A Letter to Church That I Love
By Janet DiGiacomo and Daniel Burke
September 12, 2018
Dear church that I love:
On August 14, a grand jury report detailing the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church and underlying cover-up was released here in the state of Pennsylvania where I serve as a pastor. The “40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury Report”starts out:
“We, the members of this grand jury, need you to hear this. We know some of you have heard some of it before. There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. But never on this scale. For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere.”
This report has triggered emotions that for me are all too personal. I’ve read numerous Facebook posts from Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) colleagues who’ve decried that the Catholic Church must change, and that Catholic leaders must tell the truth now. Some of these colleagues have even expressed a sense of gratitude that the PC(USA) does not engage in this sort of malicious behavior. But I know an experience in the PC(USA) that is all too similar to that of our brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church.
I am Rev. Kris Schondelmeyer, and I am a survivor of clergy sexual abuse in the PC(USA). Many have heard my name because of the news stories, both religious and secular, that have highlighted the civil suit that I filed against the church that I love and serve. But, to my brothers and sisters, and to my colleagues and friends in ministry in the PC(USA), I need you to hear this. Clergy sexual abuse happens in the PC(USA), and unless we make substantial changes it will continue to happen. This is my story.
In November of 2012, on the fifth anniversary of my father’s death and about a month before my wedding, I began having vivid nightmares of the violent sexual assault that I suffered in my youth at the hands of a former Presbyterian lay pastor and youth chaperone, Jack Wayne Rogers. That sexual assault took place at Connection 2000, a national Presbyterian youth conference. Since the nightmares began, I’ve been on a healing journey in hopes that seeking accountability and truth-telling might help to prevent what happened to me from ever happening again.
Initially, I did an internet search to try to find out if my abuser was still in a position to hurt other children. I learned that he is currently in prison for other dangerous sexual crimes, serving a 30-year federal sentence. Apparently, I wasn’t his only victim. In fact, news stories have highlighted that my abuser has been investigated as a possible suspect in the disappearance of a boy who went missing less than a year after Rogers violently assaulted me. Through colleagues of mine in Toledo, Ohio, where I was serving as a pastor at the time, we reached out anonymously to the Office of the General Assembly (OGA). The OGA informed us that since my abuser was no longer under jurisdiction of the church, there was nothing the church could do.
I then drove from Ohio to Maryland, where the Connection 2000conference had been held, to make a criminal complaint hoping it would ensure my abuser remains in custody. I was heartbroken when lawyers for the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) refused to share information about the conference with the detective, even when presented with a subpoena from the state of Maryland. PMA attorneys cited that their refusal to share information was because the subpoena was not acquired in the appropriate jurisdiction in the state of Kentucky. Subpoena or not, it was unconscionable to me that the PC(USA) would not readily share information in a criminal investigation into the sexual abuse of a child at one of their youth conferences.
Therefore, following the advice of the PC(USA)’s recommended child protection policy, I hired civil council and filed suit against the church that I love and serve seeking answers and accountability. In the course of filing the civil suit, it was discovered that my abuser had previously served prison time in the early 1990s for felony child pornography charges. And it has been discovered that multiple church leaders knew this information and intentionally concealed it from parents of the youth attending the conference. In fact, the PC(USA) has admitted through their attorney, in a one-page summary of the findings of an investigative panel convened to look into the abuse, that Rogers had submitted a statement intended “to explain his arrest, conviction, and imprisonment in 1992 for receiving child pornography,” and that the presbytery’s Committee on Commissioned Lay Pastors approved his application. The document also states that “the presbytery, even though there are witnesses who claimed they tried to warn Presbytery officials about the dangers Rogers posed, selected Rogers as a chaperone” for Connection 2000.
For those who don’t believe what happened in the Catholic Church could happen in the PC(USA), I am living proof of that dangerous naivete. Presbytery leaders thought they were showing Rogers grace by giving him a second chance, but I don’t get a second chance to choose whether or not to trust that pastor. What happened to me will always affect my life. They thought they were showing him forgiveness, but forgiveness does not mean the absence of accountability. It is not grace to allow a convicted child pornographer to be commissioned as a lay pastor or to be allowed to chaperone youth. Grace doesn’t hurt people.
The corporate board for PMA and OGA, known as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Corporation, settled the civil suit in exchange for minimal restitution for counseling and three non-monetary requests meant to lead to the protection of future children. The most important of those requests to me was an agreement to do an independent investigation that would lead to truth-telling. The agreement stated that the A Corporation would “cause any specific findings or recommendations from the investigation to be reported at the next gathering of the General Assembly in 2016.”
However, neither specific findings nor specific recommendations were shared at that 2016 assembly. Lawyers for the PMA have argued that the investigative panel’s recommendations were incorporated, before the assembly convened, into the General Assembly Child Protection Policy, which requires stronger background checks. But, my case isn’t about protection policies or background checks. Church leaders knew my abuser’s criminal background, and they still intentionally chose to entrust children to his care. The denomination has not been willing to publicly share any findings from the independent panel in the investigation of my case. In an answer to a remedial complaint, the PMA stated, “the Agreement did not require that findings be created or released. Further, the [investigation] panel made an independent choice not to create findings, so there are no such findings to be released.”
