GAR 225 | Clergy Sexual Abuse

 

Many of us find comfort within our church community, especially when we’re at a difficult time in our lives. For Sandy Phillips Kirkham, what was a place of warmth became a place of intense trauma when she was 16 years old.

In this episode, she sits down with Irene Weinberg to talk about her award-winning book, Let Me Prey Upon You, in which she details how a charismatic youth mister preyed upon her, betrayed her, left her broken with a shattered faith, and brought about the ultimate shame of being blamed and forced from the church she loved. 

Sandy also describes her healing journey that began when she confronted the minister during her quest for justice and closure 27 years after his heinous behavior began.  Now an advocate for other victims of clergy sexual abuse and child abuse, Sandy’s riveting, important story about dreadful clergy abuse is more than a story of intense trauma; it is an important story about healing and rebirth.

 

IN THIS EPISODE, YOU’LL HEAR ABOUT THINGS LIKE:

  • How a charismatic youth minister targeted an innocent 16-year-old and preyed upon her.
  • How grooming sets a victim up to accept unusual behaviors.
  • How the minister established control over Sandy and manipulated her. 
  • How Sandy eventually broke away from her abuser. 
  • Sandy’s husband’s reaction when he learned about the degrading abuse Sandy had hidden from him for 27 years.
  • The difference in perspective when the abuser is Catholic or non-Catholic. 
  • How the ministry called Hope of Survivors is helping victims of clergy sexual abuse.
  • How Sandy eventually forgave both herself and her abuser.
  • How Sandy’s confrontation with her abuser came about.

 

SOME QUESTIONS IRENE ASKS SANDY:

  • What made you a vulnerable target for your youth minister, who was a charismatic wolf in sheep’s clothing?
  • In what ways did your youth minister target you, groom you, and prey upon you when you were an innocent 16-year-old girl?
  • How did understanding the terms love bombing, grooming, gaslighting, and manipulation allow you to begin your healing process?
  • How did you eventually break away from your abuser?
  • Please tell us about the people who believed you, believed in you, and supported you as you journeyed toward healing and resolution.
  • How did your confrontation with your abuser come about?
  • What is the impact spiritually when abuse occurs within the church?
  • How were you able to eventually forgive yourself and your abuser?
  • What inspired you to become an advocate for a ministry called The Hope for Survivors?
  • What is your message about the importance of healing?
  • Abuse forever changes a person and healing takes time. Can there be joy again?

Watch the episode here

 

Listen to the podcast here

 

Sandy Phillips Kirkham: Finding Healing After Falling Prey Into Clergy Sexual Abuse

 

 

 

 

 

I’m delighted to have this opportunity to interview Sandy Kirkham from Cincinnati, Ohio. Sandy’s award-winning book is titled, Let Me Prey Upon You: Breaking Free from a Minister’s Sexual Abuse. It details her account of how a charismatic youth minister preyed upon her, betrayed her, left her broken with a shattered faith, and brought about the ultimate shame of being blamed and forced from the church she loved.

Despite a happy and successful life as a wife, mother, and friend, Sandy successfully concealed her abuse for 27 years until a trigger forced her to face the truth. Her journey of healing began when she confronted the minister during her quest for justice and closure. Sandy has spoken before the Ohio Senate, a Maryland Court on a local TV show in Boston in a documentary, and she has worked with survivors of clergy abuse. She is now a volunteer for a ministry called The Hope of Survivors, and she serves on the Board of the Council on Child Abuse.

I’m looking forward to talking with Sandy about her journey from an innocent 16-year-old victim to a survivor and advocate. The healing that began for her when she confronted her sexual predator and the church elders who condoned his heinous behavior. How she was able to eventually forgive both herself and her abuser, and more for what is a riveting, important story about trauma, grief, healing, and rebirth after a dreadful clergy abuse. Sandy, a warm welcome truly from my heart to the show.

Thank you. It’s good to be here.

Let’s begin with this question so everyone can get to know you and where you were coming from with all of this. Could you please tell us about your childhood and what made you a vulnerable target for your youth minister who was a charismatic wolf in sheep’s clothing, to say the least?

 

GAR 225 | Clergy Sexual Abuse

 

The biggest factor was the fact that my parents divorced when I was eight years old, and we moved immediately into my stepfather’s house. It was a traumatic moment in my life. It turned everything upside down in my world. My insecurities about who I was and what life was about started then. I was the oldest of five children, so there was a lot of chaos and hubbub in the house.

