Because clergy sexual misconduct (CSM), also known as clergy sexual abuse (CSA), toward adults is not discussed frequently, especially in the church, victims of CSM may not understand what they are feeling and what is happening to them. When a CSM incident is discovered in a church, churchgoers are also caught off guard and left with many questions.
Below are some common questions and answers from both victims and those who learn that CSM has been discovered in their church or ministry.
Questions from Victims
Question: “My pastor is flirting with me. I’m flattered, but my pastor makes me uncomfortable. Is it OK that he is hitting on me? I think my pastor is attracted to me. Sometimes, I find him staring at me. I don’t want to say anything to him about it. But I wonder if my married pastor is in love with me. Did I cause my pastor to stumble? Should I brush off his uncomfortable behavior, just in case I’m overreacting?
Answer: No, it is not OK that your pastor is interacting with you in a flirtatious or romantic way (subtle or otherwise). This behavior is categorically inappropriate. When a religious leader makes a sexual overture, proposition, or has a so-called "romantic relationship" with a congregant who is not already his/her spouse or significant other, it is defined as clergy sexual misconduct (CSM). Many ministries have a written policy in place to prevent CSM from occurring, which the pastor should be aware of. It is the pastor’s responsibility to maintain professional boundaries and to avoid sexual misconduct. His commitment to maintaining professional boundaries will help prevent him from “stumbling” into sin.
Sexualized behavior between a member of the clergy and a congregant or person coming to him for spiritual guidance is a violation of professional ethics because there exists a difference in power between the religious leader and his congregant or counselee. This imbalance of power is shifted in favor of the leader. Unequal power dynamics, such as engaging in sexual activity with a congregant or counselee, also means that consent cannot be freely given. This is especially true as church members are vulnerable when they are in need of spiritual counsel, and often seek help during difficult times, such as a personal crisis, dealing with past trauma, or marriage trouble, and can be taken advantage of by a religious leader.
Pastors have a fiduciary duty. Fiduciary duty is the responsibility of licensed caregivers, such as doctors, therapists, and social workers, to “do no harm.” In the same way, religious leaders provide spiritual guidance to those seeking emotional and spiritual assistance. They operate as counselors, which gives them the same responsibility to “do no harm” to those in their care. Therefore, when a pastor oversteps professional boundaries by acting sexually inappropriately toward a member under his care, it is a breach of fiduciary duty. Clergy sexual misconduct is illegal in some US states.
It is best to remove yourself from the presence of the pastor if he is acting in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, and even more so if you feel unsafe. Due to the imbalance of power and authority, it is natural to find it difficult to correct his behavior immediately when it occurs. When a leader acts inappropriately, such as when he flirts, it is normal to feel taken aback, ashamed, disoriented, or even frozen. These powerful, bewildering feelings may make the idea of addressing the leader about his actions alone seem overwhelming, especially if the behavior is subtle or the leader has a level of celebrity.
Moreover, in many cases of long-term clergy sexual misconduct, what first appears as “innocent flirting,” is later revealed to be part of a grooming process to sexually abuse the victim. In those cases, confronting the leader, who is in fact preying on the victim, alone can result in the leader gaslighting and manipulating the victim. Learn about grooming, gaslighting, and other important terms to better understand how clergy sexual misconduct often unfolds. For these reasons, applying Matthew 18:15 and confronting the flirtatious authority figure alone is not appropriate, and possibly, unsafe.
Instead of confronting the leader alone, you may choose to speak with an elder or another leader over the pastor in your church to address the unwelcome behavior. It is helpful to bring a supportive person with you or anyone else who has experienced the same behavior or witnessed it. If possible, retain any evidence. If you are married, speak to your spouse about your concern and experience(s) if you feel it is safe to do so. If you are concerned that your spouse may become violent or abusive upon learning about your experience, speak to a professional counselor or trusted member of clergy who understands CSM, so they can help you disclose the information to your spouse in a safe way.
Some denominations have an official way to report sexual misconduct (e.g., Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles) so that it can be addressed according to their written sexual misconduct policy. If the pastor is the sole leader in the church, and there is no way to hold the leader accountable for flirtatious or other inappropriate behavior, it is recommended that you seek to attend church elsewhere.
Question: “My pastor keeps contacting me. Even at night, he texts me and calls me. I feel that my pastor is being inappropriate with me. But I’m scared to tell him ‘no.’ Now, my pastor is confiding in me about his marriage problems, as well as asking me personal, detailed questions about my past sexual experiences for ‘counseling purposes.’ My pastor calls me his best friend. Conversations with my pastor are becoming increasingly intimate. Is this wrong?”
