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by Rev. Karen A. McClintock, Phd.

Speaking at a conference on relationships to a large crowd of people. I asked the audience members to raise their hands if they thought there were secrets in their families. Nearly everyone raised a hand.What kinds of serious secrets do families keep, and why do they keep them? Perhaps an adoption was never disclosed, or an estranged family member never mentioned. One parent might have a secret about an affair that disrupts the parent’s intimacy. A secret about incest can break down sibling relationships and demand silent loyalty. Sometimes a parent has not disclosed his or her ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.My friend Alice had an older sister that she never knew. The girl had been placed in an institution due to severe retardation. Although the family didn’t talk about the girl, Alice’s intuition told her something was wrong. Her parent’s expected her to be brainy and to succeed and in some unspoken ways to live the opposite life of the sister she didn’t know. She was pressured to excel to relieve her parent’s secret shame about the child who was seen as a family “failure.” Both daughters were disrespected by this secret.In the 1950’s, people were unaware that the nicotine in second-hand smoke caused children to have bronchial infections, asthma, allergies, and a significant risk of lung cancer. And just as parents didn’t know then that the smoke caused damage, neither were they ­or most parents today-aware of the potential damage family secrets can have to a child’s sense of security and self-esteem. In homes with family secrets around which guilt, shame, or fear reside, children take in unconscious dis-ease like second-hand smoke. Children feel a vague and cloudy emotional discomfort. Shame floats around the family and children breathe it in, unknowingly. They learn to distrust themselves. And, when they grow up, they tend to pick or create another family environment with toxic secrets in it.

What children don’t know can hurt.

Our culture has promoted secret keeping using phrases such as “protection,” and “taboo,” and my personal favorite, “grandmother would die if she found out!” In so many cases the grandmother is the one who can handle the secret and does so with finesse. When a gay adolescent told his grandmother that he was gay, she said, “So, you expect me to reject you now? You aren’t any different than you were ten minutes ago and I love you just the same.” Lots of times if we say we’re not going to tell for fear of someone else’s reaction, its really our own discomfort that we fear. We don’t want to talk with Grandmother about something she may have a problem with so we say, “It’ll kill grandma,” when in fact, we’re the ones who can’t imagine talking about it.

Jesus said, “you will know the truth and the truth will make you free” John 8:22

In her book, Secrets in Families and Family Therapy (WW. Norton, 1993), Evan Imber-Black, Ph.D., describes the dilemma for the children of families with secrets. “The children are continually caught in crosscurrents of hostility and suspicion, experience an unpredictable withdrawal of affection from the parents, or witness mysterious and inexplicable events.” She also notes that children are “likely to experience an unidentifiable but pervasive guilt and hold themselves responsible for what they don’t understand.”

In my counseling practice, I urge families to carefully consider who is keeping the secret, whom it protects, and the consequences of revealing it. I grew up in a home with a family secret, and much like the smoke of my parent’s cigarettes, the secret clouded our family home with toxic air. In my family, the cloudy secret was that my father was gay. He and my mother, knowing this from early in their marriage, nevertheless remained married. As is so often the case, the shame that accompanies sexual secrets kept them from disclosing it. It was only after his disclosure near the time of his death that I began to wonder what the secret had meant to me in growing up.

The consequences of keeping the secret often are at least as damaging as the feared consequence of telling it.

Researchers in child development have studied the transmission of secrets and shame from one generation to another. If a father had multiple affairs, is his son likely to repeat this behavior? Therapists see this inheritance in their work. If the mother suffered from her brother’s incest, is she likely to marry someone who will also engage in incest with her children? Therapists answer, “yes.” Many of my clients are examples of the Bible truth of Exodus 20:5. They are experiencing the punishment of their father’s sins “to the third and fourth generation.” It often takes several generations to stop a cycle of abuse. Secrets about sex, adoption, alcoholism, religion, and ethnicity are passed down to the children in the form of unconscious anxiety and through repetitious behavior.

Children breathe in the effects of the secret. Many personality disorders result from a childhood where the signals were all mixed up. When a child feels one thing and is told that this feeling isn’t right or true, the child becomes confused. As the confused child grows older he or she looses the capacity to trust his or her own knowing and emotions lose their place of rightful attachment to events and activity. The resulting chaos makes new relationships difficult if not impossible to sustain. Children who name secrets in the family and are told that they are wrong or are disbelieved turn this confusion in upon themselves and this results in the devastation of self-esteem. Once the core self of the child is disregarded and disbelieved the door is open for repeated damage through violence, addiction, and activities that re-activate the shame that was present in the family of origin.

