Making Things Right: A Guest Post By Claire Roise
I'd like you to meet a dear friend of mine, but first, a back story:
On June 25th, 2014, I received an unprecedented message on my Facebook profile. It was from a man named Peter Roise, who I'd previously attended Christ Church with for several years. I never knew much about him except that he was married to a woman named Claire and they had several children together. I also knew that he and Claire were good friends with my abuser, Jamin Wight, and his (now ex) wife.
The message was a sincere and extensive apology for trusting Jamin and for any role they may have played in shaming me all those years ago. Nearly 8 years after I'd left Christ Church and long after I'd given up hope that anyone from that congregation might reach out to me in this way, it finally happened.
I read his words and wept deeply.
Shortly after I heard from Peter, his wife, Claire, wrote to me and asked if we could meet up. This would be the beginning of a beautiful and healing friendship, one that has since blossomed into our families frequently sharing meals and wild laughter together, and creating some really wonderful memories.
Since 2014, Peter and Claire have compassionately and relentlessly supported me and fought for myself and other victims. Their advocacy is a powerful testament to the changes that are possible when we choose to learn from the past and have the courage to do the right thing.
That being said, meet my dear friend, Claire:
I am grateful to Natalie for inviting me to guest blog on this issue that has come to mean so much to me over the course of the last few years. If anyone had asked me five years ago whether I thought I would ever be knee-deep in learning about victim advocacy, avidly studying how to counsel and help survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, I would have laughed in their face. But five years can open and close a lot of doors. It was about five years ago that I sat in the car with the woman who had married Natalie Greenfield’s abuser Jamin Wight (at that time a good friend of mine and my husband’s), and learned how he was treating her.
That day was the beginning of the end for our relationship with a guy we thought we knew, but it also opened the door to tremendously meaningful friendships (with Wight’s now ex-wife, with Natalie and her husband Wesley, and others) which I count among my greatest gifts; and it marked the genesis of an eye opening journey for me. I am passionate, now, about the church becoming a refuge and a place of safety for women and children who have been mistreated; and I fervently believe we must learn how to extend real, effective help to the people (predominantly men) who abuse them.
To that end, I want to shine a light on some of the misdirection that has surrounded the ongoing discussion of Natalie’s own case. There is an ongoing tension between Natalie, who alleges that her old church (Christ Church, Moscow, Idaho) handled her abuse case poorly, and the church, which persists in taking the public stance that Natalie and her family were to blame for their own difficulties after Natalie came forward about her abuse. I also used to attend Christ Church, Moscow, so I am pretty intimately familiar with the interior life of the church; and I think it would be fruitful to take a moment to reframe the discussion, and refocus on the important issues.
For instance, a lot of pointless argument has revolved around the question of whether there was or was not an acknowledged courtship going on between Natalie at the age of 14, and the man who took advantage of her, adult ministerial student Jamin Wight. This question has played a huge distracting role from the central discussion, which is unfortunate, because on all the really critical points, Natalie and Christ Church disagree much less than one might have thought.
Consider the points on which Natalie and Christ Church agree:
1 Jamin, as an adult ministerial student who committed acts of extreme sexual abuse upon Natalie, who was a child at the time, was rightly prosecuted as a criminal. Legally speaking, and regardless of what kind of relationship Natalie thought they had at the time, Natalie should not and could not have been considered responsible for any part of his actions. Nobody disagrees about this. Christ Church people, in my experience, are much happier saying that Wight was a “skunk” than a predator, but the point remains the same.
2 Natalie and her family all participated in a level of naïveté by allowing Wight to live at their house after he expressed romantic interest in her. Even though it had been (and continues to be) a common and even encouraged practice within the local church community to board college and ministerial students with families, I think Natalie looking back would say that she would not do the same thing with her own little family in years to come. The church continues to insist that pastor Douglas Wilson has been correct in saying there was a courtship, but the family uniformly denies its existence, saying instead that they had considered but dismissed the possibility. Regardless of how it happened,14 year old Natalie believed she was in love with Wight, and Wight used her infatuation and her physical availability to take advantage of her. There is no doubt that the watching world has gained some wisdom about this kind of situation by considering Natalie’s story. The Greenfields were naive, maybe even foolish, nobody disagrees about this -- least of all, the Greenfields themselves.
3 The Church did not handle everything perfectly. Even though Christ Church has demonstrated a strong disinclination to take any responsibility for the wrongs their ministerial student did to Natalie, or for any part of their response immediately following, I very strongly doubt they will want to claim that they handled the situation perfectly, leaving no room for future growth.
I asked Natalie the other day what the local church would need to do in order to make things right with her and her family. She thought about it for half a day, and then sent me a list of things she would like to see happen, plus a set of ideas for how the church could build trust with her and with future victims. I was struck by the compassion and generosity of the things she wished for. She is not just looking for the church to humble itself and accept responsibility toward her, but more importantly, for it to become passionate and proactive about doing a better job in the future.