The church for me provided a very warm and welcoming place. My parents didn’t attend church, but I was asked by my neighbor to go with her, and I loved everything about that church when I went. As a young child, I went to church camp, Vacation Bible School. I eventually would teach Sunday school and I would sing in the choir. It was a place that I loved. This pastor saw not only my vulnerabilities but my complete trust in the church which allowed him to see me as someone as easy prey.

That church gave you the support, love, care, and connection that you were missing at home. It filled in all those blanks, so here he came. In what ways did he target you, groom you, and prey upon you when you were an innocent 16-year-old girl?

He first tapped into the fact that I was a leader in the church. I remember the very first time I met him, he said hello to me. He took my hand and he wouldn’t let go of it as he talked. I remember thinking, “That’s weird. He’s holding onto my hand. I don’t know why he’s doing that.” I just dismissed it. I was 16 years old and he’s my pastor, but then it started beginning with the church and getting me more involved.

He started taking me to places like hospital visits, and he would find time to spend time with me to read the Bible. I babysat for his family. His wife worked in the evening, so that gave him the perfect opportunity to spend time with me. Like I said, we would sit and read the Bible, we talk about church, and none of that seemed out of line to me because he was my pastor.

As I talk about the grooming process, it is establishing an emotional connection with the victim to get them to become not only dependent upon their abuser. I liked the attention. I felt special in the church because of all the attention he was giving. It is also a way that the victim becomes not only dependent, but she starts to accept behavior in this individual that she wouldn’t normally accept in another person. It’s because he was my pastor.

GAR 225 | Clergy Sexual Abuse

Clergy Sexual Abuse: Grooming is a way the victim becomes not only dependent but starts to accept behavior in this individual that she wouldn’t normally accept in another person.

 

The first time he kissed me was at my home after a youth group meeting. He waited for everyone to leave. I was standing there. He was telling me how wonderful I was, how great I was in the church, and how much he appreciated me helping in his ministry. It was to no one’s surprise that he tapped into me because I was already a leader in the church. All of a sudden, he bent down and kissed me. It was this quick innocent kiss, so I couldn’t figure out what it was.

Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3.

That’s exactly what it was, and because it was like this quick innocent kiss, it was easy for him to dismiss it if I questioned him, but it also made it easier for me to dismiss it because I’m thinking, “This is my pastor. He wouldn’t be doing anything he shouldn’t be doing.” That’s an example of me accepting something in the behavior of this person because he is my pastor that I wouldn’t have accepted from my neighbor down the street. When I babysat for him, he would wait before he would take me home. We’d spend hours together while his wife was at work.

I thought about that later. If this had been my 30-year-old neighbor down the street that wanted to sit all evening and talk to me, I would’ve gone home to my mom and said, “This is weird.” He doesn’t take me home after the kids are in bed. He wants to sit and talk to me. Why would I, as a 16-year-old, want to talk to a 30-year-old man? I wouldn’t normally, but my pastor was different. Again, I didn’t see my dad very often. My parents were divorced. I looked after him as a father figure. I craved those times with him and then it slowly started where the touching started, and the kissing became more passionate until eventually, he had sex with me.

Once he had that control over you, he manipulated and betrayed you even more. He even left you with your shattered faith, and then he brought about the ultimate shame when you were abandoned forcefully from the church you loved. A talented guy perpetrated all of this on you, and you took the fall. What was that about? How long were you involved with him?

Five years. It went from the time I was 16 until I was 21. It’s also important. You’ve mentioned it. He was very charismatic. The church loved him. People looked up to him. They treated him like a rock star. He was like a cult leader. It was to no one’s surprise, at least, that when he was caught, two people in the church became suspicious.

About the two of you?

Yes. They followed him one night and found us in a hotel room. Once he was caught, they rallied around him because he was a wonderful person. They looked at me as this young teenage girl who trapped him. I was told that because of my behavior, I was to leave the church. This was after they had given him a going away party with lavish gifts and money, and sent him to the next church.

This will come as no surprise to you and to some of your audience. This was not the first time he had been accused of sexual misconduct. Shortly after he arrived at our church, a young woman from his first church came forward and accused him of inappropriate behavior. He didn’t deny it. He said he was sorry. He begged for forgiveness. The elders decided to forgive him. No information was given to the congregation. My parents weren’t aware of anything about his past. Within six months of that accusation, he was kissing me in my hallway.

