Often, survivors of sexualized violence experience isolation even in their own families. It is far too infrequent that partners and parents and siblings find their way toward solidarity with loved ones who have experienced abuse. Which is why it is important for all of us to hear and learn from family members of sexualized violence survivors who have, as the title of this post says, learned to stand with the survivors they love – or, it might be better to say, who are committed to a lifetime of perpetual learning.

We recently published three posts by Kathy Weins, which you can find here, here, and here. She spoke of the betrayal and retraumatization she experienced when her church prioritized the needs of a perpetrator and his family over its responsibility to protect the congregation’s children and listen to survivors. Now, Kathy’s husband, Tim, shares what it has been like for him to experience this betrayal alongside Kathy and for him to learn to respect her all the more deeply through the process.

We are grateful to both Kathy and Tim for their fierce commitment to justice and care for all vulnerable to sexualized violence and for the energy that, first, Kathy, and now, Tim, has poured into crafting words that let us see the truth of what they’ve each lived. We are all better off because of it.

Tim and Kathy encourage anyone wanting to reach out to them to do so through their advocate, Stephanie Krehbiel, at skrehbiel@intoaccount.org.

I want to share with you a story of “being served divorce papers.” This “divorce” did not come from my wife. It came from my church, First Mennonite Church—Newton, KS (FMC), as it “walked away” from Kathy and me on its own path over these past two years. It has been very traumatic for us. Kathy has already told the story from her perspective. Here is mine. Together they are firsthand accounts of our experience of Institutional Betrayal.* In addition, this post is about what I have personally learned along the way since I have had the privilege of being married to a survivor.

Kathy and I have been married for 32 years, and we are blessed to have two wonderful, grown daughters, and one amazing son-in-law. I am a busy family physician in my hometown of Newton, KS, a small Mennonite “Mecca” of the Midwest. I am what you could call a “cradle Mennonite” – while not having grown up at FMC myself, I have been continuously involved, for 62 years, in one Mennonite congregation or another ever since I was an infant.

I have always had many connections at FMC, both in my extended family, as well as with many friends in high school. When our daughters entered middle school, around the year 2000, Kathy and I decided to join this church family–diving fully, heart and soul, into congregational life. “Family” captures the sense of commitment that Kathy and I felt for this church. We were fully engaged in its mission, worship, and fellowship at multiple levels. Kathy wrote worship dramas for the congregation for several years, taught Sunday School (SS) and Wednesday evening classes to elementary or preschool children, and pioneered the teaching of Circle of Grace curriculum (empowering children to resist sexual abuse, and endorsed by Dove’s Nest) to the children’s SS classes. I was a youth sponsor while our daughters were in high school and later joined Kathy in teaching the first through third grade SS classes. Kathy and I were both active on church “commissions”:  Nurture, or children’s education, for Kathy, and Outreach/Mission for me. We contributed financially as well, tithing fully every year.

Our church involvement gave me purpose, spiritual growth, fellowship, personal motivation, and the only social life that I really had. Our “Life Sharing” SS class included many of my former high school and Bethel College acquaintances and felt like home to me. Besides the larger SS class, we also had a small group of three other couples and two individuals, which we regularly went to for even deeper sharing, support, and prayer. By the end of 2015, life as empty nesters seemed to be going along pretty well for us.

This all began to change, however, as we met with our small group on December 5, 2015–in our own living room, in fact. It seemed as if the foundations of our lives were shifting, although I didn’t realize it at first. In this small group meeting we learned first-hand, from Michael Combs and his wife, about Michael’s recent arrest (November 19, 2015), for having sexually abused a child—trivialized and incomplete, though the story was at the time. “He only touched a child,” was his wife’s report.  Little did we know then, about how our lives would be subsequently torn apart, and about the divorce we would later experience from our church family.

The earthquake tremors that had begun that evening intensified the next day, Sunday morning, while Kathy and I were eating breakfast together. We discussed what we had just heard in small group. Logically, I knew that the church should immediately make public such a HUGE thing as Mike’s arrest was, to the entire congregation. I also knew that such an event would require massive congregational processing in order to address it properly. Our local newspaper had published, on December 4, 2015, a two or three-line statement in the police report section, stating that Mike had been arrested for “aggravated indecent liberties with a minor.” Nevertheless, few people read the newspaper anymore, and very few at church read the police report section regularly. Only a small number of people at church would know about Mike’s arrest from having read it in the paper.

Mike was a respected lay leader at FMC: the church organist, one of our own adult SS class’ teachers, and a former Episcopal priest. Mike’s wife was the chairperson of Nurture Commission (children’s education committee), the director of Vacation Bible School (VBS), and a member of the FMC church board herself. Several months earlier Mike had preached a sermon, by Pastor Anita Kehr’s invitation. He had also been recently invited by the FMC church board to be the Moderator of the congregation–leader of all congregational meetings—an invitation which he declined.  

