Breaking the Silence | Sojourners

Breaking the Silence

The Growing Faith Movement to End Sexual Violence
Photo courtesy BEELDPHOTO /
A figure walks towards the light. Photo courtesy BEELDPHOTO /

In 2002, Anne Barrett Doyle’s church involvement took a radical turn. The Boston Globe had just launched a series investigating rampant abuse among clergy in Boston’s Archdiocese, and the Catholic woman found herself protesting something for the first time in her life: her own Church.

“I was just pulled into this story, inextricably, with a force I didn’t understand,” Boston-based Barrett Doyle said.

This pull led her to join the early stages of Bishop Accountability, a clearinghouse founded by fellow Catholic Terence McKiernan that works to create and maintain a public record of clergy abuse in the Catholic Church. To date, the group maintains extensive paper trails (“over one million pages,” said Barrett Doyle), on reported sex abuse scandals around the country.

Nearly a decade would pass before Barrett Doyle realized her agitated response — an accusation against the church, in defense of the faith — was shared by many in leadership. The change came in 2012, when a priest sent her documents on a incident he’d brought to light in the 1990s.

“This man spoke out against abuse, and his career was altered forever by it,” Barrett Doyle said. “He’d done a wonderful thing, and his story was totally forgotten. He’d had no contact from other priests since. He was alone.”

Wondering whether other clergy were similarly isolated, Barrett Doyle began encouraging outspoken priests and nuns — some survivors themselves — to share their experiences with each other. The earliest conversations served as a makeshift support group, calling themselves the Catholic Whistleblowers — but as the group grew in size and courage, they began a bold effort to demand reform at the highest levels in the Church.

And last week the group took its message public, in hopes that exposure would draw more Catholics to the cause.

“I deal with stories of evil on a daily basis,” Barrett Doyle said of her work. “It’s demoralizing to traffic in these traumatizing stories. So it’s been a wonderful experience collecting stories of true bravery in the faith.”

For both Bishop Accountability and Catholic Whistleblowers, the simple act of speaking up is enough to cause rumbles in the Church. Bishop Accountability, while not advocating for sweeping change, is “inherently rocking the boat just by preserving the public record on these scandals,” Barrett Doyle said.

And among whistleblowers, she said, “There’s a real sense now of, ‘I want to report this — will you stand by my side?’”

Although the Christian church as a whole seemingly remains stuck in a culture of silence, advocates are steadily building the platforms for individual voices to change the narrative. The depth of reconciliation that plays out upon these platforms can be profound.

Rachel Halder, founder of Our Stories Untold — a blog that hosts stories from survivors of sexualized violence within the Mennonite church — has witnessed such moments happen in real time.

One of Halder’s first contributors was a woman who was prompted to break her silence after Todd Akin’s comments qualifying “legitimate rape.” After she posted her story, the woman’s former dorm-mate — who, decades ago, had witnessed the immediate aftermath of this assault — recognized the story.

Halder sat in disbelief as this dorm-mate came clean in the comments section about her shame and regret over her own inaction, expressing years of sorrow over lessons learned too late.

“I just saw this play out on my site, this overwhelming moment of reconciliation and restoration,” Halder said, who later helped the two women reconnect by email. “It was completely unanticipated ... they hadn’t seen each other in 20, 30 years. The healing process in these kinds of stories is really magical.”

One of Halder’s former classmates also suffered abuse and the subsequent sweeping-under-the-rug at her Mennonite college, but it wasn’t until years later, while sitting on a planning committee for women’s leadership in the church, that Halder started seeing the real need to speak into the silence around abuse.

“Women in the church didn’t disagree with me, but they were scared to upset [things],” Halder said. “I realized, if this isn’t the space for sharing stories, I’ll create space.”

She continued, “I’ve never gotten pushback for my work. Most people say ‘I hadn’t thought about this before, and I can’t get this kind of conversation anywhere else.’ And, ‘thank you.’”

