I was floored this week to receive an email from my former Pastor, Jon Stoddard. By the title, I knew he had read the blog I posted in February regarding my experience of being in an abusive marriage and how my church leaders completely failed to help me when I asked their assistance for me and my two young children.
Intrigued, I quickly opened it and read the blandest apology that was not a real acknowledgement or apology. MMMM, ok. I went from intrigue to great disappointment in a few seconds. I started thinking of Tweets I have read by both men and women who are experts in this area, and how they have discussed the importance of a religious institution and/or leaders acknowledging a victim’s experience and their role in it. What I received came across to me as more of a justification for not helping me, and an appeal that we have improved and treat abused women better now. I’ve included the “apology email” below” so you can determine if you agree with my perspective or if my opinion is overstated.
I decided to share what type of apology email WOULD have been meaningful to me, and I think to other abuse survivors. Given the explosion of reporting on abuse by male, Evangelical leaders, I hope this will contribute to a better understanding of how individuals, churches, and institutions should respond to abuse.
2:57 PM (1 hour ago)
to ExposingReligiousAbuse.com, me
_______ shared with me the blog post you wrote about your experience with abuse at Jordan Presbyterian Church.
First off, I should say I'm sorry for how everything was handled. It wasn't right and we screwed up.
It was helpful to read the whole story and hear your perspective. We've learned a lot since then and made a number of changes. In several incidents that have occurred in the past couple years, I believe we have a much different approach and I believe the women involved would say they felt heard, supported and cared for. The church is a completely different place than it was when you were here.
I'm sorry for how we treated you. In hindsight there were so many things that we should have done differently. I was a new, naïve pastor, overly idealistic, and unaware of many of the unique dynamics with abuse that cause many traditional approaches to backfire.
Since then I've read a number of books on the topic, including the one by Lundy Bancroft that you mention and we've worked to adjust our approach and lean heavily on those who know more about the abuse dynamics than we do.
Thank you for sharing your story.
What Constitutes a Real Apology?
1) Own your error and role in hurting someone, without making excuses or deflecting to another person/topic. While there can be a time and place to discuss what one has learned from their mistakes, it is not when you are to be owning how you have harmed someone. I’m happy if the Jordan Presbyterian Church leaders have treated other women better and actually helped in situations of abuse. But that has nothing to do with how they treated me. The email comes across as I’m sorry for screwing up with you but look how much better we are doing now…because we learned from our mistreatment of you. That does not make me feel better.
2) Blaming one’s actions on being new, naïve, overly idealistic, and unaware of many of the unique dynamics with abuse that cause many traditional approaches to backfire ignores the real problem. Based on my experience, the real problem was arrogance, sexism, lack of empathy, and lack of courage to do what was necessary. This should have included working with my ex-husband to understand and end his abuse. Instead, he continued to attend JPC for some time, and move on to a new church. At that point, a responsible pastor should have contacted the new church, alerting them to my ex's admitted sexual and other types of marital abuse. This is how abusers keep finding new victims…churches shuffle their abusive leaders to other positions or churches, and also don’t hold abusive parishioners accountable. Also, they rarely report abuse to local authorities.
3) There is no mention of my children, who were about 2 and 4 years old at the time of separation. It's clear that their well-being was never a concern or major factor in any of the JPC church leader's decisions regarding how to respond to our situation with an abusive husband/father. If not for my children, I may have stayed in the abusive relationship for much longer. As I blogged: I finally considered that my son would grow up thinking the way his Dad treated me was the correct way to treat women. And I realized my daughter would think the way I was treated was normal and accept that same type of treatment in her future. Neither prospect was healthy or acceptable to me. This was the final motivating decision for a separation and eventually a divorce.
4) The email was so general and did not acknowledge anything specific. We all know that generic messages have far less meaning. I would like to have heard specifically about how the leaders mistreated me and my children like: ignoring and diminishing that fact that I had PTSD from my sexual experiences with my ex, that I had panic attacks and feared for my children and myself, that my ex repeatedly lied about his lack of employment and unwillingness to fulfill a husband/father’s responsibility by working, that the church enabled my ex by giving him a teaching position when he was utterly unqualified to have one, that these leaders and church’s actions were a major factor in driving me away from Evangelical faith, and that the moral failures of these very leaders also contributed to my suffering because they prioritized themselves and their power above the most vulnerable in their congregation.
