This concise 8-minute video by Baylor University’s Center for Church & Community Impact (C3i) adeptly explains clergy sexual abuse of adults and how churches should respond. Read transcript.
Discover further insights into Baylor University's continuous research on abuse perpetrated by clergy against adults.
Dr. David Pooler, Ph.D., LCSW-S:
Clergy sexual abuse is when a church leader uses their power, position, or role to blur and cross interpersonal boundaries of a person in order to use them sexually for their own gratification. This can happen to children, adolescents, and adults. The two primary factors at play in this type of abuse involve power and consent. Power in and of itself is neither good nor bad, and power is about using one’s influence to help produce a certain result. At its best, powers protecting the vulnerable, correcting injustice, and facilitating growth and healing. At it’s worst, powers used to take, harm, injure, or assault. And with clergy sexual abuse, we are talking about the latter.
Consent has to do with the ability of each person in a relationship to fully express their wishes, have their boundaries respected, and to freely say “yes” or “no” to any interaction, including sexual interactions. Children and adolescents are vulnerable to exploitation because of their age, maturity, and dependence on adults. Adults are vulnerable to exploitation because of their trust of clergy and reliance on them for guidance around their spiritual life. Here, I will primarily talk about clergy sexual abuse of adults because it is one of the most misunderstood forms of exploitation and abuse.
Because of the role and influence a pastor has in the shaping and supporting the spiritual lives of people and congregations, they, by virtue of that fact, have the most power in that system. Simply a pastor has more power than a congregant, and when they misuse their power, it can be devastating. As I discuss clergy sexual abuse, I will refer to victims as she/her and leaders and perpetrators as he/him. This reflects the reality that most perpetrators are heterosexual, married men and most victims are women. However, this does not mean that a female leader cannot abuse others, or that men are never abused. In fact, we know that clergy sexual abuse occurs across all gender identities and sexual orientations.
When an adult is sexually abused by a predatory clergyperson, the abuser tries to control the victim and the narrative around what is happening by using their power. This happens gradually over time through a process called grooming, which is when the abuser tests, pushes, and breaks boundaries on a regular basis. He does is through making her feel special, wanted, and important to God’s work and his ministry. He often frames everything through his own lens of “truth” and steers a person where he wants them to go. This happens to the use of scripture, their shared religious priorities, and through his pastoral authority. He uses his authority to claim that God wants them to be together, or that their sexual interactions are understood by God.
The abuser often calls it an “affair” in order to deceive the victim of thinking she’s complicit. He often tells her this is her fault, or that he couldn’t help himself. He keeps her silent by setting responsibility on her should this be found out. He tells her that souls who leave the church or forsake their faith because of what happened would be her fault.
I will unequivocally state: it is not an affair, and the responsibility for this is on the leader. Because of the power differential present between a pastoral leader and someone in their care, consent to participate in sexual activities is never possible. That is why I can never be an affair. It can never be the victim’s fault and why the responsibility for what happens always sits on the shoulder of the person with more power. It is always the responsibility of the person with more power to define and maintain boundaries that keep everyone safe. All helping professions are aware of this, and minister should not be an exception, nor get a pass.
A pastor holds a key part of a persons sense of well-being and identity in the world; her spiritual life. A predatory pastor uses his access to this part of her life to manipulate and control her. A woman who is being used in this way becomes incredibly confused and self doubting because her intuitions are often telling her something is wrong, while the pastoral leader she trusts is telling her that what is happening is OK. She has been socialized to trust the pastor and somehow going against him feels wrong. By this point, he has used his pastoral skills to make her feel special and important, and when that is connected to her spiritual life, it becomes a powerful force that he can manipulate.
This form of abuse is a betrayal of everything a congregant could expect from a pastor. They wanted care, understanding, support, and nurturing, and instead were used, exploited, and injured on the deepest level. The survivor often cannot make sense of what has happened. The idea that a pastor can harm her in this way, creates profound cognitive dissonance, and it could take months for her to fully understand it.
Her sense of belonging, safety, and identity have been ruptured at the core by this abuse. In other words, she has experienced trauma. She is now on alert for danger, working hard to avoid anything that reminds her of the abuse, and she feels numb, disconnected. Sadness, grief, low self-esteem, trouble sleeping, and even thoughts of suicide may be constant companions. What happens next will predict the long-term outcome.
Once the abuse is made known, religious institutions have two basic choices at this point; they can engage in institutional courage and believe and support the survivor or engage in institutional betrayal, and add to the devastation. My research and the research of others, including Krystal Woolston, and Stephen de Weger continue to reveal a widespread pattern of institutional betrayal by churches, which adds an additional complex layer of trauma to an already traumatized person. Not only is there betrayal by a trusted spiritual leader, but the institution frequently betrays the survivor by quickly moving to protect itself; steer the narrative in support of the pastor and blame the victim.
The congregation becomes complicit in this by supporting the abuser and also blaming the victim. In many systems, the congregants almost have no choice as they would be labeled as troublemakers if they didn’t go along with the narrative the church has created. The system centers itself and its priorities and leaders, and it pushes out the victim and supporters of the victim. The only way to face an issue is head-on and to do that requires a clear description of the problem, which is what I am just tried to do.
Institutional courage is the direction of the future for healthy and transformative churches churches. Churches that display courage will center the victim and their injuries, and hold an abuser accountable. They will work to create a place where a victim can heal and learn about restorative justice.
The following are some institutional courage basics for churches. First, acknowledge that clergy sexual abuse could happen anywhere and that any church leader could injure someone in their care. Second, provide updated information so the congregation knows how to report abuse. Third, provide a clear definition of clergy sexual abuse to the congregation at least annually, and acknowledge and support any survivors who are in your congregation. Fourth, encourage honesty, hard questions from congregants, and normalize conflict. Finally, if someone reports abuse: listen, believe, and provide support.
Congregants and church leaders share responsibility for making churches safer. Congregants must take more responsibility for the health of their church by investing more energy into thinking about safety, boundaries, and supports for the pastor, like leave and sabbaticals. Pastors can invest more by empowering congregants to be trauma-informed, and to support all efforts in making sure that the congregation is equipped to protect people and help them grow. Greater power sharing and mutual trust based on concrete actions to center congregants are the foundation for healthy churches.