SGM still doesn’t get it: Greg Somerville’s letter to abuse survivors

Trigger warning: sexual abuse, spiritual abuse.

SGM leaders who want to reach out to the blogs appear to be turning their attentions more specifically towards the allegations of sexual abuse. A few weeks ago Mark Mullery “confessed” to FCC that the pastors had mishandled (to put it lightly) two cases of child sexual abuse in the church. Now Greg Somerville, a family life pastor at CLC, has reached out through the SGM Survivors blog to try to establish communication with the exCLCer and SGMnot, the people to come forward most recently with accounts of abuse and coverup at CLC.

Both Mullery’s “confession” and Greg Somerville’s letter show that, at best, SGM leadership still don’t understand what they did wrong – and at worst, don’t care. Their comments are largely about themselves and their fellow pastors, not the survivors of abuse they claim to be apologizing to. And they’re still approaching these cases as though they are relational conflicts or estrangements, as though all that’s necessary is for the pastors and those they’ve abused to be “reconciled” – or worse, as though they’re cases of inexplicable, even irrational customer dissatisfaction.

Their responses don’t reflect an understanding that they did enormous damage that needs to be fully and publicly acknowledged. That would mean stating clearly what was done wrong, why it was wrong, making a real apology and real restitution as appropriate (legal, monetary), and stating clearly what the pastors’ plans are to make sure this never happens on their watch again (frankly, the thought of any abuse survivors being *ever* under their watch and “care” makes me feel ill, but it’s too much to hope that all of the pastors will voluntarily step down).

Take Somerville’s letter to victims of abuse at CLC: it’s the sort of thing someone writes when they want to sound as though they’re apologizing, but really are trying to extract forgiveness without actually doing the hard work of admitting to or understanding what they did wrong. SGMnot, whose daughter was abused as a child at CLC and one of the people addressed in the letter, makes this point and other criticisms of the pastors’ continued failure to address issues of abuse head on in her response to Somerville here.

To be quite clear, I’m not making any claims about Somerville’s personal feelings or opinions on these cases. He could very well believe the pastors screwed up and understand how they did so. But he’s writing on the behalf of the CLC pastoral team, as their representative. This is about how the pastors have chosen to present themselves as a group to the people they’ve abused, not a criticism of one pastor. They think they’re being conciliatory, but in reality, their approach is extremely self-serving and self-absorbed.

This is clear from the outset of Somerville’s letter:

The details are heartbreaking for me, the pastors of Covenant Life, and the members of our church. I cannot imagine the anguish these events have caused for you and your families.

While he does address the trauma survivors have experienced, he describes it in passive language. This is slippery language that glosses over the fact that actual people caused exCLCer, SGMnot, and their families anguish. Abusers and the pastors who enabled them and further abused victims caused anguish. Not “events.”

I am doubly grieved to know how deeply disappointed you are with the pastoral care you received during that crisis and in the years following.

Wow. Does Somerville really think the problem is that survivors are “disappointed” in the “care” they received? That’s what “grieves” him about this situation?

This is not the language someone uses when they really understand that they’ve been complicit in a horrible wrong against another person. This is language a customer service representative uses when responding to a customer who is dissatisfied with their company’s product. Take away the “grieved” comment and that’s all you have left – “I’m sorry to hear that you were disappointed in the service we provided.” REALLY?

Did he miss the part where pastors tried to force a woman to remain married to a man who abused her children, and told her that the poverty she endured after divorcing this man was “self-induced?” Or the part where pastors testified as character witnesses for abusers and tried to obstruct and subvert the legal process? In what way, exactly, were these actions “care” for victims and their families?

In my 14 years of pastoral ministry at Covenant Life Church, I have so often failed to love and care for God’s people the way I should. If it weren’t for the grace of our Lord Jesus and the forgiveness of the saints, this pastor would not have the faith to keep caring for God’s precious church. Stories like yours cause me to cry out for more of God’s Spirit, more of God’s heart. I do not want to fail his children in their time of deepest need!