This is the beautiful side of breaking the silence. And as more advocates plant signposts in the church’s swamp of sexual violence, the muddiest waters are beginning to recede.

Marie Fortune can see this change happening, step by step. When she started her work in the 1970’s, there was “simply no conversation,” she said.

Fortune, founder of the Faith Trust Institute — a national multi-faith training network based in Seattle — was one of the earliest voices speaking out against sexual abuse in church. Trained in a rape crisis center, the young United Church of Christ seminarian saw a gap between faith communities and advocacy groups on conversations about sexual violence.

"Someone needed to put those two together. Christians in particular were really not prepared for the reality of the incredible number of survivors and victims,” Fortune said.

With the Faith Trust Institute, Fortune developed training curricula, policies, and protocol for clergy around two major blind spots in churches’ approaches to sexual violence: prevention of abuse, and responding to it.

In her 35 years of work across denominations and faiths, “the particular issue of sexual violence — rape, intimate partner violence — is the one that faith communities are least willing to tackle,” Fortune said.

Though newer to the field, Rev. Victoria Ferguson founded Kindred Moxie — a community leadership network — in Atlanta, for similar reasons.

Kindred Moxie trains interfaith leaders to become spokespeople on ending sexual violence and facilitates local-level dialogue between faith voices, nonprofits, churches, and local governance. Ferguson thought up Kindred Moxie when her previous work at hospitals and prisons changed her understanding of assault.

“So many survivors are just like me. [I realized] this could be me at any time,” she said.

As a social issue, sexual violence is inherently introduced and compounded in context. And to properly address it requires advocates like Fortune and Ferguson to address this context holistically.

“When I was a prison chaplain, every single woman I spoke with was a victim of sexual violence. Every single one,” Ferguson said. “That’s true for 94 percent of all women in prison. We can’t talk about sexual violence and not address homophobia, racism, sexism. It is not a silo.”

Fortune agrees.

“Sexual violence is a common denominator, across race and class,” she said. “Among extraordinarily vulnerable communities … the potential to be taken advantage of is huge.”

Ferguson, an ordained Baptist minister, includes theological “wrestling” with biblical accounts of abuse as part of her trainings.

“There’s a tremendous amount in the Old Testament, for example, that just stays hidden,” she said. “We have leaders discuss and talk about abuse in Scripture, and find ways to move forward. ”

Fortune agrees. “I feel really strongly that work in faith communities must be grounded in theology,” she said. “This has been a missed opportunity for the church for a long time. The response tends to center on fear of liability or risk reduction. [But] the commitment we have to each other, of care and wellbeing ... really begins the conversation.”

Decades of silence around sexual violence and abusive behaviors in the American church can be compounded in too many Christian pulpits by dangerous narratives of power and dominance. Yet advocates are working to remind those in the pews of a central tenant of the faith: the power of Christ in each of us.

While on speaking tours, Halder reminds her audience that they have divine agency.

“I want you to understand your own power to activate your own ideas,” she said, describing a frequent scenario with individuals who come across Our Stories Untold. “You tell me you want curriculum for 5-to-15-year-old boys? I can’t do that. But you absolutely can, in your own communities.”

Ferguson pointed to similar moments of agency that can signify a breakthrough for communities.

“I’m seeing men holding other men accountable,” she said. “These moments make huge differences.”

And Barrett Doyle, still a faithful member in her church, emphasized the importance of responsive readiness in the work of healing. She notes that Catholic Whistleblowers was born — as if by chance — out of years of establishing a reliable public record through Bishop’s Accountability.

“Whistleblowers is not my main work,” she said. “But I’m honored to midwife it. I really think this could be a game changer for the Catholic Church.”

This is the third in a Sojourners series on sexual violence in Christian communities.

Correction: an earlier version of this post named Anne Barrett Doyle as founder of Bishop Accountability. The project was founded by Terence McKiernan.