Although all cases of clergy sexual misconduct (also known as clergy sexual abuse) toward adults are different, there are many commonalities. Besides there being an imbalance of power between the spiritual leader and the person receiving care, some of these common factors include the following:
Sexual Contact and Control
Difficulties after Disclosing or Discovery of Abuse
Survivors can find healing through professional therapy and peer-support groups. Learn about finding healing from clergy sexual misconduct.
We can learn more about clergy sexual misconduct by listening to the stories of abuse told in the actual words of the survivors. The following is a true, firsthand story of CSM as told by a survivor. It’s meant to inspire survivors of CSM in their healing, give hope to victims to speak out and find help, and aid in educating those who wish to know more about CSM and how they can help.
It all began when I joined a new church after moving to another state. As a new believer who had been through a recent traumatic event, I found my pastor helpful at first. He was the sole leader of a small church I attended and became like a father figure to me, as I was recently estranged from my family due to my conversion to Christianity.
As a young adult starting out in the world, he provided me with counsel in every facet of life: career advice, relationship advice, spiritual advice, etc. He was extra attentive to me and shared how “special” I was compared to others in our little church that seemed to always filter members in and out.
I never understood why members never stayed. They didn’t have the language to articulate exactly what they felt was “off” about him. He was always able to explain it to me, though. Everyone who left the church was labeled as “dangerous,” even “demonic.” Why would I question him as he said he had a gift to “hear from God” and “discern the hearts” of everyone he met? He said he knew the hearts of men even more than they knew themselves.
Therefore, I was relieved that he saw something exceptional in me—so remarkable that only he could properly cultivate my spiritual gifts. I was determined to please God, and the way that I knew I was pleasing God was that my pastor was pleased with me, as he seemed to have a more “direct connection to God” than I or anyone else did.
Then, he employed me with his personal business. As with many decisions I made at that time, it wasn’t because I chose to work for him, but because he presented it as more of a command, rather than an offer. If I was to fulfill God’s will for my life, I would have to comply, because he spoke for God.
Over time he became more controlling, easier to anger, and increasingly inappropriate in his language and behavior. He would share information with me about his intimate life with his wife and how he was constantly displeased with her. He would also be displeased with me one moment, then incredibly kind and nurturing the next. His temper was unpredictable and the fear of upsetting him (and in turn God) caused me to live with great anxiety and hypervigilance.
With each moment of displeasure, I would feel the heavy weight of the minor error that caused him to become upset. Regardless of whether it was a theological disagreement or a mistake on the job, I was almost always in the wrong, and if I tried to contest that, he would correct my memory of what transpired, leaving me confused and questioning my judgment.
Therefore, when he flirted with me, it came as a strange relief, as it meant he was pleased with me, even though it left me bewildered and nervous about how I should respond. Due to his erratic behavior and position of authority over me, the thought of me rebuking him for his confusing flirtations seemed frightening and even more inappropriate than the behavior itself. Maybe I’m overreacting, I thought. I shouldn’t assume evil intentions and accuse the man of God, I reasoned. Although he referred to me as his “best friend,” I didn’t like to be alone with him, and he orchestrated many situations to ensure that we were alone together often.
Between work, ministry, his incessant questioning of my whereabouts, and avoiding the “wolves” who left the church, my friendships were becoming non-existent. When I would express romantic interest in a man, he would convince me that he wasn’t good enough and it would be a sin to date him. But, he made it clear that there was one person who was good enough for me: him. Since he supposedly knew me better than I knew myself, I was shocked, but believed him when he told me that he “discerned” I was “in love” with him and that we shouldn’t fight our “destiny.”
I was dizzy with confusion and deeply afraid when he told me that. I’m not in love with him, I thought. But for years he had positioned himself as the authority on “spiritual discernment”—able to see the inner thoughts of others. Surely he must see this in me, I thought, even though it was not what I felt and certainly not what I wanted.
It was only years later that I realized that everything I was experiencing is called “grooming.” By the time the sexual contact began—when he suddenly grabbed me and pulled me into a disgusting kiss after following me home and pushing his way into my apartment, I had been manipulated for years in a variety of ways. I’d been isolated, gaslighted, controlled, made to feel dependent on him spiritually, emotionally, and financially.
