Clergy Sex Abuse Recovery: How To Deal With The Anger?

From "Children's Drawings from the Terezín Ghetto, 1942-1944," Pinkas Synagogue, Prague.
From "Children's Drawings from the Terezín Ghetto, 1942-1944," Pinkas Synagogue, Prague.

“I could not let his darkness become my darkness, his emptiness become my emptiness.” 

The sexual abuse journey forces victims to confront a powerful force in themselves…

Introduction — Confronting Powerful Forces

In addition to the terrifying darkness of the abusive clergy and institution(s), the sexual abuse journey forces victims to confront a powerful force in themselves: anger. Like sexuality, we hide it in a corner and pretend that it doesn’t exist, or we overdo it. The sexual abuse journey forces the victim to become well acquainted with the pressures and stigmas surrounding each of these driving forces. 

This is a journey that we did not choose, but one that we are on nonetheless. And that’s just the thing about sexual violence, isn’t it? That the perpetrators thrust upon us not only their own anatomy, but this entire long healing process too.

When I first reported the rabbi, I was not terribly angry. I was in shock and denial and devastation. I was sad too. It was not until several weeks after the “no contact” requirement was in effect that I finally began to fully process the anger. Without his influence, I was suddenly able to see clearly. With that clarity came the rightful sense of ownership over my mind and body, and boy was I mad! I don’t think I’ve ever been so angry for such a prolonged period in my entire adult life. 

The safer I felt, the more anger I felt. I told one supporter:

The healthier I get and the more I heal, the more clearly I see the violence and non-normalcy of events of the relationship. Every time I think I’m done, there’s another realization (at best), another flashback (at worst), and another new level of understanding. Then I go back into recovery mode. I was doing so well and then flashbacks Saturday night catapulted me into days of tears this week. Were he not suspended there would be even more I could send CCAR. Awful things. Still unraveling out of that cocoon of denial.

Absence of Offender –> Safety –> Healing –> Clarity –> Realization –> Healthy ANGER!

Once unburdened of the perpetrator, I could finally relax and feel the pain I had shelved for so long.

From this new perspective came the propensity and resiliency to experience and contain real, deep, profound rage. 

How do you deal with it when you get some wacky ideas for how to take matters into your own hands when the congregational leadership is actively lying? How do you even know if an idea is too extreme, when you are so enraged that you consider destructive, life altering actions that go against all of your usual good sense to be palatable?

How do you contain yourself when you call your perpetrator’s former synagogue, begging, no, demanding, to speak to whoever knew about his prior offenses and let him move into your community without issuing a public warning? If you found yourself on the phone with his young successor what would you say?

What would you do to manage your anger when you experience the ignorance and abuse of powerful organisations that many people around you idealize, rendering you to feel alone in your path and your pain?

How do you handle the hypocrisy?

More than anything, how do you handle seeing your abuser still in the pulpit? Or still accepted by the community even if he was forced to resign? How do you deal with seeing your rapist at the grocery store? Or smiling and laughing and glibly enjoying his life while pitying you as some crazy person who he made the mistake of being ‘kind’ to?

Is it possible to become strong enough to experience these things without losing your mind completely?

Yes. The world feels like the terrifyingly wacky children’s section of an amusement park, but yes.

Skills And Strategies

This is the advice that I would give to myself 6-14 months ago, knowing all that I do now:

