Soul Stealing: Power Relations in Pastoral Sexual Abuse - An article about the psychological effects of Clergy Sexual Abuse.


Clergy Sexual Misconduct - Baylor University - Baylor University conducted a study about the prevalence of Clergy Sexual Misconduct with adults.  Their findings reported that the average American congregation of 400 persons, with women representing, on average, 60% of the congregation, there are, on average, 1 out of 7 women who have experienced Clergy Sexual Misconduct.



How Clergy Sexual Misconduct

Happens: A Qualitative Study of First-Hand Accounts- This article reports a study based on phone interviews with 46 persons who as adults had experienced a sexual encounter or relationship with a religious leader. Fifteen others were also interviewed who had experienced the effects of those sexual encounters (husbands, friends and other staff members in the congregation), as well as two offending leaders.

A Cry in the Church - A website run by a group of survivors of sexual abuse from pastors or other leaders in the church.  They are a voice for those who often have no voice.  Many times churches guilt or threaten victims into silence.


Nathan's Voice - A ministry of compassion, healing and justice, located in Northern Virginia, for victims of abusive churches and exploitative church leaders.


Shattered Pulpit -  A blog that gives a look behind closed doors of Lutheran clergy sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse with first hand accounts from victims, family members, congregants, coworkers, leaders, pastors and perpetrators to aid in the understanding and prevention of further exploitation.

You are not to blame for any type of abuse.  To learn more about why you trusted your clergy member click this button





What is Clergy Sexual Abuse?



As is common in CSA cases, women are usually preyed upon at vulnerable times in their lives. Since the pastor was "counseling" us he knew so much of our personal issues and weaknesses and used them against us.  A pastor's role is a trusted one in people's lives, but just like in all areas of life, predators exist in churches too.


Clergy Sexual Abuse and misconduct is a complex issue.  The pastoral/clergy abuse in the news recently refers mostly to the abuse of  young boys by male clergy.  The reality is that adult women (and occasionally men) are victims of sexual abuse and professional exploitation by pastors, ministers and priests.  Clergy Sexual Abuse (CSA) is a betrayal of trust.  It is a violation of the role of pastor/counselor who is called upon to exercise integrity, sensitivity and care.  In the early stages the "grooming period" of sexual abuse, the behavior causes the victim to feel confused.  As it progresses and intensifies, the victim begins to feel guilty and responsible for what is happening to her.


Words like "adultery", "affair" and "relationship" typically take the forefront when an adult is abused.  Let's be clear: YOU ARE NOT HAVING AN AFFAIR WITH YOUR PASTOR.  These are improper words to describe what happens in an these cases of abuse.  The "relationship" between a pastor and his congregant i(or counselor/counselee) is NOT an affair - IT IS ABUSE.  Due to the imbalance of power in the relationship there can be NO MUTUAL CONSENT to any type of intimate behavior or sexual activity.  In fact, a woman that has been victimized in the past (either as a child or at another time) may find that she is, in effect, virtually unable to withhold consent.  Due to circumstances, she may feel as she is not free to refuse any unwanted sexual advances.  In reality, she may be subconsciously re-enacting her past abuse (by someone else) in the situation with her pastor.  Pastoral/Clergy Sexual Abuse doesn't always occur due in cases where a woman has been previously abused. Sometimes it happens simply because the pastor is a sexual predator and chooses and grooms his victim wisely.  This abuse is more than just physical, sexual or emotional abuse.  When a pastor or elder or anyone else seen as a spiritual leader in the church betrays his sacred trust, it is spiritual abuse as well. 


Pastoral/Clergy Abuse is many things.  It is a relationship of trust that has been broken.  The abuse can be, but is not always physical in nature.  It is emotional, spiritual and mental abuse. It is when a person in a position of trust and/or power takes advantage of a person entrusted to his care. It is when one who is supposed to help another, takes advantage of her to satisfy his own selfish sexual or emotional needs.  Abuse of power causes tremendous harm to both parties, their respective families and the church, but especially to the victim whose trust and body has been violated.


