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