When I was told that I was to leave the church, I was devastated. This was my whole life. I had believed what I’d been taught, that we could be forgiven for our sins that I thought I had committed. For him to be forgiven, and then for me to take the fall and the blame only reinforced what those five years had taught me with him. That I wasn’t worthy of love, that I deserved this, that no one would love me he could, and the only reason he can still love me is that no one else would because I was no longer a virgin. All of that was told to me over and over.

He would tell these things to you?

Yes, absolutely.

He took your virginity away from you, and now he’s telling you you’re not worthy.

That’s the gaslighting where they will tell you things over and over again to a point where you no longer trust your own judgment. To a point where you feel like they’re in control and they know what they’re saying and doing. To question that only is met with, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You misunderstood what I said. That’s not true.”

You’re crazy-making.

They’re crazy-making. That’s exactly what it was. The other thing I need to point out too is once he had sex with me, then it was, “You can’t ever tell anyone. If you do, no one’s going to believe you and you’re going to be blamed.” Let me say, at 16 to 17 years old, I know sex is wrong outside of marriage, and it’s certainly wrong with a married man with two children who’s my pastor. For me, it was about the shame of people finding this out about me, as opposed to telling on him. He kept me in that trap that way to threaten me. He became violent at one point. He hit me. All of those things added to my sense of, “I have no way out of this.”

You poor thing. You couldn’t go to your mother and you couldn’t go to your father.

No. Even though there were people around me that I probably could have told, I tell people, just because there’s a way out of the forest doesn’t mean you can see that way out. I truly did not feel like I had any choice but to stay with this person. I always thought that I will never get married and I’ll never have children. This will only be over when he says it’s over. Thankfully, two people did become suspicious and his actions were discovered, but then the end result was I was blamed.

Just because there's a way out of the forest doesn't mean you can see that way out. Share on X

You were the one who took the fall for that. That’s terrible. We’ve talked about what love bombing is because he bombed you with love and told you you’re wonderful. He then groomed you. He then gaslit you to make you crazy, and then he manipulated you. When did you begin to understand those terms to allow you to begin your healing process?

Not until 27 years later. Once I was kicked out of the church. That’s the term I use. I wasn’t asked to leave. I was kicked out of the church.

That’s terrible. You were a kid.

I will also say that as devastating as his abuse was, the reaction of that church probably had more of a traumatic effect on me for the rest of my life than the actual abuse.

When I read your book, I was mad at the church elders. He was a sick puppy, but what was their story?

They enabled it. This was after they knew about him for the first time. He does it again the second time with me. What do they do? They move him to the next church where, to no one’s surprise, he commits sexual misconduct again. Of course, he does. That’s what’s going to happen. For me, the healing didn’t begin until after 27 years. Let me talk about what the trigger was that forced me to learn about my past and forget about it.

Before you talk about that, can I also ask because everybody’s wondering, how did you get away from him?

Once he moved away physically, he moved to another church. That didn’t mean he didn’t continue to call me, which he did. He continued to write. He expected me to come down and visit him in his new church in Tennessee. Being away from him gave me a little more strength to be able to say no at times. At one point, he insisted that I come to see him. I was going to have a date with my future husband. I started crying and I said, “Please don’t ask me to come. I can’t come this weekend. I promise I’ll come next weekend.” I don’t know that I can even describe to you the control he had over me. There was fear. My mind was at a point where whatever he said I needed to do, I would do.

You were brainwashed.

I was. In my book, I talk about some very horrific things that he told me to do that I acquiesced and did. For the longest time, I was shameful and felt guilty about that. Once my healing began, I understood that this was an abusive relationship that I had no control over. It’s what was done to me, not just what happened to me. I got away from him because I was able to be physically away from him. When I met my husband, I saw what a good relationship could be. I didn’t know where this relationship with my husband would go when we were dating, but it opened my eyes that there was love out there that I did never have the past five years.

GAR 225 | Clergy Sexual Abuse

Let Me Prey Upon You: Breaking Free from a Minister’s Sexual Abuse

You got an angel. That’s all I can say. We’ll talk about that later. I had one of those. I know a good man when I read about him. Tell us about that trigger 27 years later that forced you to face this truth. I especially want everyone to hear your husband, the angel’s reaction when he learned about the degrading abuse you’d hidden from him for 27 years.