Answer: Yes, your pastor’s inappropriate behavior is wrong and unacceptable. Your pastor is clearly crossing professional boundaries. Many churches have a professional code of conduct in place that forbids behavior such as this in order to prevent clergy sexual misconduct from occurring.
When CSM occurs, it is often preceded by behavior such as what you described. The religious leader will become inappropriately and intimately close to a person under his care, who is often taken aback and afraid to speak up against the leader’s uncomfortable actions due to his higher authority. Typically, conversations become more sexual in nature, sometimes under the guise of “counseling,” which is often part of a grooming process to slowly and methodically desensitize the victim’s natural reaction to inappropriate sexual behavior (abuse).
You should take the time right now to learn more about the signs of clergy sexual misconduct and how to get help.
Question: “My pastor is having an affair with me. I know it is wrong that my pastor is committing adultery, but I think I am in love with him. At first, my pastor and I became close friends. He said that I was special to him and the only one who understood him. Then, my pastor kissed me. Now, I am sneaking around with him. I am embarrassed to say that I had sex with my pastor. My pastor says that he is in love with me and that our relationship is blessed by God, even though he is cheating on his wife and I am cheating on my husband. Now, my pastor says that he wants to leave his wife for me. I am so confused and don’t know what to do."
Answer: Although you believe that you are in love with your pastor, your pastor is clearly guilty of clergy sexual misconduct and has not chosen to properly care for you in accordance with his professional ethics or spiritual responsibility toward God, his wife, his congregation, and you. Clergy sexual misconduct is not an “affair.” It is actually abuse due to the imbalance of power that exists between him as a religious leader and you as one under his care. This imbalance of power includes an imbalance of authority, knowledge, experience, responsibility, and even age if he is your senior. Therefore, mutual consent to a sexual relationship cannot be freely given because of this imbalance of power.
Furthermore, your pastor is in breach of his fiduciary duty, which is the professional responsibility of licensed caregivers (e.g., doctors, therapists, social workers) to “do no harm.” By not maintaining his professional boundaries and engaging in sexualized behavior toward you, he has indeed harmed you, as well as your marriage, leaving you in a difficult predicament. However, there is help and hope. You are not alone.
Questions from Those Indirectly Affected by Clergy Sexual Misconduct (CSM)
Question: “It has been discovered that my pastor has been having an affair with a church member. Some say that the woman seduced the pastor. Others say that the pastor took advantage of a church member. What should I believe?"
Answer: Although it is difficult to believe that your pastor is capable of taking advantage of another church member, when a pastor engages in a so-called "romantic" or "sexual relationship" with a person under his spiritual care, he is guilty of clergy sexual misconduct.
Even though it is easier for some to believe that the woman caused the pastor to “fall into sexual temptation,” the pastor should have maintained professional boundaries to prevent clergy sexual misconduct from occurring. A professional code of conduct should be in place for exactly this reason, and that code of conduct should have been enforced and supported by fellow leaders, who hold one another accountable. Proper leadership training and keeping professional boundaries will help prevent CSM from occurring.
Furthermore, CSM is not an “affair” but is actually abuse. Learn more about CSM, how it happens, and how you can respond in a productive, responsible way without victim shaming and blaming.
Question: “The pastor in our church was caught cheating with a church member’s wife. Although she is an adult and admits to participating in a sexual relationship with the pastor and lying to cover it up, she is now claiming that she is a ‘victim’ of clergy sexual abuse and that there was no ‘mutual consent.’ However, she says that she was neither raped nor molested. How is she a victim if she willingly took part in adultery, lying, and hypocrisy? It seems to me that she is clearly as culpable as the pastor, as ‘it takes two to tango,’ and I think her crying ‘victim’ is wrong and dangerous.”
Answer: Before answering this question, it is important to understand the gospel and how it applies to you, a fellow church member, in this situation. The gospel teaches us that God sent His Son, Jesus, as a sacrifice for sin, and that no one deserves God’s forgiveness, but that it is given by grace (Rom. 3:23 ESV, 5:8, 6:23). Grace means underserved favor. Jesus suffered an excruciating death on the cross, died, and rose again so that we can receive God’s love and forgiveness (1 Cor. 15:3–4). We are all undeserving (Eph. 2:8–9).
The Bible teaches us that this grace we have received should always be at the forefront of our minds when we feel that we have been wronged (Eph. 4:31–32). When we feel that someone has lied to us and been hypocritical, we must also remember that we have been forgiven much. This changes our disposition to that of genuine humility. From a place of humility, we can listen better with the goal of genuinely understanding so that we can respond with grace—the same grace that we have received.
