Adult clergy sexual misconduct (CSM), also known as clergy sexual abuse (CSA), is often misunderstood. Much of the confusion comes from a lack of education and not understanding that adults can be groomed, exploited, and sexually abused in the church, not just children. Therefore, it is important to understand particular definitions to help clarify the issue and better comprehend the causes and effects of CSM, as well as how to prevent and properly respond to this form of abuse.
When we refer to abuse, we are referring to the mistreatment and violation of a person in order to take advantage of him/her. It is the victimization of one person by another. Abuse can come in many forms including spiritual, sexual, emotional, verbal, physical, and even financial. Typically, an imbalance of power exists between the abuser and the victim, with the abuser having the advantage, while the victim’s weaknesses are exploited.
Clergy Sexual Misconduct (CSM)
Clergy sexual misconduct (CSM), also known as clergy sexual abuse (CSA) is any sexualized behavior by a church leader/spiritual leader toward someone under his/her spiritual care, who by nature is in a position of less power and authority. CSM is an abuse of power and authority, not an “affair,” as it cannot be considered mutual consent due to the unequal power dynamics. When the leader forgoes his ethical obligation to maintain healthy boundaries between himself and those he is ministering to, the leader is misusing his power to violate the sacred trust and safety of the victim, committing a breach of fiduciary duty, and violating professional ethics, often resulting in a traumatic experience for the victim. In some US states, CSM is punishable by law. Learn more about how CSM happens.
Clergy sexual misconduct is often mislabeled as an extramarital affair, adulterous affair, or simply, “affair.” However, CSM is not an affair. It is abuse. An adulterous affair, which is a sexual relationship between a married person and another person who is not their husband or wife, assumes that both parties have equal power in the relationship and that consent was freely and mutually given without any form of manipulation. However, due to the nature of the relationship between a spiritual leader and follower under his care, the balance of power is shifted in favor of the spiritual leader, therefore making it nonconsensual and a violation of professional, ethical, and spiritual standards on the part of the spiritual leader. Furthermore, victims of CSM often experience a period of grooming prior to the sexual contact taking place. Therefore, it is not an affair as it has occurred as a result of manipulation and coercion. Abusers guilty of clergy sexual misconduct often rely on language that misrepresents and downplays their abuse in order to feed into the narrative that the sexual contact was consensual (e.g., "inappropriate relationship," "sexual relationship," "adultery," etc.).
Grooming is a form of manipulation during which the perpetrator slowly and methodically desensitizes the victim’s natural reaction to abusive behavior. Due to the slow and intentional process, a victim, who is normally chosen for their high level of vulnerability, begins to consider inappropriate behavior as normal over a period of time. It is a series of calculated acts designed to control the victim’s thinking and decision-making, subconsciously making the victim easier to abuse and silence. Learn more about the signs of grooming in clergy sexual misconduct.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse that occurs when a person deliberately and strategically feeds false information to a victim in order to slowly and stealthily convince the victim over time not to trust her own perception of reality, her memories, or even her own sanity. Victims of gaslighting often feel insecure, confused, anxious, and unable to trust themselves, increasing the probability that they will not come forward with their story of abuse. By causing victims to question their memories and not trust their own perceptions, perpetrators can convince victims that the perpetrator’s version of events is correct, and not the victim’s memories of abuse.
Some CSM abusers may invoke the name of God when planting false information in their victims’ minds, claiming that God has given them power to discern or read people’s minds. However the method is carried out, the aim of gaslighting is to slowly remove the victim’s confidence in her own ability to distinguish reality from delusion, making the victim pathologically dependent on the abuser for her emotions and thoughts.
Coercive control is a strategic pattern of behavior which seeks to take away another person’s freedom and sense of self. The goal of coercive control, which is often subtle, is to dominate the victim and replace the victim’s reality with the abuser’s unreality. Over time, coercive control diminishes the victim’s sense of identity, confidence, self-worth, and ability to make decisions independent of the abuser. Coercive control is abuse and a form of oppression that is increasingly being criminalized. Perpetrators of adult clergy sexual abuse often use coercive control tactics to entrap their victims and manipulate them into compliance and silence.
