the Hope of Survivors

Was It An Affair?—Coralie Roll, Australia Division Representative

(From the October 2009 edition of HopeSpeak)

Coralie RollA ‘passionate new Christian’ is how she used to describe herself. Emma* wonders what it would be like to feel passionate and alive again. At the moment she fluctuates between feeling numb and being in the depths of absolute despair.

Five years ago when Emma and her husband joined the church, the pastor took them under his wing. He became their close friend and helped the family through a particularly difficult time when Emma’s mother died. He knew about the abuse Emma had suffered at the hands of her father as a child, and he showed her care and compassion. He gained her confidence and she trusted him implicitly. He was 28 years older than her and she often thanked God for placing him in her life to show her what a true father could be like. She felt a special bond.

One day the line was crossed and the relationship became sexual. He told her their relationship made him, not only a better person, but a better pastor and how his prayers for protection were being answered so they could share this extraordinary love. She appreciated his encouragement and acceptance of her, but a sexual relationship was not something she wanted. She tried to say no, but he said she wanted the relationship as much as he did. She did–just different, more like it was in the beginning.

She pleads with him to think about his wife and asks for their relationship to go back to the way it was. He tells her there is no going back, he can’t live without her. He adds that if she tells anybody, it will be her word against his and nobody will believe her, after all he has been a pastor for over 30 years.

Is this just a case of ‘falling off the rails’ and ‘falling into love’? Is this an affair? Are they equally responsible?

There are times in our lives we look to those more experienced than ourselves for guidance, such as when we are new in our faith or experiencing trauma or grief. We look for leadership and invest in this person a sacred trust–trust to define our problems and help us find solutions. Along with this trust comes a power–power which can be used to help us grow spiritually or used to exploit our vulnerabilities.

What makes a person vulnerable to this sort of abuse of power? Steve and Samantha Nelson, from The Hope of Survivors Ministry list some of the reasons a person may be vulnerable:

  1. Past or current sexual, physical, verbal or emotional abuse.
  2. Low self-esteem (failure to see yourself as valuable in the Lord’s sight).
  3. Marital problems.
  4. Trauma, sickness or death in the family.
  5. Personal health problems.
  6. Depression.
  7. Financial problems.
  8. Excessive stress.
  9. Attending church alone.
  10. Cultural diversity. 1

Any person with spiritual authority can abuse this power: a priest, an elder, a rabbi, a deacon. They can be paid employees, but many times are volunteers within an organisation.2 Of course, most spiritual leaders remain true to their high calling but sadly there are some who don’t. This is a problem affecting every denomination, and it is not a new problem. Ellen White addressed it in her day saying, “There are more men of this stamp than many have imagined, and they will multiply as we draw near the end of time.3When ministers thus take advantage of the confidence the people place in them and lead souls to ruin, they make themselves as much more guilty than the common sinner as their profession is higher. In the day of God, when the great Ledger of Heaven is opened, it will be found to contain the names of many ministers who have made pretensions to purity of heart and life and professed to be entrusted with the gospel of Christ, but who have taken advantage of their position to allure souls to transgress the law of God.”4

The person in the position of power has the responsibility to maintain appropriate boundaries. Grenz & Bell put it this way, “Regardless of the situation that he encounters, the pastor always retains the responsibility to control his personal behaviour and focus on the healing of the [congregant]. The person who is unable to do so has no business in the ministry.”5 When a spiritual leader takes advantage of a woman who is in his spiritual care, he robs her of the respect she deserves as a child of God. Just as importantly he also loses the opportunity to show her that her value as a woman is not linked to her ability or availability to act out her sexuality–an opportunity many of these women have never had. As a representative of the church and Jesus Christ the greater responsibility always lies with the person who holds the ordained position.

Emma is hurting badly. She wonders how she could have been so stupid. It is not a matter of intelligence though. If she had been approached by the pastor from an intellectual perspective for a sexual relationship, he would not have made it to square one, it is because he took advantage of her emotional vulnerabilities that he was able to secure her trust and affection. She feels humiliated and degraded.

After repeated requests for him to leave her alone, she makes an official complaint with her church organisation. She realises the risk she is taking of bringing her pain and humiliation out into the open, but after learning the pastor had done this in a previous congregation, she is determined to stop it happening to others.