If you have gone to the Lord in prayer and feel that you are in a place where you are ready to listen and learn about clergy sexual abuse (CSA)/clergy sexual misconduct (CSM), you can read about what this form of abuse is and how it happens. You will come to understand why a so-called "sexual relationship” between a spiritual leader and follower is in fact an abuse of power and authority as the power dynamics are shifted in favor of the leader. Mutual consent cannot be given when one person holds more power and authority over the other. You will also learn about how the victim’s mental state is altered through a sexual grooming process and why so many victims stay silent for so long.
It is unfortunately common for those witnessing the aftermath of clergy sexual misconduct to judge the victim harshly and demand that he or she be treated the same as the spiritual leader who preyed on him or her. Many times victims are called upon to explain themselves well before they have been able to properly process what has happened to them. This further traumatizes the victim.
Spectators must understand that the victim would not have made these decisions by her own volition, but that she was heavily influenced by the person she vulnerably trusted. The leader in power, on the other hand, had the authority to maintain his professional boundaries but did not. If it becomes evident that the pastor did in fact groom and prey on the victim, then it is clear that he is the one who is dangerous—not the victim. Her rightly calling herself a victim is not dangerous. Discouraging silent victims of abuse from speaking up by vilifying the victim is dangerous. With that in mind, the focus should not be on the supposed “sin” of the victim, but the sin of the predator, who may have more victims who haven’t spoken up yet or who might victimize again.
Allowing the victim time to process what has happened to her and not further traumatizing her will help her in healing process. It will take time and professional help for her to process what happened. Praying for the victim instead of demanding that the victim confesses to what you think is sinful will serve her much better and send a positive message to possible victims who are still too scared to speak out.
Your choice to apply grace patiently to this situation will glorify God and help victims speak up and heal.
Question: “A preacher, who I greatly respect, takes issue with adult women who claim to be ‘victims of abuse’ after they were involved in a sexual relationship with their pastor. I am inclined to agree with him because he is an excellent Bible teacher and a godly man. Why should I believe otherwise?”
Answer: Preachers, teachers, apologists, seminary professors, and the like may all possess excellent skills in Bible exposition and instructing others in the faith, especially if they have spent years receiving higher education and professional training. However, an education in expositing scripture and training in church leadership does not mean that they are adequately educated in the various forms of sexual abuse and how to properly respond to it.
In fact, in recent times, there has been major media focus on how churches have further traumatized victims of sexual abuse and covered it up. There is no shortage of news coverage highlighting the failures of the church to respond properly to sex abuse. It is evident that there is a lack of education among church leaders on the subject, and many people have been deeply hurt, traumatized, and have even abandoned the faith altogether.
Thankfully, there are well-equipped ministries specifically designed to help educate church leaders on the reality of clergy sexual misconduct (CSM)/clergy sexual abuse (CSA) and how to prevent and respond to it. Learn more about how church leaders can become educated and ensure that their church is a safe place to worship.
Besides a lack of training in dealing with sexual abuse, some pastors may hesitate to use the word victim because they think it will somehow cause other women to accuse men of sexual abuse without warrant. This fear of false accusations arising is unfounded as victims lying about sexual abuse is rare. Research on the topic of false reporting teaches us that “misconceptions about false reporting rates have direct, negative consequences and can contribute to why many victims don’t report sexual assaults.” Instead of attempting to discredit victims, pastors can appropriately safeguard themselves and those they serve by putting official clergy sexual misconduct policies in place, as well as ensuring that church leadership and staff are educated properly and held accountable to the stated standards.
Additionally, some pastors may personally know a spiritual leader who has been accused of clergy sexual misconduct. They may have great respect for the man accused, which makes it difficult for them to admit that this leader may be guilty of sexual abuse. By discrediting the claims of the victim and insisting that she mutually consented to the sexual acts, it lessens the charge against the leader, who they esteem. It is also typical for the offending leader to have narcissistic qualities, including charm and manipulation, which works to his advantage when convincing other leaders with a platform that the so-called "sexual relationship” was consensual.
No spiritual leader is 100 percent perfect in their understanding of scripture, and many leaders are simply uneducated about sexual abuse. Knowing this, it is best to consult experts in the field of sexual abuse advocacy, instead of looking solely to Bible teachers and pastors for clarification on the topic of abuse. There are many well-educated Christian leaders who work on behalf of sexual abuse victims who are better sources of information regarding clergy sexual misconduct. Extensive research by Christians has been conducted on this subject, and academic articles by Christian authors have been written, which you can readily access and learn from.
Lastly, before you consider resharing what the pastor you respect said about the situation in a public forum, remember that when people speak out against victims and focus on discrediting them, they send a tacit message to other abuse victims that speaking up will be met with harsh criticism. Every person with a platform, especially leaders, should consider this before making uninformed statements that will only serve to hurt and silence victims. You can choose to be a positive, well-informed influence for God’s glory.