Um…way to make this all about you? Seriously, who cares? This isn’t about anyone being an imperfect pastor. This is about pastors consistently deciding that abusers are worth protecting and caring for over victims. What does this have to do with crying out for more of God’s spirit? What does it have to do with Somerville’s or anyone’s faith for caring for “God’s precious church?”

Sorry, I just read this paragraph and all I hear is “me me me me me.” It’s an attempt to sound humble – quite possibly sincere – but what it actually does is center Somerville and make this all about *his* faith to serve others and *his* failings and *his* desire not to fail – not about the people that his fellow pastors hurt and traumatized.

I realize you don’t have much confidence in the pastors of Covenant Life Church right now, and I can understand that. But would you be willing to talk with me about your experience? Though I am sure it would be painful to review the details, I want to make sure our pastoral team learns all we can from your experience so that we can better serve other families in the future. And if nothing else, I hope I could express the grief we feel for the suffering you have endured.

To my mind this is the most unbelievable and egregious part of Somerville’s comments. I’m willing to believe that he and the pastors genuinely think that extending this “offer” is a compassionate and thoughtful response and an attempt to set things right. But if that’s what they believe, that only demonstrates just how little they understand what they’ve done wrong or why people are angry and upset with them.

First off, it is ignorant and entitled for the pastors to respond to people who have made it abundantly clear that they were abused by the pastors by asking them to come in and “review the details” of their case. It’s entitled because you’re asking someone to revisit pain that you’ve inflicted on them. It’s particularly entitled in this case because the pastors mst know perfectly well what they’ve done – SGM keeps METICULOUS records on its members – and they know perfectly well how exCLCer and SGMnot feel about it. On top of all that, exCLCer has been writing letters to the pastors reminding them of the details of her family’s case for the past 20 years. There are numerous comments on the SGM Survivors blog recounting in painful detail how the pastors “cared” for survivors and their families. What is there to “review?” Either they agree that they did was wrong, or they don’t. Period.

And clearly, they don’t. “I hope I could express the grief we feel for the suffering you have endured” – in plain speech, that’s “I’m sorry you suffered,” not “I’m sorry we hurt you.”

Furthermore, who exactly would be served by such a “review?” Its purpose is almost entirely self-centered. What would survivors get out of rehashing the details of their spiritual and emotional abuse with the organization that abused them in the first place? For whom exactly would it be most “painful” to do this? The survivors. It could even trigger renewed feelings of traumatization. What he’s asking for is a huge leap of trust – but who does it benefit?

“I want to make sure our pastoral team learns all we can from your experience so that we can better serve other families in the future” – well, there you have it. Who it really benefits is the pastors. They want survivors of abuse to be the ones to educate *them* on how to handle abuse better. IT IS NOT THEIR JOB TO DO THIS. If they truly want to learn how a church should handle abuse and care for survivors, there are MANY MANY resources online and offline that they can consult, and organizations that specifically address this issue. They don’t need survivors to come in and relive their stories to learn how to do better.

And once again Somerville uses language that sounds more like a customer satisfaction inquirity than an attempt to redress mishandling of child abuse. Oh, you weren’t happy with our product? What can we do to improve it in the future?

To quote a response someone tweeted me about this letter, this is “the definition of privilege: demanding the time, energy, input of survivors to bolster yourself, not them. How dare they?”

They dare because they continue to think this should be all about them, their wants, their church, their reputation. They want reconciliation because that will make them look better – it’s to their benefit to be able to say they patched things up even with sexual abuse victims. No matter that many of their victims have made it plain that they neither want nor need any reconciliation – or any contact at all – with the pastors.

They continue to ignore repeated and clear demands for honesty, openness, and accountability when it comes to sexual and other kinds of abuse, because that doesn’t benefit them. It makes them look bad. So they keep asking for things that survivors of abuse don’t want, and denying the things they do want, because it’s All. About. Them.

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How SGM’s Covenant Life Church and Fairfax Covenant Church deal with sexual abuse

Extreme trigger warning: child sexual abuse, details of child molestation, spiritual abuse, victim blaming, and enabling of abuse perpetrators. 

