But My Experience Was So Good!

Angel01c

A little while ago, I had a conversation with my niece who had just returned from an LDS mission.  She was talking about growing up in a small town, returning to school, the ways friendships are different as an adult, and adjusting to post mission life.  She is a very thoughtful, intelligent person and I was really interested to hear what she had to say.

Her experience was so different than mine!  She said that she loved the place where she grew up, and it always felt warm and safe.  She loved her mission- I could already tell this from reading her emails to the family.  She buried herself in her work, and she felt an immense love for the people in her area. She was successful, and she had felt missionary life filled her with purpose and meaning.  It was an overwhelmingly positive experience.  She found it hard to go back to school, in part because it felt less meaningful to be so focused on her own needs and desires. She missed living in service to others.

I found myself wondering, how can our experiences have been so different?  For some people, the LDS experience works amazingly well. My dad, for example, was a convert to the church.  He told me that joining the church saved him. I believe him. He, too, lived a life of service because of his church membership.  He often served in leadership positions, and I always knew he loved the people he was serving. He told me the things that were most important in his life were his family, his church service, and his work, but that his family and church service gave him the most joy.  To him, the two were inseparably connected.

I think this is the way LDS life is supposed to be.  And for many, it is this way. There are ups and downs of course, but the experiences of many are so good!

I, too, have had a lot of positive experiences in the church.  I’ve had kind, loving church leaders and teachers, and at different times I’ve made good friends.  I have great memories of activities, projects, people, and events.  I’ve felt uplifted, and I’ve had chances to love and serve others.  At some points, I’ve felt loved by God, close to family, filled with purpose, and that I was living a good life.  But other times, I’ve felt disillusioned, depressed, filled with rage, hopeless, alone, traumatized, victimized, and damaged, maybe beyond repair. I’ve felt that in some ways, even though I’ve had many good experiences, my church experience deeply hurt me.  As a whole, it did not work for me in the same way it works for some. It was not good for me. Maybe I’ll tell some more of my story on this blog at some point, but for now, I’ll leave it at that.

Some believers will probably say I’m being too sensitive, or that I’m choosing to be offended.  When someone has had overwhelmingly positive experiences in the church, like my niece or my Dad did, it can be very hard to understand or accept that for others, their church experience may have been damaging.  It must seem like, when you hear someone say that your church- your institution, your people, your gospel- that you love so much has hurt them, it just doesn’t make sense.  It must seem like a lie, a fluke, an exception, or that maybe this person is just blowing things out of proportion.  It may feel like a personal attack. And, sometimes any of those things may be true. But in some cases, this feeling can cause a person to ignore real suffering.

You can see this happening in a number of places.  For example, the recent protests of BYU’s Honor Code have been polarizing.  For most students, I believe the Honor Code has been a highly positive thing.  It creates a unique environment that many students really want when they attend.  However, some students have also had really terrible experiences with it.  I would guess that these kids are the exceptions.  Their bad experiences vary in seriousness (from being reported for breaking curfew to being afraid to report a rape to the police), but at least some have very legitimate complaints.  While some have supported their cause, many others accuse these students of making up stories, being “emotionally immature individuals” who are creating a “tempest in a teapot”, and being unappreciative and undeserving of their place at BYU.

You can see this polarizing phenomenon again in recent discussions about damaging aspects of youth interviews in the LDS church.  When Sam Young began publishing stories from individuals who felt their experiences with church leaders had been damaging (these experiences ranged from emotional trauma to sexual assault), many responded with incredulity.  Online commenters also accused Sam of publishing made up or exaggerated stories.  They often replied with their own stories of positive interactions with church leaders- stories which, I believe, probably represent the majority of experiences.  In effect, they seemed to say, “That’s not how bishop’s interviews affect kids. My experience shows how it really is.”

And, in some cases, those skeptics may be correct.  Perhaps some complaints are exaggerated. Perhaps some stories are made up.  And the negative stories certainly don’t represent the whole.  After all, most students have a positive experience at BYU, and so many kids benefit from their relationships with religious leaders and role models.  I, personally, have never had any issues with BYU’s Honor Code, and I have only had good, sincere church leaders.  But, could some of these tragic stories be true? Could some of these people have been truly hurt?  And if so, could there be problems within the policies, practices, or culture of these institutions that enable this kind of damage to occur, even if they only affect a minority of individuals?  And if they are hurting anyone, should we try to fix those problems?

