What is clergy sexual abuse?
Clergy sexual abuse happens when a person with religious authority intentionally uses their role, position, and power to sexually harass, exploit, or engage in sexual activity with a person. https://socialwork.web.baylor.edu/research-impact/ongoing-research/clergy-sexual-abuse-research This abuse doesn’t only include sexual activity—touching sexual organs with or without clothing, kissing, or rape. It also involves sexualizing conversations (via phone, social media, or email), asking for or sending unwanted sexual images/text, touching or hugging people without their permission, hinting at sexual involvement, pushing back when the church member implements a boundary, joking about sexual topics, pressing or rubbing up against a woman, or invading personal space. Clergy sexual abuse is essentially when perpetrators misuse their power/status and the inability of the victim to provide consent because of this power imbalance.
How common is clergy sexual abuse?
In 2008, Dr. Diana Garland and Dr. Mark Chaves of Baylor University did a study called The Prevalence of Clergy Sexual Misconduct with Adults: A Research Study (Baylor University). About 3,500 people responded to the survey and they represented 17 different religious affiliations both Christian and Jewish. What they found was that of the entire sample, 8% report having known about clergy sexual misconduct(CSM) taking place in a church they have attended. The study concludes, “Therefore, in the average American congregation of 400 congregants, there are, on average, 32 persons who have experienced CSM in their community of faith.”
In an article by Stephanie Dickrill in the SCTimes, Dr. David Pooler states, “Researchers found that between 2 and 4 percent of female church-goers have experienced a sexual advance, sexual harassment or sexual assault by a member of the clergy at some point in their life since turning 18.” He goes on to report that the average length of abuse is around 4 years. Typical victims were around age 30 when the abuse began, and African-American churches are more likely to see clergy abuse. Obviously, most church leaders who abuse are men and they are usually around the age of 45 and married. https://www.sctimes.com/story/news/local/2018/02/18/what-clergy-sexual-abuse-and-how-does-happen/343478002/
How is this abuse if the sexual involvement is occurring between two adults?
Because the congregant, the one without any power in the relationship cannot consent. Think about it. We tend to put our religious leaders on a pedestal. Maybe we don’t think of these leaders as God per se, but we certainly hold them to a higher standard. We assume they are of high moral character, that they both possess and apply biblical wisdom, and that they are extremely conscientious and ethical.
As a result of this power they hold, it is difficult for a church member to say no, especially when the parishioner believes the pastor is helping them and providing spiritual guidance and protection. If saying no is not a viable option, then yes is not possible. Now yes means fear of losing the relationship, fear of losing a job, fear of losing the help and support they are receiving. True consent never involves fear.
What happens when these victims report the abuse to the church?
In 2022, A National Study of Adult Women Sexually Abused by Clergy: Insights for Social Workers conducted by Pooler and Barros-Lane, reported that out of 159 clergy abuse victims, less than 10% received help and support from their congregations after they reported the abuse. Even worse, about half of the victims were ignored or flat-out blamed after they came forward with allegations of abuse by a religious leader.
Cognitive dissonance occurs when we have vastly conflicting thoughts and/or feelings about the same person or thing at the same time. This makes us so uncomfortable that we adjust the facts to keep our worldview intact and lessen the internal conflict. We may blame the victim, we may assume the pastor had a momentary slip, we may minimize the abuse, call it an affair, anything so that our boat is not rocked.
Where does that leave the survivors? Alone. I think many church-going people do this without even realizing it. They feel sad for the victim and they may even see what occurred as abuse, but they decide that the offending pastor or church leader has many good qualities that make up for it. And besides, they rationalize, it hasn’t happened to them yet. Just know when we do this, we are adding insult to injury to those who have already suffered immense betrayal.
How can women heal from a betrayal of this magnitude?
Despite the despicable response from the body of believers, most of the women who participated in the 2022 study were able to find healing afterward. They noted mental health counseling as the method that they found most useful in gaining healing. Faith in God was another factor that aided in the healing process.
Now imagine the dilemma when the church leader is also a mental health professional as mine was. Yikes. Sadly, this is the case for many of us who are abused by supposedly Christian therapists and counselors. Again, we expect more from a Christian counselor than we do a therapist who does not include the spiritual component. If one claims to be a Christian, we assume they are living by biblical principles and attempting to imitate Jesus. We expect a higher level of moral integrity, and I think we should.