You have to also understand, I never saw this relationship as abusive. I saw it as I’d had an affair with a married man who was my pastor. I never saw it as abuse. I saw myself as a contributor to this relationship and I agreed to it. That was a lot of guilt and shame that I carried. My friends never knew. My husband didn’t know, because think about this, how bad do you have to be to be kicked out of a church? That was certainly something I didn’t want anyone to know. The trigger that forced me to look at my past, I was driving to one of my daughter’s golf tournaments, and it was in Tennessee. I happened to pass the exit sign to the church that he had moved to after leaving our church. It sent me into a tailspin.

I was sobbing. I couldn’t control myself driving. I had to pull off to the side of the road. I sat and I sobbed. For the first time, I felt something inside of me that said, “He did something awful to you and you didn’t deserve it.” I couldn’t put the word abuse to it at that point, but I knew that there was something wrong and that it wasn’t my fault.

From that point, I began studying and googling everything I could about clergy sexual abuse. That’s when I learned the terms grooming, gaslighting, and love bombing. It opened my eyes because I could look back and say, “That’s what he was doing to me. He didn’t care for me. He didn’t love me like he said. He was doing these things to take advantage of me and to keep me under his control.”

He did not know what love was. He’s obviously a very damaged person himself.

He’s a narcissistic individual. He abused his wife. Fortunately, she eventually divorced him. He doesn’t have the capacity for empathy or for concern. Once he got me to that, having sex with me, he totally changed. He was no longer a caring individual. He was very controlling and manipulative. I saw a totally different person. Yet, he would have sex with me on a Saturday night and stand in the pulpit on a Sunday morning and preach about the sanctity of marriage.

For me, the only way I could figure out what was going on in my life was to accept it because it was too hard for me to try to reconcile with this person whom everyone loved and who was saying he was a man of God. On one hand, you would look at him and think, “He was a wonderful person. How did I reconcile that with the man who I saw?” At some point, it was a matter of me accepting this relationship.

I want everyone to hear about your husband’s reaction when you told him. I also want them to hear about the people who believed you, believed in you, and supported you through your healing journey. When you’re faced with such abuse, I don’t think you can face it alone, but you have to discern the safe people who can be there with you. God bless them for doing that. Do you want to tell us about your angel and your friends?

 

GAR 225 | Clergy Sexual Abuse

 

Let me start with my friends. I had a good core group of 5 to 6 women that were my very good friends, but I only told my very best friend first. I have to tell you. The words, “Never tell and you’ll be blamed,” never left my consciousness. When I went to tell her, for 15, 20, 30 minutes, I don’t know how long, I couldn’t get the words out.

I was so afraid that once I said that, what was going to happen? I had spent almost a lifetime protecting that secret and now I was going to let it go. She was wonderful. She was kind. She was angry at him, which validated in my mind. He was wrong and he shouldn’t have done what he did to me. I then slowly told 2 or 3 other friends because as you pointed out, you have to have that trust in your friends.

For so long, I was so afraid of people finding out my secret that now I was going to let it go. I had to be sure. I did tell my story, but I told it in bits and pieces because I would tell a piece to say, “Let’s see how they react to this. What if I tell them he asked me to do this and I did it? What are they going to say?” All along the way, I got nothing but love and support. That is so important to healing. You need that support.

I eventually then told my husband and I was most afraid of telling him, not because I didn’t think he would care and understand, but because those doubts kept creeping into my mind. I had to calm myself to say, “This is the man who loves me and he’s going to support me.” I thought, “Is he going to wonder why I kept a secret from him?”

There was a part of you that maybe was afraid of losing him ultimately. You get so frightened and you’re so brainwashed that it’s a secret.

The trauma lasts forever. The trauma’s still talking to me. The trauma and his voice are still there saying, “You shouldn’t tell. You didn’t tell.” I feared that he would wonder why I couldn’t trust him to have told him sooner. Would he see me differently sexually? Would that play into it? All of those fears were for naught. He could not have been any more kinder. He was angry at what was done to me. He supported me. At that point when I told him, I said, ” I want to find my abuser and confront him.”

He was concerned about that and he was rightfully so, because one of the points that he made to me was, “Sandy, he’s not going to care. He’s going to tell and say what he needs to do to keep his job,” because he’s still a minister at this point. He was worried that my expectations of what would happen at this meeting would be too high and that I would be disappointed. For me, I just felt like I needed to look him in the eye and say to him, “You had no right to do what you did to me.”