What children do know can heal

A family needs to evaluate every secret within it. The consequences of keeping the secret are at least as damaging as the feared consequence of telling it. Not talking about a secret takes a great deal of emotional energy, and the cover up involves a great deal of anxiety and fear. Even in a family where the secret doesn’t even involve the child at all, the secret in the atmosphere leads to the child’s feeling frightened and unsafe.

Children who live with a parent who is keeping a secret know that something is wrong, that someone is anxious, that fear exists in the family. Lacking any other explanation, they think that they are the problem. And they try to fix things that are broken without even knowing what the broken stuff is. Children experiencing a parent’s anxiety or shame may try to ease the parent’s stress by perfectionism, or the opposite, acting out to divert attention away from the real (but secret) problem. The fear in the home with a secret cannot be put into words. It is vague and uncomfortable. The result is everyone’s dis-ease

How do we begin to address and heal our families when keeping secrets has been common practice? We begin by dialogue among the adults and by education and the use of resources. A counselor can discuss the stages and consequences of an individual’s disclosure. Once the secret is disclosed a process of enormous change can take place.

As Jesus said, “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”(John 8:32) Disclosure takes a great deal of thought, prayer, and courage. The results are as healing to the psychological and soulful self as a smoke-free life is to the physical self. A fresh and grace-filled feeling is part of Christ’s design for our lives. When we are freed from shameful secrets, we claim the joy and abundance promised to us in Christ.

The child in the home with a secret feels:

  • Confused
  • Anxious
  • Responsible
  • Frightened
  • Unsafe

Dr. McClintock is a United Methodist pastoral counselor at Samaritan Counseling Center of Southern Oregon and a member of the faculty at Southern Oregon University. She lectures and conducts workshops on shame and family secrets. She serves as a consultant to congregations exploring human sexuality issues and/or conflicted about homosexuality in the church. Her new book is a study guide to help congregations explore issues of family and church secrets.

McClintock, K. (2001). Sexual Shame: An Urgent Call to Healing. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Bradshaw, J. (1996). Family Secrets. New York: Bantam Books.
Imber-Black, E. (1993). Secrets in families and family therapy. New York: W.W. Norton.
Imber-Black, E. (1998). The secret life of families. New York: Bantam Books.

The Prevention of Sexual Abuse The Damage of Silence
by Dr. Karen A. McClintock

When news reports and public allegations of clergy sex abuse fade from the media spotlight, the majority of clergy sex abuse victims will have remained silent. Some have left the church, but many are still there every week, saying prayers, participating in communion, and leading liturgy. The ritual isn’t enough to provide the complete healing that most survivors need, but it offers an acceptably silent experience of grace.What explanation is given for this silence? Congregations and denominations have encouraged silence because victims who speak out can and do disrupt congregational life and file costly lawsuits. Some sex abuse victims who have disclosed information have been disbelieved, shamed, ignored, and threatened.When the John Jay College of Criminal Justice recently published “The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States,” their report identified 10,667 persons as having made allegations of abuse against a priest between 1950 and 2002. * Their numbers do not begin to represent the numbers of children who have likely been abused. Their research reports only those who returned to their congregations and broke the silence with their allegations. This study did not research incidence of sex abuse toward adults.Sexual abuse in congregations takes many forms, including a degrading comment, a passing caress, a kiss, a forced sexual encounter, and stalking. Victims of sexual abuse often feel responsible for having participated in a shameful activity. It may have been horrifying, disgusting, and repugnant, but it may have also been entwined with feelings of loyalty, love, or made them feel “special.” The ambivalence of these feelings leads to silence.

Victims remain silent to avoid the psychological trauma of telling the story to others. Doing so, without preparation in counseling, can create states of panic, nightmares, or sleep disturbances. Many victims have only partial memories of their molestation or sexual assault. Feeling ill at ease about disclosures regarding sex abuse is normal. But these silences take a costly toll on individual lives and on congregations.

Clergy are not the sole perpetrators of sexual abuse in congregations. Some estimates are that as many as two-thirds of clergywomen have been sexually harassed by laity. Lay leaders harass and abuse other adult laity as well as adolescents, and children. Congregations used to see this as the problem of isolated individual perpetrators, and feel that by forgiving, removing, or shaming the perpetrators the problem will be resolved. Stopping sex abuse requires the attention of the whole congregation. Congregations unwittingly set the stage for sexual abuse by their lack of education, ignorance in the area of risk prevention, and the way they allow uninvited touch behaviors. Creating safety and respect for all members of the faith community is the job of everyone within the congregation. Everyone must get involved in the protection of children and adults from sexual abuse.

