When clergy sexual misconduct (CSM)/adult clergy sexual abuse (ACSA) toward an adult is discovered within a religious institution, the typical response is that of confusion, followed by the strong desire to protect the reputation of the leadership and the institution, often at the expense of the victim.
Due to the lack of knowledge regarding this particular form of abuse—sexual abuse of an adult by a religious leader—churches often focus their energy on silencing. Making decisions hastily behind closed doors and often not looking to outside sources for accountability and help, leaders can end up focusing more on “cleaning up” after the situation and quieting down the uproar rather than caring for the injured lamb and sheep that they are called to tend to and protect.
Leaders Need to Understand Their Responsibility
Church leaders should understand that their job is not to work diligently on presenting a flawless image to the world in an effort to lead people to Christ and keep people in church. As spiritual guides, their job is to tend to those in their care, leading them in truth with the heart of a servant and trusting the results to God. The church is to be a beacon of light and truth in a world darkened by sin. Therefore, covering up sin has no place in the church. Hiding sin is, in fact, opposed to the gospel. Leaders need to be knowledgeable about the policies and current better practices that help prevent abuse from occurring and how to properly deal with abuse honestly and correctly if it arises.
Remember the Gospel
The gospel message churches are tasked with preaching includes the redemptive story of Jesus Christ coming down from the glories of Heaven to redeem people imprisoned by sin and darkness. Jesus, in the most spectacular, unparalleled act of love, gives Himself as the sacrifice for their sake. He willingly lays down His life (John 10:18 ESV).
Unfortunately, when abuse is discovered, many ministries take the opposite approach. Rather than exhibiting selflessness and imitating the One they profess to adore, the leaders sacrifice the well-being of clergy sexual abuse survivors for the institution’s benefit. Hurting victims in need are frequently shunned and wrongfully punished for the sake of the church’s reputation. That is not what Jesus demonstrated. Jesus calls us to endure hardship as we take up the cause of the violated and defenseless. To walk in the light and truth, the institution must endure the consequences of uncovering and addressing abuse by leadership, even if it means losing money, reputation, or even closing a ministry that has eroded from systemic misuse of power and toxic teachings. God does not require us to safeguard His reputation through misleading people, cover-ups, and deceit. However, he instructs His leaders to “take care” of His sheep (John 21:16 NIV). Watch a video where these principles are thoroughly explained, providing valuable insights into the content paraphrased above.
How Church Leaders Respond Impacts Survivor Faith Outcomes
Research emphasizes that religious institutions can heighten the impact of adult clergy sexual abuse when they neglect to provide support or engage in blame toward survivors. In such cases, survivors are more likely to undergo a decline in their faith, sometimes leading survivors to completely disengage from their religious beliefs. Conversely, nurturing a supportive environment can play a pivotal role in the restoration and strengthening of the survivor's faith. For an in-depth exploration, refer to the 2023 study, "It Was Like Double Damage": An Exploration of Clergy-Perpetrated Sexual Abuse, Institutional Response, and Posttraumatic Growth, along with other pertinent research on clergy sexual abuse of adults available in our dedicated research section.
It is devastating to learn that a spiritual leader has been abusing a person under his care. How can a church or ministry respond when that happens? Recommendations that follow include principles gleaned from the Statement from The GRACE Board of Directors on December 7, 2016, which was created in response to credible allegations of adult clergy sexual misconduct.
Send the Right Message
The message that the church or ministry should send to victims of clergy sexual misconduct is first a recognition that they are indeed victims of a sinful act that is fully condemned by the religious organization. The church should take the approach of protecting people, not the institution. The ministry should not be complicit with or engage in DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender) or any other coercive strategy employed to protect the institution.
The church should make clear that they recognize the victim has suffered abuse and that the church does not want to add silence to that suffering. The church should admit to the failing of the religious leader who abused, acknowledging that one of God’s shepherds abused their position of power and authority and sexually abused the adult victim when they were vulnerable and in need of care.
Proper language should be used to appropriately and clearly communicate what occurred. Clergy sexual misconduct is often incorrectly labeled an “affair.” However, CSM is not an affair, which implies mutual consent. CSM is abuse due to the imbalance of power, and it often occurs after a period of sexual grooming. Learn more about common CSM experiences. A clear message should be sent to the victim and congregation that speaking out was the right thing to do and exposing the deeds done in darkness is both biblical and encouraged. This can give courage to those who have also suffered abuse and have yet to speak up. Watch an educational video on how to speak about abuse using trauma-informed practices.