How is it possible – in the 21stcentury, with years of reports about abuse of children in the Catholic Church, at Penn State, in USA Gymnastics, and even in the PC(USA) – for an independent investigation into the violent sexual abuse of a child by a lay pastor who was an admitted convicted child pornographer, to result in absolutely no findings being created or released? As followers of Christ, it is imperative that we all wrestle with the gravity of this admission from PC(USA) leaders. Scripture tells us in John 3: “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
I’m not suggesting that these PC(USA) leaders are evil. In fact, what I know to be true is that each one of them have served this denomination with truth and integrity for many years. But, even the best of leaders can be blinded by institutional protectionism at the expense of those who are most vulnerable. Their actions in this instance only serve to perpetuate a culture where the truth about what leads to abuse in institutional settings is ignored. This complete lack of transparency is dangerous for our children, especially when coupled with the official legal response from church lawyers about the church’s responsibility to protect children who attend church youth conferences.
In a response to the civil suit I filed, the denomination admitted that it sponsored the Connection 2000 Youth Conference, but denied that Rogers, the chaperone, “was ever under the direct supervision or control” of the PC(USA). Even more, the PC(USA) “denies the allegation that it was legally responsible for the safety of all participants.”
Let that sink in as you prepare to send our precious youth to the next Presbyterian Youth Triennium.
Despite the fact that the PC(USA) declined to “create or release findings” in an investigation into the sexual abuse of a child, I do appreciate that Gradye Parsons, who was then the denomination’s stated clerk, was willing to at least acknowledge that the abuse occurred and make a public apology to me at the 2016 General Assembly. I recognize how unprecedented it is for the chief ecclesial officer of a denomination as large as ours to make such a public apology. I am also proud that the recent action of the 2018 General Assembly committed the PC(USA) to “complete transparency” as the church confesses its failure to “listen to the long-silenced voices of survivors of clergy sexual misconduct.” It is clear from the handling of my case that the PC(USA) still has much work to do.
Since finding my voice to speak about the violent sexual assault I suffered as a youth, I’ve been repeatedly ignored and cut off by colleagues and leaders in ministry. What they don’t realize is that their silence cuts deeper than the sexual assault itself, because their silence communicates that this situation is somehow my fault. My character as a pastor has even been defamed by leaders of our church. And I’m a good pastor. But because I continue to share my story and my frustration with institutional roadblocks, certain church leaders have accused me of being “unable to let go,” as if I’m just supposed to pretend this never happened to me. Or that, because I’m speaking out about how I feel I’ve not been taken seriously, there must be something wrong with me because certainly the institution of the church has never betrayed anyone’s trust. Or that, because the church provided a little bit of money to help with counseling and medical costs, I’m just supposed to move on.
But, how do we move on when church leaders abdicate accountability by refusing to truly name what happened? How do we move on when church leaders try to make this my fault, or blame me for trying to make the church look bad? It’s easy to say, “Here’s some money, now go away.” But, I still live with the nightmares that are as real as if I’m still in that room and he’s still touching me. I still have nights where I wake up unable to breathe because it feels like he’s still choking me. I still have nights that I’m afraid for my wife to touch me, nights where I just turn away and cry, hoping she doesn’t see me, because I feel like I’m broken, when what I really want is to be close to her… but my body won’t let me. I have to live with the reality that the first thought I had when taking my precious son after his birth to the church that I served, was, “What if I can’t protect him here?” My goal is not to make the church look bad, or to be a thorn in the side of church leaders. I would rather stand WITH church leaders than AGAINST them, as we work TOGETHER to create safe and sacred space in this denomination that I love.
Our integrity and trustworthiness as a denomination, in an age of institutional distrust and skepticism, and the future protection of our children and youth, depends upon us all holding on… so I will not let go. I will not let go because I’m still hopeful that the PC(USA) is courageous enough to respond better than the Catholic Church. I will not let go because I’m still hopeful that the PC(USA) is courageous enough to show compassion to victims, instead of blaming them. I will not let go because I’m still hopeful that the majority of members of the PC(USA) who pastor our churches and sit in our pews are courageous enough to be the healing hands of Christ, because I know that we as a denomination are better than this, we are wiser than this, we are holier than this. I truly love the PC(USA). If I didn’t, I would have just walked away. Instead, I will keep holding on because I still believe that God is not done with us yet as a denomination.
The Connection 2000 conference where my abuse occurred was a national Presbyterian youth conference designed to be a youth version of the General Assembly. As youth, we elected moderators, were assigned to committees and debated action on the plenary floor. That conference in the summer of 2000 took place just outside of Baltimore. The convening of the 2020 General Assembly of the PC(USA) will mark 20 years from when I became a survivor of clergy sexual abuse. And, the 2020 GA will take place in Baltimore, just down the road from where the Connection 2000 conference was held. Two separate task forces dealing with sexual abuse in the PC(USA) are scheduled to be at the 2020 assembly to give reports on the work that is being done to make our church safe and sacred space. I will be at that assembly refusing to let go of my hope that the PC(USA) can be a courageous and compassionate church! Will you join me?