Identifying the signs of clergy sexual misconduct (CSM)/adult clergy sexual abuse (ACSA) can be difficult for victims. This is because the church is meant to be a safe place, and clergy are obligated to have the best interests of their congregants in mind. When the sacred trust between a spiritual leader and follower is broken due to sexual advances on the part of the leader, confusion and disbelief are often natural responses.
Victims may experience self-blame, questioning whether they inadvertently "led on" their pastor, misinterpreted the leader's actions, or are perhaps making too much of the unwanted behavior. They may even be led to believe that the behavior is not wrong but is instead “God’s will,” despite the obvious sinful nature of the interactions.
These feelings of bewilderment, along with guilt, are oftentimes some of the first signs that CSM is occurring. If you are experiencing these feelings after a subtle or overt sexual encounter with a member of the clergy, please know that these feelings of confusion are normal, and you can find the clarity you need, but not by seeking counsel from the leader making sexual advances. You need an outside source to get answers and the help you need to distance yourself from the leader and find healing.
Below is a list of some potential signs of CSM.
Lack of Proper Boundaries
Clergy are expected to follow a proper code of conduct, which includes maintaining appropriate boundaries with those under them. Along with physically standing and interacting too close to someone (invading one’s “personal space”), asking a congregant to meet secretly in a more intimate setting is inappropriate. Emailing, texting, or calling a particular church member too frequently at home or work to talk privately is also crossing a personal boundary. Communication should always be professional and appropriately timed. Lines should never be blurred, no matter how friendly the relationship may be. When CSM occurs, it is normally after the leader has worked to convince the victim to remove personal boundaries solely on his behalf. This behavior, when done with malicious intent, is called “grooming.”
Spiritual leaders are expected to provide counsel to those they serve, having their best interests in mind. Asking sexually provocative questions is inappropriate and cannot be dismissed as mere questions for the sake of counseling. Pastors should not share intimate details about their marriage or sex life (past or present) with congregants, nor should they ask members to share explicit details about their sexual experiences. Joking about sexual behavior and making light of the subject is also inappropriate.
When CSM occurs, it is often preceded by a period of time when the leader “throws out feelers” to see if the victim will tolerate inappropriate conversations because of the leader’s position of power. This creates an easier environment for the leader to increase sexual talk and behavior over time without being suspected of malicious behavior. In this case, it is another form of grooming.
Changing the Dynamics of the Relationship
The relationship between clergy and those they serve is unique. Although a bond may exist between clergy and church members, especially in a counseling relationship, there is still a level of professionalism that would prevent that bond from deepening into an inappropriate attachment. It is not appropriate for a church leader to change the dynamic of the relationship by telling the congregant that she has a “special relationship” with him—one that is deeper and more intimate than that of a church member, especially if he describes the relationship as one that rivals even his own marriage.
It is also wrong for the leader to switch roles by confiding in the congregant and seeking counsel from the one he is supposed to be counseling. When CSM occurs, oftentimes, the leader seeks to go from a father figure role to a best friend/close confidant role and then eventually to a romantic role. The leader may give gifts, extra attention, or special privileges to the victim. In each stage, an effort is made by the leader to increase a secret intimacy and an inappropriate attachment that should not exist in a clergy/church member relationship. The victim, unaware of the leader’s intentions, may feel honored that the leader has taken special notice of her, especially if the leader is seeking to fill a human need that is uncovered in counseling. This grooming is a gross misuse of power and a violation of a counselor’s code of ethics.
Clergy are expected to keep certain information confidential, such as information disclosed in a counseling session. To maintain professionalism, a church leader must have discretion. However, when a leader builds a relationship with a member that is shrouded in secrecy, such as arranging private meetings without their spouse’s knowledge or exchanging private intimate correspondences, it crosses the line.
Prior to CSM occurring, there is typically a private bond that is formed between the leader and the member. Initiated by the leader, secrets, such as sensitive information about a leader’s marriage, are entrusted to the member to create a more intimate relationship and to train the victim to keep the relationship secret, which is another form of grooming. Victims are often flattered when their leader entrusts them with such private information but do not realize the direction that the relationship is being guided.
Church membership is voluntary, and all spiritual guidance offered by clergy can be either accepted or rejected freely by congregants. Members should not feel coerced into following their pastor’s advice on everyday decisions they make in their personal lives.
When clergy sexual misconduct occurs, there is often a period of grooming that includes the spiritual leader overstepping his bounds in the area of spiritual leadership. Instead of offering advice from the Bible on church service, for example, he may demand that the victim distance herself from family members and friends to focus solely on ministry projects he oversees. In other words, he uses control to isolate the victim. Instead of offering scriptural advice on relationships, he may sour the victim’s romantic relationships in order to keep the victim close to him. Employing the victim can make her financially dependent as well. Dissuading her from getting counsel from anyone else keeps her reliant on his advice. Also, claiming to speak on behalf of God is another way he can ensure that she will follow his authority without question.
These tactics are some of the ways a perpetrator controls his victim to ultimately keep her quiet when the sexual abuse eventually occurs. Some pastors may exhibit obsessive behavior toward the victim, such as questioning her whereabouts, constantly keeping her busy with church work, calling/texting/emailing repeatedly, etc. At first, it appears as positive attention, which may flatter the victim. However, it eventually shows itself as the malicious, controlling behavior it is.
The most obvious sign of clergy sexual misconduct is the introduction of sexualized talk and behavior. Typically, in cases of CSM, sexual conversations and behavior occur after a period of grooming. The victim, who is targeted for exploitation, is manipulated so that she becomes loyal to the abuser and isolated from others. Creating a state of dependency allows the abuser a greater opportunity to exploit the victim.
By the time overt sexual behavior is introduced, the victim has already been molded by the spiritual leader to not say anything and to even feel as if the behavior is acceptable. This is why many victims of CSM find themselves in an unwanted sexual situation with a spiritual leader over a long period of time—lasting weeks, months, and even years. This is also why victims become confused as to whether or not the sexual behavior is consensual. Due to the imbalance of power between clergy and church members, sexual behavior between the two is not considered consensual and is not the fault of the victim.
Twisting Religious Scripture
Interpreting a religious text and teaching the principles of faith is no simple task, which is why many members of the clergy go through years of formal education in order to gain the proper knowledge to instruct others. When a spiritual leader mishandles religious texts with the intent to harm another, it is one of the most insidious forms of abuse, as the victim is trusting the leader with the very words of God.
Typically, the perpetrator of clergy sexual misconduct will twist scriptures in order to explain away his inappropriate sexual behavior toward the victim. He will find ways to lessen or remove the offenses of sex outside of marriage, lying, and adultery while still holding others in the congregation to a higher standard. He may claim that the sexual interactions are spiritually beneficial in that they satisfy their sexual appetites, supposedly preventing the victim or him from sinning sexually with others. He may claim that his position of power is appointed by God, and he must be protected no matter the cost, using scriptures that do not apply to him in order to create a fear of reporting his sinful behavior.
Some of the most misused scriptures in the Bible include referring to himself as a romanticized version of King David and the victim as Bathsheba, as well as misinterpreting the scripture, “Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm” (1 Chron. 16:22 NIV; Ps. 105:15). Victims then become afraid to criticize the leader in any way for fear that they will suffer the wrath of God. In every instance, the perpetrator is attempting to indoctrinate the victim for abusive purposes, grossly violating the sacred trust between the clergyperson and the church member. Learn more about how CSM perpetrators misuse the Bible to abuse.