Why is consent to sexual relations between clergy and congregant impossible?  

Due to the power differential, there can be NO MUTUAL CONSENT given by a congregant.  Sexual violation by a therapist, doctor or clergy member is not about sex; it is an abuse of power, authority and trust inherent in the relationship. According to Professor Diana Garland, Dean of the Baylor University School of Social Work, who recently conducted a study on adult exploitation by clergy: "Many people, including the victims themselves, often label incidences of Clergy Sexual Misconduct as "affairs".  In reality they are an abuse of spiritual power by the religious leader.


Similar findings are reported by Dr. Margaret Kennedy, founder of MACSAS (Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors), a support group in the UK.  A brief article about Kennedy's Ph.D. research, "A Study into Clergy Sexual Exploitation of Adult Women" was published in the MACSAS newsletter Out Loud (spring 2010) says the majority of the women had sought help from clergy in times of crisis in their lives.  Many women were survivors of childhood abuse.  The majority of women had the perception they were seeking help from a professional, not seeking sex, which profoundly confused them, hurt them and frightened them.


What are the dynamics of psychological grooming by sexual predators?

Sexual grooming by a trusted clergy member can disarm the victim's usual defenses.  Trust of one's spiritual leader can make it difficult for the victim to perceive the moves of a sexual predator as she is being groomed.  The primarily psychological nature of such assaults can often confuse the victim's own understanding of whether she "consented" to the sexual relations.  Victims of sexual abuse and exploitation, can be "groomed" for sex over a period of time.  The process involves a methodical, systemic wearing away of boundaries, morals, values and quite appropriate inhibitions and prohibitions.


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Survivor Blogs and Websites

Articles and Papers

You are not alone click below to read another surviors story of clergy abuse

There are some great resources for victims of clergy abuse click the button below to learn more

To learn more about tactics of spirtual abusers click the button below



Clergy Sexual abuse happens due to an imbalance of power in the relationship between a pastor and his congregant. Because of the power imbalance there is no mutual consent in this intimate sexual behavior.  Victims of Clergy Sexual Abuse many victims suffer from many symptoms such as post-traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, feelings of guilt, shame, anger or confusion, difficulty trusting others and a distorted view of God.


To section of the website will provide the following resources: What Clergy Abuse is, Facts about Clergy Abuse, Elements of Spiritual Abuse, Dispelling Myths of Clergy Abuse, Why it’s Not an Affair, Clergy Come-ons are More Common Than you Think, Common Struggles With Faith & Spirituality, Process for Women to Let Go of Guilt & Shame.  At we understand the harmful effects of this type of abuse and want to provide support to victims that have experienced it. 


Unfortunately we are not doing all that we can to protect people from this type of abuse. Currently in the United States Clergy Sexual Abuse is illegal in only thirteen states.  Check to see if you live in one of the thirteen states and if not talk to your legislatures about making Clergy Sexual Abuse illegal.  Let’s work together to hold clergy members accountable for their action and protect victims of abuse.




To learn about 10 myths of Clergy Sexual Abuse

click below


Facts About Clergy Abuse


The majority of sexual abuse by clergy goes unreported


Often this occurs because survivors are either pressured into silence by their abusers, churches or religious communities or ignored altogether.  Furthermore, religious institutions often fail to appropriately punish the offending pastor or clergy members and sometimes go as far to try and cover up the abuse.


Usually the victim is at a vulnerable time in her life


Whether seeking counsel from her pastor due to lost of a loved one, a failing marriage or past abuse, the predator knows the vulnerability and how to use it against the victim.  He ultimately abuses his position of power and trust, pushing his power and control as far as he can take it before he gets caught.  It's important to remember that vulnerability is not a negative human characteristic, just a human characteristic.  Being human makes vulnerability a reality, making us all vulnerable at one time or another in our lives.  The problem within these professional relationships is not our human vulnerability, but the predatory pastor preying upon that vulnerability.