Provide Care for All of the Sheep
The church should offer itself as the place for healing in the life of the victim, not a place of condemnation. It should also offer help and encouragement to the spouse and children of the victim, as well as the perpetrator’s spouse and children. The church should take responsibility for addressing the damage inflicted upon the victim, including assuming the financial cost of medical and mental health expenses or any other reasonable requests made by a victim. Victim shaming and blaming should be discouraged. Members should be exhorted and taught how they can care for the hurting and one another in a way that brings healing and glory to God.
The church should recognize that it is rare for a perpetrator of clergy sexual abuse to have only one victim. Understanding this difficult reality, the church should encourage potential silent victims to speak up, ensuring survivors that their identities will be protected and they will be supported. It should be made known that any abuse of a minor must be reported to the local police and child protective services. Watch an educational video on reporting the abuse of a minor in a Christian environment.
Make the Church a Safer Place
The church should also be a safe place for the flock, as the perpetrator is dealt with appropriately. The first step will be removing the abuser from his role of leadership so that he can repent, be ministered to, and get the professional help he needs to address his abusive behavior. Acknowledge the illegal nature of clergy sexual misconduct (CSM) against adults in certain US states. Stand firm in supporting survivors who bravely choose to report such crimes. It is crucial for religious institutions to report any sexual abuse towards minors to civil authorities, especially as mandatory reporters. Some denominations may necessitate the completion and submission of an official incident report to their headquarters upon the discovery or suspicion of CSM. Throughout this process, prioritize consultation with and support for survivors, ensuring their well-being is at the forefront of these sensitive situations.
A thorough third-party investigation should take place by an unbiased trauma-informed outside organization, such as GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment). The survivor should be treated as an equal and able to be involved in the process of choosing an unbiased third-party organization. The ministry should forfeit all control over the investigation, not limit the scope of the investigation, and not withhold findings from the public. A trained, trauma-informed victim advocate, chosen or approved by the survivor and preferably not connected to the ministry where the abuse occurred, should be provided and paid for by the ministry.
Throughout the entire process of responding to adult clergy sexual abuse, leadership should consistently use best trauma-informed practices. These practices include putting the needs of the victim first, not the institution, ensuring safety and respecting the agency of the survivor, communicating updates with the survivor consistently and clearly with trauma-informed language, and moving as quickly as possible to handle the situation with integrity. A commitment to not downplay the abuse should be made by the ministry. A direct and public apology should be given, recognizing the damage done and that the abuse occurred on the church's watch.
If the survivor chooses to remain in the church community, the offender should not be permitted to attend the same church. Another course of action is to not allow the abuser to attend church but instead “bring church to the abuser” by meeting with the offender outside of church services. An outside, unbiased agency can help leaders determine the best course of action so that the victim(s) and all church members are not put in harm’s way. In no case should the abuser be able to regain a leadership role (spiritual or otherwise), so as to not misuse his power again.
Safeguards should be put into place to help prevent abuse from occurring again, including formally educating the leadership on how to prevent abuse. There are many professional ministries that provide extensive training to church leadership on how to prevent and respond properly to abuse. It is recommended that all ministries utilize a professional service to better equip their leadership and volunteers in abuse prevention and response.
Ensure Public Statements Do Not Retraumatize Survivors
The ministry must ensure that any public statement avoids bringing further harm to the survivor. This includes refraining from including identifying features of the survivor while openly naming the religious leader and specific allegations. Thoughtfully crafted statements addressing allegations responsibly and respectfully can encourage silent victims to come forward, fostering an environment free of blame and shame.
Public statements issued by the institution should refrain from employing language that creates or perpetuates a narrative placing blame on the survivor or inaccurately characterizes the abuse as consensual. It is crucial to recognize that the term "clergy sexual abuse" communicates the abusive behavior more accurately than "clergy sexual misconduct," which highlights professional malfeasance but may be prone to misunderstanding. Legal advisors, whose primary goal is to protect the institution, might suggest language that minimizes the gravity of the abuse.
