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What Are the Wounds of Clergy Sexual Abuse?

- Health and Healing
- Understanding Healing
- Understanding Health

The wounds inflicted on the victim affect her physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. The physical wounds may be as minor as bruises, as major as those caused by rape, but in all cases leaves the victim susceptible to a kind of stress that is ongoing, especially if she is not believed. Mental wounds may include memory loss, confusion, and the inability to think clearly. The emotional wounds leave the victim with feelings of anger, betrayal, dismay, desolation, isolation, false guilt, false shame. Psychological wounds often times include dissociation and in most cases Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Kathryn Flynn, in her book, The Sexual Abuse of Women by Members of the Clergy explains that victims generally suffer from PTSD and “Complex PTSD” (CP) (cf. Introduction and chapter 7). Spiritual wounds are, I believe, perhaps the deepest. These impair the victim’s ability to trust—others, as well as God—and to believe that God or others are good and loving.

Because the wounds cover every area of the victim’s being, especially her capacity for faith, this kind of abuse is severe. It requires help in every aspect of her personhood. It takes years of hard work, understanding, unconditional love and support to get through. Jan Frank, author of The Door of Hope once likened her healing process to moving up a spiral. She described to the ladies of the Women’s Conference at Azusa Pacific University in 1993 that she made progress “upward around the spiral” in the various areas of woundedness. She would conquer one aspect of healing, move on to the next, then the next, and come around again to the area she thought she had already overcome, realizing there was yet more work to be done! That is how it is for the CSA survivor. Sometimes it can get discouraging! That’s when support is needed to remind the CSA survivor that she has made progress in healing, empowering her to keep going, and not quit. II Samual 13 tells the terrible story of King David’s daughter Tamar who was raped by her half-brother, Amnon. The last thing we hear about Tamar is, “So Tamar remained desolate in her brother Absalom’s house” (v. 20b, NKJV). The Hebrew word “desolate” used is the word shâmêm which means “ruined,” “destroyed,” “devastated,” “stupefied.” Tamar needed healing and never received it! She needed a voice. She needed advocacy. CSA survivors need healing for their wounds!

Health and Healing

- Understanding Healing
- Understanding Health

CSA survivors realize their need for healing: to be healed, especially in the areas of emotional, psychological, mental, and spritual wholeness. Many times, however, the area of physical healing is overlooked. Physical healing is just as important as the other areas. The physical body bears much of the stress of the emotional, psychological, mental and spiritual wounds. If the body is not healthy, then the rest of healing may be undermined. Health and healing go hand in hand. The body, soul and spirit have tremendous capacity to heal themselves, but not in isolation one from the other. Because the soul and spirit are housed by the body, it is important to not overlook health in striving for healing. Being healthy helps the healing process by forming a foundation for healing in the other areas.

Comprehend for a moment what was survived: the abuse itself (however long it lasted, however severe it was), turning in the perpetrator, dealing with the church leadership, other church congregants; dealing with doubts of yourself and how this could have happened; dealing with spouses, children, and other family members; how each of those listed handles the news; dealing with trying to understand God and how He fits in all of this. It is overwhelming. No wonder the CSA survivor has wounds in every aspect of her being. For me, it has been like living in a "fog." There is a constant "pain" in my chest that seldom dissipates. Just running into church members in the community triggers an emotional response of "fight or flight." Do I trust them? Do I not trust them? Do I try to defend myself, or just try to get away. It's hard to leave myself open to being hurt again by someone I might meet while trying to carry out my everyday errands. The surge of adrenline and stress may instantly fill my being at any time. These "interruptions" take a toll on my body. Being healthy helps to deal with these interruptions which set off triggers. Being healthy helps me get back to feeling like myself again, and getting back on track to gaining healing from the abuse.

Understanding Healing.

Healing needs to take place on all levels: physical, mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. The first place to begin, and the easiest place to begin the healing process is with physical healing. Bruises may take only a few weeks to heal, but the stress level that CSA survivors have takes its toll on the entire body, interrupting the major systems in the body: the nervous system, circulatory system, digestive system, lymph system, organs, glands, and individual cells. Believe it or not, physical healing starts with a healthy diet, and exercise. Without a healthy diet and exercise, the rest of the healing that needs to be done won’t have a foundation, making the CSA survivor susceptible to continued frustration in the healing process, not to mention lowered immune system.

Shortly after we left the abusive church, someone handed me a doughnut. I said I didn’t want something sweet; that it would go to my waistline. The man then ignorantly advised me, “This is not the time to think about dieting!” He was wrong! To my misfortune, I listened to his advice, and, coupled with medications the doctor put me on, I gained over 50 pounds! That happened at a time when my self-esteem was at an all-time low. I didn’t need the extra weight to overcome along with everything else! My body couldn’t process the extra sugar I was feeding it. The extra sugar became fat. Because of the stress, it was very difficult for me to drop the fat (the body holds on to fat in stressful situations!). It took years for me to lose that extra poundage!

