Presbyterian Pastor Doubles as Escort: CSBV III

Farmhouse with Birch Trees
Gustav Klimt

Here in Part III of our series, Clerical Sexual Boundary Violations, we offer the untold story of Michele. After you read our interview below, I recommend that you go back and read CSBV parts I and II:

* CSBV ISexualized Violence Uncovered Among Mennonites: An Interview with Rachel Halder. Halder has been compiling hitherto unknown examples of abuse of children and teenagers among Mennonite communities which have often stayed silent about the problem.

* CSBV II: Anatomy of a Sexual Misconduct Cover-UpHow (and Why) Did Church Leaders Negotiate with the New York Post to Misreport Potentially Embarassing Information? It’s my own memoir of boundary violations by an Episcopal minister, the disciplinary case against her bishop, Pierre Whalon, for suppressing the case, and the church’s Wall Street lawyer, who demanded that a false version of the story be published.

So many themes are repeated throughout these stories: victims getting blamed, churches not listening to them, predatorial clerics being forgiven by their superiors and parishioners. But every story is moving in its own, unique, way.

Michele has never before spoken about the following events. She was a young woman in the Midwest some two decades ago, when they occurred in a small, theologically moderate Presbyterian denomination. They don’t need much of an introduction. At the end of this piece, I’d like your answer to this question: what could have been done to prevent this from happening?

* * * * *

Erik Campano: Would you please give us a general overview of your experience with the clergy member who violated sexual boundaries?

Michele: The general overview of the story is this. As a young woman, and even younger in the faith, I became part of a thriving youth ministry as a staff member. I identified with my boss, a pastor, 18 years my senior, as sort of a father figure. I became emotionally attached to him, and then he groomed me for a sexual encounter — and blamed me.

Let’s start with your involvement in the church. What precisely did you do?

My job was classified as a youth ministry assistant. My understanding of the job was that I was to develop mentoring programming for the girls in the group, establish relationships with the kids for discipleship purposes, and do anything else the pastor didn’t want to do. [laughs]

When you say he was like a father figure, what do you mean specifically?

Specifically, he was very nurturing with the kids in the group, very good at drawing out the best in the kids, and very successful at building a place for students to feel as though they belonged. This was an element that I felt was lacking in my home. He seemed stronger, a leader, confident, able to direct things.

And, he was 18 years your senior. How old were you?

When I started on staff I was 21ish, and when I resigned I was 26. I met him as a volunteer on a mission trip, after which he offered me the job.

So when did your interaction with the pastor start to take on an aspect of professional boundary violation?

Wow, that’s a complicated question. I would say that for years, I believed it took on that flavor when he started wanting to share my room on trips. But now I see that it started way earlier with small things, like “wow” comments when I entered a room. Or, my title became the “hottest girl youth pastor around”.

So you’ve described him as using a “grooming” process. How did it work exactly in your situation?

It was a slow burn process initially. For the first year of our working relationship, I hated him because he was such a slacker and left me to do all the work. Then, he tried to win me over with kindness. Then, the physcial expressions of friendship became more frequent — playful shoving around, trying to trip me so he could touch me, being near me in the pool etc. All small at first, but growing later. Eventually I became the “secret keeper”; this solidified the fear bond between us.

And you were the only woman who played a major role on the youth department staff?

Yes.

How did you feel about playing the role of “secret keeper”?

I wasn’t actually asked to keep a secret. I was just naturally good at being loyal and not being a gossip. He knew this about me, I believe. His first confession came after I was on staff for about two weeks: a flippant comment about “having a problem with porn in the past…”. Kinda’ random, but an example of him fishing around, to see how I would react.

And how did you react?

I said nothing at first. I kept staring out the window with my game face on. I could feel my face turning red and I said something like, oh? well, everybody has stuff…. He was a pastor and I was a new Christian. Frankly, I was so shocked that I didn’t know what to do or say. I think when I started working at the church, I expected people to pray at the copy machine or something — I was that new to the culture there.

So after that, the boundary violations started growing worse?