  1. Listen to the anger, nurture it. Cherish it. It is a sign of health, vitality, and a developing sense of self. It is your divine right to feel angry.
  2. Don’t be afraid. I often felt afraid of my anger or sadness because I was worried that if I started crying, I would never stop, or that my anger would destroy me from the inside out. But I found that if I got proper help and took proper self care measures that I could use it well. I was also afraid of being viewed as “vindictive” or “crazy.” Eventually I realized that to NOT be angry was crazier. In some situations, sanity and anger are one and the same.
  3. Own it. Use it. Take all that angry energy and put it to good use. Put it all into the adjudication process, getting help for yourself, speaking out, healing, writing, and more. When the investigation is over what now? Write. Talk. Exercise. Work. Create. Rest. Cry. Cry some more. It’s a massive amount of energy — use it wisely in balance with enough rest so that you do not burn yourself out. “Though the survivor is not responsible for the injury that was done to her, she is responsible for her recovery. Paradoxically, acceptance of this apparent injustice is the beginning of empowerment. The only way that the survivor can take full control of her recovery is to take responsibility for it. The only way that she can discover her undestroyed strengths is to use them to their fullest.” –Trauma and Recovery (2015), Judith Herman, MD
  4. Don’t be ashamed of the physical manifestations of traumatic stress. I had a really scary eye and facial twitch throughout the 7-month long CCAR adjudicatory process. I also would shake really badly and sometimes vomit uncontrollably. I felt pathetic, and ashamed that he/they could have so much power over me. But the shame belongs on the perpetrator(s), not me. This is my body reacting. It is perhaps dealing with that overload of energy, fear, and anxiety in the best ways it knows how. So how can we help it? That is where excellent “self-care” strategies come in. Rest, salt baths, soft music, fresh flowers, enough food (eating disorders are not uncommon after sexual trauma), hydration, herbal tea, long walks in the sunlight, comforting reading, visits to the hospital chapel — whatever helps and is not self-destructive. Be a friend to your body; it is going through a lot right now.
  5. Validate yourself. Make a list of reasons that you left the relationship, i.e., the “cons” of the relationship. My list included things like, “Seeing my religion [and his religious authority] appropriated and used for sexual coercion,” “Constantly being compared to [and made to compete with] other women,” “Being told that I’m loved and respected when objectively I’m not,” “Being lied to and blamed for it,” “Being complicit with his duplicity.” Anger tends to come and go, and alternate with feelings of despair or fear or self-doubt. Let your angry self write a list for your sad self to help her understand why you needed to report your abuser. I looked at this list often. It helped to nurture the healthy anger/righteous indignation, empower myself, and to remember how bad it was so that my sadness would be lessened. (If there was no trauma bond/”relationship,” this could be a list of reasons that you chose to report the person.)
  6. Talk to other survivors. The rape crisis center and clergy sex abuse support groups saved my life and quite possibly my abuser’s. Nobody should have to bear the burden of this type of anger alone. Being heard and understood is paramount. Even better is seeing other people in their anger, as it is a reflection of sorts. It puts things into perspective and helps the witnesses to see themselves and to register their own anger [and trauma].
  7. Talk to therapist. Often. Not just any therapist, but one who has experience with clergy sexual abuse and/or one who specializes in post-traumatic stress, particularly after abusive relationships. A good therapist (for this particular issue) is probably one who both validates your feelings while also helping you to become aware of your inner strength. You do not want to find yourself conditioned into viewing yourself as powerless and feeble, but you do want someone who will validate your experience as a victim. Good therapists can walk this line well. Further, it is paramount that the therapist model strong, healthy boundaries. This means that there is no dual relationship. This is especially important since clergy sexual abuse was itself a type of dual relationship, and even a mild dual relationship with the therapist can possibly be re-traumatizing for the patient. The therapist must take care to keep all non-business communication contained within the sessions, guiding the patient in the right direction if necessary. This means no lengthy text or e-mail exchanges outside of sessions, and few to no therapist self-disclosures. Remember that excessive self-disclosure was part of the betrayal of clergy sexual abuse. If a therapist tries to become your friend, or asks you to step outside of the therapeutic frame in any way, run!
  8. Interpret violent fantasies as if they are dreams. Schedule some time to ponder their symbolism. Do not write them down or share them. Just let them arise and give them some attention. The way that you wish to physically harm your perpetrator might reveal something about how s/he hurt you. Take violent fantasies seriously in that they are a treasure trove of information about the wounds that you experienced and can help you find where your mortal wounds are and how they were created, and how they might be nurtured and healed. Remembering those fantasies later might give us information on where we are scarred.
  9. Beware of the revenge/forgiveness bypass traps. Just as a fantasy of revenge allows the victim to avoid confronting utter helplessness, so too does the fantasy of a “willed, defiant act of love.” But Dr. Herman warns us, “It is not possible to exorcise the trauma through either hatred or love.” and “True forgiveness cannot be granted until the perpetrator has sought and earned it…” and yet “Genuine contrition in a perpetrator is a rare miracle.” So what to do?
  10. Accept that the perpetrator will likely never feel remorse. Even if the victim manages to hold the perpetrator publicly accountable, there is a good chance that s/he will simply move to another community, possibly assume a new name, and continue to victimize. Even if he stops victimizing to the same extent, he may go on to live his life, never feeling the slightest bit of empathy or remorse for his victims, never issuing a genuine apology or any apology at all. He may never care to understand what he has done or make any attempt to make things right. This can be traumatic in and of itself, to witness this level of callous disregard for human suffering. In the classic book Trauma and Recovery, Dr. Herman reminds us that, “During the process of mourning, the survivor must come to terms with the impossibility of getting even.” 