Mental healing is healing of the mind. Often times, clergyman perpetrators will brainwash their victims. I was brainwashed. I am still discovering things I have to relearn; things for which I was brainwashed, things that influence my relationship with my husband and others. I am still learning about CSA and what it entails. It is important in the healing process to learn and relearn. Working through the confusion and getting things “right” again is healing!

One of the areas in which I have misunderstood is in the area of confrontation. The clergyman perpetrator brainwashed me to believe that every little incident of disagreement between me and my husband had to be confronted and dealt with. He warned that not doing so would be to “sweep things under the carpet.” My husband felt that minor things should just be forgiven and forgotten. But because I was brainwashed, I couldn't let anything between my husband and me go. I had to confront everything. This led to a hounding of my husband, which left him defensive of everything between us, whether great or small. There was a storage place (under the carpet) for all the hurts and wrongs between my husband and me. There was little room for grace and forgiveness. Consequently, my husband and I have had many problems over the years trying to sort through all of this. Only recently I learned that it’s okay to say, “I forgive you for all the stuff under the carpet. That’s old news. That’s in the past. Today is a new day, and we have tomorrows to enjoy together.” Whew! What a relief! And what a joy to be rid of the old stinky carpet that the clergyman perpetrator put in my marriage!

Emotional healing involves healing for damaged feelings. Because of the abuse, feelings get distorted, are overly sensitive (compared to the norm), and become intense. That is because feelings protect the wound. It’s like hitting your thumb with a hammer. The thumb becomes swollen, hurts a lot(!), and is very sensitive to touch. Damaged emotions are the same way. Certain events can “trigger” sensitive emotions. When that happens, the CSA survivor may find herself inconsolably crying, or blowing up in anger, etc. Triggers may be major or very minor. The CSA survivor needs a salve to soothe the wounds.

One time I went to a women’s retreat with the church we were attending. My husband wanted me to get away for a relaxing weekend. Only a couple of women knew I was a CSA survivor, but neither knew exactly what that meant. I’m sure they believed that because it happened such a long time ago, I was over the ordeal. As I sat with the women on the night we arrived, we started singing songs. All of a sudden we were singing about God's justice. “Justice!” All of a sudden I was flooded with all the injustices that had happened to me, and I became very upset—at God! Hadn’t I waited for his justice long enough? To me, at that moment in my life, God was not just! I could feel the dam of my tear ducts about to overflow. Before I knew it, I was crying uncontrollably. I was terribly embarrassed, but simply couldn’t stop crying! It was very awkward! I wanted to go home! I wanted to feel safe again. No one understood what was happening, and no one there could console me. I needed someone to reassure me that God is just, and he will avenge all the wrongs that were committed against me. And then . . . I needed a gentle hug from my husband!

Psychological healing is what is needed when a CSA survivor suffers from dissociation. The National Mental Health Association defines dissociation as “a mental process that causes a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memory and sense of identity . . . .Mild dissociation would be like daydreaming . . . .A severe or more chronic form of dissociation is seen in the disorder Dissociative Identity Disorder, once called Multiple Personality Disorder, and other Dissociative Disorders” (National Mental Health Association).

Dorene J. Philpot, Attorney at Law defines dissociation on her website as “A psychological separation of ‘splitting off’; an intrapsychic defensive process, which operates automatically and unconsciously. Through its operation, emotional significance and affect are separated and detached from an idea, situation, or object” (Philpot). This “intrapsychic defensive process” is what happens when a trauma is so severe that the personality “splits” from the rest of the psyche in order to handle the trauma. It is a natural response to severe trauma that protects the rest of the psyche.

Dr. James G. Friesen, in his book Uncovering the Mystery of MPD provides an excellent understanding of several kinds of dissociative disorders, including, among others, amnesic dissociation (“MPD”) and nonamnesic dissociation (NAD). As a Christian psychologist, he explores trauma, as well as spiritual realities involved in the original trauma(s) and in the recovery process.

One time my husband started to hold me. The event somehow became a “trigger” and caused me to “zone out” (that’s what my husband calls it) or dissociate. He didn’t realize I was zoning out, and neither did I! All of a sudden, he was kissing me! Startled, I pushed my husband away. I could not recall how the transition from holding me to kissing me transpired. I had dissociated. My husband immediately backed off. He reassured me it was him and not the clergyman perpetrator.

