It’s been rightly said that I am bad at self-disclosure. In an effort to address that, and to possibly offer something of value to others this holiday season, I’m writing about my experiences with non-sexual abuse and the resulting depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome arising from the conduct of my former priest, Bob Malm.
Those who experience non-sexual abuse in the church start at a disadvantage.
Because ours is a society obsessed with sex.
That’s reflected in the church’s implementation of Title IV, the canons that address clergy misconduct.
Badly handled at every level, Title IV addresses a range of conduct. And while chances of a successful outcome are remote even in cases involving sex — after all, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia says it’s okay with clergy adultery — almost the entire focus is on sex.
Consider: Until recently, safe church training materials exclusively focused on the prevention of sexual misconduct.
Today, there are some token references to bullying and other boundary violations, but that’s about it.
That despite many Catholic dioceses now expressly addressing bullying and other forms of non-sexual abuse in their written policies.
Similarly, ACNA now is working through allegations of spiritual abuse in one of its dioceses.
But the average Episcopal bishop, canon to the ordinary, or vestry member has next to no idea of what spiritual abuse is, let along how to address it. Nor do they have any interest in the topic.
In other words:
- If you complain about non-sexual abuse (or abuse of any type), don’t expect to be taken seriously.
- Don’t expect fellow parishioners or church members to understand. Indeed, I was told by Cynthia Puskar, a member of my former church, “This is such a bunch of trash.” She has no first-hand knowledge of the facts behind my situation, and I was carrying a sign of my Mom dying; it objected to the church’s effort to drag her into court while in the final months of life. Given Cynthia’s age, you’d think she’d have some sympathy for a dying parent, but as a member of an organizationally narcissistic church, concern for others isn’t high on her list.
- Expect to be demonized. As the late bishop Barbara Harris put it, “Nobody can hate like Christians.” To which I’d add, “And Episcopalians have that one down in spades.”
Amusingly, a member of my former parish, Lisa Medley, falsely claimed on the Wartburg Watch, published by my friend Dee Parsons, that I “narcissistically attributed” the decline of my former parish to my conflict with Malm.
To which I reply, “Why no, Lisa. I give jackasses like you full credit for your efforts to destroy the parish. And you’re doing a damned good job.”
To understand my situation, several additional factors compound this already toxic crock of goo.
- There still exists considerable social stigma around mental health issues. That’s part of the reason behind this article. Indeed, my former rector Bob Malm told the police and the courts that use of the phrase “social murder” in my mother’s blog to describe his shunning of me and my husband was somehow a threat against him, along with assertions that I am mentally ill, “violent and threatening.” It’s hard to know which is more objectionable — Malm’s resort to tired and discredited cliches of this sort, or the willingness of the courts and police to listen to this BS without objection. And in litigation, current rector Anne Turner and other third-party deponents are trying to avoid being deposed, which suggests they know damned well that Malm is a liar. Consider: If he’s telling the truth about how people think I’m mentally ill and fit the profile of a mass shooter,” Anne should have ample examples to share. Any why not? Wouldn’t preventing a possible situation of this sort be consistent with her role as clergy? On the other hand, if Malm is lying, then there is an ethical obligation to speak up. So Anne Turner, who I used to like, is every bit as morally bankrupt as the rest of this bunch and fully complicit.
- Church group think in which people who would otherwise be trauma-informed discount victims of non-sexual abuse. After all, taking these issues seriously would call into question the larger ethics of their faith. And raise the issue of why they aren’t doing anything to address the issue.
- Recognizing the trauma of non-sexual abuse would deprive bullies in the church of key weapons, including manipulation, lying, gossip, and social isolation. And whoever thinks these aren’t alive and well in TEC has never been privy to the behind-the-scenes antics at their standing committee, vestry, or altar guild.
- Recognizing the trauma of non-sexual abuse would call into focus the profound dysfunction within the Episcopal Church. This is not a case of an elephant in the living room. It’s a case of an elephant pooping in the chancel. And still people want to pretend the elephant’s not there.
- Law firms willing to sue sexually abusive clergy are on every corner. Those willing to sue for non-sexual abuse are few and far between.
- Police, judges, and bishops inherently defer to clergy, even when when the clergy in question are obvious narcissists and liars. Additionally, bishop have an inherent conflict between their pastoral role to priests in their dioceses and their disciplinary role
- The Karens and Kens of the House of Bishops are some of the great gossips of all time. So, Bishop Shannon Johnston falsely says my situation “was investigated long ago,” and now even Alan Gates in Massachusetts thinks he has the 411 on my situation—even though he knows next to nothing about it and hasn’t even discussed it with me.And for the record, having the ever-clueless and untrained Caroline Parkinson call Malm and his assistant to ask if they did anything is NOT an investigation. Indeed, Parkinson’s behavior both violated Title IV training and was highly inappropriate.