 

It was more for you than anything, just for your catharsis and your healing.

I tell victims, it’s not something everyone can or should do. Not everyone has the opportunity because their abuser has died. For me, it was what I needed to do. The best advice my husband gave to me was this, “Sandy, no one knows what you have gone through. No one understands your pain and trauma. You need to do what you think is best for your own healing.” When he gave me that, he opened it up for me. It was like, he was going to support me no matter what I say or do. I may screw it up and I may be sorry I confronted this guy, but he’s going to have my back regardless. That was wonderful.

No one knows what you have gone through. No one understands your pain and trauma. You need to do what you think is best for your own healing. Share on X

Your husband’s also an attorney so that probably gave you a little bit of courage.

The other thing I will say is that helped me to face him. Believe me, it was not easy to do. It was horrible to do. However, I knew that he couldn’t deny it. Many victims will go back to their abuser or tell someone and the abuser says, “She misunderstood that. I don’t know what she’s talking about.” He couldn’t deny it.

Why did you feel he couldn’t deny it?

It’s because he was caught. He’d been caught. It was made public to part of the congregation. I also knew about his second incident in the next church where they kicked him out finally. I knew that he couldn’t deny it. Now, I have to tell you, I was worried that I would walk into that room and be 16 all over again. It didn’t happen.

Were you there with your husband?

My husband was with me. I took my friend who was at the church at the time, just in case he was going to try to spin anything. I also took my counselor. Four of us were in the room with him. He did what I thought might happen. He made excuses. He said that he’d had an alcoholic father. He said that he’d been in counseling. He’d been identified as a sexual addict, which at one point I’m thinking, “Why does a church hire a sexual addict with a history, but he’s still a minister?

We’ll get to talking about how those elders reacted. Why did they do it? They’re in denial themselves. Maybe they somehow think he’s cool, wonderful, or right. I wanted to ask you about the impact spiritually when abuse occurs within a church. Is there a difference in perspective when the abuser is Catholic or non-Catholic? You hear a lot about this in the Catholic church also.

I’ve worked with a lot of Catholic victims. I don’t know that there’s much of a difference. The only thing I would say is that many of the Catholic victims are small boys. That affects them in a way that they feel they might be homosexual because they’ve had sex with this man. I think they have a little bit of extra baggage. As far as trauma goes, probably in the Catholic church, the priest is looked up to and is looked at as God more so than in the Protestant churches, so that probably adds to their trauma. Now they feel like they’re somehow having sex with God. That messes up your mind big time.

This happens in every denomination and every faith community. People will say to me, “I’m not Catholic and I don’t have to worry about this.” I said, “I wasn’t Catholic and I should have worried about it, and I didn’t. My mother should have worried about it.” We trust our spiritual leaders. That’s what we do. That’s how I think the Catholics and the Protestants are different.

I tell people in all situations, “You have to be discerning.” I’ve come across people in the spiritual world who ended up not being such righteous people. They talk the talk, but they don’t necessarily walk the talk. I’ve experienced that. You have to be discerning about who you’re dealing with.

Those abusers and perpetrators use that cloak of faith as a weapon. They know that they’re automatically trusted over another individual and that our defenses are down around them. We don’t question their behavior. I tell people, “If you see a priest, a rabbi, or a pastor doing something that you find a little unsavory or questionable, if it’s not a behavior you would accept in another individual, then don’t accept it just because they wear a robe. That behavior needs to be questioned. You don’t allow it to pass just because they’re clergy.”

 

 

This is an important interview because it’ll help people not be quite so naive in those situations. This is a big one. How were you able to eventually forgive yourself and your abuser? People talk about forgiveness, especially that we’re talking about in a church setting. I’ve learned that forgiveness is more about letting go than forgetting, but how did that work out for you?

It took me about two years. It wasn’t something that came easy to me. I began to forgive myself when I educated myself. I understood that I was sexually abused. This man in a position of power had control over me and I didn’t have the control to stop him. I was targeted for my vulnerabilities. He then preyed upon me with my vulnerabilities by pretending to help me. I understood that, but it took me a long time. Many victims will tell you, they continually go back into their mind, “Why didn’t I say no? Why didn’t I do this? I should have said this.”

