So, you're a victim of clergy abuse, you're thinking of taking action, but you don't know where to start? Here are some ideas and information, pooled from many survivors' experiences. Basically you have three avenues. First is a lawsuit. Second is to complain to the church hierarchy. Third is to go to the media. Each avenue has different pros and cons. The usual route for victims is 1) complain to the church hierarchy. Get little/no/unhelpful response. Realise that this is more than just your own experience; this is the experience of many others. Discover that the church seems more concerned with its own image than with its supposed mission. Decide to push them into responding by suing them ==> 2) Lawsuit. If won, often at the expense of a "gag order" (a clause in the settlement that forbids you to disclose details of your story). If lost, turn to the only avenue left that may result in the church doing something about the problem ==> 3) Go to the media. By this time, victims are usually either so disgusted and hurt by the church's response to them that they either give up fighting or they end up writing a book!

This page is divided into several sections. The first explores what survivors of sexual abuse are usually seeking when they take action, the second looks at the different avenues of action that are open to survivors, and offers suggestions for each one, the third looks at techniques for the courtroom, and the fourth deals with the difficulties of mediation for clergy sexual abuse offences. Finally, other options for publicising the issue are discussed at the bottom of the page.

A word on types of power Many victims of clergy sexual abuse cannot understand, or explain to others, why they submitted to the abuse, particularly if force was not apparently used. In their book "When Ministers Sin", Neil and Thea Ormerod describe five areas in which the power of a perpetrator may overwhelm the victim. (Many victims find their perpetrator possesses several of these). They are: age, physical strength, psychological invulnerability, charisma and structural power (rank). In assessing the difficulties victims face in taking action against the perpetrator, one must be aware that the perpetrator often still possesses these elements of power. This affects both court experiences and mediation.

Why do survivors need to come forward?
Any or all of the following reasons may be involved in a survivor's action in coming forward about their abuse. In my experience with survivors, most of them ask for three things from the church: acknowledgement that wrong has been done to them, an apology for that wrong, and payment for therapy to heal. Almost always, it is when these three things are not given by the church that victims seek legal redress.

1) They are looking for validation of their abuse. For an admission from the church that the priest was wrong.

2) They are looking for exposure - to undo the secret ways they had to live for so long. To "break the silence" and declare this part of their life experience.

3) They are looking for revenge. To strike back at the man who has caused them so much damage.

4) They are looking for relief from the pain they carry.

5) They are looking for closure to put this episode of their life behind them.

6) They are looking for justice and fairness to right this wrong.

7) They are looking for resources to continue their healing journey.

8) They are looking to regain the power which was taken from them in the abuse.

9) They are looking for freedom from guilt and shame.

10) They are looking for transformation from rage to peace.

My thanks to Lee for the clear expression of these ideas.

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Understanding the complaint options, and the different pros and cons of each possibility, can help victims to decide to focus on one or more avenues, rather than discovering the hard way what many victims know already. Each avenue is dealt with separately below. One useful resource to look at first is this website: http://www.discoun.nsw.gov.au/section5.html It deals with advocating for what you want in meetings (with regard to special ed, but useful all the same)

Click here for a very good description of one victim's difficulties in dealing directly with the church (Jesuits), and how disillusioned she became.

Complaining to the church

if you can get a result, it's usually without all the financial stress that goes with a lawsuit.

very difficult to get any action
it's hard to deal with people from the same structure as the one who abused you
you can't rely on an unbiased reaction to your complaint.

First steps:
* Start by finding out everything you can about the way they supposedly deal with complaints. If you do that, then you can go to them armed with information and say "but your own publication says..." This still may not force some action, but it may help prevent you being told something you're asking for is impossible when it isn't.
* Ring the local priest/pastor and ask for copies of whatever information they have about the way sexual abuse complaints are dealt with. (Or for more anonymity, try the diocesan office with the same question).
* One thing that can help is to get in contact with other victims and activists, even if not from the same denomination. For example, if you see an article in a newspaper about a complainant, ring the paper, talk to the reporter who wrote the article, tell a little of your background, and explain you'd like to get in contact with that person, you know they can't give out contact details, but could they pass yours on and ask the other person to contact you. Most victims are only too pleased to either give help, or offer/gain support from someone else in the same position.