I’d like to take a step back and look at this from another perspective.  A while back, I ran across a blog post from a man who had spent years as a member of a small movement within the Catholic Church called Regnum Christi.  Members of Regnum Christi feel that God has called them to lives of more intense service and worship, and they feel that their participation and commitment to the group helps them be better servants of Christ and the Church.  They feel God is working through their organization. One member described her experience this way:

“In Regnum Christi, I developed a much deeper and more personal relationship with Christ. I grew to love the Church; I received solid doctrine and I received the sacraments in abundant measure. My directors showed me great kindness, patience, and love, and they walked the extra mile with me when I needed it. Those years confirmed and gave direction to my desire to lay down my life for the mission of the Church, to work for the salvation of souls. I am amazed at how much good I have received through Regnum Christi.”

-from blog comment by JK40 on amywellborn.wordpress.com

Others tell of joy and peace, a loving community, supportive religious leaders, spiritual growth, opportunities for service, lasting friendships, improved family relations, and learning to better follow Christ.  When I read their experiences[1], I believe they are sincere.

The group has had a controversial past, though, and eventually this man left Regnum Christi.  He, like so many others, had had extremely positive experiences within the group. He had felt that the strict lifestyle rules, kind mentorship, and spiritual environment of Regnum Christi had truly blessed him and his family.

From time to time, though, he would hear of negative stories from other members.  They claimed that certain practices, policies, or actions of leaders had hurt them or their families.  Some have reported what they see as troubling patterns of emotional and psychological abuse, unethical recruiting of children, isolation of minors from family and friends, damaging levels of perfectionism, intense pressure to make ever greater commitments, and an unhealthy culture of unquestioning obedience to the organization’s leadership, especially the founder, Father Marcial Maciel.  Some young people claim that their time in the organization had led to crushing guilt, depression, long term emotional problems, suicidal thoughts, and loss of faith.  But, he had a very hard time taking stories like these seriously because, as he said, “my experience was so good!” In his own words:

“I did hear of a few people who left.  I wondered if they had actually gone to the people in charge and tried to resolve things and assumed they probably hadn’t.  I figured if they had, it would’ve been fine and they would’ve stayed. I couldn’t understand why they would throw out so much good because of a few problems.  I certainly wasn’t going to do that. Yes, there were a lot of problems, but my experience had been so good.”

This was an idea he repeated throughout his story.  Each time he encountered a story of negative experiences within the group, he assumed the problem was exaggerated, out of context, or that it would be fixed- because his experience was so good.  These had to be isolated incidents. He had experienced life changing blessings. He had tasted the good fruit that came from his membership in Regnum Christi. He knew the good that came from the organization, and he felt that God was directing it.  Any harm must have been exceptional, and the few “bad apples” who had caused it would be rooted out. It would be OK.

I think this is a normal human thing to do.  For him, the organization was an obvious source of good.  It was bringing him closer to God. And if God was using the organization, how could it be hurting anyone?  If it was, it was certainly due to the actions of a few imperfect humans, and with work, faith, and some guidance from God, these could be overcome.  Those who harshly criticized or left the group entirely were throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Other believing members have also reacted incredulously to stories of abuse and trauma.  In response, they often tell of their positive experiences. They seem to feel that their positive experiences negate, or at least outweigh the negative experiences of others.  One member commented,

“I’m a +8 year member of RC. Never in those years did I encounter… anything negative.  I have been led to a better life of prayer, love for Christ, desire for the Sacraments, and intense love for the Roman Catholic Church…  My RC friends are holy, Catholic, fun-loving zealous women. Yes, zealous! Zealous for the life in Christ that we are called to live-knowing Him better, loving Him, and serving Him.
Take your negativity and stuff it, friends.”

-from blog comment by VDK on amywellborn.wordpress.com

To this person, the negative stories must have seemed unlikely to be true, or at least exaggerated.  They ran counter to her entire experience. Not only that, but they may have felt like a personal attack, or an attack on her community and loved ones.