Clergy Sexual Abuse is not a Consensual Act


Mutual consent is impossible in CSA because of the imbalance of power between clergy and laity. Upon entering the ministry,  a man (or woman) is commissioned by the church to be exemplary in actions.  Clergy members are looked up to in society as being morally upright in all they do.  The pastor holds great power in our society, which in turn, envelopes a great sense of responsibility.  As such, it is the responsibility of the clergy member to stop any inappropriate behavior with a member of laity.


Clergy or Pastoral Sexual Abuse is never an "Affair"

as though many churches and religious institutes like to define it.  For the reasons stated above, that would be impossible.  An affair is between two individuals who mutually and equally consent to the immoral activity.  An affair is a sinful act of betrayal of the marriage vows by one or both of the individuals.  An affair disgusts God, and is considered sexually immoral.  Many church leaders seem to think that by labeling Clergy Sexual Abuse as an "affair" they will somehow minimize the reality of the crime of the abuse.  Use of the term "affair" in a Clergy Sexual Abuse case is an attempt to cover up what actually happened.


Sexual Abuse and Abuse of Power in Churches is all too common

​even epidemic in our country and around the world.  Unfortunately, most of the men who violate the appropriate boundaries are "repeat" offenders who continually exploit woman after woman.  A study conducted in 1993 by the Journal of Pastoral Care demonstrated that 14% of southern baptist pastors, responding to a survey, admitted to inappropriate sexual contact with a congregant; in the same survey 70% or respondents said they had knowledge of another pastor who had sexual contact with a congregant. (source) In a more recent study conducted by Baylor University researchers in 2008-2009, revealed that "one in every thirty three women who regularly attend worship services has been the target of sexual advances by a religious leader. (source)


Predatory Pastors use their Position of Authority for Sexual Grooming

​For example, one priest used information he learned during confessions to seduce his parishioners.  The victim was having marital problems and according to the Madison Record, "she also suffered from a severe medical condition which exacerbated those problems."  The Madison Record also reports that "he developed a scheme to make every effort to get the victim further involved in church activities and in those instances would continuously bring up the victim's personal situation and seek deeper engagement with her, encouraging her to confide in and trust him."  In another example from a CSA case in Southwest Virginia, the pastor used marital counseling to manipulate to gain information about his victim's weaknesses, personal issues and her schedule through counseling with her husband.


The Psychological Nature of the Abuse Confuses the Victims

​The primary psychological nature of the sexual assaults confuses the victim's own understanding of whether she or he "consented" to the sexual relations.  Such was the case with one victim, who stated that her pastor of ten years told her that "their relationship was ordained by God".  She believed him because she trusted him and was seeking help and direction.




Elements of Spiritual Abuse


It seems that newspaper headlines these days are full of examples of spiritual abuse, describing situations of people being victimized in both cults and churches.


In critiquing the ins and outs of spiritual abuse, one often finds that people have been hurt by legalism, authoritarian leadership, manipulation, excessive discipline, spiritual intimidation and much more.


Perhaps one could give a number of characteristics common to the problem and a lot of time given to the definition of "spiritual abuse," but instead of asking the WHAT questions, maybe a better understanding would come if the WHY questions are asked: Why do some people stay in abusive relationships? Or, why do they get into them in the first place? The authors of the book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, suggest that people learn to be victimized, or are powerless by experiencing relationships that have either prepared them to be abused, or not prepared them to not be abused. Such relationships could be labeled as "shame-based" relationships.


"Shame-based relationships are relationships based on messages of shame: You are so weak and defective that you are nothing without this relationship. Shame becomes the glue that holds things together. It is the force that motivates people to refrain from certain behaviors and to do others" (p. 55).


If families, churches, or groups are shame-based, they are more than likely sending messages to their members that they are: "not loved and accepted; not even lovable or acceptable; only loved and accepted if, when, or because they perform well; not capable, valuable, or worthwhile; very alone, not really belonging anywhere, to anything, or with anyone" (p. 55).