There’s nothing you could have done or should have done that would’ve changed the situation you were in because it wasn’t a fair fight you were in. You were targeted and you were preyed upon. You were a weaker prey to a predator. That was how I finally was able to let go of the guilt and shame that I carried for 27 years. In forgiving him, I found that for 27 years, I carried guilt and shame. After I confronted him, I was carrying anger and hatred. That wasn’t working for me because I was spending so much of my time being angry at this man for what he had done, how he had changed my life, and what he had taken from me.

GAR 225 | Clergy Sexual Abuse

Clergy Sexual Abuse: There’s nothing you could have done or should have done that would have changed the situation you were in because it wasn’t a fair fight you were in. You were targeted and you were preyed upon.

 

Finally, I came to the conclusion that I had to let go of it because it was eating away at me. I would wake up in the morning and find myself after a nightmare of him and a nightmare about him so angry, and I wasted the day. I thought to myself one day, “I’ve been angry all day at this man. I can’t do anything about it.” I’ll bet you, he hasn’t given me one ounce of thought. Not one. I needed to let go of him because as long as I was angry at him and have this hatred, he was still a part of my life. He was in my life every single day that I thought about him in anger.

Now, it doesn’t mean that I don’t believe there should be consequences for their behavior. That’s not what forgiveness means. It doesn’t mean I remained silent. He called me a few months after I confronted him, angry at me because I was speaking out about this abuse. He said, “You said you would try to forgive me.” That’s not what forgiveness is. There are consequences and the victim has a right to heal. My healing meant that I needed to speak about my abuse.

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What did you say to him when he said that to you? Now that you’re the adult listening to the same BS and you’re educated, what was your response?

I said to him, “That has nothing to do with whether I forgive you or not. If you didn’t want me to speak like this about you, you should have behaved differently. This is the result of how you’ve behaved and what you did to me. If there are to be any issues on this, it’s because you created it, not me.” I didn’t have a very long conversation with him. I was just shocked that he called me, which again, shows me that he’s not repenting or deserves forgiveness.

He’s manipulative.

He’s calling me and telling me I’m emotionally blackmailing him, which I thought was rich, considering all the emotional blackmail he went through for five years over me. These men don’t change. If he’d been truly repentant, the first time he got caught with that first girl in his first church, he would’ve said, “I have a problem and I don’t belong in the ministry.” That’s what a repentant person does. The alcoholic knows he can’t go back to the bar. He knows he’s weak in that area.

I didn’t believe him when he said he was sorry. I wanted him to say he was sorry for the pain he caused me, and he couldn’t articulate that. He was sorry that it happened. He was sorry that he was the person he was that caused him to do this, but he never understood the pain he caused and what he had done to my spiritual life.

It was all about him. He didn’t have that capacity. Let’s talk about, Let Me Prey Upon You: Breaking Free from a Minister’s Sexual Abuse. I want to tell everyone, it’s a worthwhile book for you to read. It had me spellbound, Sandy. What would you like everyone to know? It’s an important story. You talked more about your story than we’re touching on here. Is there anything you’d like people to know who are considering getting the book for themselves or sharing it in their house of worship or whatever?

I’m very proud of the book, and I do think it is a book that should probably be in every church library. My purpose in writing the book was twofold. I wanted people to understand how clergy sexual abuse works, how manipulative a person in a position of spirituality can be, and how easy it is for a person to fall prey to them. I talk about that a lot, but I also wrote it because I wanted victims to understand that healing is possible and how my journey may help them in their own journey.

Each of us is going to take a different path to healing, but many of our paths are the same. We have to learn to forgive ourselves. We have to understand that we didn’t deserve what was done to us, which is what I believe for so many years. We need to understand and believe that any guilt and shame that we carry belongs squarely to our abusers. It’s not ours to carry.

We need to tell our secret. We can’t carry around the secret of abuse. I know that’s hard to do because I spent 27 years protecting a secret. This is coming from someone who knows how hard it is to tell. You need to find a trusted friend, a counselor, or anyone that you know that would accept and believe your truth of abuse.

If you’ve been abused in the church, I would highly suggest that you choose someone outside of the church to tell. There may be someone in the church that might respond in the right way, but I wouldn’t take that chance. What also happens with these men in clergy positions, they also groom and manipulate the entire congregation and get them on their side. There is this tendency to support the offending pastor, priest, or rabbi, as opposed to supporting the victim.