I don’t really know where to start with this, so I’ll just cut to the chase. In the past week, two more accounts of sexual abuse of children at SGM churches – this time at Covenant Life Church (CLC) – have been made public. In both cases, CLC pastors were primarily concerned with the preserving the comfort and reputation of the perpetrators, as well as the reputation of their own church. In both cases the pastors put pressure on the victims’ families to handle the abuse “internally” – i.e., within the church and without the involvement of the police – and, when charges were pressed in both cases, to make statements in support of “leniency” for the perps. In both cases the pastors pressured the victims and their families to forgive and pursue “reconciliation” with the abusers.

Both accounts are at SGM Survivors. I’ve linked them below and have also posted, below the jump, excerpts that highlight the most egregious abuses of pastoral authority in these cases.

  • ExCLCer’s account of her mother’s husband’s sexual abuse of his 11 year old daughter (and ExCLCer’s half-sister) in the late 1980s.
  • SGMnot’s account of a teenage boy’s sexual abuse of her  3 year old daughter, 1993.

In one case, the perpetrator, a man who abused his preteen daughter and went to jail for it, is now out of jail and back in membership at CLC. He’s remarried in the church and has regular access to children and teenagers – his children with his current wife, and teenagers in a band that he manages. In the other case, the perpetrator was a teenage boy who is now an adult and, as of a few years ago, was still a member of CLC as an adult.

In other words, there are at least two child molesters who are/have recently been in membership at CLC without the informed consent of the congregation. One of them has regular access to teenagers who most likely have no knowledge of his history of abusing children.

Additionally, this whole time, SGM leaders have been “preaching into people’s lives” and “modeling godliness for them” – i.e., lecturing people about how they should live their lives, down to the last detail, and manipulating and terrorizing people with teachings that turn the most harmless preferences, emotions, and actions into horrible sins. This whole time they’ve been disciplining people and making people feel like crap for the smallest infractions, in the name of “pastoral care.”

And over the same time, they’ve been concealing knowledge of sexual abuse in their church. They’ve imposed gags and forced forgiveness on victims and their families. They’ve exposed their congregations to unbelievable risk by hiding the presence of rapists and predators in the church. They’ve decided that when it comes to sexual abuse, the reputation of the church and the perpetrators are what need protecting, not victims, not their families, not the congregation.

They’ve been keeping people under fear and control with their bullshit on living holy lives the whole time they were working hard to make rapists feel more comfortable in their churches.

These incidents took place around 20-25 years ago. Cue the defenses from SGM leaders that they happened “a long time ago” and were “mistakes,” but now they’ve changed. No. This is bullshit.

First off, 20 years is NOT that long ago. Secondly, time is not a defense for evil actions when the perpetrators have never willingly acknowledged their actions or that they were evil. Most importantly, these “long ago” incidents are part of an ongoing pattern of pastoral victim blaming and abuse enabling in SGM. The responses of the pastors at CLC are very similar to incidents as recent as 2007 of pastoral mismanagement of abuse cases at SGM’s Fairfax Covenant Church (FCC): Noel and Grizzly’s story, 1998 and Happymom and Wallace’s story, 1998 and 2007.

Once again, after years of pretending the ex-SGM blogs didn’t exist in public while smearing them as lies, gossip, and slander in private, SGM pastors have now been forced to admit that the blog’s accounts of sexual abuse at the Fairfax church are substantially true. Mark Mullery, the senior pastor at FCC, recently “confessed” to his congregation that the pastors did, in fact, isolate victims and their families and fail to provide them with support, treat them as being in a “conflict” with the perpetrators that needed to be “reconciled,” and pressure them into concealing the identity of perpetrators and even that someone perpetrated any abuse in the first place.