On pages 56-59 of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, the authors list the following seven characteristics of shame-based relationships which will help explain why people are "caught up" in these abusive relationships:


  • OUT-LOUD SHAMING The dynamic: This is the "shame on you" that comes from belittling. It is any message communicated out loud that says, "Something is wrong with you." The effects: Negative view of self, even self-hatred.


  • FOCUS ON PERFORMANCE The dynamic: How people act is more important than who they are. Love and acceptance are earned by doing or not doing certain things. The effects: Perfectionism, or giving up without trying; view of God as more concerned with how you act than who you are; cannot ask for help; high need for the approval of others.


  • MANIPULATION The dynamic: Relationships and behaviors are manipulated by very powerful unspoken rules. Yet the unspoken rules communicate these and other shaming messages.


     Coding: Messages are sent through a verbal code that others are supposed to decode. "Don't you think it would be better this  

     way?" means, "I want you to do it this way."


     Triangling: This means to send a message to someone through another person, instead of delivering it directly.The effects:  

     Great "radar" - the ability to pick up tension in situations and relationships; ability to decode messages; talking about people

     instead of to them; difficulty trusting people.


  • IDOLATRY The dynamic: The "god" served by the shame-based relationship system is an impossible-to-please judge. It is a god invented to enforce the performance standard.  The effects: Distorted image of God; high level of anxiety; high need to control thoughts, feelings and behaviors of others.


  • PREOCCUPATION WITH FAULT AND BLAME The dynamic: Reaction is swift and furious toward the one who fails to perform the way the system deems fit. Responsibility and accountability are not the issues here: Fault and blame are the issues.The shame-based system wants a confession in order to know whom to shame. The effects: The sense that if something is wrong or someone is upset you must have caused it; a high need to be punished for or to pay for mistakes in order to feel good about yourself; difficulty forgiving self.


  • OBSCURED REALITY The dynamic: Members are to deny any thought that is different than those of people in authority. Anything that has the potential to shame those in authority is ignored or denied. Interaction with people and places outside the system threatens the order of things. Consequently, you can't find out what "normal" is. Problems are denied, and therefore they remain.  The effects: Out-of-touch with feelings, needs, thoughts; ignoring your "radar" because you are being "too critical;" feel like no one else understands you; threatened by opinions that differ from yours; suspicious or afraid of others.


  • UNBALANCED INTERRELATEDNESS The dynamic: Either under involved or over involved with each other. Consequently, rules take the place of people. There is no relationship structure in which to learn about behaviors and consequences. People find out about life alone and by accident.  The effects: Fear of being deserted; high need for structure; a sense that if there is a problem, you have to solve it; feeling selfish for having needs; putting up boundaries that keep safe people away; feelings of guilt when you haven't done anything wrong.


When evaluating the emotional foundation the shame-based systems create, it is clear that honesty and trust are undermined in the relationship. This can also hinder a person's maturing in a relationship with God. Codependence, or the dependence upon a person or group, can also grow in this type of shame-based system. Ultimately, a person can lose a correct perception of reality because the only reality that can be identified with is within a shame-based system.




Dispelling Myths of Clergy Abuse of Adults


  There are many myths associated with adult clergy sexual abuse. These myths are damaging and inhibit justice for victims within the court systems in the United States. The clergy/parishioner relationship is no different than other professional relationships where there is a fiduciary duty. The "professional", whether it be a teacher, therapist or clergy has a fiduciary duty to whomever they have a professional relationship. A fiduciary duty is a relationship based on trust. The Latin definition for fiduciary is none other than 'faith'. The trust or "faith" in a fiduciary duty relationship is established even before the relationship begins. The trust does not have to be earned. In most cases a person grows up with the belief system that certain professionals can be trusted with no questions asked. Some examples of professional relationships that include fiduciary duty are teacher/student, therapist/patient, and clergy/parishioner. Each of these professionals is held to a higher standard than the "average" professional. Most of these professionals are listed in individual state fiduciary duty laws but in only 17 states is clergy acknowledged as having a fiduciary duty to their parishioners. The titles that go along with these professions tie directly into the power differential, "Professor", "Doctor", "Father".  Catholic laypersons call their priest "Father" for a very specific reason. Cradle Catholics are taught their priest is the closest thing to God our "Father" here on earth. "Father" is the superior, the protector and provider; automatic trust goes hand in hand with those positive characteristics and with the title of "Father".