Yeah. Well after the first year of me hating him, I started having trouble in my marriage. My husband and I separated, which was a secret, along with my bulimia and my undisclosed anger at my mom. I was struggling emotionally, and he moved in as a “friend/pastor to offer support”. Simple things like a hug of comfort, arm on my shoulder, placing his hand on my waist etc.

Finally, the physical familiarity started to seem more ordinary. It was just before this that he confessed that he had been involved in the porn industry, was trying to get out of the industry, and was being blackmailed. A huge secret that I felt responsible for sharing. I was “his only friend”.

This became sort of an all-consuming entity between us: his desperate attempts at getting out of a difficult situation, I being the confidant and counselor who felt sorry for him. We became allies in a battle, so to speak.

Can you describe the blackmail in detail?

From the best of my recollection, he had been involved in the making of porn films as an actor. He tried to get out when he walked onto the set of a snuff film. I didn’t know what that was at the time. He said he wouldn’t participate in that. So “people” had films of him which they were threatening to disclose unless he gave them money.

It is my belief, now, that he remained deeply involved in the industry in some capactiy, as he would regularly take trips in which he was “working another job”. He would describe being hired to have sex with women who were “lonely”.

I recieved at one point an envelope in the mail, with still-shots of a man nude from the waist down in various stages of measuring himself and masturbating. I thought maybe at that time that this was sent to me in error, and it was part of the “blackmail” scheme. I believe now that they were pictures of himself, sent by himself, for the satisfaction of keeping me off-balance and in a position of needing him for guidance. I never mentioned it to him.

The pattern between us became one of crisis: me not knowing what to do, and going to him for help. Most of the time, he would intentionally stir up pain in me (talking about my mom or other painful things that I had disclosed to him). I would get to a place of absolute emotional despair; he would move in on me physically, increading my despondancy over “what I had done”. Then he would be the “comforter“. My abuser was my friend in order to abuse.

How did this play into his physical advances?

I think that he was very skilled at knowing what would trigger pain in me. I had developed a pattern in early childhood of somewhat dissociating from emotional distress, and sometimes I wouldn’t be all that aware of my surroundings, although not completely “checked out”. There would be wine offered and the next thing I know, he’s trying to remove my clothing. I would stop him and he’d play it off like “I thought you loved me, you just need to learn to receive love…”. It was very confusing. Always in the back of my mind, he was the pastor who knew a lot and had years of experience. In my mind, I became the whore who seduced the pastor.

How did you feel about that?

I felt crazy. Suicidal. Filthy. Like a sham. It became the lock on the door that held all the secrets. Now I was the secret. And to out him would be outing myself (I believed). I blamed myself even though repeatedly I said, no, I don’t want this, I don’t want to be an adultress. He would say, this is not adultery. We are not having sex, as in “intercourse”.

And was he interacting with your separated husband, too?

Yes. In a coaching-him-how-to-get-back-with-your-wife mode.

Which seems like a contradiction, given his behavior?

Absolutely, but it added to the confusion of the whole ordeal. After each physcial interaction, he would comfort me and blame me at the same time, yet appear to everyone else as this amazing, caring, pastor who wanted what was best for everyone. Very skilled at image management.

But, sooner or later, even the people best skilled at image management are found out by the community.

True. I believe that the truth always comes out. Still to this day, though, it has not fully come out. Eventually, he left his family while living in another state. The Christian community at large rallied around this man, who was well-loved, in order to see “a brother restored”. His public story about his crash-and-burn was that he was crushed under the tremendous weight of ministry, became very burned out, and fell into a relationship with a woman (a stripper) whom he was counseling. The community perceived it as an  “unfortunate accident” sort of thing. At a distance, I quietly kept the secrets. All of them. I never told a soul for 16 years or so.

You did, however, almost tell church authorities what he had done.