I agree with the results of the study that victims of clergy abuse can find healing via a therapeutic counseling relationship, but it requires an extreme amount of trust for those of us whose abusive religious leader was also a therapist. I also agree that faith is a vital part of the healing journey for clergy abuse victims, but it isn’t so straightforward.
Victims first must separate the abusive church leaders and possible rejection by the church body from God Himself. This can be an arduous task. Once this transition happens though, it can be quite freeing to learn that we can experience God in an intimate way outside of the church.
So if the church fails victims, what is a victim to do? What avenues for justice are available to them?
As of now, only 14 states have legislation in place against clergy sexual abuse. To see if your state is on this list, see here. When a state has criminal legislation against clergy abuse it makes it illegal for religious leaders to commit sexual misconduct against adults in their spiritual care. Unfortunately, most of these states require that the abuse takes place within a counseling relationship, and this definition is limiting. While pastoral abuse often occurs in a counseling setting, there are many other avenues these perpetrators use to hurt and control victims.
For example, one clergy abuse victim shared with me that she had to provide not only secretarial duties to her boss, the priest but also sexual duties if she wanted to keep her job. She loved her job, needed the money, and had close friends at work, but she refused to become a prostitute/secretary for her boss, the leader of the church.
This is a perfect example of how victims who come forward or who refuse to go with the status quo can lose everything. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the victim was injured further when her close friend decided to stay on at the church office despite knowing about the priest’s abusive, reprehensible behavior. The victim certainly couldn’t continue her relationship with this person. When we know about abuse but we choose to set it aside so that our lives aren’t inconvenienced, we are betraying victims.
This was my experience as well. After being betrayed by the therapist who harmed me, I was even more devastated when the pastor’s wife, my friend and mentor, sided with the doctor. She eventually admitted that she didn’t tell her husband, the pastor, about my accusations because the elder board of which my abuser was a member had the power to fire her husband. It was easier to discard me then risk her livelihood by doing the right and just thing.
Despite an outside investigation by the medical board and the doctor willingly admitting to his crimes and handing over his medical license, the pastor still did not share the truth with the church. As a result, the gossip mill forced me out. The church elder who abused me and many others had been at the church for almost 20 years. I had been there for a mere 24 months.
He was a doctor, and I was a psychiatrist’s patient. I didn’t stand a chance. On top of losing my church family, I had close friends who remained at the church. I understood the reasons for their staying intellectually, but it didn’t take the sting out or lessen the feelings of abandonment.
In closing, let’s look at the importance of word choice in describing clergy sexual abuse…
Consider this sentence mentioned above—When a state has criminal legislation against clergy abuse it makes it illegal for religious leaders to commit sexual misconduct against adults in their spiritual care. Note the word choices. The clergy commits sexual misconduct against church members. They do not engage in sexual misconduct with a congregant.
Why is word choice so crucial here? Engaging with implies consent, does it not? Even if the victim is confused on this point, and many often are, the extreme imbalance of power in this relationship negates the ability to provide consent. As a result, if the pastor becomes sexually involved with a congregant, he will be committing sexual misconduct against the person under their spiritual care. Thus, the need for criminal law in every state. And thus, the importance of word choice I mentioned earlier.
While we are on the subject of word choice, we need to address the church’s often pitiful attempt at accurately describing these acts of sexual assault inflicted by church leaders upon those in their flock. Let’s start with the term misconduct. Isn’t misconduct also used to describe rowdy kids at school passing notes in class or kids who sneak cookies from the cookie jar before dinner? The more accurate description would be sexual violence, sexual assault, or sexual crime.
When I reported my abuser to the Oklahoma medical board, his abuse of me and many others, some living and some who committed suicide in his care, was listed as sexual misconduct. But at least the board investigators treated me with dignity and stopped the doctor from practicing. Since Oklahoma does not have criminal statutes in place for therapist abuse or clergy abuse, I was not able to press charges beyond reporting to the board. I did file a civil suit, however.
Churches will always water down the crime to salvage their reputations. They will instead say things like the pastor stumbled or sinned. He succumbed to temptation. Well of course it’s a sin. So is murder but have you ever read these headlines? Man sins when he murders entire family. Ax murderer stumbles morally when he slaughters innocent bystanders.
Finally, don’t you love the term church hurt? So many of us have been hurt by the church. This phrase has its place, but using it to describe the manipulation, grooming and eventual sexual assault by a faith leader we should have been able to trust is extremely condescending and dismissive. As one clergy sexual abuse survivor so eloquently put it, “Hurt is what I experience when I stub my toe.” So let our words build up and support and not tear down and harm.