Even the confessions of my past sins which I shared during counseling were used to convince me that I was a “whore” who he said could only be “helped” by his sexual behavior toward me. If I told anyone, he warned, I would be labeled as the “Jezebel” I supposedly was. I learned later that I had fallen into a carefully laid trap by a predatory pastor.
After another woman spoke up about an inappropriate conversation he had with her, I mustered the courage to disclose the so-called sexual “relationship” to a trusted pastor in another church, who immediately believed me and understood that I had been a victim of adult clergy sexual abuse.
I eventually learned that I wasn’t alone. Many people of various religions around the world experience sexual abuse by their spiritual leader as an adult. After doing in-depth research and reading numerous testimonies, I learned that in many ways my experience was a classic case of clergy sexual abuse.
Though difficult, part of my healing process included reading articles detailing allegations of clergy sexual abuse against prominent Christian leaders, such as former megachurch pastors, Carl Lentz and Bill Hybels, seminary professor, Art Azurdia, and the late megachurch pastor, Eddie Long to name a few. An itinerant apologist, the late Ravi Zacharias, abused women around the globe.
Though his ministry, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) misused their institutional power to cover-up his abuse, and discredited, shamed, sued, and silenced victims, they later admitted that he was indeed guilty. However, as of this writing, lots of questions and concerns still remain among those who were deeply harmed and further traumatized by this institution. Sadly, this institution’s response to abuse allegations and their mistreatment of survivors is far too common.
I experienced victim shaming as well. Church members were suspicious of my abuse claim and could not understand why I stayed silent for so long. They didn’t comprehend that the three years of grooming I had endured was designed to make me remain silent when the sexual abuse occurred.
Trauma-bonding, a psychological response to abuse that occurs when an abused person forms an unhealthy bond with their abuser, kept me in the “relationship” for almost ten long confusing years—years filled with cognitive dissonance and self-harm. Sometimes I would suddenly beat myself in the head while cursing at myself or pull a belt tight around my neck to punish myself. Even as I write this, it pains me to remember how much I hated myself, and how trapped and alone I felt under his oppression.
As terrorizing as the abuse was, I agree with many survivors I have since met; victim shaming and blaming often causes more trauma than the abuse itself. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from clergy sexual abuse and the subsequent victim shaming and blaming is intense and persists for years.
Instead of providing help and support to the victim on their healing journey, people who victim shame and blame reinforce the lies that the abuser told in order to disempower, degrade, demoralize, and exploit the victim. Some of the many negative messages that the victim then receives is that he or she is not worthy of being rescued, defended, and loved. A Christlike response is needed.
If a victim also attended a spiritually abusive church and participated in the toxic leadership culture, as I did, the path toward healing becomes even more difficult to navigate. The number of spiritual abuse survivors pile up as the various forms of abuse is realized and the church empties. There is deep hurt and devastation.
During my time of abuse, I was given years-long toxic “leadership training” by the narcissistic pastor. These toxic teachings taught me to be “loyal” to him and the ministry, which was the highest virtue in his eyes. As I was being sexually abused behind closed doors, I hurt others through the spiritually abusive practices I had been taught. Apologizing to those I hurt while coping with my own sexual abuse was devastating, but necessary.
Thankfully, the independent church I attended is now defunct and my abuser is no longer a pastor. Since my disclosure, I have intensely researched clergy sexual abuse, joined peer support communities for adult CSA survivors, and received counseling—all of which have helped me heal, and regain my voice and sense of identity.
Today I am an activist, advocate, and educator of adult clergy sexual abuse. I’m happily married to a safe, Christlike husband who supports my work, which we hope will help make the world a safer place for our beloved two children.
Though my journey of healing has been long and is still ongoing, my faith in Christ is stronger today and I am able to live my life with joy and freedom. I firmly believe that churches can be safer places if leaders choose to educate their people and protect their flock from the various forms of abuse that can occur within a religious community.
“The LORD is a shelter for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble.”
Psalm 9:9 (New Living Translation)