What is clergy sexual misconduct/clergy sexual abuse? Clergy sexual misconduct (CSM), also known as clergy sexual abuse (CSA), is any sexualized behavior (verbal or physical) on the part of a religious leader toward a person under his or her spiritual care. Due to the imbalance of power, including spiritual authority, experience, and knowledge on the part of the leader, there can be no mutual consent to a romantic or sexual relationship. It is instead an abuse of power and a betrayal of a sacred, fiduciary trust between a spiritual leader and one under his/her care. In short, CSM is abuse.
In the same way therapists are required by law to abide by a professional code of ethics and maintain proper boundaries between themselves and their clients, spiritual leaders are responsible for maintaining professional boundaries and avoiding any sexual behavior with those to whom they are entrusted to provide care. Clergy sexual misconduct/clergy sexual abuse is illegal in some US states.
Who are perpetrators and victims of clergy sexual misconduct/clergy sexual abuse? Those guilty of clergy sexual misconduct are not limited to paid pastors but also include unpaid ministers, spiritual counselors and mentors, itinerant teachers and preachers, Bible study leaders, seminary professors, and anyone in a ministerial role with some level of spiritual authority. Though rare, abusers can also be female. Victims can be either male or female, and of any age, though sexual misconduct toward a minor is referred to as child sexual abuse.
What is CSM not? An affair. Clergy sexual misconduct is often mislabeled as an “affair” if either the pastor or the victim is married. Many people view clergy sexual abuse as merely a pastor cheating on his wife with a church member. However, an affair is a relationship between two people who have mutually consented and are participating without any form of manipulation. This is not the case with CSM. The sexualized so-called “relationship” has arisen within asymmetrical power dynamics, where the spiritual leader occupies a more powerful and dominant position in relation to the victim.
Moreover, CSM typically occurs after the leader carefully chooses a vulnerable person and grooms her. Grooming is when the abuser stealthily works in a variety of manipulative ways to lower the victim’s inhibitions in order to abuse with little chance of being exposed by the victim. Terming clergy sexual misconduct “an affair” or merely a “moral failure” or “indiscretion” is incorrect. CSM is abuse.
How does clergy sexual abuse toward an adult happen? When clergy sexual misconduct occurs within a ministry, many church members ask, “How could this happen?” Often, they assume that the victim was pursuing the spiritual leader, as opposed to the leader misusing his power, ignoring proper protocol, and stepping over professional boundaries in secret. There are many answers to this question. However, there are often common factors at play in CSM cases, some of which include the following:
The factors listed above are some of the most common threads through CSM cases and can help explain how it happens and why it can go on for many years undetected. Learn more about how CSM happens through scholarly articles and research studies on clergy sexual misconduct/clergy sexual abuse.
Where does clergy sexual abuse happen? Clergy sexual misconduct can occur on or off ministry premises and can even occur virtually or without ever meeting physically in person (i.e., sexualized or romantic phone conversations or “sexting”). The power imbalance that exists between the spiritual leader and follower still exists regardless of whether the follower is a member of the same church or not. Once the relationship is established, whether quickly or over a long period of time, the leader is capable of abusing his power and manipulating the victim into sexual activity, including soliciting inappropriate photos, talking in a sexualized manner, arranging to meet alone in person, etc.
When does clergy sexual misconduct happen? Typically, clergy sexual misconduct occurs after a period of victim grooming. However, in some cases, it may happen upon first meeting, such as the leader making inappropriate comments about the victim’s appearance or giving an inappropriate and uncomfortable long embrace that catches the victim off guard. Once the perpetrator crosses the professional boundary, whether maliciously or in jest, and behaves in a way that can be classified as sexualized behavior, it is considered a form of CSM. No matter the “degree” of the offense, CSM should always be taken seriously and addressed by fellow leaders or those in a higher position. Leaders must be held accountable for CSM. Learn how to properly respond to an incident of clergy sexual misconduct in your church or ministry.