It can be hard to believe it when someone claims that something we love has hurt them, especially when that person is angry, as people who feel hurt often are.  But why do we have to negate the experiences of those who are different from us? Is it possible that both groups’ experiences are real?

I’ve seen this within my own faith background, too.  I’ve seen people negate the experiences of others[2]. Believers sometimes say that those who leave are just easily offended or are expecting church members (or history) to be unreasonably perfect.  Or, they say that they left in order to justify their sinful lives, or that they have weak character. If a leave taker seems angry, this is often seen as evidence of a negative attitude. It can be hard for believers to accept that the organization may have truly, deeply hurt anyone, especially since their own experiences have been so good.

I can’t say whether these people claiming to have been hurt by Regnum Christi were abused deliberately or if they were harmed unintentionally by well-meaning leaders with good intentions.  But there are many, many tragic stories recorded online[3]. I believe them when they say they have been hurt. With so many people sharing similar stories, can we be justified in ignoring them?  Can we simply say that these were unfortunate exceptions?

Sadly, the alleged damages were not limited to emotional abuse.  In 1998, nine men who had been members of Regnum Christi as young boys made allegations of sexual abuse against Maciel to the Vatican.  The Vatican did not investigate these allegations until 2006, when Maciel was removed from his position and was invited to a life of prayer and penance, but the investigation was halted due to Maciel’s age and poor health.  In 2010, two years after Maciel’s death, the Legion of Christ, Regnum Christi’s parent organization, released a communiqué finally acknowledging the truth of the accusations, and the Vatican began an official process to reform or eliminate elements of the culture and structure that enabled this and other abuses to occur.  In 2014, the Legion issued a formal apology, acknowledging “with sadness the initial incapability of believing the testimonies of the persons who had been victims of Fr. Maciel, the long institutional silence and, later on, the hesitations and errors of judgment when setting out to inform the members of the congregation and others.”

So, whose experience was real?  Was Regnum Christi a blessing to the world and its members?  Did the organization do legitimate good? Or was it an organization of deceivers and abusers?  And, if so, why for so many years was there an “incapability of believing the testimonies” of those who had been hurt?

The answer, I believe, is that both were real.  Regnum Christi was both a source of real good and still produced some harmful effects.  Some greatly benefited, but others were hurt.  And, unfortunately, it can be very difficult to accept or believe another person’s experience that is so completely different than our own.

The excerpt below is from the forum post I mentioned earlier.  It was written on the Life After RC blog in 2009, the year before the Legion acknowledged Maciel’s abuses.

“During my six years in Regnum Christi, I heard it over and over.  And yes, I admit, I said it myself: ‘My experience has been so good!’
…I assumed that those who spoke of ill treatment, duplicity and using people for the kingdom had just encountered some bad apples in a great organization.  It had to be, because my experience was so good. And it wasn’t just good for me. It was good for my family.
…I wanted these people to straighten up their act because I was sure that this was not an organizational problem because my experience had been so good.
…Since I left, I’ve talked to some of my friends who are still in RC. If they ask me why I left, I will recount a few of the stories.  They usually agree that those things are unacceptable. But then I hear it. ‘It’s really hard because being in Regnum Christi had been so good for me.’ It didn’t take too long for me to realize, to my great horror, that I myself had been using this same logic since I joined RC. I knew people had been hurt and not received any apologies or restitution. Yet, I stood with the people who had hurt them because my experience had been so good.
I was terribly wrong. It was wrong for me to ignore the red flags for all of those years because I wanted the benefit of being in Regnum Christi and it is still wrong today. To turn a blind eye to the injustice of others indicts the one who refuses to see.”

-from Life After RC blog post, “The Logic of My Experience”

I believe that this writer is a good man, trying to do his best for his family and beloved community.  However, his utterly positive experience blinded him to the fact that others were suffering inside the same organization that had brought him so much happiness.

If you have had positive experiences in Regnum Christi or any other organization, I am happy for you.  I hope your positive experiences continue. The negative experiences, and even horrific abuses suffered by some inside this movement do not negate the positive experiences of others.  If, though, you are happy- if you have found something that brings you the same joy as Regnum Christi has brought to some, I do not want you to be similarly blinded.  You can have and keep all of your positive experiences. They are meaningful and powerful to you, and you should treasure them. But, if you hear someone claim to be suffering, please do not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear.  Please do not immediately assume that the problem is their fault, or that theirs is just an isolated incident.