  11. Let anger ripen into righteous indignation and a quest for justice (as opposed to revenge). Per Trauma and Recovery“As she vents her rage in safety, her helpless fury gradually changes into a more powerful and satisfying form of anger: righteous indignation. […] Giving up the fantasy of revenge does not mean giving up the quest for justice; on the contrary, it begins the process of joining with others to hold the perpetrator accountable for his crimes.” To protect and warn others, and to provide any chance for teshuvah at all, the perpetrator must be held publicly accountable. There must be consequences for his actions. Even so, he may never feel remorseful and may go on to re-victimize. But at least potential victims will have been warned. In lieu of an adequate secular criminal justice system, this is the least we can do.
  12. Find people who are morally aligned. In this process, it is terribly important to discern which people are completely with you, which ones are not quite there yet, and which ones never will be. For example, a person who lectures you on forgiveness or who tells you to take responsibility for being raped or abused may have their heart in the right place, but they seriously don’t get it. Exposure to such people will only make you feel more helpless, less understood, more frustrated, and more angry. You have the right to protect yourself from ignorant, re-traumatizing remarks and can do so by limiting your contact with such people as much as possible (or limiting what you talk about with such people). If you cannot avoid them, do not talk to them about your story, even if they try to pressure you into disclosing details. It is even more important, then, to find allies with whom you can discuss your reality, including your trauma and the added burden of people who just don’t understand and/or who bully you about it. It is not your job to educate every single well-meaning but ignorant person about sexual violence. You need your strength and stamina for your own healing.
  13. Get feedback on your ideas. There is such a desperation to feel seen and heard and to take one’s power back, that sometimes we need to do a “sanity check” with allies, therapists, and supporters to make sure that our ideas are not destructive. Your gut can usually help you know if you need help.
  14. Practice mindfulness and meditation. If you develop better impulse control and can learn to sit with your thoughts without engaging, you can develop the capacity to contain a lot of anger without hurting anybody. Your thoughts are cars driving by. Some are red, fast sports cars. Others are fat, blue cars driving slowly. Others are beautiful golden cars. Some are army tanks or emergency services vehicles. Some are not even cars; there could be bicycles, a parade float. Each one is a thought. Some are wackier than others. Laugh. Smile. It is okay. You have a right to be angry. What happened to you was bad, real bad. And it should happen to nobody.
  15. Remember G-d. Recall how angry He was at similar instances in the Torah. You are not alone in your anger. Discover and/or re-discover religious texts that you can print out and keep under your pillow and recite morning and night. “The king is not saved with a vast army; a mighty man will not be rescued with great strength. A horse is a false hope for victory, and with his power, he will not escape. Behold the eye of the Lord is to those who fear Him, to those who hope for His kindness, to rescue their soul from death and to sustain them in famine.”Psalm 33:16-17
  16. Visualize a fiery pit. You are going to stand at the edge and look in. But you must not lose sight of where you stand, or else you are liable to fall in and become injured. Be careful as you look into your anger. Visualize it as the edge of a pit that you must see what is at the bottom of, but you need to at all costs not fall in. Learn to be with your anger and pay attention to it and study it, without becoming all consumed by it. This visualization might help others so I am sharing it.
  17. Experience yourself through music. I don’t think anybody has listened to “You and whose army?” more times in one year than me, besides, of course, Radiohead. It was one in a standard repertoire of songs that got me through the reporting process. I avoided dark or harsh sounding music during the 7-month long adjudicatory process, favoring songs that emphasized resiliency, survival, and triumph — especially familiar songs from childhood such as “Tradition” (Fiddler on the Roof). Yes, it could be difficult to listen to a song that includes mention of a rabbi, but it reinforced what a rabbi ought to be and strengthened my foundations for righteous indignation at the appropriation of my lineage and my religion for sexual manipulation. And it gave me a little inside joke with myself, “May G-d bless and keep the rabbi…far away from me!” It helped to cultivate a much needed disgust in me, to overcome the distorted roles and boundaries that were embedded as part of the abuse. See how Tevye really owns his faith and has his own personal dialogue with G-d? This is the Judaism I grew up with, that belongs to me. And nobody can take it away. This rabbi tried to take me further away, not closer to, my faith and traditions, and my life during that time was as shaky as… as… as a fiddler on the roof! If there were a soundtrack to my having reported the rabbi, it would be “You and whose army?” juxtaposed with “Tradition” — in that order. After his Suspension, I began to allow myself to work through the harsher, more tamasic sounds. Since the adjudicatory process, some days the rage is more like Gary Numan industrial style yearning, others it is like a quiet seething rumble, and other days it is a somewhat self-righteous religious fervor. I am growing through it. But like the fiery pit, it is important to not become all consumed by angry music. Angry music is a sometimes food, not an “all of the time” food. After enough sessions of harsh or dark music, it is good to come down by listening to gentler music. Like the cool-down after a workout.
  18. Remember anger’s purpose. It is to guard innocence. Do not become so consumed by anger that you slay the very innocence you were trying to protect.
  19. Sleep it off. If you are convinced that you want to do something kind of “out there” or extreme, take a nap first. You might wake up with a different perspective. If not, keep sleeping until therapy.
  20. Watch for outward anger redirected at yourself. Sometimes we cannot bear the thought of being angry at someone that we had loved or trusted so much, and so we direct the anger at ourselves instead. This habit might form after a long time living in a context in which outward flow of anger was not allowed, especially at the abuser. When feeling suicidal or depressed, ask yourself how much this might be anger that you are failing to place on your abuser. Learn to let yourself be angry at the person/people who exploited and abused you.

