the Hope of Survivors

10 Myths About Clergy Sexual Abuse—Darryl W. Stephens

(From the January 2012 edition of HopeSpeak)

MYTH 1—It is just an affair. To call it an “affair” is to focus only on the sexual relationship; but the real issues are the clergyperson’s violations of the sacred trust of ministries, breach of fiduciary responsibility, violation of professional boundaries, and abuse of power.

MYTH 2—They’re consenting adults, so they’re both to blame. When there is a significant imbalance of power in a relationship (as there is between a pastor and a parishioner), it is the pastor’s responsibility to maintain appropriate professional boundaries. Blaming the victim is an attempt to avoid confronting the perpetrator.

MYTH 3—A sexual relationship involving pastors is their own personal business. Even if both parties are single, a sexual relationship between a pastor and a parishioner affects the entire congregation, and makes it more difficult for the pastor to be a minister to the whole congregation.

MYTH 4—When a parishioner accuses the pastor of misconduct, it’s best to them them work it out. Clergy sexual misconduct is a chargeable offense according to the laws of the United Methodist Church, and it is even a criminal offense in some states. It is the responsibility of the church—not the alleged victim—to enforce church law and to hold clergy accountable.

MYTH 5—The pastor resigned—case closed. Closing a case prior to adjudication abrogates justice for all parties. Facts may never be investigated, innocence or guilt may never be determined, the truth may never be told. Even if the pastor resigns, it is best to complete the investigation and adjudication process.

MYTH 6—A scandal like this will destroy us; secrecy protects the church. Failure to disclose appropriate information to a congregation regarding an allegation of misconduct—and the outcome of the just-resolution process--only fuels rumors and misinformation, and denies the healing power of truth-telling. Appropriate disclosure does not mean spilling all the facts, but it does mean informing people to the extent that they have a need to know about their pastoral leadership.

MYTH 7—Better psychological screening will eliminate future misconduct. While psychological evaluations are important parts of the screening process for ministerial candidates, this process will not eliminate the problem of clergy misconduct in the church. Don’t we have a doctrine of sin to remind us of this?

MYTH 8—A “zero tolerance” policy will eliminate misconduct. If a conference is too quick to dismiss any clergyperson accused of any form of misconduct, a culture of secrecy may develop. Due process and the hard work of discernment about degrees of violations will contribute to justice and healing for all parties.

MYTH 9—No news is good news. A conference or church that has no reports or allegations of misconduct is not necessarily free of misconduct. In fact, effective education of clergy and laity about appropriate boundaries increases awareness of misconduct, often resulting in an increase in misconduct cases, at least in the short term.

MYTH 10—A pastor can never be the victim. Clergy can be harassed and abused by parishioners just as anyone can be the victim of a crime. Beginning last year, every conference is now required to have a policy about how to handle complaints of lay harassment of clergy. It is still the clergyperson’s responsibility to maintain appropriate professional conduct and boundaries, however. Church should be a safe place for clergy and lay workers as well as parishioners.

Originally published in The Flyer, 41:9, Sept 2010:

Darryl W. Stephens is assistant general secretary of sexual ethics and advocacy for GCSRW.

The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart...Psalms 34:18