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Victim of Pastor Abuse Runs Support Network for Other Victims

Samantha Nelson and her husband Steve started The Hope of Survivors in 2002 after suffering abuse at the hands of their Adventist pastor. The support ministry now helps about a hundred victims every year directly and many other people through their website, training seminars, and counseling.

Question: You run a ministry called The Hope of Survivors for victims of abuse and misconduct at the hand of clergy. What is the main focus of The Hope of Survivors, and what are the main resources you provide?

Answer: The main focus of The Hope of Survivors is providing emotional and spiritual support to victims of clergy sexual abuse as well as providing educational seminars for clergy and congregations.

The Hope of Survivors takes a faith-based, scriptural approach to helping victims understand the devastation of clergy sexual abuse and how they can receive healing and wholeness by God’s grace. It is our mission and prayer that, through our website, educational seminars, one-to-one communication (phone, email and in person), media, printed resources, and in-house programs, victims will find answers and the truth about what’s happening to them. The Hope of Survivors seeks to: 

  • Educate the victims, clergy, church body, and the general public about clergy sexual abuse and misconduct, the frequency of occurrences, the moral and social implications involved, and the devastating consequences through national media by disseminating brochures and other related materials, by conducting educational seminars, and by maintaining up-to-date websites; 
  • Conduct retreats and seminars specifically for the victims of clergy sexual abuse and provide one-on-one support for the purpose of facilitating their healing and recovery, helping them to gain a greater understanding of what has happened to them, giving them hope and encouragement, and restoring their faith in their Creator; 
  • Work closely with churches that are dealing with the after-effects of an abuse situation for the purpose of helping them to understand the importance of providing a safe environment for all and for understanding the dynamics of clergy sexual abuse so that the church and the victim are not further damaged in the aftermath; 
  • Provide training seminars for clergy and church administrators for the purpose of disseminating prevention information and encouragement and to work closely with those who have violated their sacred trust. 

In short, the mission of The Hope of Survivors may be summed up in the motto: 

Reaching the Hurting: Ministering to those who have suffered abuse at the hands of clergy. 

Calling the Faithful: Providing resources and support to church leadership to help them remain true to their high calling. 

Bridging the Gap: Leading the hurting to hope through a healing relationship with Christ. 

How many people has your ministry helped so far? How many people do you calculate are victims of clergy abuse?

The website averages around 10,000 unique visitors per month. Many people never contact us directly since the website is so informational and helpful. We also average about 90-100 new clients (actual victims of clergy sexual abuse) who contact us directly for support each year from all states, countries and denominations. There have been multiple occasions where someone contacts us and tells us they have been reading the website for a number of years and just finally got the courage to reach out. That’s how devastating clergy sexual abuse is!

How do you define abuse by clergy?

Clergy sexual abuse or misconduct is when anyone in the role of spiritual authority abuses their sacred and fiduciary trust to take advantage of someone under their care. It can be a paid position, such as a pastor, teacher, counselor or Bible worker; or it can be a lay position, such as an elder, deacon, Pathfinder leader, etc.

It is interesting to note that many church manuals (including that of the Seventh-day Adventist Church) have policies against clergy sexual misconduct. I believe the following excerpt is a good definition from the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women from The United Methodist Church’s website.

Sexual Misconduct is defined as “behavior of a sexualized nature that betrays sacred trust, violates the ministerial role, and exploits those who are vulnerable in that relationship.”

Sexual abuse occurs when a person within a ministerial role of leadership (lay or clergy, pastor, educator, counselor, youth leader, or other position of leadership), “engages in sexual contact or sexualized behavior with a congregant, client, employee, student, staff member, coworker, or volunteer.” (2004 Book of Resolutions, p. 150-51)

Sexualized behavior is that “which communicates sexual interest and/or content. Examples include, but are not limited to displaying sexually suggestive visual materials; making sexual comments or innuendo about one’s own or another person’s body; touching another person’s body; hair; or clothing; touching or rubbing oneself in the presence of another person; kissing; and sexual intercourse.” (2004 Book of Resolutions, p. 151)

Sexual harassment is defined as “a continuum of behaviors that intimidate, demean, humiliate, or coerce. These behaviors range from the subtle forms that can accumulate into a hostile working, learning, or worshipping environment to the most severe forms of stalking, assault, or rape.” (2004 Book of Resolutions, p. 151)

This topic has received a huge amount of attention as relates to priests of the Catholic church with many people seeing it as a problem related to the required celibacy of Catholic priests. Is it really as much of a problem in non-Catholic churches? And is the problem actually widespread in the Adventist church? How do you know? 