Mullery, of course, doesn’t quite state things in these terms. He doesn’t touch the allegations that the pastors pressured victims into avoiding legal recourse or being character witnesses for the perpetrators. He glosses over the real implications of the actions of the pastors. He puts on a performance about how sad and full of regret he is – and before anyone calls me judgmental or a cynic for saying his sadness is insincere, please keep in mind that FCC pastors and other SGM leaders have, for the past two years, been telling members who raised questions about these cases that the victims’ families were lying, and that the blogs were slander. Please keep in mind that Mullery is only “confessing” some of the truth at a time when SGM is in the middle of a scandal that has countless members angry, seriously questioning their leaders, and ready to leave their churches en mass. Please keep in mind that not only all of SGM, but much of the evangelical blogosphere is now aware of the ex-SGM blogs and reading accounts like SGMnot and exCLCer’s stories – and aware that these blogs have far more credibility than SGM leadership has claimed.

This is the context for this “apology.” SGM and FCC are being forced by internal pressure from members and negative external  publicity to finally acknowledge these issues. Confessing “mistakes” when you no longer have a choice but to address them is not a sincere apology.

This is an apology and promise of change that is forced by negative pressure and attention. Two questions: How can anyone know the pastors actually believe they did anything wrong? How can anyone know the pastors actually understand why what they did was wrong?

The answer to both is that we can’t know. But I would bet money that they don’t believe they did anything terribly wrong, and they don’t have any clue why anyone would think otherwise. There’s nothing in Mullery’s statement that indicates anything beyond superficial understanding that they finally got caught, that people are angry and want to hear that they are sorry and will change.

This is not good enough. Not by a long shot.

Here’s the thing. Pastors have real power, influence, and authority over their congregations, and this is especially true in authoritarian and hierarchical organizations like Sovereign Grace. People look to their pastors for support and guidance in getting through difficult periods in their lives. People trust their pastors to tell them how to live in general, how to relate to others, how to raise their children and relate to their spouses and families, how to make huge life decisions. And they trust that their pastors aren’t just like any old friend they’d go to for advice, but people who have knowledge of higher spiritual truths, knowledge of God – and therefore to some extent speak FOR God.

This is a HUGE amount of power. It’s a virtually unparalleled level of trust.

So when pastors deal with victims of sexual abuse and their families, they’re coming into a situation where the things they say and do have incredible power and influence behind them, and have incredible potential to either support and help victims, or further traumatize them. By the same token, their actions can weigh powerfully in favor of bringing perpetrators to justice and whatever rehabilitation is possible, and keeping other members of the church safe from them, or in favor of protecting rapists and predators, enabling their abuse, and preserving their access to unwitting future victims.

Here is what pastors at FCC and CLC have used this power to tell victims and their families:
– Keep abuse secret and protect the identities of abusers.
– Naming your abuser is gossip and slander and unforgiveness.
– Don’t go to the police. Don’t pursue legal recourse.
– The legal and personal ramifications for the abuser are more important than the damage the abuser did to you.
– You are obligated to forgive abusers, and do so virtually instantly.
– You are sinning if you remain angry about their abuse for more than a matter of days.
– Sexual abuse doesn’t really cause long-term psychological trauma (and therefore you don’t really need care or help from us and you might even be sinning by still experiencing flashbacks, nightmares, and other effects).

Again, this is coming from people who victims and families have been taught to believe speak on behalf of God. That they are men of God. When pastors say all this, the implication is that God is saying this. Some families will believe this and accept it. But even for families who don’t accept that God, e.g., cares more about an abuser’s reputation than about their trauma, these messages add to their trauma them by forcing them to choose between their faith (as presented by people they have trusted to instruct them in the faith) and their healing and wellbeing.

This is spiritual abuse. It is a real form of abuse. I can’t state strongly enough that it is a real form of abuse to tell people who have invested unbelievable levels of trust in pastors as their spiritual leaders that their trauma doesn’t matter to God – not as much as the comfort of their abusers or their ability to “get over” the trauma, anyway. This is actual abuse and it causes further trauma to people who have experienced abuse.

And it’s rampant in Christian churches. It’s endemic in Sovereign Grace Ministries. It’s not an accident, and it’s not a mistake. This keeps happening because this is what the pastors really believe about abuse. This is the culture they have fostered – one where survivors of abuse are hounded out of the church, and abusers are perfectly happy staying.

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