Those would have been some good topics to mention. I have not set foot in an Evangelical church since leaving JPC and don’t think I could without having a panic attack or at minimum taking a prescription medication to prevent me from having one.
5) As I wrote in my blog, I should have approached a state agency or NGO for help, but I never did because the Evangelical community is so insular and uses fear tactics about losing one’s children or having the government interfere in your life, so that I was afraid to ask for help. Pastor Jon was the only person (to my knowledge), to whom my ex ever confirmed his sexual abuse of me. As such, Jon could have, and should have, played a pivotal role in our custody arrangement. As I wrote in my blog, Jon denied remembering anything about this when I was dragged back through the legal system for a custody evaluation. The attorney fees, mediation, and whole process wiped me out financially more than once. Having no evidence or witness left my children with more custody time with their father who often ignored them, refused to do most basic parenting such as buying shoes and clothes, wash said items, attend parent-teacher conferences and be engaged in their education, and moreover utilized the kids in an effort to retaliate against me. He chopped off most of our daughter’s naturally curly hair with absolutely no experience or knowledge of cutting hair when she was 5. I nearly cried because it was so bad and demonstrated his willingness to use the kids against me. When our son's pre-school teacher spoke with me, she explained how my ex didn't meet with her and wouldn't follow the most basic requests to help our son. After our daughter qualified for a regional US Track and Field meet which would allow her to attend nationals, he reneged. Despite her hard work and incredible talent, she had to stay home with him while all her teammates competed. She is incredibly gifted and ran in the USATF national cross country meets both years in which she participated in the program. He robbed her of an experience she earned, just to make a power play against me. I have many more such examples of his cruelty towards the children, but the point is that the cowardice and hypocrisy of our church leaders could have dramatically changed my ex’s behavior and certainly the legal circumstances that have allowed him to continue to use the children. Instead of recognizing his abuse and wrong thinking, he has been further empowered to continue and expand it.
6) What is legal is not necessarily moral. My ex was working an entry level job when we separated. Child support was set at a tiny amount. For 3 ½ years, I received a very small amount of financial support while my ex refused to buy most basic necessities for the children or to replace things that broke or were lost at his home. Later, I discovered that he secured a job which paid more than mine…before the divorce was finalized. After nearly 4 years when this was to change and he saw the new payment amount, he immediately filed for 50/50 custody and again I was wiped out financially from the custody evaluation process and attorney fees, while he and his new wife were making more than double my family. This is not a blog to whine, but to explain that church leaders can play critical roles in the well-being of their parishioners for many years…if they chose to do so. My church leaders ended all contact with me, and I doubt ever considered the long-term consequences for me and the kids after divorcing a narcissist abuser. All these years later, I receive just over $300 a month for 2 children from child support, and still deal weekly with nonsense such as the kids being told they cannot wear their skate shoes from Dad’s house while skateboarding because they will get worn out and they’ll have to replace them. So, I buy their skate shoes, skateboards, protective gear, and my family contributes for Christmas and birthday presents. While my ex can do these things legally, they are not moral. In contrast, I know several men who are separated/divorced and have children. Each, all from different faith backgrounds and all Hispanic, have made massive sacrifices such as paying for houses and all necessities for ex’s and the kids while living with other family members or renting tiny apartments for themselves. None of these actions were legally required of any of these men. They have chosen to support their ex’s and children at higher levels than required because they recognize that the amount determined by the state is not sufficient and more importantly because they want their children to thrive, and do not have a “need” to punish their exes eternally. It’s amazing to consider how a white, Evangelical man can retain a high standing religiously and socially while behaving in the basest manner and being applauded by other Christians, while those who are so often disparaged by our society are living a far more “Christlike” lives, whether they belief in him or not.
Ultimately, the apology email... that really isn’t an apology, only confirms my loss of faith. I read an amazing article this week, written by a white, male named Mark C. Hackett. While I don’t share his faith, I applaud his incredible courage to address the topics of patriarchy and sexism within Evangelicalism. I think the narrative could change if more WASPS had the courage to confront and wrestle with these issues like Mark.