Here is what Natalie said to me about her personal case, I have added links where pertinent:
These amends, should they be offered, wouldn’t earn my forgiveness. I gave that a long time ago. But they would give me great hope for the wellbeing of future victims, and they would emphasize the importance of learning from our mistakes and creating safe environments for those who need our protection most.
First, a set of public apologies would be needed:
To my father, for placing an undue amount of blame on him, and for treating him in what I believe to have been a spiritually abusive manner.
To the congregation, for failing to publicly, swiftly, and adequately warn the congregations of the crimes Wight had committed. I believe this would have been fully possible to do while still protecting my identity, and it would have been a very important step in protecting future victims from him.
To my husband Wesley, for publicly attacking and demeaning him in recent days, and calling his character into question in an effort to demonstrate that I should not be trusted.
And finally, I would welcome their apologies to me:
• For putting undue trust in Jamin Wight’s account of what happened and allowing themselves to be deceived and manipulated by him,
• For intervening inappropriately in the legal process through their pastoral communications with law enforcement,
• For choosing to placing me under church discipline during that traumatic and difficult time period after I came forward about my abuse,
• And although, as so many churches are, they were understandably ignorant about what to do for me -- for failing to offer the resources and care my family and I needed to deal with the abuse and trauma I had suffered. In large measure, the church’s harsh treatment and blaming of my father was directly responsible for our inability to turn to the church for help, and this should also be repented of.
You will find, if you read much about abuse within the church, that nearly all of these points have corollaries in other sad stories. Does the Church routinely adopt a position of judicial neutrality between abused and abuser? Yes, it does. And if that is where the emphasis falls, how can the Church also expect to act as a safe space for the abused, who are usually significantly less vocal and advantaged in the conversation to begin with?
Do kind, upstanding leaders within the church routinely and easily agree to write letters of intervention and character recommendation for congregants who are on trial for domestic violence and sexual abuse? Absolutely, they do it all the time. Six years ago, I would have done it too.
Do churches look at victims of sexual and domestic abuse, noticing their frailty, their bad attitudes, their vulnerability to harm, and conclude that they are at fault for their own abuse? They do indeed; and to an extent they are onto something, because predators always pick off the most vulnerable prey first. But for the church to heap blame and censure on the shoulders of people who are already suffering helps nobody. We can do better!
To speak in church terms, some of these points (such as Natalie’s suspension from the table, the church’s ongoing tendency to lean on details from Wight’s account, their unduly harsh treatment of Natalie’s father, and Pastor Douglas Wilson’s recent active attempt to smear Natalie’s husband’s character) were sins of commission that involved very wrong and inappropriate judgements by church authorities; but many others were simply sins of omission that stemmed from ignorance. This is such a common story. Even if churches feel reluctant to take responsibility and apologize for their past sins of ignorance, they can still begin to build trust with victims by taking the other steps Natalie suggested to me:
• Churches should reach out to any and all known victims of past abuse which was reported to elders and consequently handled “quietly” or not reported to the police. Although it would be highly inappropriate for a church to try to minister to such victims and their families after the fact, they could offer to pay for any counseling the victims might still need; and it would be a remarkable evidence of good faith for churches to seek out trained professionals to advise them about how they could make amends.
• Churches should show proof of the current systems which are in place for ministering to victims of sexual or domestic abuse within their congregation. This should include documentation of proper training, and education for anyone in a position to counsel victims.
• Churches should show proof of the current systems which are in place for dealing with and ministering to perpetrators of sexual crimes within their congregation, and for helping to ensure the safety of other congregants.
In respect to putting new systems in place for the treatment of sexual and domestic abuse within a congregation, it is critical that churches everywhere make it crystal clear that they will not tolerate such sins, or in any way act to protect the reputations of the men who do them. Although the church has historically done a poor job interacting with abuse cases, I am still hopeful. In the last few years we are finally seeing a shift in public awareness (evidenced by current high profile news stories such as Naghmeh Abedini's, the Bill Gothard Lawsuit, and the C.J. Mahaney lawsuit, as well as the Oscar winning movie Spotlight, released last year) that could finally lead to some substantive growth and change.
Our Lord spoke very strongly about the importance of protecting the most vulnerable among us. Let us call upon leaders everywhere to become passionate about these issues; and at the same time, let us educate ourselves to learn how we can all do better at protecting the little ones and the weak ones in our midst.
O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
You will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
To do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
So that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.
Claire Roise is a West Coast girl living in (and loving) inland Idaho. She loves rain, coffee, long walks, friendship, and her amazing husband, six kids, and their eight chickens.