Knowing our church, I immediately suspected that the FMC pastors would delay making an official announcement about Michael’s arrest because the feelings of such prominent adults in church leadership would be prioritized. Nevertheless, I quickly scribbled out a proposed pulpit announcement, which was nothing more than a summary of the newspaper’s police report from earlier that week. I gave this to Kathy, who passed it along it to a church leader that same Sunday morning. She, in turn, emailed us back, saying she would pass it on to Pastor Kehr. I had hoped that it might get the ball rolling in the right direction. This hope faded as days turned into weeks, and then months.

Early on (December 2015), I still had minimal understanding of the significance this “earthquake” was for Kathy, or the eventual impact it would have on others—both within, and outside our congregation. Having been married to a survivor for 30 years, by that time, I should have realized more, said more, and done more than I did in those early weeks. Knowing what I know now, I think that profound ignorance about sexual violence is widespread in MC USA, the result of its generations-long history of patriarchal leadership.

Before I go on with the story of FMC leadership’s ignorance, and the resulting institutional trauma we experienced (which will be described in my next blog post), I want to say more about my own “evolution” toward becoming a better husband for my wife, Kathy, a survivor. Power begets Privilege, and Privilege begets Deafness and Blindness to the needs of those without that Privilege. This has been as true for me as it has been for others. For this, we are accountable. As Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Mk 4:9)

By Tkgd2007 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

I wish that I could claim to have been the advocate and understanding husband to Kathy that I should have been throughout our marriage, but male privilege made me relatively deaf and blind. Like many other husbands, I’m afraid, I can be quite self-absorbed and otherwise oblivious to what my wife needs. Pride, passive-aggressiveness, and resentment have often bubbled up within me over the years, in our marriage relationship. Often, this has been simply because I was wrong. Period. Sometimes, however, this has been coupled with my ignorance about Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA) brain trauma. Kathy has taught me a lot about this over the past two years, and it’s made a big difference in how I see things now. This is a significant piece of what she explained to our Lifesharing SS class on 7/10/16.  I encourage you to view this five-minute excerpt from that presentation here.  

A good example of the way in which my ignorance about CSA brain trauma made me a “less-evolved” husband for many years is the way I viewed Kathy’s “triggering episodes,” or “flashback responses,” to events which reminded her of her own CSA. Early childhood trauma can lead to many triggers in adulthood because a small child’s brain cannot possibly process trauma in the same way as an adult brain. Many things are “left over” that require further painful work as an adult. This is sometimes described as an “onion layer peeling” effect: each layer that is brought up and recognized (even subconsciously), can lead to tears and other expressions of pain. For my wife, these “triggers” could include, perhaps, one of our daughters’ development stages that reminded Kathy of her own childhood; possibly a news story about child abuse; or maybe a relative’s, friend’s, or acquaintance’s insensitive comments.  

Over the years, I gradually became more adept at recognizing when Kathy was being “triggered” by something from her past. There have been many different signs and symptoms. It might be a nightmare, causing her to cry out in the middle of the night. It could be an upset stomach or a general sense of ill feeling. Perhaps it was a profound sense of sadness or hopelessness, or maybe an angry outburst. Whenever I recognized one of these signs, I would think: “It happened so many years (or decades) ago, why can’t you just get over it? Why do you have to dive back into all those incredibly painful memories, and relive it over and over and over again? Why let the past affect your feelings in the present? Why can’t we just let bygones be bygones?”

I saw Kathy more as being a weak person, in not “getting over” the trauma of the past. I wasn’t able to see her as the courageous survivor of terrible injustice and permanent scarring that she is–invisible, though that scarring may be to physical eyes. What I’m saying here is simply this: It’s one thing to recognize that “triggering” is associated with traumatic experiences, such as CSA. This recognition can so easily lead to judgment and frustration with the survivor, as it did with me for so many years. It’s quite another thing to understand “triggering” as a symptom of traumatic brain injury, which leaves its victim an easy target for blame and marginalization. It’s yet ONE MORE step to see it as a GIFT of remarkable sensitivity that is to be respected and cherished.

“32 years, baby, 32 years,” Kathy might say if I asked her how long it’s taken me to get to this last step. I’ll say more about this last step after just a bit more context, below.

