samedi, décembre 05, 2009

Lancaster column December 5: the victims speak


Sometimes writers discover that the story they thought they were writing takes on a life of its own. I began what I originally envisioned as two commentaries on struggling clergy — but as people began to volunteer to talk about clergy misconduct, it became clear that I had a bigger story here.
I promise this won't be a yearlong epic, but I have a few more stories to tell in the coming weeks from those who were brave enough to share.
• • •
There's not a lot, on the surface, to link Anne Beiler and Kim Logan.
One woman is a white former executive of a global business empire whose family has deep Amish-Mennonite roots in Lancaster County. The other is an African-American administrative assistant at a medical graduate school in Kansas City, Mo., whose family has worshipped in Baptist churches.
But dig a little deeper, and some pretty fundamental similarities start to appear. Both women are deeply devout, convinced that God is in charge of their lives. Both suffered almost unimaginable loss that propelled them into times of anguish and depression. And both were, they say, enmeshed in abusive relationships with the very men who were supposed to offer them spiritual comfort and direction: their pastors.
"We were looking for a family-oriented church," Logan said of her family's decision to join a small Kansas City Baptist congregation. "I was very much into women's ministries, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity for the family to grow."
But Logan also was struggling with depression and the strain that losing loved ones (two brothers and a mother within five years) can put on a family.
The year after the Logans joined the church, her younger brother was sent to prison.
At her husband's suggestion, she went into counseling with her pastor. Their families became close, sharing children's sleepovers and birthday parties.
After five or so years, the clergyman invited her to become his assistant — and his attentions became very personal.
"He wanted me, and he did whatever it took to get me there" Logan said. "I believe in my heart of hearts that was his intention from day one."
Having given her a personal cell phone, he would awaken her in the morning and take her with him when he went to a doctor's office or functions with other clergy. Meanwhile, she said, he was counseling her husband in ways designed to alienate the couple from one another.
"This abuse continued for about four years," Logan said. "I was breaking down. You live a lie, you can't laugh ... you don't know who you are. He took me to a place of darkness."
• • •
Beiler is familiar with that dark place. A young mother with a loving husband, Jonas, her world had been torn apart by the accidental death of her toddler daughter.
"My husband and I were emotionally separated, and I didn't want him to know how badly I was feeling," she said.
Caught up in grief, Beiler was pleased when the charismatic Assemblies of God pastor came forward to pray with her.
"Come see me in my office," he said. "Your husband can't meet your needs, but I can."
Then he seduced her.
"They become your only lifeline; they put you in such a small world," Beiler said. "Then it turns into guilt, abuse, major control and manipulation when you feel like you can't get out."
When the Beilers and their two surviving children moved to Texas, the pastor surfaced again down there — and the sexual misconduct continued.
• • •
"God sent you to me; I need you. You are the only one," Logan's pastor told her, as he talked about his abused childhood.
And she believed him — until she came across e-mails and heard him talk to other women and realized he was telling them the same thing.
Beiler's pastor also was a serial abuser, she said, preying on other family members.
Overcome by guilt and a strong sense of failure, Beiler withdrew from her friends and family, shrinking down to 92 pounds.
"Our choices have consequences," she said of the six-year entanglement with her pastor. "My choice at that time was to keep a secret, and the secret almost killed me."
• • •
What broke the chain of secrets and lies and abuse for these two women?
In Logan's case, her husband came across explicit e-mail and texts. He had her quit her job and called a meeting with the pastor and congregational elders. But the pastor blamed Logan, she recalled, and the elders called her a liar with mental problems created by the loss of her family members.
Logan, who has been in counseling for the past few years, is now considering her legal options in confronting her former pastor.
The Logans have moved on to another congregation.
"Thank God that we are attending a church where we have received great support from the leadership, who continues to help us during our time of healing," Logan said.
In large part, she credits her husband for her continued move toward recovery.
"We still struggle, but we have a strong man of God in my house," she said of her husband. "This man is unbelievable. I did him wrong, but he thought about me and his family."
As for Beiler, she says that her healing began with acts of confession. By dropping the pretense that she was really doing "just fine, thank you," she began to feel stronger. Eventually, she broke off the sexual connection with the pastor.
After years of depression, Beiler was finally able to confess to her husband, who reached out to her with forgiveness and compassion.
"Christ sees my potential, and my husband saw value in me, that I was worthy, even though I couldn't see it myself."
After more than half a lifetime of struggle and years of counseling, Beiler says that she is now "free indeed."
Though her pastor was dismissed from his post and stripped of his license by his denomination, he moved on to another congregation in a different denomination. When the Beilers found out, Jonas Beiler traveled to Tennessee and alerted church authorities. The pastor was stripped of his license by that denomination, yet was able to move on to another pulpit.
"Most days I feel like I've forgiven him," Beiler said, "but these men need to be rehabilitated or put behind bars where they cannot harm women and children."
She and her husband have started a counseling center for troubled families in Gap — a mission that has been her "redemption" she said.
"If you have a cause, a purpose birthed out of this, that will give you great joy."
As we talked, there were times when Beiler's voice broke or she seemed to hesitate until she could regain her composure.
And that's a good thing, she said when I asked her about it.
"It's so interesting to me that the more whole I become, the more I feel. God created us for emotional health. I know now what it is like to live."

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