My blog broke the story on two high-profile cases of clergy sexual misconduct. These are very difficult stories to report on, especially as I get to know the survivors and the ongoing emotional and spiritual trauma they endured with these highly influential church leaders.
One common misconception I see repeatedly debated in comments on news stories covering these accounts is that the woman is equally responsible. This is not true. In fact, in at least 13 states, it is against the law for clergy to have sexual relationships with congregants. This is similar to other laws wherein there is a power differential: doctor/patient; counselor/client; instructor/student. It is wholly up to the person in position of power to ensure healthy relationships with those he/she serves.
Some will say, “but she’s an adult, she knew what she was doing, she had a choice.” Full stop. If you read the accounts of survivors in clergy sexual misconduct cases, you will see how pastors/church leaders use psychological manipulation to groom the victim. The relationship starts innocently, usually as she reaches out for help. She places her trust in this person who is in a position to “do no harm.” The pastor/leader sees that weakness in her and uses it to his advantage. She feels compelled to comply for any number of reasons, and these victims lose their agency in the process.
Some people are quick to dismiss psychological manipulation in this scenario, especially because both people involved are adults. But this kind of manipulation cannot be dismissed. The same type of manipulation is used by cult leaders as they gain a devoted following who alter their lives to meet the cult leader’s demands or desires. One of the first things people discover about cult followers is they also lose their agency and ability to think critically and act independently.
And here’s something important to note: no one intentionally joins a cult. They thought they were joining a healthy church/group, but got caught up into the cult system before they knew it. The same is true about clergy sexual misconduct.
Let us never, ever put blame on a victim of clergy sexual misconduct. In the cases I am personally involved with, most have never stepped one foot back in church. Many have lost their marriages. They are permanently scarred. We need to wrap our arms around these survivors just as we would those who leave a cult. They have suffered enough trauma.
Here are some resources on clergy sexual misconduct:
- Baylor University study on clergy sexual misconduct.
- Sexual Misconduct Within Ministerial Relationships
- Abuse by Clergy, FaithTrust Institute
- Information on states with laws against clergy sexual abuse
4 thoughts on “Clergy Sexual Misconduct: Why Victims Should Not be Blamed”
I certainly understand your point about the responsibility of power. However, it neglects to account for aggressive congregants who seek after the power through sexual conquest. Sex in and of itself is a power play. I do not agree that these situations are always caused by the person in power. Further, I suspect there are many more of these situations than those that reach our ears.
Charles, the problem is first a problem of numbers and second a problem of bias. Let’s say that out of 1000 cases of clergy/congregant sex, 990 are based on power differential, grooming and predation and the other 10 are either truly consensual, or some sort of glory seeking.
I think we have to mentally start from a point that it is, almost certainly clergy sexual misconduct. In the cases I’ve read where it was glory seeking, again, there are patterns that show up, just like in clergy sexual misconduct.
I think you misunderstand how powerful our authoritarian culture is. Children, especially girls, are brought up in an environment where the “authority” is superior, intellectually, spiritually and usually morally. Each year, I have to sign off on a school student handbook that has absolutely no consideration that my child’s teacher could ask something that, at a minimum makes them late for a later class (this happened) without requiring the teacher to also give them an excuse, and not at a minimum, there are very few avenues of appeal, and strong state laws protecting authorities. We tell them our pastor is a godly man and we go to his church because God has gifted him with superior morality and spirituality.
At the same time, these authoritarian systems also establish cognitive dissonance about our own morality and that of our leaders. We’re told we “all fall short”, and “our righteousness is as filthy rags”, but also taught that we are better than all the other unsaved and people not in our faith tradition. Again, we’re told that “all fall short”, but we’re told that those in power are “approved men that we can completely trust”, “Representatives of God”. “People who are Spiritually gifted to lead us”.
And that is even before predatory behavior starts. The pastor became a pastor because he was influential, knew the right things to say, cultivated an air of piety and incorruptibility. Within the church, he has the power to shower people with favor, not just from him, but from those in the inner circle, and he has the power to create rejection and discomfort. He has a network of informants, too, who will innocently strike up a “vulnerable” conversation with you that leads you to share something embarrassing or a weakness that can then be exploited.
At that point, the pastor can create a relationship, based on helping you work through a moral failing, or some daunting issue. He can use his training and charisma to test and prod at your red flags before he finds a way to get what he wants out of you.
Another thing that my wife told me a while ago is that what is portrayed as female romance often involves being an ordinary person who is attractive to someone with incredible power (Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight). Part of our female cultural vision of romance is a secretive, or illicit, relationship with a powerful position and lots of charisma. I think we as men just don’t get it. Even in Jesus and John Wayne, the Evangelical vision of women was to be protected by powerful and manly men, but somehow those powerful and manly men created a culture where they shouldn’t be held accountable for their violence and rape of women.
This is why I completely agree that state laws should unanimously say that clergy/congregant sex is illegal.
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It’s the unfair power dynamic writ large. So many men just don’t get it. And how many men have power positions in our society?
The ones who make comments like Charles’ validate the position of keeping it that way.
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Hard to see something wrong when your money, power, privilege, and/or convenience depend on your NOT seeing it.