the Hope of Survivors

Why Help?—Part 2—Mary Jo Huels-Noworyta

4 Major ImbalancesTo Dispel the Myth of the Affair

Where does someone go after finding themselves in a relationship with their spiritual leader? Thinking they engaged in an affair, they are left with the shame of such an act as well as the guilt of possibly destroying families and causing a church and its leader to fall. This misconception is bringing more and more damage upon the church and its victims because the responsibility is wrongfully placed on both parties. 

The truth is, when a spiritual leader enters into a relationship with a member of his congregation, the victim (whether female or male) is not to blame. The full weight of responsibility lands on the leader. Why? Because his position and title of power reveal an imbalance between them. There is a chasm that separates leaders from their followers. There is an inequality between clergy and congregants. That is why there is no consent when a woman ends up in a relationship with her spiritual leader. It is merely an illusion of a consensual relationship once you understand who is responsible to keep appropriate boundaries and why. 

Clergy are classified as a 'helping profession' for obvious reasons. By their very nature, they are held in the highest regard, being representatives of God, and hold a most sacred trusted position. People go to clergy for help, most often during times of stress. Who are the ones seeking help? The hurting, the confused, the broken, the lost; people without an answer looking for direction. Clergy, therefore, are fully accountable to exercise care because they work with a vulnerable population. These helping professionals are keenly aware of their ability to manipulate those going to them for answers. Never should they take advantage of their position to pursue someone under their care. If they choose to ignore their call to help and instead pursue a relationship, they are exclusively responsible, not for having an affair, but for abusing their position of power. 

When you hear the term affair, there is an implication of consent that both parties agree. This means the scales have to be balanced in the relationship. But the scales are way off balance between clergy and congregants. By virtue of their education, title, and job itself, clergy have more experience, more knowledge, more responsibility, and more power than those in their congregation. These leaders are keenly aware of the power they hold over their congregants. So how can a woman (for example) make a clear, conscious decision when she is lured into a relationship with her spiritual leader when they are not on an equal playing field? She can't. How can they share responsibility when a relationship starts when he holds a position of power and authority over her? They can't. 

The inequality found in the relationship between clergy and their congregants is clear. Clergy have a duty to protect their congregants. It is their calling. Their sole purpose is to lead, guide, and take care of those they serve. They are leaders. That is NOT our duty as congregants. We are followers. We are not called to lead, guide, and protect our leader. Our sole duty is to believe and trust that our spiritual leader will not hurt us. But, when they do hurt us, the pain is excruciating. I stress this to the nth degree because calling and reporting these cases as affairs leaves little accountability for the offender and places equal blame on the victim, who was not on equal footing when pursued by the spiritual leader. 

It's difficult to find organizations proposing this aspect of clergy sexual abuse, yet it is vital to understand if we are going to help victims in the healing process. The Hope of Survivors works hard to shed light on the darkness of clergy sexual abuse, revealing the truths and dynamics of this devastating reality. Recognizing who is responsible is a start to removing abusers from leadership and beginning the process of supporting its victims. The church will continue to tear itself apart, from the inside out, until they dispel the myth of the affair and understand the abuse of power. Together, we can work to make the church the safe, secure place God desires and designs it to be. 

Please consider helping support our endeavors to end clergy sexual abuse.

The Kingdom of God depends on it.

For more on the imbalance of power, see

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