Points to keep in mind:
* If that particular church/denomination is undergoing a lot of media coverage for clergy sexual abuse complaints and/or suits, they may try to avoid another one by responding to your complaint, but on the other hand, you may catch them in a defensive, stone-walling attitude.
* Remember that organisations (and that can include churches) are not primarily concerned with religion, but with self-protection.
* While we should be able to trust our clergy, the fact is, many of them have proven we can't. So, we can either be at the mercy of that or take action and institute changes that can actually support clergy in doing their job in a more conscientious and reliable manner.

If you're still attending church, here are some things you can do at a local level:
* Insist they have copies of the church's complaints protocol available
* When, for instance, the collection plate goes around, insist on knowing where the money is going or specify exactly what you want your donation dollars to support (or not)!
* Be part of the church management and make them accountable for every dollar they spend.
* Insist that clergy who counsel children and adolescents be chaperoned by another adult, preferably of the opposite sex.

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- can often get you at least an out-of-court settlement
- may put your perp in jail (depending on the law, the severity of the abuse, and other factors).

- it's incredibly stressful and distressing
- you may end up with a huge costs bill
- it often doesn't frighten the church. As one victim wrote: "The threat of a lawsuit did not faze anyone in the Archdiocese. It is old stuff with them. We asked them (with evidence) to remove the priest. They wouldn't even meet with us. It wasn't until I hired a lawyer that they met with us. Then they still did nothing even knowing we would not let this go. We filed a claim, it hit the papers and nothing happened. A letter the Archdiocese sent to a fellow priest telling him to shut up about the activities of the abuser was published in the papers. Still nothing. Other people came forward, it made the TV and still nothing happened. We have been in court for two years while they do every legal delay they can. There are two appeals to dismiss this case still pending. We have had our hopes, faith and sense of justice trashed one step at a time. Not everything comes out the way you expect it. When it doesn't, it is a bitter pill to swallow and you should be aware of it."

First steps:
Finding a good lawyer partly depends on what you want from a lawyer, but one thing is common to all. You want a lawyer that's on side and sympathetic to your situation.
* Check out any suits already happening (mentioned in local newspapers - check back issues too) and see who the lawyer is for them.
If you have contact with other clergy abuse victims, ask around to see if they know of anyone
* Contact local women's refuges, sexual assault centres and Community Legal Centres and see who they recommend as a good lawyer. Any lawyer who specialises in fighting the patriarchal system is going to be off to a good start in fighting the church.
* Check out the laws that apply to your situation. Most university libraries have copies of both current and superseded laws, or there may be somewhere else close to you that would have that. Try your local and state libraries. It may also be worth checking out any applicable federal laws, as well as state laws.
* Read, read, read. Read all you can about the church structure, the law, the way previous suits have gone - you may need to coach your lawyer in the peculiar ways one has to fight the church.

Lastly, try to get a lawyer who will work on a no win, no fee (contingency) basis. That way, you're up for as little as possible in the way of expenses, and you know your lawyer has an incentive to win the case.

A list of the kind of things you can ask for in a settlement:
1) To receive compensation for your pain, and particularly payment for your therapy
2) A donation from the church to an organisation dedicated to exposing/eradicating clergy abuse
3) A commitment from the church for the perpetrator to be de-frocked and the fact (and reason) publicised
4) A commitment by his Archdiocese to sponsor a reconciliation event organised primarily by victims
5) Written apologies from the archbishop and/or the perp (chances are the perp won't, but the archbishop might)

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often the only way to get the complaint publicly known.

- you have to be careful not to be sued by the church/perp (check out if your state has a defence against a defamation charge and whether you'd be able to use it).
- you can't expect much more than 15 mins from the TV networks, and if you come down too hard on the church, you'll alienate a ton of viewers (regardless of the wrongness of their attitudes).
- the networks are particularly afraid of provoking the church into urging its parishioners into boycotting a network or advertisers on a network.