Trauma is an emotional, psychological, and physical response to a deeply distressing experience. Evidence shows that trauma has a direct impact on brain chemistry and structure, and can result in long-lasting negative health effects if left untreated. Experiencing abuse is a traumatic event. This includes experiencing clergy sexual misconduct/clergy sexual abuse and the victim shaming and blaming that often follows the acutely distressing experience. Receiving proper counseling after traumatic events helps in the healing process.
Trauma bonding is a psychological response to abuse that occurs when abuse victims bond with their abusers, sympathize with them, develop positive feelings toward them, and even cover-up or defend the perpetrator's abusive behavior. They may develop negative feelings toward anyone who attempts to help them leave the danger that they are in. Emotionally bonding with an abuser is a survival strategy and coping mechanism that helps the victim handle the traumatic situation.
A trauma bond is formed when the victim perceives a threat of danger (e.g., abuser's sexual contact) but is also shown small acts of kindness by their abuser. The victim is isolated from perspectives other than those of the abuser (e.g., spiritual abuse). As the victim feels a sense of dependence on the abuser (e.g., need for counseling or spiritual direction, employment) and is subjected to the abusive treatment followed by the small acts of kindness for a period of time, the victim bonds with the abuser as she feels she cannot escape.
Victims emotionally attaching to their abusers and supporting them has been observed in various abusive relationships, including, but not limited to, battered/abused spouses and significant others, abused children and incest victims, cult members, prisoners of war, hostage victims, and victims of clergy sexual misconduct.
A victim of CSM may find herself justifying the abusive actions of her spiritual leader, even believing that they are “in love.” This subconscious coping strategy, coupled with the grooming process, may cause the victim to find herself loyal to the abuser and agreeing to his behavior, despite it being obviously wrong. Victims can overcome trauma bonding and many benefit from professional counseling.
Betrayal trauma is the trauma that results from betrayal by a trusted person or institution. A victim of adult clergy sexual abuse experiences betrayal trauma when the spiritual leader in whom she has put her trust forgoes his ethical obligation to maintain healthy boundaries between himself and the victim, and misuses his power to abuse her, violating the sacred trust and safety of the victim.
A survivor of adult clergy sexual misconduct may also experience institutional betrayal when the religious organization responds negatively to revelations of abuse and uses its institutional power to shame, discredit, blame, or silence the victim. DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender) is a reaction perpetrators of clergy sexual misconduct may display in response to being held accountable for their abusive behavior. Institutional DARVO occurs when the DARVO is committed by the religious organization (or with institutional complicity). DARVO causes further trauma to the victim and sends a tacit message to silent victims that disclosing abuse will be met with unbelief and aggression.
Toxic Church Culture and Spiritual Abuse
Toxic church culture refers to a negative church environment created by the leadership for the sake of maintaining power and control. It’s marked by a systematic pattern of abusive, manipulative, and unbiblical behaviors. Typically led by leaders with controlling behaviors or a single leader with narcissistic tendencies who retains power through intimidation, the toxic church prioritizes the leader(s) and the institution more than the people they claim to serve. Loyalty is considered a chief virtue, which contributes to the propagation of false narratives to cover up any allegations of abusive behavior or unbiblical practices.
Often, leaders are greatly esteemed, and sometimes feared, because they have been portrayed to have a greater connection to God or significantly more theological knowledge than the laypeople. Those who question leadership, ask for transparency, or dissent from what is being taught are treated with suspicion, vilified, or are no longer welcome. Members who befriend dissenting members or former members are treated as if they have sinned, are in danger of losing their faith, and are considered a threat.