In spite of these challenges for us—no, BECAUSE of these challenges—our marriage has always been interesting. Early on, we forged our marriage around identifying with marginalized people, to a large extent. In the late 1980s, we joined with C.A.M.P. (Central American Mission Project) in Newton, volunteering an apartment in our home for temporary housing of refugees. In 1990 we, together with others, started an indigent outpatient clinic for uninsured patients (now called Health Ministries Clinic) in the Newton community. In the early 1990s we, along with a young, child-centered, and newly minted teacher, started New Creation Preschool. In more recent years, at FMC, we unsuccessfully, despite several attempts, promoted the hiring of a part-time children’s minister. Sometime later we started an unofficial LGBTQ Allies group at church, despite significant opposition. Kathy, it seems, has always been my moral compass and inspirational “partner in crime” when it came to promoting the needs of disempowered people, and especially children.

Teaching the children’s SS classes with Kathy was one of the most significant steps in my “evolution” as a better husband. Time and time again, I witnessed Kathy identifying “what a child needed” in our SS class, based on what I saw as simply a “misbehavior” in the classroom. Kathy often recognized the problem, which might be as simple as a need the child had to use his or her energy in moving their body, rather than in remaining sitting. When these children got what they needed: understanding, respect, as well as having the problem fixed, the “misbehavior” often cleared up.

Something clicked in my mind as I correlated these observations with my own medical practice. The biggest part of my job as a physician is to help patients figure out what they really need, medically speaking. When a patient has an illness or injury, for example, it makes a world of difference to make the correct diagnosis and to prescribe the appropriate treatment, whatever that might be. Likewise, when Kathy didn’t get the acknowledgment, respect, support, and empowerment to speak out against CSA—which she needed from our pastors and church—she suffered as a result. I saw this suffering day after day, as the church chose to protect the perpetrator and his enmeshed wife instead of prioritizing child safety and survivor respect.

It’s interesting to see how childhood sexual abuse has permanently sensitized Kathy’s brain to the needs of children and other marginalized people. It’s also certainly interesting to see the extent of my own deafness and blindness over the course of our marriage. Even though I’ve been working alongside Kathy these many years, with our shared passions, I had never before, until the recent events at church, identified my wife as being continually “on the margins” herself, simply as a result of being a survivor in our present-day society and church culture. Male privilege (patriarchy), adultism, shame-based teachings about human sexuality, nice-Mennonite “conflict avoidant” behaviors, and an over-reliance on hierarchical decision-making are simply a few of the cultural factors, which I have become recently aware of, that create toxic environments for survivors like Kathy.

At this point, I will also acknowledge the significant personality/communication style differences between Kathy and me, which have also contributed to our misunderstandings with each other, as they do with other couples. Kathy is intuitive and fluent in the language of emotion and feelings, whereas I am not. Instead, I see, hear, and speak the language of opinions, and diagnoses. As you might imagine, this difference in personality has led to a lot of “speaking past each other” over the years, which has contributed to conflict. What’s changed for me, recently, is my ever-growing awe and respect for my wife, having repeatedly witnessed her remarkable, intuitive intelligence, her sensitivity to others, as well as having witnessed her retraumatization these past two years.

As Kathy’s blog post series documents (Part I, Part II, and Part III), the events since Michael Combs’ arrest have marked a watershed moment in our life together as a couple, and in our experience of church. Since then, we have grown closer to each other on our journey, processing our feelings and experiences together almost continually, even as the church took its own path. As I just mentioned, Kathy’s and my own communication styles are entirely different, which has usually been one of our basic marital struggles. I’ve recently come to see it, however, as one of our greatest strengths. When we truly value and respect each other’s diversity, strengths, and weaknesses, we can laser our focus to a point that can cut through metal. This is exactly what happened to me. This is what cut through the metal casing around my heart and what caused me to “turn the corner” in my understanding and appreciation for who Kathy is. I am now able to love my wife in ways that I had been unable to in the past.

Because of Kathy, I see that God’s purpose for all of us is to help people, especially children, and other disempowered minorities, get what they need. This is more about justice and respect than it is about any church’s preconceptions or preferences. Because of Kathy, I understand the significant losses which survivors have experienced, and the special gift of sensitivity many may gain. It has truly been a privilege to walk alongside my wife for these past two years (as well as the previous 30) and to learn from her wisdom, her sensitivity, and her pain. I write this blog post, and the next (coming soon), in order to honor and grieve the losses that Kathy and I have experienced, as well as to document and hold the church accountable for its actions. In this way, we hope to prevent similar injury to others, while we take this next step forward together on our own healing journey.

 

 

*For more on institutional betrayal, see ruthkrall.com and scroll down to her Downloadable Books:  Volume One: The Elephants in God’s Living Room: Clergy Sexual Abuse and Institutional Clericalism. Chapter 11: Betrayal Trauma (pg. 263 and following) is very helpful.

Tim and Kathy encourage anyone wanting to reach out to them to do so through their advocate, Stephanie Krehbiel, at skrehbiel@intoaccount.org.