Most victims of sexual abuse want to know why the people in their congregation didn’t protect them, and why God didn’t protect them. They are justifiably outraged. Why didn’t the congregation do something about it? It’s terrifying to experience God’s abandonment directly, or through the actions of God’s people. Many abuse victims carry this spiritual agony in silence. Some have abandoned their faith as well as their congregations.

Congregations can prevent further abuse

A pastor came up to me in one of my workshops and began talking about the congregation she serves. In the history of that congregation there have been three pastors who crossed sexual boundaries. With this evidence, the pastor understandably concluded that the congregation must have within it a culture where abuse could flourish. When the congregation began a prevention program they uncovered evidence that the congregation had set the stage for these incidents. They found several areas where they could take immediate corrective action.

The new resource by The Alban Institute, Preventing Sex Abuse in Congregations: A Leaders Guide includes ten chapters of ideas for abuse-proofing a congregation. With easy-to-take steps from the practical (adding windows to all children’s classrooms) to the theological (preaching ideas on sexuality), this resource can strengthen the congregation as it reduces incidents of sexual abuse. Rev. Dr. Karen A. McClintock, a Clinical Psychologist and ordained clergy with twenty years of parish experience, approaches the topic from psychological and family systems perspectives. Known for her outstanding workshops for laity and clergy, she now brings this material together in a must-read resource for every congregational leader. Included in the book is a look at the wonderful power of sexuality, a code of ethics for ministry professionals, a guideline for maintaining professional boundaries, tips for clergy burn-out prevention, and many more ideas. Sex abuse can be prevented. At last we have a clear, concise, shame-free resource to teach us exactly how to do that.

The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors By Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States 1950-2002, A research study conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The City University of New York, February 2004.

Judeo-Christian Sexuality: Early Christian Teaching
By Dr. Karen A. McClintock

For much of its history, Christianity has emphasized a strong separation of body and spirit, leading some to consider the body “bad” and the spirit “good,” thereby reinforcing our modern-day lack of clarity about sexuality. In the first century Paul advocated celibacy, if at all possible, as the best way to give oneself fully to the service of Christ. This set the stage for the shaming of those who couldn’t measure up to the ideal. In 386 CE [AD] Pope Siricius attempted to forbid church elders to make love with their wives. Scholar Reay Tannahill describes the early church fathers as linking sex and sin. She writes: “It was Augustine who epitomized a general feeling among the church fathers that the act of intercourse was fundamentally disgusting. . . . Arnobiur called it filthy and degrading, Methodius unseemly, Jerome, unclean, Tertullian shameful, Ambrose defilement.1 A closer look at these church fathers might reveal their own preoccupations with sexuality as stemming from interpersonal or intrapersonal shame.Augustine, whose writing shaped Catholicism’s views on sexuality for seven hundred years, was himself troubled by desires and temptations he could not control. According to Evelyn and James Whitehead, “Augustine remembered his youth as a season of obsession in which he hungered for respect and esteem (6:6). He clung compulsively to his friends (4:6); he was constantly swept away by the impulses of his sexual appetite. Augustine lived in a common-law relationship with a woman who satisfied his sexual needs but was not the respected woman his mother sought for his marriage. His pain at leaving the woman he had been with was intense, and since his arranged bride was too young to marry, he was forced to wait two years for her. His passion was too great, and he took a mistress. With shame he admits his sinfulness: “In the meantime my sins were multiplied. . . . I was not so much a lover of marriage as a slave of lust, so I procured another woman, but not, of course, a wife” (6:16). In the midst of this frustrated mixture of sexual desire and longing for love, Augustine’s confusion was overwhelming. Could this have been his reason for fleeing to the church and embracing a celibate life” Theologian Margaret Miles surmises: “We must accept Augustine’s evaluation of himself as addicted to sex, from which, he tells us, no friendship was free.” He himself described his life as “tormented.” 3What degree of sexual shame drove him to the cloister? Psychology would tell us that Augustine’s share, like that of many of the church patriarchs, was projected onto the congregations with an inflated fervor. The need to rid the world of sexual sin was preached by those who had a powerful internal sense of sin and failure in the sight of God. Thousands of years of European church history reflect the confused and tempted feelings of men fighting their own sexual impulses.A fear of the flesh and denial of sexual impulses have left us with a disembodied theology and a great deal of shame and self-loathing. History reveals the deep chasms that have characterized spirituality and sexuality in Christianity. . . .