These controlling behaviors are a form of spiritual abuse, a term used to describe a broad range of coercive and controlling behaviors in a religious context. Toxic church culture can be present in both churches with fringe theology and mainstream churches that may maintain the basic tenets of the faith, but whose culture is dictated by a misuse of power. These toxic environments where the head leadership is more on par with a celebrity or CEO, rather than a servant, and where members slowly lose their identity and ability to think for themselves, are a typical place where a predator can commit clergy sexual misconduct and not be held accountable. Members may even support the perpetrator, even if it is obvious that he has transgressed. The victim is often treated as the aggressor as members may be too afraid to believe that the victim was abused, or they may have even been brainwashed to not believe her.
Victims need to know that they are not at fault for the abuse and that healing can come through leaving the toxic church and getting proper counseling. Though no church is perfect, victims will benefit from attending a healthy church with correct theology and humble, servant leadership, which is in line with the Bible.
Victim blaming/shaming is a form of secondary victimization that occurs when a victim is devalued and held responsible, either entirely or partially, for the abuse perpetrated against him or her. It reassigns blame to the victim and minimizes the offense of the perpetrator or removes it altogether. Victim blaming and shaming is a common reaction to clergy sexual misconduct as church members may not want to face the reality that their spiritual leader is not who he presented himself to be, and that their personal trust was broken.
Victim blaming and shaming may help church members feel a false sense of safety when their faith has been shaken by accusations of sexual misconduct against their highly esteemed spiritual leader, in whom they previously found comfort. They may feel that it is easier and more consoling for them to blame the victim so that they can maintain their belief that the world, and their church especially, is a safe place and that something like that would never happen to them.
Church leaders and members may also seek to protect their reputation and the reputation of the church by shaming the victim for speaking up, saying that her issue is “personal” and should be kept quiet, so as to not bring negative attention to the church, or somehow “bring shame” to Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, victims often recall the blaming/shaming as arguably worse than the initial abuse, and both traumatic events often lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
By educating clergy and laypeople about the seriousness of victim blaming/shaming and its long-lasting effects on the victims, along with misconceptions concerning victims, perpetrators, and clergy sexual misconduct, victim blaming and shaming can be avoided, and victims can be spared the psychological and spiritual pain of retraumatization.
The term "second wound" refers to the additional harm, suffering, and trauma that survivors of abuse experience due to negative reactions, disbelief, blame, and shaming from others after the abuse is revealed. Survivors who courageously come forward and share their experiences may encounter skepticism, disbelief, victim-blaming, and shaming from various sources, including religious communities, friends, family members, media, and even law enforcement or legal authorities. These negative reactions compound the trauma survivors are already dealing with, hence the term "second wound." The initial wound is the abuse itself, and the subsequent harm caused by negative reactions becomes an additional layer of pain and suffering. Oftentimes, survivors say the second wound is more traumatizing than the initial clergy sexual abuse. This concept highlights the importance of providing support, empathy, and validation to survivors of sexual abuse, rather than perpetuating further harm. Creating a safe and understanding environment for survivors to share their stories is crucial in their healing process and in preventing the exacerbation of their trauma through victim shaming or disbelief. Church leaders have a profound responsibility to educate both themselves and their congregation on how to appropriately address instances of abuse within their religious community.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition resulting from a traumatic event, such as experiencing clergy sexual misconduct/clergy sexual abuse and the oftentimes subsequent victim shaming/blaming. PTSD can manifest itself immediately following the event or even years later. Symptoms may include flashbacks (unwanted memories that come suddenly), anxiety, nightmares, and intrusive, uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Symptoms and severity of PTSD vary and change over time.
People who suffer from PTSD symptoms after experiencing clergy sexual misconduct and victim shaming/blaming may experience the following:
Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (abbreviated to c-PTSD or CPTSD) is caused by prolonged or chronic trauma and involves many of the same symptoms of PTSD along with additional symptoms.
When treated properly by a mental health professional, PTSD and c-PTSD lessens over time with gradual healing.
By having a better understanding of the definitions surrounding the issue of clergy sexual misconduct, we will be better prepared to speak intelligently about the issue to others. We can be a support and advocate for victims in need and help bring a message of hope to those who are hurting from the effects of abuse.
Learn more about how the church can properly respond to incidents of CSM.
If you believe that you are a victim of CSM, you can get help.