When you confronted some of the elders, they were not at all supportive of you, even after all these years had gone by and you confronted the ones who empowered him, and they didn’t care.

When I confronted his elders, I sent eleven letters to each of his elders, and not one responded back. They were like, “Ignore her and hopefully, she’ll go away.” I then went to his denominational leaders. Again, I was shut down. I requested a meeting with my former church which kicked me out of the church. None of the elders were there at the time, but that church needed to take accountability for what was done to me 27 years earlier. They were very gracious in giving me a meeting. Every one of them apologized for what was done to me and offered me any support that I needed. They did the right thing, albeit, 27 years later. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate that and how much it did aid in my healing.

I’m glad to hear that.

There are good men in church positions, and there are good churches out there, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t vigilant knowing that there are some characters out there who do evil things.

In every walk of life.

They are wolves and sheep’s clothing. They needed to be treated as wolves.

You flip the page, you’re doing your healing, and now you have transformed to become an advocate. You’re an advocate for a ministry called The Hope of Survivors, and you serve on the Board of the Council on Child Abuse. Tell us about that in other ways that you’re helping to help people in these situations. Thank goodness for that.

In the Hope of Survivors Ministry, you can go to their website. It’s The Hope of Survivors. They help mostly adult women who have been abused by clergy. As I’ve said, abuse is abuse. A lot of the same techniques are used on men, children, and adults. It doesn’t matter.

Does something pop up if someone says clergy abuse? Where do they go about it? That will pop up for that?

Yes. Type in The Hope of Survivors, and it’ll pop up. It’s also on my website. If they go to my website, I’ve got a lot of information about books that they can read and websites that are available. I encourage victims who are hesitant to talk to anyone. You can find a lot of websites where you can be anonymous and share your story as a beginning. There’s a lot of good help out there, but The Hope of Survivors is one. Again, it’s on my website and it’s in the back of my book as well.

Council on Child Abuse is an organization that I am on the board of. That helps go into the schools and teach about sexual abuse and bullying because kids who are bullied are primed for sexual abuse later. We try to help children teach about why we shouldn’t bully and how to stop bullying, and then also how to prevent sexual abuse and understand what good touch and bad touch are. That’s what Council on Child Abuse does.

GAR 225 | Clergy Sexual Abuse

Clergy Sexual Abuse: Kids who are bullied are prime for sexual abuse later.

 

I’m going to slip into your wisdom for a minute because that is an issue a lot of people deal with. How do we prevent bullying? How do you talk to the kid who is bullying and the kid who is being bullied? How do you advise in that situation? That’s a very common problem in this world.

It is. We have trained professionals who go in and talk to these children. I would also say that when a child is the one who is doing the bullying, that’s a red flag. That child has some issues in his life and needs to be treated. Not so much as a big old bully that needs to be reprimanded, but to dig deeper and find out why he is so insecure that he has the need to bully.

The programs that we provide are good for both ends of that. We hope that it reaches the child who’s doing the bullying and the child who’s being bullied. We need people in the schools and families to recognize that, when a kid says, “He called me a name.” “Names don’t hurt you.” Yes, they do hurt. If you’re bullied constantly, then you start to believe you’re fat, you’re dumb, you’re not pretty enough, or whatever the bullying is the result of.

It’s important that we stop that as soon as we can because as I said earlier, those are the kids who are going to be looked at as easy prey by a predator. They’re looking for someone who’s going to be kind to them. They’re going to be looking for someone who’s going to treat them in a way that they want to be treated. They look for the person who’s going to say, “You’re very pretty. You’re very smart.” They’re going to latch onto that predator.

What is a good thing to say to a kid who’s bullying other kids to get them to stop that behavior? Do you have anything?

That’s a long process. I don’t think there’s just one thing. Again, I’m on the board, so I don’t do all the training per se. Kindness though has to be a part of it. I know it is a part of it when our trainers work with these kids because again, they are the ones that have issues in their life as well. I’ll have to think about that one. That’s a good question.

Let me know when you come up with that because I would love to put that on Facebook or whatever social media because a lot of people talk about trying to help the child being bullied. How do you stop the kid who’s doing the bullying? They think he’s very cool. He’s part of a group or whatever they’re doing, and he doesn’t think he or she has a problem.

