the Hope of Survivors

Q & A About Clergy Sexual Abuse & Misconduct—The Hope of Survivors Staff

(From the July 2005 edition of HopeSpeak)

What is clergy sexual abuse?

Whenever a pastor, or any other individual in a role of spiritual authority, whether in a paid or volunteer position, takes advantage of his/her position and power it is considered abuse. This is not only the case when children are involved, but adults as well. To bring this into focus, let’s look at this example: if a medical doctor decided it was in his best financial interest to make a patient sick, rather than well, it would obviously be a serious offense and a very wrong practice.

When we think about a pastor’s moral fall, it becomes more difficult for many people to see it as abuse because their feelings and emotions are involved. However, when a woman seeks spiritual advice from her pastor and he chooses to distort the truth so he can emotionally and physically take advantage of her, it is abuse, although many people mistakenly refer to it as an “affair.”

Why is this abuse?

It is abuse because there is a tremendous imbalance of power, authority, knowledge (Biblical training), experience and responsibility, and often age, between a pastor and a congregant. There can be no mutual consent to a relationship of any kind, especially not a physical one.

What is the difference between adultery and an affair?

Modern-day dictionaries tend to define adultery and affair as the same thing, implying that there is a mutual consent or agreement on behalf of both parties. The fact is there cannot be mutual consent between a pastor and a congregant due to the power and authority imbalances.

If society can recognize that a counselor is acting inappropriately or abusively when he seeks a relationship with a counselee, shouldn’t we then, as Christians, more easily recognize that if a pastor who represents Christ, will twist Scripture to deceive, manipulate and coerce a vulnerable person, he is betraying his sacred trust and is guilty of abuse?

Is this really a problem?

We need only to look at the news to see how prevalent this really is in our day. However, it is not a new thing. Jude 1:4, “For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sadly, sexual abuse and abuse of power in these types of situations is far too common, even epidemic, in our country and around the world. Unfortunately, many of the men who violate the appropriate boundaries are “repeat” offenders who continually exploit woman after woman.

Are there a lot of women who try to seduce their pastors?

There may be some women who are attracted to power, or to a certain pastor. However, in those cases where the pastor is said to have been seduced, one must ask a significant question. Would she be after him if he were not the pastor? If so, then the pastor should take steps to protect himself and his ministry. He is always responsible for maintaining appropriate boundaries.

Isn’t the responsibility for what happened 50-50 between the pastor and the woman?

This is difficult for many to understand. While everyone is individually accountable to God for their thoughts, words and deeds, the pastor is first and foremost responsible for maintaining propriety in all relationships, whether he is counseling, working or serving on a committee. The pastor has a high calling and is, therefore, much more accountable to God, himself and others for his behavior.

If and when the woman sees the evil developing, she can and should say no to any inappropriate advances. But “can” and “should” assume both are relating on an even level of equality. While every case is different, emotional ties that enable healing can make saying no extremely difficult. It is also important to realize that there is a level of automatic trust that allows a woman to open herself up to the pastor. If the pastor is claiming that the relationship is “God’s will” it can appear that to say no, would be going against God Himself.

In the end then, it is ultimately the pastor who is responsible to protect the boundaries, the reputations, and the integrity of his office and of his counselees. It is the pastor who is expected to “Just Say No;” first to the temptation and himself, and then also to the relationship.

“When 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.”—Testimonies for the Church, Volume 5

Shouldn’t we just “forgive and forget”?

You need to recognize that the pastor has violated a sacred trust and ministry that God has called him to uphold. The pastor is the shepherd of the flock and, as the shepherd, it is his duty to guard all of Christ’s sheep. However, if he has abused his position, he has become a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Given the enormity of the violation and the breach of sacred trust, the pastor can NEVER expect to have the trust or responsibility of God’s people again.

While we should forgive others for what they have done and how they have hurt us, forgiveness doesn’t always mean reconciliation or, in the case of a pastor, restoration to the pulpit. Many people think that if you forgive someone, you have to be reconciled, otherwise, you haven’t shown forgiveness. While this may be our desire, it is not likely that the victim will “forget” any time soon, nor will she or others be able to “forgive” if justice is not forthcoming. Ultimately, it is God alone who gives the ability to forgive others for the wrongs they have done. Forgiveness comes in His timing.

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