It is advisable to consult with the survivor before releasing any statement, ensuring that the language used accurately represents the survivor's experience. Recognizing that survivors may not immediately grasp the full gravity of the abuse and will need time and counseling to process what occurred, this approach strives to strike a delicate balance between the survivor's perception and the institution's commitment to educating the public about clergy sexual abuse.
This implies that survivors should not feel compelled to make a personal public statement before they have had the opportunity to process their experiences. It becomes the responsibility of leaders to proactively educate themselves on clergy sexual abuse, ensuring that the language used publicly accurately and sensitively describes the survivor's traumatic experience and the perpetrator's abusive behavior.
Remember that research reveals how an institution responds will affect the mental, spiritual, and physical well-being of the survivor. Ensure that your actions and statements contribute to a supportive and healing environment for those affected by clergy sexual abuse. Seeking immediate guidance from external investigators, such as GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), who are invested in and knowledgeable about clergy sexual misconduct, can assist you in making informed decisions on these critical matters.
Read on to learn basic principles on how your church can better prepare to protect the flock from clergy sexual misconduct.
In the same way it is loving, wise, and utterly crucial to put measures in place to help prevent child abuse in your church, it is equally important to create policies and protocols to help prevent clergy sexual misconduct (CSM)/adult clergy sexual abuse (ACSA) toward adults and to teach all members how they can report any form of abuse.
In recent years, we have seen an improvement in how churches are preparing their leadership and volunteers to prevent child abuse in their ministries and to deal with abuse appropriately if it is discovered. Thanks to ministries like GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), many minors are attending church in a safer environment.
Likewise, it would be highly beneficial for all churches, parachurches, and seminaries to adopt policies and practices to address CSM toward adults and to help create a ministry culture that is open about the topic of abuse and knowledgeable about how to prevent and deal with it.
Normalize and Require Education about Clergy Sexual Misconduct (CSM)/Adult Clergy Sexual Abuse (ACSA) among Leadership
Whether a pastor or other spiritual leader is trained in a seminary or at the church, education should be provided on maintaining appropriate boundaries. Ministers should be educated on what clergy sexual misconduct/adult clergy sexual abuse is, how it happens, how to spot it, and how to handle abuse cases properly.
Learning about common CSM experiences can also help leaders better understand and empathize with survivors. Leaders should receive training on how to provide proper support to victims of trauma and know when and how to refer abuse survivors to professional mental health providers. Education is the first step in prevention, and churches can use the services of professional ministries that provide training to church leadership on abuse prevention. This should be normal, expected, and required when training spiritual leaders, including worship leaders, youth leaders, etc.
Require a Meticulous Screening Process When Choosing Leadership
When interviewing candidates for a leadership role within the church, great care should be taken to ensure that applicants who have sexually abused either children or adults or who are at risk of abusing are screened out. This means that screening out potential abusers is considered just as important as screening out those who lack other leadership qualifications.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided useful guidelines for screening and selecting those who will supervise, counsel, or exercise a leadership role over children. These guidelines include background checks, social media checks, reference checks, and formalized interviews about child protection guidelines. Much of these guidelines can be applied to screening for potential abuse toward adults. However, additional screening should be done, including questioning how the potential leader typically provides counsel to those under his spiritual care, how he views and treats friendships with women in the church, whether he is willing to go by the strict code of conduct that your church has put in place to prevent abuse, whether he is knowledgeable about clergy sexual misconduct, etc.
Baptist Accountability, Mennonite Abuse Prevention, Preacher Boys Abuser Database, and Bishop Accountability are four free resources that provide databases of convicted or alleged clergy sexual abuse offenders to aid in the screening process and help prevent the hiring a possible predatory spiritual leader.
Consult with an attorney to ensure that your screening and selection policies do not violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act or other federal or state laws prohibiting discrimination in the workplace. All candidates must be treated the same regardless of whether the interviewer has a past working relationship or friendship with the candidate.
Hold Leadership Accountable to a Formal Written Code of Conduct
In order to minimize the risk of abuse, a clearly written code of ethics should be established and signed by the leadership. A clear statement prohibiting sexual interactions between spiritual leaders and those in their care must be present. The document should include policies detailing inappropriate interactions with lay people and leaders, such as sexualized behavior, including but not limited to sexual jokes, innuendos, inappropriate touching, etc.; clearly stated instructions on where and when counseling occurs (e.g., must be on ministry premises during regular office hours); as well as policies addressing appropriate and inappropriate forms of communication (e.g., use ministry email, not personal email or social media). At any time, ministry emails should be accessible. Expectations of appropriate conduct should also be clearly stated for those in itinerant ministry, and traveling ministers can benefit from having companions to help keep them accountable.