I know that that’s part of the program, but I’ll talk to one of the trainers. I will get back to you on that. You’re right. It’s important because they are going to continue doing that and hurt a lot of people and children along the way.

They’re going to continue to do it unless you can get them to stop.

The other thing, bullying may start as name-calling. When they get to be older and teenagers, that bullying’s going to be more physical.

How bad if it ends up in the workforce and you’ve got a boss who’s a bully or whatever that is? It would be good for people to know how to stop that. I think you have a discount on your incredible book.

I do. It’s 20% off. It’s on my website. It’s SandyPhillipsKirkham.com. It’s my maiden name in there. You go to that website.

From you of all people, what is your message about the importance of healing that you’d like to share with our audience?

The first thing is, I would say it is absolutely not your fault. This was something that didn’t just happen. It was done to you purposely, and you had no control over it. You need to understand and believe that. Secondly, I would say you need to tell someone, and again, I know how difficult that is. Find a support group, whether it’s online, an individual, or a counselor. You need a support group. You cannot do this alone.

 

GAR 225 | Clergy Sexual Abuse

 

I also would say you need to face your pain. It’s not easy to heal. Healing is a difficult process, but it’s worth it. For me, I was looking for an end. It isn’t an end. Our trauma and abuse will always be a part of our lives, but it doesn’t have to define your life. It doesn’t define your life. You are not who your abuser said you were. You are not the result of your abuse. You need to live the life that you deserve to live, and you can do that. Hope and healing is possible.

You need to face your pain. It's not easy to heal. Healing is a difficult process, but it's worth it. Share on X

There can be joy again. What is your advice about finding joy again? Some people feel that they’d have the trauma and pain, they can’t let themselves be free.

First of all, by telling your truth, you are freeing yourself. When you’re free, you can then find joy. When you’re trapped in a lie, when you’re trapped in your abuse, when you’re trapped in a secret, you can’t have joy in your life. For me, I was spending all my energy trying to keep this secret and trying to make myself feel better about myself.

Telling your truth will free you enough to find that joy and you deserve it. That’s the other thing we need to remind ourselves of. Our abusers take our self-esteem and put it to a point where we don’t believe we’re worthy of happiness. Even when I was happily married with two great kids, I always felt like I didn’t deserve it. We do deserve it. You deserve it. That’s what I would say to victims, of whether it’s clergy abuse or any other abuse, be kind to yourself. You’ve had a traumatic event in your life that has changed you.

Wrap yourself in your own hug while looking for it from others. Isn’t it wonderful? I’m sure the joy that you feel now is so much deeper and more beautiful, every moment of it than it was before because it’s clean. You cleared out the debris. Sandy, you state that the abuser will always be a part of his victim’s life, but he doesn’t have to define his victim’s life.

Indeed, you’ve shown tremendous strength and courage by speaking before the Ohio Senate, a Maryland Court, on a local TV show in Boston, and in a documentary. You’ve worked with survivors. Now, your award-winning, Let Me Prey Upon You: Breaking Free from a Minister’s Sexual Abuse is your potent platform, from which you can help even more victims of clergy abuse.

Thank you from my heart for your strength and your courage in sharing your riveting journey from trauma and grief to profound healing and rebirth. Make sure to follow us and like us on social @IreneSWeinberg on Instagram, Facebook, and wherever you get your social media. As I like to say, to be continued. Many blessings. Bye for now. Thank you so much, Sandy.

Thank you.

I’m so happy for you that your life turned out and you’re helping so many people the way you are.

Thank you.

 

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About Sandy Kirkham

GAR 225 | Clergy Sexual AbuseSandy Kirkham and her husband Bill enjoy life with their two grown children, two beautiful granddaughters, and two fairly well-behaved dogs. Sandy continues to use her voice to help victims of clergy abuse. She currently serves on the board of Council Against Child Abuse. Sandy has spoken before the Ohio Senate, a Maryland court, and appeared on a local television show in Boston. Her story, “Stolen Innocence,” was told in a documentary produced by The Hope of Survivors.

Sandy works with survivors conducting victim support conferences. She has participated in The Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) panels moderated by SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), sharing her perspective from the non-Catholic point of view. Sandy has been a presenter/speaker at major events on clergy abuse including the Hope & Healing Conference.

Sandy has earned a certificate of completion from the Faith Trust Institute entitled, “A Sacred Trust: Boundary Issues for Clergy and Spiritual Teachers.”

 

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