Why does clergy sexual misconduct happen? The motivation behind abuse is complex. However, many spiritual leaders who are guilty of clergy sexual misconduct have some of the following issues in common: a lack of professional training in maintaining professional boundaries, a lack of proper spiritual oversight and accountability, issues with pornography or a pornography addiction, or are experiencing high stress, ministry burnout, or marital problems. It is also common for predator pastors to possess character traits that are often referred to as “narcissistic.” Those traits include an exaggerated sense of their own importance, an insatiable desire for excessive attention and admiration, preoccupation with power and success, a lack of empathy, and a tendency to manipulate others.
Why don’t victims of clergy abuse speak up sooner or speak up at all? It takes immense courage for anyone to speak up about clergy sexual misconduct. Along with intense feelings of guilt, confusion, and shame, victims are groomed by their abusers to remain loyal to them and silent about what is occurring. Perpetrators may threaten victims into silence by claiming that they will commit suicide if the victim leaves, or that the ministry will be devastated and ruined, along with their families and church members. It is common for the leader to twist religious texts to convince the victim that the sexual behavior is allowed by God.
Many don’t speak up at all because they do not realize that what they are experiencing is actually abuse; they are made to feel that the “relationship” is consensual, which it is not. The reality of victim blaming and shaming is another major deterrent and stressor for victims, and many choose to avoid being retraumatized by keeping the abuse a secret, even after it has ended. When victims witness other victims in the media, online, or in person being blamed, shamed, and disbelieved, it sends a clear message that speaking up about abuse is dangerous and to be avoided.
Church leaders and members should know that by choosing to be an approachable, compassionate, and nonjudgmental person, you can increase the likelihood that someone will consider you a safe person to disclose their abuse to. You can learn how to empathize with victims of CSM by better understanding common CSM experiences.
If you believe you are a victim of adult clergy sexual misconduct, you can learn more about how to identify the signs of abuse and how to get help.
If you are a ministry leader, you can learn more about how your ministry can respond to incidents of CSM and how to help prevent them.
If someone you know is a victim of adult clergy sexual misconduct, you can help support that person by making the decision to be compassionate and empathetic, even when others may be judgmental and accusing. Understand that the negative reaction of others to the abuse has often been said to be more scarring to the victim than the abuse itself. Therefore, your support will be part of the victim’s healing process.
You will surely have many questions as to what exactly happened, how it happened, or why the victim did not speak up sooner. If you are not part of a formal investigation, avoid the temptation to seek answers from the victim. Instead, allow the victim the choice to share her experiences, if and when she chooses. You can read about common experiences among CSM survivors in an effort to understand how CSM typically occurs and to gain empathy for victims.
Choosing not to gossip and protecting the victim’s privacy is paramount. What may seem like “mere gossip” to you is actually cause for more psychological and spiritual damage to the victim, which will have deep and far-reaching consequences in her life. This applies also to social media comments. Instead of gossiping, you can share this website and other valuable resources about clergy sexual misconduct with those who do not understand the situation correctly and would benefit from education on this little-known, but widespread form of abuse.
Using correct terminology is also helpful. For example, if someone refers to the abuse as an “affair”, you can correct the person and explain that CSM is not an affair but is indeed abuse. This is a simple, but effective way of advocating for the victim. Your compassionate decisions at this sensitive time can help give courage to other victims to speak out. However, if you join others in victim blaming and shaming, you will indirectly send the message to other victims that speaking out will only bring more pain and public shame. Victims will have some of their worst fears actualized: they are not to be believed and they are to blame.
If you are or were a member of the same church or ministry where the victim was abused and you are experiencing distress in response to the devastating news, recognize that this is normal as well. It is especially devastating for spouses of both the victim and the offender, as well as for other family members and ministry members who work closely with the victim and offender.
Counseling is beneficial for all parties affected. You do not have to work through your emotions alone. You can find a counselor or therapist who understands CSM.
There is hope for healing.