The What and How of Clergy Sexual Misconduct
Hopefully you’ll live out your days never encountering the type of religious leader who makes an article like this necessary. But for the sake of those who do, and in light of the fact that you might, read on. I want to help all of us better understand the problem of clergy sexual misconduct (CSM), and what to do about it.
CSM occurs when a pastor or other religious leader takes advantage of his office and his congregants by using his power advantage and the trust elicited by his position to make sexual advances upon congregants. Pastors who prey are a rare-but-real phenomenon affecting every denomination, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church, my denomination. The concepts I’ll be sharing in this article apply also to teachers, coaches and other leaders.
Affair? Advantage. Abuse.
Often we speak of immoral acts of clergy as having “an affair” with a congregant. But in reality, because of the power advantage of the clergy, their “affair” can be considered abuse of the congregant. An affair occurs when two equally-positioned people choose to have a sexual relationship with each other. Abuse occurs when one of two people in a sexual relationship holds a position of authority over the other. Even if the authority figure refrains from overt force or pressure, their position alone creates it. Applying this to CSM, sexual relationships with congregants are considered power abuse.
On this basis, David’s “affair” with Bathsheba constituted power abuse. She’s been construed into a temptress, but more by our imaginations than any evidence. Think about it: If she’d said “no” to David’s advances, he might have executed her. There she stood, still wet from her bath and trembling before the highest authority in the land, his eyes smoldering with lust. Like so many abuse victims, she had two choices: Cooperate and live, or fight and die.
Someone might object that CSM today doesn’t typically occur under a death threat. True, but often there’s a threat to the reputation. Joseph paid for resisting Potiphar’s wife with his reputation and his freedom. Even if the abuser punishes the victim by circulating an ugly rumor, it’s still a high price to pay.
Many years ago, I suffered sexual harassment by a ministry leader. When I resisted his advances, he punished me through belittling and ostracism. Although I never yielded to his control, I did sympathize with the women who succumbed. In fact, through psychological manipulation alone this man seduced most of the women in a small, conservative ministry.
Years later, I looked through the book Testimonies on Sexual Behavior, Adultery, and Divorce for light on this issue. As far as I know, Ellen White* doesn’t use the word “abuse” in reference to clergy who sexually prey upon their congregants, but she does use the phrase “take advantage of.” Webster’s defines “take advantage” as “to use unfairly for personal gain.” Thesaurus.com lists as its synonym, “exploit.” Because of this, I propose that “take advantage of” is equivalent to “abuse” in our contemporary language, or something very close.
“[They are] living a lie, pursuing an underhanded course, working in secret, nursing their polluted thoughts and inflaming their passions, and then taking advantage of women or men who are tempted, like themselves, to break down all barriers and debase their bodies and pollute their souls? How can they do this thing?” (Testimonies on Sexual Behavior, Adultery, and Divorce, p. 136)
The power advantage of clergy makes them more accountable in the case of immoral acts with a congregant. Jesus called abusive clergy “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matt. 7:15). Ellen White used the metaphors of a fly in a spider’s web, and a fish being baited and hooked (Lt 82, 1886). These inspired analogies indicate evil use of power. The wolf, spider and hook use greater strength and cunning to prey upon the innocent sheep, fly and fish.
Often victims bear some responsibility. After years of working with abuse cases, I see them along a spectrum, with forceful rape, in which the victim bears no responsibility, on one end and consensual-but-manipulated sex on the other. I’m not trying to remove all responsibility from every victim, just following the rules of biblical ethics in placing the most accountability upon the most guilty.
Ten to One
I propose that the ratio of blame can be symbolized as ten to one, as Jesus puts forth in the parable He spoke to Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7. You’ll recall that after Simon objected to Mary Magdalene’s anointing of Jesus with spikenard, the Savior told Simon a parable. He said, essentially, “There were two debtors, one ten times more in debt than the other. The one to whom they were in debt forgave them both. Which one should love the forgiver more?” Simon, suddenly sheepish, said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” Simon knew in that instant that Jesus knew he was the one who led Mary into sin, making him ten times more indebted to God than she. Yet he was ten times less grateful. This rebuke, issued privately, brought Simon to his senses and marked the beginning of his conversion (See Desire of Ages, pp. 567-568).
Ellen White said to a preying pastor, “If you will not allow the grace of Christ to transform you, your guilt will be as much greater than that of the common sinner as your advantages of light and influence have been greater” (Testimonies on Sexual Behavior, Adultery, and Divorce, p. 190). Ezekiel cried, “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks?” (Ez. 34:2) David said, “He that rules over men must be just” (2 Sam. 23:3). We may not agree on who can be spiritual leaders, but we can all agree that spiritual leaders must never use their power advantage for their own pleasure.
