the Hope of Survivors

Understanding the Mystery of Clergy Sexual Abuse—Martin Weber, D.Min.

Martin Weber, D.Min.(From the October 2008 edition of HopeSpeak)

Shame is the reason I’m so proud to be connected with The Hope of Survivors. Perhaps I should explain.

More than any organization I’ve known in several decades of pastoral ministry, including law enforcement chaplaincy, The Hope of Survivors (THOS) helps victims feeling ashamed from sexual abuse find dignity, confidence, hope and even joy. And so I’m proud to serve on the executive board of THOS.

Shame afflicts most of us to some degree. It’s part of the human condition. As a chubby child, I was ashamed of my weight. Parents might be ashamed of their teenagers’ bad choices. Reformed “party animals” may feel shame for years of carousing.  But the human spirit knows no shame to match that of a sexual abuse victim who has been manipulated into feeling guilty for her predator’s sins. And those among them most deeply sunken in shame may be victims of clergy sexual abuse.

It’s terrible to be raped by a stranger and worse to be assaulted by one’s own biological father. In some ways it is most damaging of all to be the sexual victim of one’s spiritual father—a trusted pastor, supposedly a man of God.

Here’s why. Reasonable people are outraged at a sexual predator who drags a jogger off the trail into the bushes. Society springs to the defense of such victims. As for incest, everyone except enabling relatives is furious about paternal predators. But when it comes to clergy sexual abuse, congregational sympathy usually gravitates to a popular, powerful, preacher. Ironically, victims of clergy sexual abuse often must go outside the church to find a sympathetic heart. Tragically, they lose not only their trusted spiritual father figure but also most, if not all, of their faith community—even close friends.

This is where THOS has been such a lifesaver for hundreds of lonely victims of clergy sexual abuse who suffer in solitary shame. THOS helps them realize that:

•    As with all professionals, a pastor is responsible for not abusing his trust by allowing—and often planning—the sexualization of what began as normal interaction between himself and a vulnerable parishioner.

•    Sexual abuse is not necessarily scary or painful; often unsuspecting victims are drawn into a close friendship with a pastor that unexpectedly becomes romanticized and then sexualized.

•    Clergy romance or sex with a parishioner is not an “affair,” because it arises from a power imbalance. Physicians, educators and workplace supervisors understand this. Somehow it seems harder for many churches to accept this, perhaps because of the hero status of a star pastor.

•    Most pastors are men of integrity who never would abuse a member. To preserve this propriety, clergy need education and sometimes counseling to manage their own emotions and attractions as they interact with the vulnerable members of their flock.    

•    Victims of clergy sexual abuse need and deserve advocates in the church to guide them through a resolution process that emphasizes healing rather than vindictiveness.

•    Those who survive clergy sexual abuse need not bear the burden of proving to anyone—not even themselves or God—that they are perfect and completely innocent about what happened to them. The Bible says all of us are sinners in need of the grace and forgiveness of God.

•    It is possible to forgive one’s abuser while also establishing boundaries of protection against further abuse by anyone inside or outside the body of Christ.

•    Women who have suffered clergy sexual abuse need to find their primary identity in being God’s beloved daughters; this is more than having merely survived something evil done to them.

All the above should be clearly understood and taught in churches, but such is rarely the case. There is appalling ignorance that breeds insensitivity, disbelief and alienation toward victims of clergy sexual abuse. Often this becomes outright persecution and rejection by church leaders and fellow members, many of whom had been closer than family to the victim.

I’ve observed through the years that the mercy of the church seems to focus on the pastor’s scorned spouse and even on restoring the fallen pastor. Typically the “other woman” is actively or passively driven out of the church—unless the abuse victim is a minor. But even then, many 16-year-olds or even younger victims have been blamed for what predator clergy have lured them into. People whisper, “The little tart shouldn’t have seduced the youth pastor by having a crush on him and dressing like that.”

Often a church insists on denying that its pastor has been sexually abusive. When the evidence becomes undeniable, the victim is often regarded a vixen who led astray an upstanding man of God.

Those few members in the congregation willing to talk with the victim often ask inquisitive, prurient questions that have nothing to do with ministry to her. “What was it like to sneak off to the hotel with the pastor?” Or even: “Did you enjoy it?

In fact, clergy sexual abuse may be pleasurable, for a time. It usually starts with grooming the victim into thinking she is special—at first to God because of her talents, then later to the pastor because of her sweetness or beauty. Such flattery may cement an emotional bond between the victim and her pastor/predator—possibly a charismatic leader who may also be physically attractive. When sex happens, it might be startling and unwelcome to the victim, but gradually it may become pleasant as she becomes enmeshed in her pastor’s dysfunctions.

The victim may be groomed so skillfully, and manipulated so totally, that she may even initiate sex with the pastor—when she likely was targeted by him and unwittingly maneuvered into having such desires by a clever and calculating clergyman. This often happens in a counseling environment, where he discovers her secrets of previous abuse and then exploits those vulnerabilities. He may prey upon her emotions as he prays with her, holding her hands in a fatherly fashion. He might all-too-warmly embrace her at the end of the counseling session.

With all that, the clergy predator gains access to her heart and then her body. He may form such a “special” bond with her that she becomes emotionally dependent on his “love,” even suicidal without it. Not surprisingly, she eventually becomes fully complicit about sex with the pastor.