First steps:
* If you see reports of clergy sexual abuse in newspapers, contact the reporter. A sympathetic, helpful reporter is invaluable.
* Otherwise, check out which newspapers are pro- and which are anti- the particular denomination/religion, and go with the anti- ones. (The ones that favour the church may not want to publish anything detrimental about them, unless it's a topical news story).
* Likewise with TV and radio stations. I've found, though, that TV and radio stations usually won't broadcast a story unless it's actually in the complaint process at the time.
* What you need to consider is 1) what is the thrust of my story; 2) who will it most appeal to; 3) which paper/TV/radio, based on their ethos and market, is likely to be interested.
* Try a reporter who is trying to make a name for him/herself. Try and find one who has done or covered abuse issues. Call the papers and ask them which of their reporters covers abuse issues. Tell them what happened to you. Also give him the names of those people who you think might corroborate your story or who know other stories.

Points to ponder:
* Bear in mind that although they're helping you, you're giving them a good story, so the benefits aren't all one way
* If you come down too hard on the church, you'll alienate a ton of viewers (regardless of the wrongness of their attitudes). And I think the networks are particularly afraid of provoking the RC into urging its parishioners into boycotting a network or advertisers on a network.

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Writing a book

·         Your story is important. Whether it ever gets sold or not....whether you share it or not...the arduous task of putting it on paper is very cathartic.

·         Have a strong support system in place before you begin. Don't try to keep it all to yourself while you are writing. Try to find people who can support you in the middle of the night when your brain just won't stop. There are some good incest/sexual abuse survivor support groups on the internet. They are carefully monitored and you can usually find someone any time of day. Local crisis lines are another option.

·         Expect that since you are reliving the most painful times in your life you will also relive some of the sensory feelings. This can be scary. Flashbacks can increase. Crying through much of the writing is not unusual.

·         It's okay to put it aside at times and let yourself take a break. It can take years to get the whole story on paper and re-written and edited. Don't put pressure on yourself.

·         If you're not writing, you may find you're thinking about it. That can be overwhelming too because it's like a movie playing in your head over and over. Each time you notice a different detail. That can be very difficult to live with.

·         During the process eat healthily. The stress can make you vulnerable to illness.

·         Sleep when you can, but expect that you won't sleep well and may begin to have nightmares again.

·         Do good things for yourself regularly. It's tough work and you need relief. Hot showers or bubble baths, long walks, movies or TV shows that make you laugh, a good book, calling friends, soothing music, burn candles....whatever is healing to you.

·         Because we are not celebrities, it is harder to "sell" our story if you are looking to market. Our stories are important and there are many ways to use them. One victim allowed hers to be used by a sexual assault crisis centre. Some of the counsellors used chapters to help their clients. Another avenue is just to put your story up on the internet.  

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Techniques for the courtroom

Survivors going into a courtroom are at a significant disadvantage. They are usually face-to-face with the perpetrator after a long period of anxiety, in the presence of church representatives, and in an unfamiliar setting. These three things combine to emphasise the feelings of powerlessness they experienced at the time of the abuse, and can thus be triggering. Remaining calm and clearheaded under these circumstances is difficult. The following is a collection of techniques other survivors have found helpful or necessary in the courtroom.

  1. If you don't like the way a question is worded tell them you don't understand the question. This is an attempt to have them rephrase the question.
  2. They are going to try and discredit you, therefore answer most of your questions with yes or no. Try not to explain your answers, this may give the other side information they don't already have.
  3. Keep as calm as you can. Don't let them get you upset, they will try to get you upset in an attempt to get you emotional, and break your train of thought.
  4. Take time to think of your answers. Ask them to repeat the question if you must. Don't let them pressure you into answering a question before you have thought about it.
  5. Ask your lawyer to do a practice run. Have him ask you the questions the other side will probably ask you.
  6. Try to get as much rest as you can the night before, and eat a good meal a couple of hours before the trial. This will give you the energy you need.
  7. Try imagining a group of your friends standing behind you. Practice this image before the questioning. When you get scared during questioning, picture them standing behind you and supporting you.