The pastor is stood down while the investigation takes place, and the rumours begin to circulate. True to his word, he is denying it all. He spreads the word that she was making passes at him and when he turned her down she became hurt and angry and is making up the allegations to get back at him. Church members become confused and divided. Most refuse to believe he is anything but a loveable person who can do no wrong. She is accused of being a seducer.

When her family started attending church they committed to going regularly. Now they are isolated from their spiritual family. Church is not a safe place for them–the sideways glances and the whispering, one of her children has been taunted that the pastor is her mother’s boyfriend. Now they go for long drives instead of attending. The children miss church and don’t understand what is happening, but Emma cannot face the cold stares and the whispers. She desperately wants pastoral care for herself and her family but none has been forthcoming.

Such situations rock a church to its core. Many people are left shocked, disillusioned and in a state of disbelief. Often the victim is blamed, and the offender made to look like a victim. Even if the spiritual leader confesses, the emphasis of the church is usually on looking after the leader and his spiritual restoration, leaving the victim in a spiritual desert. Many lose their faith in God. Some lose family and friends. Most stop attending church and many no longer even pray. Sandy, a victim, described it this way, “The impact of being abused at the hands of someone you trust so completely who then uses that trust to hurt you is life-long and manifests itself in ways you don’t always recognize. It is a deep, deep pain. Because of his abuse, I no longer will allow myself to be alone with a minister again. I no longer pray out loud for fear someone will see me as weak, vulnerable and easy prey. My children have never had a bedtime prayer with their mother.”

The result is devastation. Devastation for the victim and her family. Devastation for the offender and his family. Devastation for the church as a whole.

Greater understanding and recognition of these issues will help us face the devastation. When we are better prepared we can more effectively minister to the victims, offenders and their families. We will also be in a better position to withstand the battering the enemy wants to give us individually and corporately as a church.

Pastor Tom Lemon, V.P. for Administration of the Mid-American Union Conference brings home the poignancy of damage the devil wreaks in the life of a leader and a victim.

“The abusive pastor or spiritual leader has allowed himself to go a long way down the track before he ever commits the crime of abuse. But until the crime is committed, he likely doesn’t realize just how far he has already strayed. When once the deed is done or the pattern begins to unfold, the huge distance from the Lord becomes readily apparent. And it can seem like too enormous a gulf to bridge to ever get back. So the abuser doesn’t try, at least not very hard. Rather he continues to medicate his spiritual pain with fleshly anaesthetic which is addictive. And the Evil One laughs obscenely at his success over human weakness.”

When the victim is trapped by this crime, she is often on her way, or trying to be on her way, back to wholeness from brokenness. Of course wholeness, including spiritual growth, is the last thing the devil wants. So he sets her up for abuse by the human she is seeking a path to wholeness from, sending her back into the abyss out of which she has started to climb. And again his laughter is loud and ugly.”6

Let us not give the Evil One the upper hand, let us do our best as a church to pull together and resist his attacks. Let us remember how hard the devil attacks those who are working in our churches to spread the gospel, and how he will do anything to discredit our Saviour and His church.

Let us as a church, act promptly to thoroughly investigate allegations and, if found to be true, take appropriate remedial action. When an alleged offender is found responsible for this sort of abuse, let us pray the steps he has taken down such a path will be reversed and he will decide with the grace of God to walk a different path. Let us treat offenders with compassion as we hold them accountable for the damage they have caused and remember, “there but for the grace of God go I.”

Let us listen attentively without prejudice and bias when alleged victims and their families tell of their experience even though their complaint is against a leader of the ‘flock’ and seems completely unbelievable. Only 2% of these complaints are found to be without basis.7 Let us have compassion and understanding for them when they tell their heart-wrenching stories.

Let us remember Emma and her family and not abandon them to a life of spiritual isolation.

*Emma is a composite character of real victims, preserving anonymity and confidentiality of actual victims.

  1. Steve & Samantha Nelson,
  3. Ellen G White, Vol 5 Testimonies to the Church, (Pacific Press, 1948), p 141
  4. ___________, Vol 5 Testimonies to the Church, (Pacific Press, 1948), p 143
  5. Stanley J. Grenz & Roy D. Bell, Betrayal of Trust, (Baker Books, 1995)
  6. Pastor Tom Lemon,
The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart...Psalms 34:18