To the sincere members of Regnum Christi who simply could not believe the stories of former members- I do not blame you.  Your observations only made sense. Your experience had been so good! How could the same organization that had been such a blessing in your life produce these damages?  If you had only heard rumors, it would have seemed impossible. But, it’s very possible. Please, if you hear claims of suffering, take them seriously. See what is wrong.  Listen to the sufferers’ stories, even if it is hard, and even if their stories are counter to your experience.  If you can, withhold judgement, at least for a time.  Try to understand, even if you disagree.  Please do not make the same mistakes we have seen here.

To members of my own faith background, I say the same to you.  If you hear someone claim that some aspect of their church experience has hurt them, please listen.  Even if what they say runs completely counter to your experience, please listen.  Perhaps, after listening, you will still disagree with their claims.  But, maybe you will find that some people have been truly damaged.  Maybe some part of the culture, policies, or procedures can be changed to prevent such hurts.  At the very least, YOU can change how you see, treat, or talk about this person. And in doing so, maybe suffering can be prevented, and lives can be changed or even saved.


Further Reading

The Legion of Christ’s official communiqué from 2010 contained the following statement:

“We had thought and hoped that the accusations brought against our founder were false and unfounded, since they conflicted with our experience of him personally and his work.
…We ask all those who accused him in the past to forgive us, those whom we did not believe or were incapable of giving a hearing to, since at the time we could not imagine that such behavior took place.”

From a Fox News investigation into Regnum Christi’s internal problems:

“However, a Jesuit canon law professor, the Rev. Ladislas Orsy… said sections of the Regnum Christi statutes, which were approved by the Vatican in 2004, could lead to potential abuse.
…Former superiors now say there was something terribly wrong with the way they exercised authority. Denisse, who ran a house for consecrated women in Mexico, said she left last year after more than a decade when she realized the psychological harm the movement was causing.
‘If you had a fragile personality, people who wanted to be perfect, they broke you psychologically,’ the 40-year-old Mexican woman said.”

From 2012 to 2017, the Australian Royal Commission conducted a deep investigation into institutional child abuse.  In addition to other factors, they found that:

“[T]he central factor, underpinning and linked to all other factors, was the status of people in religious ministry.
…The power and authority exercised by people in religious ministry gave them access to children and created opportunities for abuse. Children and adults within religious communities frequently saw people in religious ministry as figures who could not be challenged and, equally, as individuals in whom they could place their trust.
Within religious institutions there was often an inability to conceive that a person in religious ministry was capable of sexually abusing a child. This resulted in a failure by adults to listen to children who tried to disclose sexual abuse, a reluctance of religious leaders to take action when faced with allegations against people in religious ministry, and a willingness of religious leaders to accept denials from alleged perpetrators.”

-from ARC Report, see “Common Contributing Factors Across Religious Institutions”

Many former members of Regnum Christi allege that they were not allowed to criticize organization leadership in any way, and were to obey leaders as they would obey God himself (see Thomas Berg’s and El Trastevere’s comments).  Many also allege that this culture of unquestioning obedience enabled abuse to take place.

Relevant documents:

Vatican Communiqué, May 19, 2006.  Maciel is removed from his position and investigation is halted.

Vatican Communiqué, May 1, 2010.  Vatican confirms Maciel’s abuses and reports on systemic problems within Regnum Christi that enabled abuse to occur.

Letter from Fr Álvaro Corcuera, sent with the Legion’s 2010 communiqué.

Legion of Christ Statement, Jan. 20, 2014.  Formal apology and description of reformation process.


Notes

[1] I’ve collected more positive experiences from Regnum Christi members here.

[2] For the record, I’ve also seen former believers negate the experiences of believers.  They may call believers deceived, dishonest, unintelligent, or other epithets.  This is just as unfair, inaccurate, and hurtful!  Please, please do not do this!

[3] I’ve also collected negative experiences from Regnum Christi members here.

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