Spiritual healing is restoring the CSA survivor’s faith in God, ability to associate with other believers and once again be the person God intended her to be, capable of reaching out to others. Gaining an understanding from God’s Word is necessary in this part of the healing process, and yet this can be difficult. The problem is that the clergyman perpetrator represented God to the victim. It’s as if God himself did the abuse. The betrayal is seen as God-directed. But an understanding of God reveals that God would NEVER harm a woman or child in this manner. It would be totally contrary to God’s nature and being. It would be impossible for such a thing to happen. But because of the clergyman’s influence on the victim/survivor, trusting God enough to even open the Bible can be, for some CSA survivors, a milestone. However, doing so will allow the Holy Spirit to begin the process of healing the spiritual wound to the CSA survivor.

A survivor of sexual abuse discussed her abuse with me. Her abuser was a noted Christian psychologist in our community who happened to also be an elder in his church. As we shared our stories, we came to the realization that Christ himself had, in a sense, been sexually abused. As the religious leaders and Romans prepared him for the cross, they “stripped” him of his clothes. That act was a form of sexual abuse. We both looked at each other with this new realization that we could trust Jesus to understand what we were going through. Jesus, the Son of God, had endured sexual abuse. He understands. God understands. The Word of God is a trustworthy place to heal spiritually.

Understanding Health

- Diet
- Exercise

We live in a “health conscious” society, but few understand what is healthy, or why being healthy is so important. Even the word “health” has different meanings to different people. For the purposes of this discussion, I am referring to “health” as living life to its optimum physically. I realize there is much more to health than that, but understanding physical health—in other words, how to take care of the body—will facilitate the wellness of the other components of health (mental, emotional, psychological, spiritual). Physical health involves taking in energy (food) so the body can function, and properly burning off the energy (exercise). This intake and burning off of energy is commonly known as diet and exercise.

Diet is what we eat. Fortunately, God has supplied an abundance of food on our planet with a tremendous amount of variety. Basically, all foods can be placed in 3 categories. These are: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Within the last 15-20 years, the term “fats” has come to have a negative meaning, and, unfortunately, many have tried to totally take fat out of their diets with dire consequences. The liver in the body is the food converter and distribution plant in the body. The liver cannot function without all three types of food. Each meal must contain some kind of carbohydrate, a protein, and a fat. Fats are necessary for the body to function!

Fats are a necessary part of any meal. The body uses fats to keep the cells pliable. I knew a woman who decided to cut out fats altogether from her diet believing she was eating healthier. She soon died of a brain aneurism. Why? Because the cells in her brain became brittle; they simply didn’t have enough elasticity, and fell apart, like an old rubber band that is stretched too much. Like a well-oiled machine, the body needs fats!

But what about fats? Are all fats healthy? No. Many of the fats Americans consume today are “damaged.” When fats are heated too much, they can become damaged. When it was proven that “trans-fats” were not healthy, consumers were warned to stay away from fried foods such as French fries. However, in order to consume “good” fats, it is best to stick to expeller-pressed organic oils. Why organic? Because oils that are not organic have pesticide residue. We ingest pesticides along with the oil when the oil is not organic. Extra-virgin olive oil or organic canola oil is an excellent choice for salad dressings. Organic coconut oil is an excellent choice for cooking. These are natural oils that the body can fully utilize with little “waste” (trans-fats or pesticides) being trapped in the body.

Carbohydrates are sugars, either simple or complex. Simple sugars are fruit and vegetables. They carry vitamins and minerals necessary for body function. Complex carbohydrates are starches, such as grains, corn or potatoes. Breads fall into this category because they are mostly made from some kind of flour, which is a grain. For optimum healing and metabolic balance, it is best to stick with fresh fruits and vegetables, brown rice, and whole grains. It is important to eat carbohydrates, as the brain needs sugar (glucose) to function. By sugar, here, I do not mean granulated processed sugar. The less processed, the better. There are many alternatives to processed sugars, such as Stevia, and Agave Nectar. A good “sweet-tooth” sugar that my family enjoys is grade B maple syrup. We put it in almost anything that calls for sugar. Yum!

Proteins give the body strength and enable healing to happen, especially in the brain. In his book, 5-HTP, the Natural Way to Overcome Depression, Obesity, and Insomnia, Dr. Michael Murray says, “Brain chemicals are made from amino acids found in proteins that you consume in your diet . . . . Proteins are nutrients that are made of several different amino acids . . . which are called the body’s “building blocks” . . . . [Fibrous proteins] . . . create tissues such as skin, hair, nails, muscles, and tendons. Proteins linked with molecules of fat form the membranes that hold individual cells together. Another kind (the globular proteins) are the basis for neurotransmitters, hormones, enzymes, and the substances that form the body’s immune response against infection. Some amino acids are broken down into still smaller pieces to form DNA . . . . proteins are absolutely vital for a healthy, functioning body” (p. 20,21).

You can do all you will to bring healing to your mind, emotions, psyche and spirit, but if you do not have a proper healthy diet, you are undermining the work you are doing in these areas of the healing process.