- Therapists who are church trauma-informed are rare. And to pick up on an earlier theme, when they are it’s usually in the context of sexual trauma and the Roman Church. Add in the litany of Victorian era church-speak in TEC, replete with canons to the ordinary, wardens, and more, and it can be tough to have a meaningful conversation.
- Judicatories are rarely willing to reopen past decisions. A bishop? Wrong? How could that be? Challenging that paradigm requires a level of backbone that does not exist among Episcopal bishops.
- Much like the SBC, lawyers in TEC often stand in the way of complainants. Indeed even a short discussion of Title IV in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia will result in expressions of ire towards chancellor J.P. Causey, who urges bishops not to follow the canons.
- Judicatories forget that the new Title IV is intended to be a discussion towards health and healing, versus the “nuclear bomb” that it used to be. Thus, they “don’t want to get involved.”
- Outcomes in Title IV cases are remarkably inconsistent, even in the same diocese.
- There is a profound irony in TEC. Alleged torture profiteers like David and Anne Ayers are welcome, and folks like Mariann Budde are okay with it, even though some would contend the Ayers are war criminals. But commit lèse majesté by asking the Diocese of Virginia to mediate a dispute with your priest, and you are persona non grata at every level.The good news, though, it it’s like the old joke about not joining any club that would have me as a member. Any church where torture is not an impediment to “leadership” is not one worth attending.
- On a local level, churches like St. Paul’s Alexandria will jump through hoops to fire an elderly church employee for making a mildly off-color comment about the rector “throwing his dick around,” despite the fact she apologized and was close to retirement.But no such standard applies to clergy. Indeed, one of the highlights of my time at Grace Episcopal Church was then-rector Bob Malm flying into a narcissistic rage and screaming, “Why should I give a fuck?”, in a restaurant when I expressed concern about the ongoing exodus of church members over his behavior. Yes, there were witnesses.
So what has all this meant to me?
I’ve always been psychologically resilient.
Indeed, friends have said that I’m the psychologically toughest person they know. Another once told me that my relationship with my husband might be even stronger if I were a little less psychologically akin to the Rick of Gibraltar. Fair enough. I get it.
And having never previously struggled with mental illness, this was unchartered territory for me.
The PTSD and depression first showed up after Malm sent an email to me and my husband, telling us to find a new church. He did this in retaliation for asking the diocese to mediate a conflict I had with him, later justifying his behavior by saying, “When someone does something to me, I do something to them.” But I didn’t realize at first just how serious things were.
Part of what was so traumatic for me was that Bob also chose to go after my husband, Mike. Indeed, Mike has never done anything to anyone, except to dutifully make cookies for Sunday coffee hour. We were also the first same-sex couple to be married by Malm, and to my knowledge, the only such couple. So I was both traumatized and angry, and in retrospect I put too much trust in the work I’d done for the parish, assuming that would lead people at at least listen to what I had to say.
I was also very surprised that Malm’s assistant, Leslie Steffensen, joined in. She did so by lying about me, telling third parties that I had engaged in “suspicious activity” while serving as junior warden of the parish. Nor has Steffensen ever had the integrity to apologize. Yet she is still wandering around, babbling about her faith, now working as canon to the bishop for the armed forces.
Similarly, I was surprised and appalled that the Virginia diocesan intake officers were prepared to ignore the clear requirements of Title IV, including that of a pastoral response whenever a complaint is made to the intake officer.
Even more surprising were:
- The claim by the diocese that the “church can’t get involved in litigation,” when it does so all the time. Assuming that’s true, if you sue a priest for sexual abuse, the priest in question is automatically immune from Title IV scrutiny. Nor did the church have any such qualms in the property recovery litigation. Human suffering? We’ll take a pass. Bunch of crappy old church buildings? Baby, it’s the Dennis Canon, every inch of the way.
- The willingness of the Rev. Caroline Parkinson to lie in writing, including falsely claiming that the church had addressed an issue the previous summer, even though it hadn’t happened until the following fall. As I sarcastically noted in an email to her, I was not aware that the ability to time travel was a benefit of ordination.
- Bishop Chilton Knudsen’s dismissal of my claim that Malm committed perjury and retaliated for asking the diocese to mediate our response. Title IV provides that if the allegations would, if true, be violations of the canons, then the complaint is actionable. But Knudsen doesn’t have the integrity to actually follow the canons.