Yes. One night, after weeks of a strained relationship (I’m not sure that he was even speaking to me), he was gone most of the time from work, leaving me again to cover for him, I decided that I was going to out him. And myself if necessary. I went to the senior pastor and was upset, speaking quickly but carefully, and said he is not who you think he is, and I’m guilty of being involved emotionally with him. He stopped me and said we don’t accuse here. We don’t to the triangulation thing here. I could tell he didn’t believe me. He called the pastor and his wife to come over to the office. I made eye contact with his wife and caved inside. I couldn’t bear the thought of killing his family. I still blamed myself, and though I felt like a rape victim, I labled myself as a seductress. I recanted most of my story, apologized for exaggerating, blamed it on myself, confessed to having an emotionally inappropriate relationship with the youth pastor, and left the office. I resigned.

So why are you telling this story now?

The things that remain untold truths become a prison for us. This story has been a prison for me for so long. Largely, he has gone on with his life, never having been held accountable for trashing mine. I need to tell myself the truth. I want other victims to know and believe the truth about themselves. This is not something I did, but rather a case of have been done-unto. This happened to me. He did this to me.

It was very well orchestrated. In my family system, I was well-trained in disregarding myself in order to please others. To this day, I continue to want to make sure that I take all the responsiblilty for anything that could possibly be my fault. I fear that I come across at times as still thinking that this was my fault. That I asked for it, or wanted it. A common theme for survivors. This was not my fault. I wanted a place to belong, a sense of purpose, a father figure, and he took that and used it to his advantage. He used my weakness for his own satisfaction.

Even though I said “no” repeatedly, he violated every boundary possible and told me it was what I wanted. Every encounter became a twisted blend of pain and pleasure. Pain at being victimized, and some pleasure in being considered valuable enough to have a personal relationship with someone highly esteemed and “spiritual“. I grew to believe that because he had a successful ministry, and my life was in shambles, that God must be on his side, and I’d spend eternity in Hell.

Have you heard from him since you resigned?

Yes. Once, some years ago, he sent a message on Facebook that started with “hey great to see you! great looking family!” It made me ill. I’m sure to this day, he believes, as only a narcissist could, that he has done nothing wrong and that I’d love to hear from him again.

OK – in retrospect, what might have been done to prevent this?

I think that to be prevented, simple things like talking honestly about the way attachments work would be helpful. Not to be so afraid to talk about men and women relating together. I think that whenever there is a male-female team, with an age difference or authority difference, there needs to be a working understanding on the one holding the power — that they have a tremendous responsibility to lead in a responsible way. I think, too, that women automatically are suspect, in the eyes of society. When I went to the senior pastor in an attempt to get help, nothing was ever said to me except we don’t do that. I became the guilty one until proven innocent, when I was innocent all the time.

What I wish to be made known about the story is that this is a brief synopsis of this season of my life. It is more complicated, more involved than there is time for in this setting. But I want people to know that telling this story and bringing it into light is the beginning of redemption for me.

I remember a time, lamenting before God about a particularly painful memory of me running down the street after having been violated sexually by this man. I asked God what he wanted to show me about this, and immediately I saw Jesus running next to me with an enormous smile on his face. In my shame, I almost thought, oh, God thinks that I got what I had coming. But the spirit of God whispered in my ear and to my heart that he was with me then and now and that he is smiling because he is absolutely confident in his ability to redeem anything …even this. That He’s got this….

Years after this season of my life, I was sitting in the woods on a bench. Just contemplating pain, life, God , reasons for things. I looked up and saw before me two birch trees in full autumn color. I felt the spirit of God whisper to me: “I made these just for you, for you, for this time and this place, for now”. It was a gentle reminder that every intimate detail of my life, good and bad, is known by Him, and will work for good, because He is good and my life is precious to Him.

* * * * *

For two years now, I’ve been researching the issue of clerical sexual boundary violations, and I am still baffled by how frequent they are. Why do churches not have stronger protocols in place to prevent these kinds of things — like schools and corporations? Is it because of the Establishment clause, and the unwillingness of courts to go in and regulate the affairs of churches? Is that right? Does freedom of religion mean freedom for clerics to take sexual advantage of  women, children, and men?

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