Prescription antidepressants and alternatives. It became apparent within the first year that the clergyman perpetrator was exposed, that I was going to need help beyond counseling to deal with the abuse. My doctor prescribed Zoloft, a drug that helps to stabilize serotonin in the brain. He informed me that Zoloft was safe, had minimal side effects, was nonaddictive, and that I could stop taking it at any time. Unfortunately, as the news media has reported, that was not the case. I tried, with terrible results, to get off of Zoloft. Each time, my emotions exploded. But continuing to take the drug (I was on it for 9 years!) had side effects. For one thing, I felt I had a smile plastered on my face no matter what the situation. There were times when I felt I should stand up for my rights, but couldn’t. I was just happy about everything most of the time. While that was nice for those around me, it wasn’t healthy. There were times when I should’ve gotten upset over a situation and couldn’t. But the worst side effect was the loss of libido. Here I was trying to work on my marriage, facing obstacles from the sexual abuse as it was, and having to deal with the new dilemma of this side effect! I wanted to get off Zoloft! But how? I was addicted to the drug.

Finally, someone handed me the book, The Scwarzbein Principle, by Diana Schwarzbein, M.D. In her book, she suggested that people who were on Zoloft could get off the drug and take a natural supplement, 5-HTP, plus a regimen of St. John’s Wort, calcium and magnesium. I was afraid to make the switch at first, so I decided to do some research. That is when I discovered Dr. Murray’s book mentioned above. Both books changed my life. I got off the Zoloft, and am still taking 5-HTP. The only side effect to the 5-HTP is drowsiness. I only take it at night, and it helps me sleep!

When a very difficult situation arose for me a while ago, my doctor (nutritionist) put me on a supplement called Cenitol. It is available from holistic health professionals and is produced by the company Metagenics. It is basically a form of magnesium and citric acid that helps support the nervous system. It, too, has helped bring balance to my life. It is natural and does not interfere with the 5-HTP/St. John’s Wort regimen or other foods I eat. To find out more about these and other supplements in the diet, consult with your holistic doctor or nutritionist who can customize a supplement regimen for you.

Of course, drinking lots of water daily improves health. Many doctors recommend at least 8 glasses of water a day. When I drink water, I feel much better!

Staying away from “processed” foods, foods tainted with pesticides or chemicals, and “bad” fats, along with drinking lots of water will help the body heal, and thus help the rest of you feel better. That’s the key here. When the body is feeling good and functioning properly, it gives foundational support for the healing of the mind, emotions, psyche and spirit.

Back to Understanding Health

Exercise. Exercise is good for anyone, but especially the CSA survivor. That’s because exercising builds natural endorphins in the brain which helps you cope better. I recently read about a study which showed that exercising three times a week for 20 minutes was just as effective as most anti-depressants in lifting the mood of the patient! That’s impressive.

Does the exercise have to be strenuous? No. Walking is just as effective as jogging or running. As long as the exercise lasts 20 minutes, you will benefit from exercising. The problem, of course, is finding the time to exercise.

Dr. Jim Friesen gives advice to his patients about living in the every day. He says,

1. Be safe.
2. Develop a routine.
3. Be true to yourself at all times.
4. Deal with interruptions (“triggers”).

Developing a routine for everyday living is essential. Include a healthy diet and exercise in your daily routine. You will benefit. I know a man who was overweight. For years, his wife nagged him about eating healthy and exercising, but he was always too busy. Finally, he went in for a checkup and his doctor ordered him to eat better and exercise. He took the doctor’s orders literally “to heart.” He started eating fresh fruits and vegetables, limited his intake of starchy foods, ate excellent quality meats, and started walking. The walking turned to jogging, and the jogging turned to running. He now runs three miles a day. He lost several pant sizes and two shirt sizes within a few months! People hardly recognize him because he is so skinny! He says he’s never felt better! His fervor has influenced me to get up and get moving!

The CSA survivor needs all the advantages she can get in order to heal and be restored. Eating healthy foods will give the body strength. Exercising helps your attitude and enables you to keep going. Together diet and exercise build a sturdy foundation for the work that needs to be done along the journey to healing.

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Works Cited


Friesen, James G. Uncovering the Mystery of MPD. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1997.

Mental Health America. Mental Health America, formerly known as the National Mental Health Association. 13 January 2007. <http://nmha.org/index.cfm?objectid=C7DF95DA-1372-4D20-C8740EEA2A9E4B74>.

Murray, Micahel. 5-HTP, the Natural Way to Overcome Depression, Obesity, and Insomnia. New York: Bantam Books, n.d.

Philpot, Dorene J. Dorene J. Philpot Attorney At Law. 2002. Dorene J. Philpot Law. 13 January 2007. <http://dphilpotlaw.com/html/glossary.html#D>.

Schwarzbein, Diana. The Scwarzbein Principle, the Truth about Weight Loss, Health and Aging. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1999.