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Photo by John DarlingDonna Zerner speaks at the “Unholy Betrayal: Confronting Sexual Abuse by Spiritual Leaders” forum Sunday at Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland.

Local spiritual leaders share their #MeToo stories

Female spiritual leaders of the region Sunday drew from their own experience to spell out how sexual harassment and predation work in religious settings — and what can be done about it, starting with standing up and speaking out.

Up to 85 percent of clergywomen across all Protestant denominations have been sexually harassed on the job — “and I was one of them,” said Rev. Dr. Karen McClintock of Ashland, a “congregational consultant” with Graduate Theological Union, who helped healing through the hard process of rooting out congregations’ “secrets and shame” around sexual misconduct.

The free, public event was staged by Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland, but was scantily attended.

“You look for the shame to find the secrets,” McClintock said. “The more we repress, the more we act it out. The more we flame, the more the shame. Forty-six percent in my denomination, United Methodist Church, have been harassed. Sexual harassment is one form of misogyny.”

McClintock’s #MeToo story took place on Christmas Eve, in California’s Central Valley, where she was senior pastor. A lay leader approached her, praised her beauty in the candlelight, rubbed her hands in an intimate way and offered her $50,000 for a down payment on a house. She reported him and he soon “launched a plan” (successful) to have her transferred to a position with less pay.

In those days you needed witnesses and, she bemoaned, even now, in the age of #MeToo, the Washington Post requires three women to verify a story. However, she adds, more and more, women are taken at their word. Psychologist McClintock is the author of “Congregations Preventing Sexual Abuse.”

The #MeToo story (named for the social media hashtag of the movement against sexual harassment and assault) of the Rev. Norma Burton of Unity in Ashland, took place in her more-unsuspecting 20s, following a pattern that would become familiar, in her work with Graduate Theological Union as a support therapist for clergy referred there for sexual abuse from all denominations.

A male teacher began with taking her to lunch, establishing a seeming friendship-mentorship, then inviting her to witness him doing hypnotic sessions on sexual abuse survivors, where he would touch women inappropriately under trance.

“I was appalled, shocked. I interrupted it. I found a lot of women went through that with him. He was fired. He moved elsewhere and began repeating it. I realized it was frighteningly common … It’s all about abuse of power. It starts with relatively minor boundary violations, but it’s a slippery slope.”

The common pattern is, first you start using first names, then do lunch, then some drinks, maybe a movie, then letting them know you are special and “I need you,” then the secrecy and control, she said.

“It’s based on patriarchy and psychological abuse and it’s been going on for thousands of years in all faiths,” says Burton.

The resulting psychological trauma, she adds, can include feelings of helplessness, fear, terror of losing control, threat of annihilation, disconnect from meaning, and attachment disorder with God.

Portland storyteller Donna Zerner had her #MeToo awakening with two widely known and respected rabbis, years apart — one a beloved teacher-musician, the other a charismatic author-lecturer.

The cascade of events began with her own youthful core beliefs that “men have all the power and I am not enough,” she said, followed by feeling honored to be included in their aura of fame, then the long hugs, increasing friendship, touching, kissing at which she felt “disgusted but flattered,” then sex.

Soon, with the charismatic rabbi, came revelations of many past accusations, rage when the perpetrator was confronted, “dark, demonic secrets” and nightmares, feeling “too shamed and scared” to speak up, as “he controlled the public narrative,” then realizing “where God is, is in speaking the truth,” then the “slow comeback to the self.”

Lama Yeshe Parke of Kagya Sukha Choling Buddist Temple noted the power imbalance between teacher and student, adding that the religion teaches that living an unethical life is one of the main causes of suffering, so, in actions of the body, it is vital to avoid sexual misconduct, temptation and manipulations of anyone else.

With the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, she noted, many Tibetans came to the West to teach, including the notorious Trungpa Rinpoche, who “was among the gifted on the Buddhist path,” yet drank heavily and had sex with many students.

Some 180 people were expected at the well-publicized event at Havurah Shir Hadash, said host Rabbi David Zaslow, but only 40 came, showing, “It’s a scary topic for people. The turnout was shocking, disappointing. Two women told us the whole topic brings up too much stuff — old shadows from the past.” He plans “another go” at it in October, covering #MeToo issues in the workplace.

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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