- Intake officer Sven van Baar’s facially mendacious claim that he could not conclude Malm had committed perjury on the basis that he had not faced federal or state charges. Not only is perjury NOT a federal crime unless it involves a federal agency, but Title IV imposes no such requirement. If it did, child abuse would be immune from church scrutiny absent criminal charges. And vanBaars ordered me to keep the matter confidential—an interesting request since 1) he had no authority to make the request; 2) his mendacity eliminated any say he had in the matter; 3) I am no longer Episcopal; 4) Ordering victims of abuse to remain silent is, itself, abusive.
- Melissa Hollerith’s support of the decision to sandbag my complaint, which she did in her role as president of the disciplinary board. And she taught an ethics class at St. Albans’ school? She is every bit as morally bankrupt as her husband, Randy Hollerith.
- I was shocked that church members who otherwise are trustworthy sit silent on this issue. To my knowledge, not one person has said anything about Bob’s behavior—although folks now love to gossip about me, including former friends Kelly Gable and Kemp Williams. But neither has the spine to say anything directly to me.
Other aspects of this situation are ones I expected, including being shunned by members of the church. No surprise in a toxic, organizationally narcissistic parish like Grace.
Some aspects of Malm’s behavior were profoundly troubling, including repeatedly committing perjury, lying to his bishop, and even claiming in written court pleadings that I am a “domestic terrorist.” Ironically, in one case Malm argued that the use of the word “suicide” on Mom’s blog was somehow a threat, despite the fact it was an article about how Lucy Medley, daughter of Lisa Medley, had urged me to commit suicide.
What sort of sick person urges others to commit suicide? And what does that say about her parents and their values?
Similarly, church attorney Jeffery Chiow, now a partner with Greenberg Traurig, repeatedly made false statements of law and fact to the courts. Many of his pleadings were inflammatory, even going so far as to invent a mythical church shooting in the imaginary town of “Sugarland Texas.”
And while this might be attributable to over-reliance on junior associates, a subsequent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request reveals Chiow made a knowingly false police report to the City of Alexandria. In it, he falsely claimed that leaflets I distributed in his neighborhood, but not to his home, were threatening and thus constituted stalking.
So let’s call a spade a spade: Chiow’s police report is a bald-faced lie, and suggests he’s someone who goes to church simply so “his kids have something.”
Yet they were not even arguably threatening, so it is clear he lied. Either that, or he is incapable of distinguishing fact from fiction.
Meanwhile, Malm appeared to be a proponent of the Big Lie theory, tampering with multiple witnesses by calling them up and telling them I was making terroristic threats online.
He lied to bishop Shannon Johnston about the timing of my membership of my church, accused me in writing of being an embezzler, and more.
Interesting claims, since I am fully polygraphed and have done a full psych evaluation for a previous job. And unlike Malm, I have a spotless driving record.
Malm also played a game of reverse shuttle diplomacy. To members of the church, he claimed his family thought I was violent and threatening. To his family, he told them that members of the church school were afraid I’d come in and shoot up the place.
Is Malm a sociopath? I don’t know, but his combination of superficial charm and lack of concern for others suggests so.
My PTSD, which I had been trying to ignore, became fully apparent when the church, acting through Chiow, tried to drag my mother, then late-stage terminally ill, into court. At the time, she was incontinent, reliant on morphine, and suffering a debilitating anxiety order.
It is not clear what sort of testimony Chiow thought he would get from a woman who was on morphine, bed-ridden, and in the final stages of life. But the local courts threw out Chiow’s subpoena as ultra vires, or facially invalid under state law.
Mom’s profound distress over this issue was deeply traumatic to me and manifested in sleepless nights and multiple panic attacks, being drenched in sweat and more.
Even worse, bishop Susan Goff, when informed in writing the effort to drag Mom into court, simply ignored it. And she had previously reneged in writing on a commitment by the diocese, forwarded by Canon Pat Wingo, to assist in maintaining a previous ceasefire that had been negotiated. Yet people in the diocese still view her as a leader and person of integrity.
Over time, my PTSD got worse, the panic attacks more frequent.
A profoundly uncomfortable experience happened at Easter that year.
I went to my beloved childhood parish, hoping to find the peace and stillness I used to enjoy there.
Once a bustling church, the church is eerily empty today. The few remaining members, all elderly, were as sweet as could be, and one, who is terminally ill, sat with me in a kind gesture.