      The most damaging myth is the belief that the sexual relationship between clergy and parishioner is a consensual affair. The reality is the sexual relationship is a sexual assault. No matter if it happened once or if the sexual relationship lasts for 30 years. A sexual relationship between clergy and parishioner can never be consensual. The power differential is too great. As with all victims of sexual assault, the parishioner victim takes on the responsibility of the assault. Thinking they must be the "cause" of this "holy man of God" falling from grace and going against his vow of celibacy or, in other denominations, the vows he took with his wife. That feeling of responsibility topped off with guilt keeps many adult victims silent. Often the woman is married with a family and is scared her husband will not understand. More often than not these relationships have devastating effects on marriages and the majority end in divorce. In any relationship where a spouse is affected by a sexual assault, the marriage or relationship is stressed but when you add clergy into the mix, the dynamics are extremely skewed. In any other traumatic event in a person's life, one turns to the church for support but in this situation the church is the last place the victim wants to go for support. Therefore, both spouses feel they have nowhere to turn and do not know where to focus their anger so it usually falls upon each other. Marriage counseling is vital in these situations and the sooner therapy starts the better chance the family has at staying intact.


      Another myth of the sexual assault by clergy upon parishioner is that the assault is about sex. The assault has nothing to do with sex but has everything to do with power and control. A predator in the clergy profession is no different than any other sexual predator. The rape, the molestation, the incest is about the ultimate power and control the predator can have over his victim. The majority of sexual predators are cut from the same mold. They are charismatic, charming, narcissistic, and compliable. In most cases the initial sexual contact may even seem insignificant and there is no fear felt within the victim. Many times sexually assaults are occuring and the victim doesn't even realize it. The predator is just "testing the waters". His moves get bolder and bolder and the sexual assaults increase. As the assaults become more sexual, the power and control over the victim increases. By the time the victim realizes what is going on, the feeling of responsibility and guilt is so overwhelming she doesn't know what to do and many times does nothing. Often the victim doesn't even realize it was abuse until after she is out of the situation, very much like a domestic violence situation. Many times it takes someone else stepping in and saying 'this isn't a healthy situation', or a traumatic event must occur in order for the victim to realize that the situation is not safe. In some situations the dependence the victim has on the clergy is so great that even though she knows what he is doing to her is wrong, she does not want the relationship to end. So much is invested into these relationships: time, money, energy, emotion and your entire faith base; to many victims, their faith is their entire life. Turning the clergy person in is throwing all of these investments away. The predator chooses his victim wisely because he knows how his crime will affect his victim. Usually the victim is at a vulnerable time in her life, whether seeking counseling from the clergy for loss of a loved one, or a failing marriage, or past sexual abuse. The predator knows the vulnerability, knows how to use the vulnerability against the victim and ultimately abuses his position of power and trust, pushing his power and control as far as he can take it before he gets caught. It is important to remember that vulnerability is not a negative human characteristic but just a human characteristic. Being human makes vulnerability a reality, making us all vulnerable at one time or another in our life. The problem within these professional relationships is not our human vulnerability, but the predator preying upon that vulnerability.


     The "dirty old man" is another myth regarding sexual abuse in general but important to acknowledge when discussing clergy sexual abuse because the predator is the "every man/woman". The sexual predator is the clergy, the teacher, the doctor, the therapist, the police officer and even the friend or neighbor. But it is in these professions where there is a fiduciary duty that the power differential is so great the abuse can occur so easily. People go to these professionals because they need help or some kind of service, so the person relies on that professional. The predator gets to know his victim extremely well. This is known as the 'grooming process'. The period of time in which an even stronger bond can be established with the victim. Which brings me to another important point, the sexual predator plans the crime ahead of time. The grooming process is the first element in the predator's well thought out plan. During this time the victim becomes dependant on the predator and it is not uncommon for the victim to begin to love the predator. The predator plays on the victim's weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Today it is harder than ever to distinguish the 'good guys' from the 'bad guys'. A good rule of thumb, if you feel uncomfortable your boundaries are probably being crossed and you must take action to get that uncomfortableness out of your life before it explodes into something unimaginable. If that means changing doctors or going to a different church or ending "friendships" do whatever it takes to make sure your boundaries are not being crossed, the alternative can be life threatening.