Once the document is created and in place, leaders should receive oversight from other leaders, who should feel the freedom to speak up if needed. Oversight is not effective if the church culture is to suppress those voicing concerns. Denominations should require that an official incident report is completed and submitted to appropriate headquarters when clergy sexual misconduct is discovered or even suspected. If the ministry has a board of directors, the board members should be familiar with the document and ready to enforce policies pertaining to reporting abuse if the need arises. It should be clear to all those holding a leadership or board position that no form of abuse will be tolerated at any time and that transparency is part of the ministry culture.
Inform Counselees of What to Expect from Counseling and How to Report Abuse
Church leaders should be informed about the concept of dual relationships. Dual relationships, where a person holds multiple roles, such as therapist and friend, are generally not advisable due to the potential complications they introduce. It is recommended to refer formal counseling outside the church when possible to maintain professional boundaries and ensure the best support for individuals in need. If the church offers spiritual counseling, such as pre-marital counseling, it is essential to create a written document as a safeguard, as research reveals over 60% of respondents were being counseled by a church leader when CSM began.
A written document should be made available to all who receive formal counseling, similar to a patient’s bill of rights, which is given prior to counseling commencing. Parents of minors (those under age 18) receiving counseling should be able to read the statement and agree to or decline their child receiving counseling. The document should be easily understood and include appropriate guidelines for the counseling and what to expect, such as being counseled in a room with a door that has windows and the ability for the counselee to stop receiving counseling at any time for any reason without question. Clear instructions should be given as to what a congregant can do should a pastor or other counselor engage in inappropriate conduct.
Enforce a Zero-Tolerance Policy When Discovering Cases of Abuse
It is imperative that ministries do not make the mistake of misapplying grace when a perpetrator is discovered. When grace is misapplied, the perpetrator is not held accountable, his sinful actions are kept in the dark rather than exposed in the light, or the perpetrator is given an opportunity to continue in his role after a “break.” This is neither a biblical nor wise response. Furthermore, it does not give justice to the victim(s), nor does it allow other victims to come forward. Instead, it puts other church members at risk of being abused.
Grace is properly given by addressing the situation correctly and in a loving, caring way that does not look to destroy anyone but to bring truth to light so that healing and repentance can occur. The way in which this difficult situation is addressed is how grace is applied. Leaders are to address the issue in a Christlike way, believing that God can heal those violated and cause the perpetrator to genuinely repent, get professional counseling, and be restored spiritually, though not to his former position.
The ministry leader guilty of abuse should expect to receive the repercussions clearly spelled out in the code of ethics/ zero-tolerance policy document that he signed upon receiving the position. He should already know that the ministry has clearly stated that it will have a zero-tolerance policy toward those who abuse.
The following key actions should be outlined in the zero-tolerance policy:
(Actions 1 through 3 below are adapted from Statement from The GRACE Board of Directors December 7, 2016)
Create an Environment Where Abuse isn’t a Taboo Subject
After investing efforts to cultivate a safer environment for your ministry, continuously work to create a community where abuse victims can seek healing without encountering judgmental behavior. The Bible does not shy away from abuse, even rape. When issues of abuse appear in scripture, use that opportunity to address the issue clearly. If situations arise in the news concerning abuse in another church, consider using that as an opportunity to pray collectively and express solidarity with the victims. If you offer free pamphlets with the gospel or have a church bookstore, consider making pamphlets or books on abuse available.
Make sure the literature provided contains correct, quality information, communicated in a sensitive manner. The idea is to create a church culture that doesn’t blush at the talk of abuse but one that understands that it exists and considers it an issue that must be dealt with head-on, openly, and in a loving manner if it arises.
The church should be one of the safest places on earth for the vulnerable to seek help. It should be one of the loudest voices to speak out against abuse. However, speaking out against abuse without action is empty, and for too long, the church has not protected the vulnerable, but in some cases, has been a safe place for abusers.
It is important, therefore, that churches prepare well in advance how they will handle any incidents of abuse and do everything in their power to prevent abuse from ever occurring. In this way, the sheep are protected, and Christ is glorified.