occasion of Marie Fortune’s visit to campus she made available books, bibliographies and brochures to help us broaden and deepen our understanding about matters of sexual abuse and violence. She also had buttons for us that read, “I believe her.” They were intended to show support for Anita Hill, but I wore that button on my coat for years afterward to indicate my support for any woman who had a story to tell. I was one of those women. I still am.
Thank you, Anita.You have no idea how much I value your courage.