Yet throughout the entire service I fought hard not to race out the ancient oak doors, into the shady quiet of the street. My heart pounded, I could hear my pulse, and I was soaked in sweat.
These symptoms continued regularly for several months.
One particularly embarrassing and traumatic experience related to my development of irritable bowel syndrome, common among those who have experienced trauma. Friends had taken me to a local French restaurant, where we enjoyed a wonderful meal. But the pleasure was short-lived due to a catastrophic accident on the way home. Not the sort where you just change clothes—the sort where the entire vehicle had to be treated by a hazmat company. Ironically, we had briefly discussed the situation with Malm shortly before my accident.
Then, my grandmother, with whom I was very close, died. It was time, as she lived too long, reaching the point that she was angry that it took so long to die. And something went drastically wrong with her in her final days, leaving her screaming in pain, which we addressed via terminal sedation. She would have wanted that, and it was hard to reconcile the beautiful, tiny, exquisitely dressed woman I knew when I was young with her final days.
A few weeks later, exhausted and terrified, Mom died, with me holding her hand during her final moments.
I had started seeing a therapist long before that and been prescribed Effexor and clonazepam, but my physician increased both to their maximum doses as I struggled with even minor day-to-day tasks.
Today, more than seven years after my initial conflict with Malm, little has changed.
My mental heath has stabilized, but I probably will require medication for life. It’s not getting worse, but neither is it getting better.
Malm continues his lies.
Former friends in the church, confronted with Malm’s lies, sit silent, even though they were quick to jump on the bandwagon when Malm started calling me a “domestic terrorist,” who “harassed” people via my blog posts. That’s true even for people I once considered persons of integrity, like parishioner June Huber.
First Amendment, anyone? And if we can label anything we want harassment, simply on the basis that we don’t like it, kindly list every one of Bob Malm’s sermons since 2015 as harassment. I don’t like hearing his hypocrisy. Or doltish individuals, like the deacon at one of his churches, who said, “We love you Bob,” to which he smugly replied, “I know.”
- We have not seen direct accountability. Malm is a priest in good standing. Shannon Johnston is still around. Sven vanBaars has been re-elected to General Conference, despite his appalling lack of integrity.
- Another lawsuit is in the offing, which I intend to file shortly against a priest in the diocese of Virginia.
- Meanwhile, my grandmother’s ashes were scattered in a gloriously beautiful place in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, where years ago we used to hike on the white sand and relax, surrounded by the wondrous smell of warm cedar. The spot is almost unchanged almost 50 years later, and I have a black and white photo of her standing on the same spot, gorgeous in the fall sun, wearing a glamorous scarf and looking like a small version of Jackie Kennedy.
- I have no contact with my father.
- The last member of my Mom’s family recently entered a nursing home. Learning that, I came to understand Scarlett O’Hara’s lament, when Mammy went back to Tara to die, when she talked about Mammy being the last link to the old days.
- Like many in this situation, the holidays are proving difficult. Once celebrated with true Teutonic splendor by my grandmother, and tremendously joyful, I look forward to Christmas and New Year’s with reluctant dread. Indeed, I could do without both and they are painful reminders of days gone by and the loss of loved ones. Couldn’t we just take a pass?
- There has, however, been indirect accountability for Malm. While Grace Church foolishly named the so-called “new narthex” the “Malm Narthex,” aka “Perjury Place,” the church has lost approximately 60 percent of its pledging units. Similarly, Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) has plummeted.
- Remaining pledging units continue to ratchet up giving in an effort to shore things up, but numerous old-time loyalists have left, never to return. And given the average age of parishioners and the pace of inflation, the future looks grim for the parish.
- Anne Turner, to her credit, is trying to turn things around at my former parish, but this is a case of too little, too late. Minor tweaks here and there are not going to be sufficient to turn around the results of 30 years of Malm’s narcissism and feckless but controlling attitude towards church governance. They need a professional intervention, but it will never happen.
- Meanwhile, when I consider that every single bishop in the denomination knows of my conflict with Malm, including BP Curry (who was a year ahead of Malm at Yale), yet nothing happens, it becomes increasingly clear that TEC is a corrupt organization. Yes, there are pockets of integrity, but they are few and far between. Nor does the church wish to change.
- Additionally, in an effort to leave no stone unturned, I forwarded a settlement offer to Malm, the diocese, and the parish. It was rejected, so there will be no further discussion of this topic. It’s not worth the time or karmic energy involved. The church is happy with the situation as it is, and that is that.