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Some things to be wary of before you accept mediation

Firstly, re-read the section at the top of this page about power. Then re-read the section on what victims seek in coming forward. Be clear about what you want from the church and/or the perpetrator. Bear in mind that many victims do not fully realise what their needs are until some time has passed. Getting ideas of what to ask for from someone who has had experience dealing with abuse survivors is highly recommended.

If the perpetrator is going to be there, you need to be aware that in your eyes he will probably still have all the attributes of power he possessed at the time of the abuse. If you talk yourself through it, you may be able to convince yourself that the physical strength doesn't matter, because it's a controlled situation, and you may have less respect for his structural power, and you may see through his pose of psychological invulnerability, but face to face with the perpetrator, you're going to feel the way you did back at the time of the abuse. So you're not coming to mediation on a level playing field.

Other problems, in summary:
1) Mediation is a method of conflict resolution. It often assumes right on both sides (even if unbalanced in quantity). It is not about determining truth. So mediation (in this kind of case) will not work unless the offender is prepared to, or has already, admitted the offence.
2) The imbalance of power (as described above) can severely affect the fairness of the mediation.
3) Mediation may not satisfy your need to have your pain acknowledged (by the perpetrator, by the church, by outsiders, etc), especially since many settlements come with a restriction on talking about it to anyone. In other words, if acknowledgement is one of your aims, it's not likely to be satisfied in mediation.

Other options (activism)

  1. Schedule yourself to be on the agenda for the Parish Council meeting. You don't need to say what you want to speak about. If you're still a parishioner you have every right to present anything you might want to to the Council. You don't even need to say anything directly about your abuser, just allude to it in every way possible without ever speaking his name. And ask them to make sure that the diocese FOLLOWS their own policy on clergy sexual abuse in the future. All activity at parish council HAS to be in the minutes and the minutes are PUBLIC and are available to any parishioner. And you can invite any parishioners who support you to this meeting. If you're no longer a parishioner, you can still write to the Parish Council and they have to record the letter in the minutes and reply to it (send copies to the priest/secretary/etc - the more you send the less they can argue they didn't get it).
  2. Hand out flyers in front of the church when they have a function on. You may flush out some more victims, but anything that raises awareness is worth doing. You can even notify the local press that you'll be there - they may cover it. One victim used the following wording on a flyer: "ST.CECILIA'S SEX SCANDAL EXPOSED Please be advised there has been another sex scandal exposed in the archdiocese, this time it's the [name] diocese, involving the alleged sex offender of over 20 victims, Fr. [name, followed by the years he served]. Interestingly enough, Fr. [name] was sent away by the archdiocese in 1983 for therapy after an allegation of sexual abuse. After several months he was placed back in a trusted position as a priest again and was able to abuse again. Ask yourself WHY? Is the archdiocese about religion or big business? And why was he allowed to teach for the archdiocese for ten years after that? It's time to put an end to the epidemic of sexual abuse in the church!!!!! The statute of limitations has expired for me and the other victims in this case, so [name] was not able to be criminally prosecuted and the archdiocese was unable to be sued civilly. Unless a victim under the age of 21, or within 5 years of the last assault [these details will vary depending on your local laws] comes forward, [name] is free to continue sexual abuse. SO please - if you or anyone you know was abused by [name] or any other member of clergy --do not be embarrassed to come forward, remember it was not your fault! You were helpless and you deserve justice!!!!!!! Together we heal, alone we suffer! If you wish to give information in this matter or any other matter, the following is a list of resources: [names and phone numbers of victims, local police contacts, attorneys, and support groups]. TOGETHER WE CAN STOP THIS."
  3. Write a letter to the perpetrator. Express as much of your anger, hurt and betrayal as you can.
  4. Do your own research into your perpetrator's career. Search the internet, using all possible combinations of their name. Search digitised newspapers. Contact the denomination’s head office and ask for a copy of the clergy directory; in many denominations, it shows each minister’s placements. Take particular note of any unduly short placements followed by a “sabbatical” or “study leave”—that may indicate him being moved out of the parish due to a complaint.
  5. Write to anyone you can think of. Here are some letters written by survivors.

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