Bonus: Exercise (either slowly to calm, or vigorously to burn it off). Laugh (watch something funny).

Confronting Anger in Others:

  1. You will occasionally experience other people’s angry reactions about what your abuser did to you. When this happens, remember that their anger is not because of something that you did wrong, or because you told them your story. Remind yourself that they are angry because what happened to you was bad, not because you are bad. That is to say, they are angry at the perpetrator, not you! Furthermore, resist the urge to calm other people down or feel responsible for their feelings (as the abuse may have conditioned you to do). Let them be in their anger, just as you would want them to let you be in yours. Be grateful that other people are willing and able to share that burden with you. Finally, seeing other people’s anger about what happened to you can feel ‘weird’ or ‘scary’ at first since it is a reminder of how horrific the abuse was and/or how vulnerable and powerless you felt (or still feel). Pay attention to that feeling and talk about it with a therapist or close supporter.
  2. You will almost certainly contend with anger from your abuser and others, especially if you choose to speak out/report. This will be especially hurtful when it comes from people who you never even heard of, or people who you once considered friends or friends of friends, etc. Remember that you too were once in Egypt. They have it in their heads that the perpetrator is a good person who can do no wrong. They are still stuck on the carousel that you successfully stepped off of. Use their anger as a reminder of your freedom. They are but tiny little pharaohs chasing you across the Red Sea. They will not disturb your peace. If they still get to you and you feel alone and crazy, keep a running document with words of encouragement from your supporters — little mantras that make big waves. Print it out. Sleep with it under your pillow. Look upon it when you cry. Focus on yourself, your supporters, and G-d. The rest will come.

Songs For When The Shul Is Where The War Is

You dress in the colours of forgiveness
Your eyes as red as Christmas
Purple robes are folded on the kitchen chair

You’re gonna sleep like a baby tonight
In your dreams, everything is alright
Tomorrow dawns like someone else’s suicide
You’re gonna sleep like a baby tonight 

Hope is where the door is 
When the church is where the war is
Where no one can feel no one else’s pain

Sleep like a baby tonight
Like a bird, your dreams will take flight
Like St Francis covered in light
You’re gonna sleep like a baby tonight

-U2, Sleep Like A Baby Tonight (Songs of Innocence, 2014)

Holy Roman empire
Come on if you think
Come on if you think
You can take us on
You can take us on

You and whose army?
You and your cronies

You forget so easy

We ride tonight
We ride tonight

Ghost horses
Ghost horses

Ghost horses

-Radiohead, You And Whose Army? (Amnesiac, 2001)

Tell me, Rabbi,
“Does G-d bleed on your white halo?”
-Gary Numan, Halo (Jagged, 2006)


About the Author
Sarah Ruth Hoffman is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She writes what she would have found comforting and useful to read during her lengthy exodus from a sexually exploitative relationship with a pulpit rabbi. She hopes that this blog will help the public to understand the dynamics of clergy sexual abuse, whether the victims are adults, or children. Much of what is written can apply to non-clergy relationships as well. If any one person is helped by any of what is written, then the purpose of this blog has been fulfilled.
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