How sad! It gets worse.

To maintain the adultery that his victim is now bonded to, the predator clergy coaches her on how to deceive her own husband—who becomes a secondary victim. He is robbed of the trust that husband and wife both brought to the marriage altar. Some husbands have been so cruel that they don’t deserve a loyal wife. But often a wonderful husband is betrayed by a wife swept into the arms of their pastor—yet this never would have happened unless a predatory pastor had wormed his way into her heart.

The more innocent that the betrayed husband is, the more shame is multiplied in the heart of the victim of clergy sexual abuse. She knows a faithful husband does not deserve this, and she did have some choice in the matter. She can’t explain how her heart was given over to the pastor, but she knows it shouldn’t have happened—and the shame of it just kills her. Literally, for those who become suicidal.

The shame of a victim may be increased further if the pastor is a nice man—a warm-hearted leader who let his passions get out of control. It may be hard for the victim to acknowledge that such a great guy could be at fault. So she blames herself.

Some sexually abusive pastors are confirmed predators at heart who belong in prison. But many clergy who fall into sin hadn’t planned on it. They really were fine leaders, but then they let their work for the church become more important than their relationship with their wife and their God, which compromised their ability to restrain sexual passions.

Any normal male, with testosterone in his bloodstream, will be attracted to a woman he finds attractive. Even though a pastor may love God in the Spirit, he still lives in a fallen human body. And so he will be tempted to ingratiate himself to certain women. Unless something prevents it, at some point his physical passions will synergize with his unmet emotional needs to pull him into unintentional sexuality.

Some pastors’ work habits put them at risk. They may practically live out of their church office, and their closest relationships are with members. They are drawn toward women they find attractive. Soon wild fantasies may possess their minds, often fueled by pornography. They express these renegade emotions by becoming overly familiar with women of their choice.

A bond forms that both clergy and victim may be in denial of. After all, aren’t they serving God together?

Neither pastor nor victim should be blamed if they feel attracted to each other. Sexual chemistry is part of life. God created us with attraction to the opposite sex. But after the human race fell into sin, these passions became dangerous. The otherwise innocent pastor/parishioner relationship can become romanticized and even eroticized—even for people who love God and love their spouses.

When innocent attractions become adulterous, the pastor is always to blame. As the professional caregiver, he should be aware of what’s happening and step back from the cliff that he is about to plunge over with his parishioner.

This is where spiritual leadership comes in. Even more basic than preaching or leadership skills is the spiritual discernment and maturity to sense sexual danger and safeguard himself and his parishioner. A pastor who can’t do that doesn’t deserve to be in the ministry, no matter how warm and talented he is.

For a woman, it’s natural to be drawn to men who have leadership charisma. No matter how much she loves God and her husband, she may be attracted to a smart, funny, spiritually vibrant man who might also be handsome. And if she has unmet needs in her own marriage, it’s easy for her to fantasize about being in the arms of such a splendid and sensitive man. When she senses that her pastor shares this chemistry, she might be frightened at first. But then her emotions may intensify, leaving her vulnerable to doing things she never thought herself capable of doing.

Years later she may still have deep feelings for her pastor and miss being with him, although she hates herself for it. Even after thoroughly repenting of any part she had in what happened with her predator, feelings for him can linger for decades.

What began as an innocent Christian relationship between clergy and parishioner becomes something neither of them intended it to be. When their emotions go nuclear, the fallout is total devastation of her marriage, her friendships—perhaps even her soul itself. Suddenly and totally abandoned, she may see no purpose in living. And there is nobody in the world who seems to understand her desperation—until God leads her to The Hope of Survivors.
To summarize the tragedy of clergy sexual abuse:

•    It is normal, even for Christian men and women faithful to their spouses, to feel attracted to attractive members of the opposite sex. Unmet emotional needs tend to multiply this chemistry.

•    When a pastor finds himself attracted to a parishioner, it is his responsibility as a professional caregiver to recognize the danger and use his leadership responsibility to prevent the relationship from becoming romanticized.

•    Some predatory pastors are so corrupt as to be strategically and compulsively abusive, but many fine pastors become sexually abusive simply because they allow their love for God and their spouses to become less important than their ministry to church members.

•    Paradoxically, victims of abuse often take much or most of the blame and shame upon themselves after being drawn into inappropriate sexuality.

•    The more likeable and admirable a pastor is, the more a victim of his sexual abuse may suffer shame and guilt (particularly if she has had a good marriage). This also is true at the opposite extreme: the more deceptive and manipulative a career predator is, the more likely his victim may suffer increased shame and guilt—the most clever abusers manage to download all blame to the victim.

•    Adult victims of clergy sexual abuse need not prove to anyone, even to themselves or to God, that they are totally innocent—all human beings are sinners in need of Christ’s saving grace.

•    Church leaders and other members typically rally around a popular pastor, despite credible evidence that he is guilty of sexual abuse. The church would rather blame his victim than lose a beloved spiritual leader.

•    In the aftermath of clergy sexual abuse, most efforts to aid recovery are devoted toward the abuser and his spouse rather than to the victim, who often is abandoned or even expelled from the community of believers.

In such cases, The Hope of Survivors often becomes the only hope of surviving clergy sexual abuse.
The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart...Psalms 34:18