1 Ray Tannahill, Sex History (New York: Stein and Day, 1980), 141.

2 Evelyn E. Whitehead and James D. Whitehead, A Sense of Sexuality: Christian Love and Intimacy (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 97.

3 Ibid., 136-39.

From Sexual Shame: An Urgent Call to Healing by Karen McClintock © 2001 Augsburg Fortress Press ( Used by permission.

Excerpt from:Sexual Shame: An Urgent Call To Healing
by Karen A. McClintock,

(c) 2001 Augsburg Fortress. Reprinted with permission.————————————————————————

This is a book about the fault line: the deep sense of unworthiness that is called “shame” and the ways that people experience it in every human relationship. Biblical texts, traditional belief and practice, and feelings of moral superiority are used to keep traditional sexual values intact. But often the messages about sexuality in the church are as vague and subtle as my first encounter with it as a pastoral leader.

Congregations today are embattled over many issues of sexuality: abortion, adolescent sexual behavior, domestic partnerships, homosexuality, clergy sexual misconduct, sex education. These areas are often reinforced by individual and social shame, though they also hold the potential to be sources of grace. Where shame is the underlying process, persons are increasingly likely to act out. When self-loathing and community shame are present, there is little room for discussion, let alone grace. When shame arises, there is a tendency to find fault.

This is not a book that’s intended to fault anyone. The writing is intended to expose the fault lines, those places where the heat and lava threaten to destroy the church, and those places of shift that can be born with grace. With congregations in turmoil about sexuality issues, from clergy misconduct to homosexuality, we are sitting on a line no less threatening than a shifting of continental plates.

Areas of Sexual Shame in the Church Today

I recently had breakfast with one of the district superintendents of my denomination and asked him, “What is the hardest part of your job?” He paused to sip his coffee. “I think that it’s dealing with homosexuality, but what takes up most of my time is clergy who have bad boundaries about their sexuality.” “Oh,” I said, “isn’t it interesting that the church is spending all of its time on sex these days?” His reply was not atypical. “I never thought of those two issues as being the same before you said that!” Clergy and denominational leaders are often so busy looking at the crack in the walk that they can’t feel the heat of the lava growing hotter just under the surface. A first step in this call to healing is to invite the individual reader, the congregational study group, and the denominational leadership to look beneath the fissures and the fault lines.

No congregation is untouched by what is now a public discussion of the rights and the rites of gay people.

All across the country clergy are taking public stands for or against the blessing of same-sex unions. When sixty-three clergy of the California/Nevada Conference of the United Methodist Church married the Conference lay leader and a long-time member of the Conference Board of Trustees in January 1999, it was viewed as a publicity event. This service joined two women, loving mothers and grand mothers who have been committed to this one faithful partnership all of their adult lives. This public action was a forerunner to movement of great scope across the nation, where individual clergy of many denominations have made human sexuality headline news. The opening of the subject of church and state and their roles in contracts and covenants is no small earthquake. There will be many repercussions from this throughout all levels of congregational life. No congregation is untouched by what is now a public discussion of the rights and the rites of gay people. The topic has received extraordinary coverage, from talk show to small town press, but it is not the only area in which the church and sex are on people’s minds.

The war rages in our congregations about whether homosexuality is a “sin” or a “blessing.” Excellent resources for the study of Scripture texts regarding homosexuality are available and listed throughout this book. Congregations experience the shame that gay people feel both when they exclude them and when they shift historic positions to include gay people. The church family is in the process of coming out of the closet regarding its gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered members.

Congregations are rethinking their definitions of marriage and family in light of cultural acceptance of nonmarried, long-term partnerships. Many a congregation has in its midst an elderly couple who, for reasons of financial survival, make the decision to live together and forego legal marriage. The very notion of “living in sin” is shifting.

Partly because of the rise in the divorce rate over the past twenty-five years, nearly one-third of all people in the United States today are single adults. Throughout this changing situation, the church has remained relatively silent about the sexuality of singles. Divorced persons struggle to deal with the change of sexual activity in lives and put themselves at risk without guidance on sexual ethics from their congregations. When a fifty-year-old divorced woman goes into the drugstore to buy a box of condoms, she is aware that her religious upbringing hasn’t prepared her to deal with either her embarrassment or her excitement.

In other words, mystical experience is biologically, observably, and scientifically real.

