And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea. -Mark 9:42
Words like “adultery,” “affair,” “relationship,” etc., typically take the forefront when an adult is abused. Let’s be clear: You are not having an affair with your pastor. These are improper words to describe what happens in this type of situation. The “relationship” between a pastor and his congregant (or counselor/counselee, etc.) is NOT an “affair”—it is ABUSE. Due to the imbalance of power in the relationship between Pastor/Congregant (Teacher/Student, Counselor/Counselee, etc.), there can be no mutual consent to any type of intimate behavior or sexual activity. In fact, a woman who has been victimized in the past (either during her childhood or in other ways) may find that she is, in effect, virtually UNABLE to WITHHOLD consent. She may feel, due to circumstances, that she is not free to refuse any unwanted sexual advances. In reality, she may be subconsciously re-enacting her earlier abuse (by someone else) in the situation with the pastor, especially if the pastor is much older than she is and if he is not someone she would ever be attracted to if it were not for his power, age and authority over her. Pastoral sexual abuse doesn’t always occur due to transference. Sometimes it happens simply because the pastor is a sexual predator. The abuse is more than just a physical or emotional abuse. When a pastor (or elder or anyone seen as a spiritual leader in the church) betrays his sacred trust, it is spiritual abuse as well, spiritual adultery, if you will.
Pastoral/clergy abuse is many things. It is a relationship of trust that has been broken. It can be, but the abuse is NOT always physical in nature. It is emotional, spiritual and mental abuse. It is when one who is in a position of trust or power takes advantage of the person who is entrusted to his care. It is when someone who is supposed to help another takes advantage of her to satisfy his own selfish sexual or emotional needs. Abuse of power causes tremendous harm to both parties (and their respective families, the church, etc.), but especially the one whose trust (and body) has been violated.
Why is consent to sexual relations between clergy and congregant impossible? Due to the power differential, there can be NO MUTUAL CONSENT given by a congregant. Sexual violation by a therapist, doctor, or clergy member is not about sex; it is an abuse of power, authority, and trust inherent in the relationship. According to Professor Diana Garland, Dean of the Baylor University School of Social Work, who recently conducted a research study on adult exploitation by clergy: "Many people, including the victims themselves, often label incidences of Clergy Sexual Misconduct with adults as 'affairs'. In reality, they are an abuse of spiritual power by the religious leader."
Similar findings are reported by Dr. Margaret Kennedy, founder of MACSAS (Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors), a support group in the UK. A brief article about Kennedy's Ph.D. research, "A Study into Clergy Sexual Exploitation of Adult Women," was published in the MACSAS newsletter Out Loud (Spring 2010). The majority of women had sought help of clergy in times of crises. Many women were survivors of childhood abuse. The majority of women had the perception they were seeking help from a professional, not seeking sex which profoundly confused them, hurt them, and frightened them.
What are the dynamics of psychological grooming by sexual predators?
Sexual grooming by a trusted clergy member can disarm the victim's usual defenses. Trust of one's spiritual advisor can make it difficult for the victim to perceive the moves of a sexual predator as he or she is being groomed. The primarily psychological nature of such assaults can often confuse the victim's own understanding of whether he or she "consented" to the sexual relations. Victims of professional abuse and exploitation, can be "groomed" for sex over a period of time. The process involved a methodical, systematic wearing away of boundaries, morals and values, and quite appropriate inhibitions and prohibitions.
What are some of the victim's common reactions from the abuse?
Feelings of guilt, shame, anger, confusion and worthlessness
Difficulty trusting others
Distorted view of God
Risk of Suicide
Is Clergy Sexual Abuse and misconduct illegal? Clergy Sexual Abuse and Misconduct is illegal in thirteen states.