Clergy sexual abuse or misconduct is a prevalent problem in every denomination and faith community. The Catholic Church does not own the market on clergy sexual abuse although it has had the most media exposure.

It is widespread in the Adventist church, based on reports we hear as well as the statistics we track from victims who contact us. (You can see statistics for a one year period in our 2015 Annual Report.) I suspect that one day there will be widespread media coverage of all the abuses that have taken place in the Adventist church that have been hidden or covered up. That is one reason why I wrote the article #SDAChurchToo—We Are Not Immune and It’s Time to Come Clean.

Why did you start The Hope of Survivors? What is your story?

My husband Steve and I started The Hope of Survivors because we felt compelled to do something to help others who were in a similar situation of being abused by a spiritual leader. When it happened to us, we thought we must be the only ones because it seemed like such an awful thing that certainly no other pastor could be so horrible. But we quickly realized that we were not the only ones at all and that there are, sadly, many abusive spiritual leaders out there. It’s interesting to note that many victims who contact the organization also believe they are the only ones this has ever happened to until they find our website and start reading other victim’s testimonies. You can read my testimony about being abused by my pastor there as well.

When did The Hope of Survivors begin? What goals did you have in mind at the beginning? How have those changed?

The Hope of Survivors was born one evening in December 2002 as Steve and I were reflecting upon our own experience of clergy sexual abuse and the lack of resources that were available to help us understand and heal. 

We felt compelled to develop a website that would provide information and encouragement to anyone who may be searching for answers. Steve and I felt that if “just one person” could be helped by the website, then it would be worth the effort and pain we had gone through. 

While our vision was initially limited in thinking “just one,” the Lord knew how many hurting people there were — suffering all alone and living without hope. There are many “ones” out there who have been touched and blessed by the ministry of The Hope of Survivors. Truly, God does work all things together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28) 

While our initial goal was to help victims find information on the website, it quickly turned into a full-time ministry as victims reached out for one-on-one support because they had nowhere else to turn. Additionally, it turned into a global ministry which is something we never even imagined!

What plans do you have for The Hope of Survivors over the next five or 10 years?

In addition to increasing our staff and funding base here in the U. S., we would like to strengthen and expand our current divisions (Australia, Romania, the UK, the Philippines, Latino, Canada, South Africa, Pastors’ Wives, etc.) as well as establish new divisions and have our website and other resources published in more languages.   

You and your husband Steve are Seventh-day Adventists, and you suffered abuse in an Adventist church. Do you mainly focus on Adventist clergy and Adventist victims?

Yes, we suffered abuse by an Adventist pastor in our local Adventist church in California. However, The Hope of Survivors provides support to victims of clergy sexual abuse from all faith communities and denominations. We have worked with Adventists, Catholics, Buddhists, and every denomination in between, including an atheist! 

In your experience, is clergy abuse any more or less of a problem in the Adventist denomination than in others? Do you have any statistics?

Every denomination and faith community struggles with issues of clergy sexual abuse. No denomination is immune. It is a human sin problem, not a denominational problem. In many ways, Adventists (like other conservative groups such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses) are apt to have a greater problem because we tend to isolate ourselves and medicate ourselves from within rather than seeking outside support and assistance. It actually breeds cover-up, collusion, and further abuse. 

There are no accurate statistics as most cases of clergy sexual abuse never get reported.

Is the problem of clergy abuse in the Adventist church a problem because of the church administration? Is there a lack of prevention? Lack of oversight? Poor structure for reporting and responding to allegations of abuse? Does the church hierarchy not respond appropriately or forcefully enough? Is there a pattern of covering up and moving pastors on as Catholic church higher-ups did?