James Nelson has been marking the sexual seismograph for some time. The author of many books on men’s sexuality, he has been a mover in the attempt to destigmatize male sexual energy. In the 1994 Earl Lectures at Pacific School of religion, he said that “young people are no longer willing to leave their sexuality outside the door when they enter the sanctuary.” When more than half of twenty-year-olds are sexually active and no one discusses sexuality and spirituality in the context of faith, young people experience the church’s lack of integration and label it hypocrisy. These twenty-year-olds can’t be called “dropouts” from the church; many of them have never been near one because they assume that the church will shame them for being sexually active.

Silence about male sexuality has made possible a double standard of sexual expression for women and men. But this too has been shifting. Women today have many options that allow them to engage in recreational sex, where once they were in grave danger of a procreational outcome. Biblical teachings on adultery seem old and diluted next to national coverage of a president who has multiple sexual relationships during his marriage. How many clergy condemned his morality? How many feared their own exposure as persons who had engaged in sexual misconduct? Were they silenced by their shame?

For four years I chaired a conference committee that handled issues of clergy sexual misconduct. I observed the damage of the painful repression of sexual passion that often lay underneath the acting out of sexual misconduct. When pastors violate their congregations’ trust by engaging in sexual flirtation or consummation with parishioners, deep wounds result. The profile of those most likely to become sexual perpetrators of misconduct includes those who are themselves ashamed of sex. The pastor who denies his or her own strong erotic feelings is most likely to break the boundaries of relationships with others.

Those who feel the deepest level of personal shame are the ones most inclined to act shamefully.

In the parish the pastor is expected to be God incarnate. This pressure attracts people with narcissistic tendencies and fosters narcissistic beliefs and actions. Clergy who put up a front are the ones most likely to be covering wounds to their identities at the very core of their beings. Often the wound is sexual shame. Those who feel the deepest level of personal shame are the ones most inclined to act shamefully, leaving individuals and congregations with sexual secrets and accompanying feelings of being flawed and damaged. The damage of shame leaves both the individual and the congregation with a feeling that no amount of grace and no amount of repentance or redemption can cleanse and restore them.

The shame of sexual misconduct lives in congregations for generation, just as sexual shame is passed down through families from one generation to another. If it remains a family secret, the younger generations are tempted to expose it through acting out or repeating the shameful behaviors. Not enough material has been written to help congregations heal from the sexual shame of former generations. Organizations such as the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, however, have become a strong voice for education and healing around the specific sexual shame of clergy misconduct.

Why Talk about Sexual Shame?

Our silence on the subject of sexual shame has contributed to a decline in church membership. Church growth experts have been telling us for years that people drop out of the church for an average of eight years between high school and young adulthood. Perhaps we have failed to notice that these years coincide with the peak years of people’s sexual activity. Many people leave the church as they come to grips with their sexual attractions. Others leave because they decide to become sexually active and don’t want to be in a place where they would be morally condemned. Still others leave when church leaders are exposed as adulterers, or when clergy condemn people for their forms of sexual experimentation or expression.

When we don’t talk about sexuality, we reinforce media images of it as separate from spirituality. The gap between sexuality and spirituality is a place where shame grows. Once young adults move beyond the teaching activities of a congregation, they often learn sexuality without respectful spiritual values. This increases the likelihood that they will repeat the shameful behaviors of their parents and be left bankrupt both sexually and spiritually. Without spiritual grounding for sexual relationships, young people are increasingly likely to engage in dangerous sexual practices. Sexuality and spirituality need to be taught in the same curriculum. One without the other leaves us unfulfilled.

Talking about sexuality can keep young adults in the church and open up the healing of those long burdened by a past sexual experience that has left them ashamed. A conversation about sex that focuses on respect and understanding can reverse the effects of many years of shame.

The subtlety of covert shame leaves many to walk away wounded without any understanding of what has just happened.

When I ask people why they have left the church, they frequently begin describing their feelings of being shunned, disrespected, ashamed, ostracized, and banished. The subtlety of covert shame leaves many to walk away wounded without any understanding of what has just happened. Matthew Fox once put an advertisement in a New York newspaper, welcoming anyone who had been wounded by the church to come to a lecture. He expected fifty to a hundred people; four hundred came.

My personal passion for this subject grows out of twenty years of personal observation and experience as pastor in rural, urban, and suburban congregations ranging from 96 to 420 members. Many of these congregations were shame-bound by some past experience or present exclusionary policy. Some of them were shame-bound by the very theology they taught and preached. The layers of unconscious shame blocked personal and community growth. The shame lay beneath the surface where it was covered with a crust of secrets and denials.