Concerned residents from throughout the nation and elected officials in Maine gathered in Augusta on March 29 to testify in favor of a bill that would criminalize clergy sexual abuse among adults.

The bill, LD 913: “An Act To Protect the Public from Clergy Sexual Abuse,” if passed, would make it illegal for clergy members use their positions of power to have sexual relations with adults.

The bill was proposed in 2015 with slightly different language, but was indefinitely postponed. Thirteen other states, as well as Washington, D.C., have passed bills banning clergy sexual abuse among adults.

The bill was presented by Sen. Susan Deschambault (D-York County) before the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, of which Deschambault and Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell) are co-chairmen.

The goal of the bill, according to advocate Ashley Easter of North Carolina, is to not only make clergy sexual acts illegal among adults, but also for the district attorney to set up a hotline for survivors of abuse and loved ones of victims to report abuse. The team behind the bill also wants a registry to be made available that would include all clergy members, regardless of faith, who have pleaded guilty and were convicted of sexual abuse.

Also on the committee are Sen. Michael Carpenter (D-Houlton), Sen. Kimberly Rosen (D-Bucksport Rep. Pinny Beebe-Center (D-Rockland), Rep. Janice Cooper (D-Yarmouth), Rep. Patrick Corey (R-Windham), Rep. Danny Costain (R-Plymouth), Rep. Chris Johanson (R-Monticello), Rep. Victoria Morales (D-South Portland), Rep. Richard Picket (R-Dixfield), Rep. Lois Reckitt (D-South Portland) and Rep. Braden Sharpe (D-Durham). Both Deschambault and Reckitt spoke in favor of the bill.

David Pooler of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, helped find the “perfect language” to execute the bill. Language pulls from legislation in Texas and Arkansas, two of the states where the clergy sexual abuse bills have been approved. Where the previous bill was thought to be too broad, the new language narrows down its scope.

Pooler was one of 13 who testified. He traveled from Texas, where he is a professor of social work to testify on behalf of the bill.

“Criminalizing clergy perpetrated sexual abuse is the first step in making faith communities safer. It could dissuade a potential perpetrator from harming someone, change the way clergy are trained and assessed, and most importantly could hold a perpetrator accountable and stop them from harming again,” Pooler said during his testimony.

Morales questioned Pooler on the age range of bill, asking if the bill extended to children and young adults. Pooler said children are covered by other bills barring child abuse and molestation; the proposed bill covers only those older than 18. Pooler said members of the clergy are usually able to skirt convictions of sexually assaulting and manipulating adults by referring to them as affairs.

When questioned by Cooper as to the why this needs to be a criminal offense as opposed to a civil offense, Pooler said the inherent imbalance of power between a member of the clergy versus congregant is at play, as well as the profound breach of duty that occurs when that power is abused.

“I know in Texas it is criminal, and I think it ought to be for any profession where there is trust placed in them, because the harm done when there is that kind of abuse and misuse of power, the harm done, the betrayal trauma, is profound,” Pooler said.

The Rev. Shirley Bowen, executive director of Seeds of Hope in Biddeford, testified in support of the bill.

Bowen spoke as a member of the clergy, an Episcopal priest, and testified to the severity of the breach of trust that occurs when a member of the clergy abuses someone in their flock. She likened members of the clergy with members of one’s family, and that such a violation of trust should be treated with the same seriousness as incest.

“The depth of betrayal in that trust is a wound that runs that deep, the healing is that long and difficult,” Bowen said. “The severing of one from his or her place of safety and spiritual nurture is abhorrent. There must be a consequence to that violation.”

Several people who said they were victims of clergy sexual abuse testified in favor of the bill.

Easter, an ordained reverend, spoke at length about the abuse she was dealt by her grandfather, who was a pastor. She spoke of the long-term effects of the abuse, and how it affects her to this day.

“How do you say no to God?” Easter asked the committee.

As Easter is also a reverend, she asked for the same accountability that she herself would want to face were she ever to so egregiously violate the vows she has taken.

From Colorado Springs was Jules Woodson, who spoke of being assaulted by her youth minister at the age of 17.

Later, when Woodson came forward, Andy Savage of Tennessee admitted before his congregation that he had indeed committed the assault, and was applauded for his contrition. The experience led Woodson, who brought her two daughters with her to watch the testimony in Maine, to be featured in an op/ed video for the New York Times about her experience in March 2018 titled, “I Was Assaulted. He Was Applauded.”

Woodson said that if a bill with such language had been in affect at the time of her assault, her abuser could have been held accountable in a court of law.

“The trauma caused from not only the sexual assault, but the emotional and spiritual abuse I suffered as a result of the cover up has had a significant effect on my life, to include a weeklong hospitalization and extensive therapy which continues to this day,” Woodson said.

Kim Rung and husband Eric of Ohio testified in favor of the bill, with Kim Rung detailing her experience with clergy, in which she was taken advantage of in a moment of weakness and alienated from her husband and family before pressured for sexual contact.

“I was taken to hell by a pastor, and he was supported,” Kim Rung said.

John Pelletier of the Criminal Law Advisory Committee was the only voice of opposition during the hearing.

After looking over the bill since 2015, he said the committee cannot find the appropriate wording to make it sound. He believes such a bill would make consensual relationships illegal as well as nonconsensual ones, and that the language is not clear enough to make that distinction.

Reckitt questioned Pelletier over the definition of consensual, and asked if it would be possible for the committee to find the language to clarify his concerns, to which Pelletier replied that he had yet to see a “formulation that defines a healthy relationship.”

“This law may tread on the rights of the people,” Pelletier said.

Costain asked Pelletier why clergy can’t be held to the same standards as teachers and psychologists.

“What’s the difference in what we’re talking about here (LD 913) versus what we’re talking about there?” Costain asked.

Pelletier said there’s is no such law that addresses college teachers and students.

Morales suggested there be an amendment that would obligate those who are aware of clergy sexual abuse to report it as opposed to covering up allegations, adding that she understands there are indeed grey areas to the bill.

“I’m not here with solutions,” Pelletier said. “I don’t have a suggested alternative.”

Beebe-Center referenced the 13 other states with similar bills in place, asking if there was anything that could be used from those bills for LD 913. Pelletier said while other bills may have passed elsewhere, it did not imply that they would “pass muster” in Maine.

The bill will now be workshopped by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which has requested that the 13 other passed bills be provided so they can cross reference them moving forward. Following the work session, scheduled for April 10, and a committee vote, the bill will be brought before both the House and Senate for votes.

Contact Staff Writer Abigail Worthing at [email protected]

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