Yes, to all those scenarios! It’s not any one thing but rather a combination of things that makes it difficult to eradicate clergy sexual abuse within our denomination. There’s a good ol’ boys club, sad to say, that covers for its own. We see that in administration, in local congregations, and in the self-supporting ministries as well. There are times when The Hope of Survivors will advocate directly with a Conference on behalf of a victim. Sometimes it goes very well; the Conference follows proper procedures; the offending pastor is removed from his position, and the victim is provided counseling. 

There are other times, however, when  things are handled so poorly by leadership that it creates much more devastation in the victim’s life and provides little or no consequences to the offending party. 

There is a poor structure for reporting, and that is an area where great improvement is needed. We have often wished that conferences would notify The Hope of Survivors immediately when they learn of an abusive situation because that way the victim could be assured of support while the investigation takes place and the outcome is awaited. It would go a long way toward preventing lawsuits against the Adventist church if they would utilize The Hope of Survivors rather than cutting off communication with the victims after the initial disclosure (quite often at the church’s attorney’s request). 

We need to do what is morally right as a church and not base our decisions on how great we think the pastor or spiritual leader is or what wonderful things they have done. If they have abused, they need to step down or be removed.

What are the solutions? What can the Adventist church do better to ensure that there are no victims of Adventist clergy abuse?

While it would be wonderful to be able to ensure there would never be another victim of clergy sexual abuse, it is undoubtedly a goal we will not be able to reach this side of heaven. However, we can certainly do much more to prevent clergy sexual abuse and, when it does occur, to prevent the re-victimization of the victims and to hold the abuser accountable.

We have conducted seminars for pastors and church leaders during worker’s meetings in several conferences in multiple states and countries. It is something that should be done everywhere and very often. It’s a topic that needs to be continually addressed. We also need to raise more awareness among our lay people as to the definition and existence of clergy sexual abuse and the fact that The Hope of Survivors exists.

The NAD Working Policy D80 has a basic outline of procedures to follow, but we felt it lacked much when it came to how to help the victim in the situation, so we wrote a document suggesting how the church should respond.

Who else in the Adventist church is discussing this topic?

To my knowledge, there is no other organization with Adventist ties that specifically works with victims of clergy sexual abuse as its main focus. There are other individuals who occasionally speak on this topic, such as Jennifer Schwirzer, who served on our board of directors for a number of years and now has her own counseling practice, as well as Sarah McDugal who now assists in our Pastors’ Wives’ Division. Ardis Stenbakken, when she served as General Conference Women’s Ministries Director, referenced The Hope of Survivors in the Abuse Prevention Emphasis campaign materials many years ago, and Nancy Wilson also referred to The Hope of Survivors in last year’s enditnow campaign video. 

Do you run The Hope of Survivors full time? What do you spend most of your time doing? Are there others who work with you?

Yes, The Hope of Survivors is my full-time job although for most of the past 15+ years it has been a full-time, unpaid position due to lack of funds. 

For the first seven to eight years of the ministry, I was the sole counselor/support person for 700-800 victims. Then, God blessed and brought a wonderful volunteer who took over the client care/support while I focused more on the administration of the global organization. 

The Hope of Survivors now has leaders in all of its overseas divisions and our Latino Division which is based in Texas. We also have a great board of directors, advisory panel, and roughly 20-30 volunteers on average. 

In 2016-2017, I was fortunate enough to have a paid executive assistant, but funds ran out, and we had to lay her off. If I could change one thing about The Hope of Survivors, it would be to have a firm foundation of funding to hire the staff we need. The workload is constantly increasing, and volunteers come and go although we have been blessed to have several who have been working with us for a number of years. God always sees us through!

What do you like to spend your time doing when not working on The Hope of Survivors?

There isn’t much time left! However, my husband is a pastor, and we believe it is very important to minister together, so I go with him whenever possible. He pastors four churches and a church school here in Wyoming, and that keeps us very busy--and very blessed!

To donate to The Hope of Survivors visit www.thehopeofsurvivors.com

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