Mentally, some days are good, and some are bad. Yesterday, at work, I has a crying jag that went for about an hour. Tellingly, it didn’t make me feel better, either. Nor did it do much to help get things done.
Other days, I feel okay, but there’s the odd sensation of depression and anxiety, waiting behind the curtain, ready to pop out at a moment’s notice. Sometimes, something small and innocuous will surface out of the blue — a trigger – and cause all sorts of problems.
One thing that’s been really helpful has been this blog. It’s no exaggeration to say that for every story we cover, there are 100 that we hear about. Some we hear about directly. Others indirectly. Many times the victim isn’t ready to go public. But it’s good to help others, and one of my faults when something goes wrong in life is to assume that it’s my fault. Thus. hearing how widespread abuse is in TEC reminds me that this simply isn’t the case.
And while I’ve struggled to stay in touch with friends over the past couple of years, I’m lucky to made a great many new friends.
As to Christian friends, they either come from the periphery of organized faith, or from conservative backgrounds. That strikes me as amusing—several dear friends are Missouri Synod. The supposedly inclusive Episcopal church wants me to commit suicide and makes obscene gestures, while my Missouri Synod friends actually look out for me. Go figure.
It’s also interesting to have become a news source. While specific discussions can be profoundly traumatic, I never imagined I had anything to say of interest to others. Yet I’ve been interviewed by several major traditional media outlets.
It’s also neat being involved as a leader with SNAP, which recently covered my story. And I enjoy being in contact with other survivors.
Indeed, Malm always wanted to be famous, and in an ironic way he got his wish. His one great legacy is Anglican Watch, which continues to grow in coverage. And sooner or later, almost everyone learns of the back story behind the publication.
Some things I’ve experienced in the past few years are amusing. Like Lisa Medley stopping, having just left church, to give me the double middle finger. That bit about the dignity of every human being sure didn’t last long!
Or members who flip me off as they leave the church parking lot, never realizing I record and post those vignettes. Or parishioners who see no disconnect between their purported faith and lying about me — like Malm’s wife Leslie, who told one person I had confessed in open court that Mom’s blog actually was mine.
Less amusingly, two parents from Grace School have assaulted me. And I’ve pulled in my share of threats over the past few years.
There’ve also been issues with the Alexandria Police Department, where one officer, assigned to internal affairs, lied in writing to another officer about his interaction with me. Fortunately, I was able to prove that he lied.
Reflecting on the trauma the church caused Mom in her final months causes lingering problems for me. Mom had a difficult life, and certainly didn’t deserve to be bullied by the denomination. Memories of the pretty young jewelry model are difficult to reconcile with the swollen, anguished old lady dying a slow, excruciating death.
I’m glad to have left the Episcopal Church, and I have no plans to come back. Yet ironically Anglican Watch appears to be a calling, and while few church members would agree, it does the church a favor when light is brought to the darkness. If there is to be any hope for the church, it’s going to have to muck out its stalls.
Will the church disappear into the darkness? This looks increasingly likely. Indeed, it won’t be the money that runs out first. It will be the people in the pews. The church simply has little to offer, and the lack of integrity that lingers right behind the veneer of all churchy-nice becomes clear to newcomers pretty quickly.
Clericalism may have worked in the 1970’s, but there are damned few clergy out there that I like and respect today. Far too many would never make it in the private sector, either due to lack of motivation or lack of integrity.
As a result, the church is rife with clergy who didn’t know what else to do with themselves, or saw being a priest as a great source of narcissistic supply. And the church wastes millions on irrelevant meetings, useless reports, and outdated, creaky buildings from the past. Not to mention there’s a ton of clericalism in which clueless churchgoers worship not God, but some super-annuated frat boy because he swaggers around and tells people he played football a half a century ago.
All of this is painfully evident to young people, many of who are adept at sniffing out hypocrisy. So, absent major reform, the church will die. And rightly so, given the church’s dismal ethics.
Meanwhile, my experience with mental illness has been profoundly liberating. Yes, I have struggled to stay in touch with some friends. Others have not been supportive of my mental health struggles. That’s okay—I don’t have time to waste on people of this ilk.
My hope too is that by being candid about my own struggles I’ll make it easier for others to talk about their experiences, while helping people understand that nonsexual abuse can be every bit as devastating as sexual abuse.
Here’s hoping the church will move past its current notion of sex as the boogeyman in the closet and towards an approach in which all abuse counts.
Meanwhile, if you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, or contemplating suicide, just know that you are not alone, and help is available. Call 988 anywhere in the U.S., or visit https://988lifeline.org/current-events/the-lifeline-and-988/.