Female psychology often plays into this “power advantage” phenomenon. Some of my feminist friends might not like this, but I believe women’s dispositions are, as a whole, more yielding and submissive. Especially before powerful men, some women seem to almost automatically yield. Often, women must be taught assertiveness. Rape prevention teams teach women to fight the rapist because they generally don’t, even though fighting improves their chances of escape. This yielding tendency is especially the case with women with little social support.
Sister Ellen makes this intriguing statement: “The coy, complying disposition of women or girls to the advances and familiarity of men, married men, leads them to be easily entrapped” (Testimonies on Sexual Behavior, Adultery, and Divorce, p. 205). “Coy” can mean shy or timid. Women can become easy prey because of that natural timidity. This same phenomenon generally applies to both male and female children. An abusing religious leader will detect this yielding disposition and take full advantage of it.
When clergy make sexual advances upon congregants, they abuse both the congregant and the sacred office. They are more responsible than the congregant because of greater light and privilege, and because the power advantage makes it an “unfair fight.” Should we passively watch this outrage occur? Absolutely not. God has called every member to take action when they become aware of CSM.
But moving forward can be fraught with difficulty. Having worked with such situations for years, I suggest the following basic guidelines:
1. If children have been victimized, call the state child protective services without delay. Even if it is only an allegation, you must file a report. This doesn’t mean that the police will show up and arrest the alleged abuser; it’s simply a first step toward handling an abuse allegation. All church workers, paid and volunteer, are legally mandated to report any and all child abuse allegations, even child pornography. A good place to start is the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-a-child.
2. If the victim is an adult, CSM may not be a crime in the eyes of the state, but it is still a crime in the eyes of God, and a matter of church discipline. Secure written or recorded testimony from the victim or victims, in most cases eliminating the names for protection’s sake. If the victim can provide any more evidence, help them assemble it. Don’t broadcast the story, but realize that handling abuse allegations in an appropriate manner is not gossip.
3. Because the alleged victim, with rare exceptions, has little incentive for lying, and the alleged perpetrator has a high incentive for lying, and because our natural inclination is to favor those who are the most powerful figures in the social system, make sure to maintain an open mind toward the alleged victim. Lying about abuse does occur, but it is, in my experience and according to research, rare. Even so, the fact that false allegations occur is no reason to silence all allegations.
4. Organize a time to speak to the leader. Pray with the individual and simply tell him that you have heard from an alleged victim that he made a sexual advance. Inform him that you have written or recorded testimony from the victim. If the leader admits having abused, accept this as a good sign, but not a conclusive sign of repentance.
5. In any case, inform the leader that because of the seriousness of the situation, you must inform church administration. Send a brief explanation to the conference president and copy to the ministerial secretary and the union president. Inform them that you have written or recorded testimony from the alleged victim.
6. Conferences differ as to how they handle such situations. Many will take appropriate action, but unfortunately some will not do all they should. Be prepared for a confusing array of decisions if this is the case. Some sources of advice are: Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment, or GRACE.net, and The Hope of Survivors.com.
7. Try to assure that both the religious leader and the alleged victim find good Christian counseling immediately. The local conference may have a referral to offer. Organizations such as The Hope of Survivors offer short-term counseling for both victims and perpetrators. The NAD Family Life Department has a database of Adventist counselors. The Adventist network ABIDECounseling.com offers distance counseling and coaching options.
8. Pray constantly and move forward in the fear of God.
Handling cases of CSM can be discouraging, difficult work; but Jesus bids us, “open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:9). Great blessings await those who obey.
For the Christ-like way to relate, see “Loving One Another in Purity.” See “Ye Are My Whistleblowers” if you know of a victim of a preying authority figure. And if you are a victim, consult the article regarding what you can do about it.
Additional quotes: “You have obtained the confidence of women in you as a man of piety and righteousness, then you have taken advantage of this confidence to take liberties with them–kissing them, and going just as far with them in seductive, lustful practices as they would allow you to go, not only with Sister X but with others” (Testimonies on Sexual Behavior, Adultery, and Divorce, p. 204).
“Many who profess to be the ministers of Christ are like the sons of Eli who ministered in the sacred office and took advantage of their office to engage in crime and commit adultery, causing the people to transgress the law of God” (Ibid, p. 99).
*Ellen White, considered an important church leader, wrote in the 1800s. Many believe, as I do, that she possessed the spiritual gift of prophecy.