     The woman must be a seductress is another myth believed in cases of adult clergy abuse. Women struggle with this learned myth that if this "holy man of God" went astray then she must have done something in order for this to happen. Recently a woman told me she heard a priest say to a group of teenagers, "Girls, while giving your boyfriend a hug goodbye, if you rub his back and that causes him to get an erection, you have just brought him to the occasion of sin." This statement is a prime example of this myth being taught and if we are "good" Catholic girls, we internalize this belief that if the man "falls", you are the cause of his failure. If we are really good Catholics and we hear this enough we will bring this myth with us into adulthood and it becomes a part of us as women. This myth is so damaging on so many levels. First, women must realize that they did not seduce the priest but that he manipulated them and abused his position of power. He was the person in authority, not the woman. He was the one that went to seminary and had ethics classes and boundaries classes that taught exactly what is appropriate and what isn't appropriate behavior with parishioners. If the woman had never been taught what appropriate boundaries are with clergy, she may not realize he is crossing boundaries. What is appropriate with a family member or friend may not be appropriate with clergy, like a kiss or holding hands. Secondly, women must stop thinking of their abuser as clergy and a "man of God" but as a man who is a sexual predator. When the predator was manipulating and abusing he was not acting like clergy; therefore, she should not think of him as clergy. When clergy has sex with a woman and then calls her a "whore" and the "cause of all his problems", that is not being a man of God. That is a manipulating sexual predator who is turning the guilt to his victim and away from himself. In many cases the verbal manipulation is not that extreme but it is always there, turning the responsibility over to the woman resulting in the woman feeling dirty and like a seductress. This behavior is very common in sexual abuse situations, the predator turning the blame to the victim so the victim will feel guilty and in turn stay silent. Women must remember they did nothing wrong. There is nothing to be ashamed of in being a woman. Be proud and embrace your feminine qualities, love the qualities and most importantly love yourself. Do things that make you feel good. Do things that bring joy in your life. Pampering yourself and treating yourself with the love and respect you deserve is the first step in getting your life back on track.


      Another myth is that women are attracted to the "forbidden". The reality is women are attracted to holiness. Women are caregivers and nurturers. Women are attracted to people who seemingly have the same characteristics. Clergy are also supposed to be caregivers and nurturers. Women are drawn to those who are kind and loving, a girlfriend, a doctor, a therapist, a teacher, their husbands, and their children. Seminarians are told they can have any woman and that women will chase them. It is a lie unless the seminarian is a predator. The predators can take their pick of the vulnerable, they are masters at picking out their prey. They use their smooth, calculating, manipulative ways and the victim is putty in their hands. Clergy predators are such incredible manipulators they have their congregants believing they are holy, trustworthy, righteous, upstanding, chosen men of God. When in reality everything they do and say is an act, all part of their plan to abuse. They have a Jekyll and Hyde personality. How many times have we heard, "But he is such a good priest."? They are "good" priests in the public eye; that is how they can get away with what they do. No one will suspect, no one will accuse, no one will believe. The trust does not have to be earned like with a neighbor, co-worker, or friend. The trust is already established because these men are "chosen" men of God. As soon as the manipulation starts the boundaries begin to be crossed. Usually so subtly that the victim doesn't even realize what is happening. Many times it is only after the relationship has ended that the woman realizes the sexual relationship was really sexual abuse.


      The seductress myth along with the 'affair myth' are two of the most damaging to the victim. A strong support system is vital in order for the victim to overcome these learned myths and take back control of her life. A support system can include therapist, support groups, family, friends, other victims and spouses. Spouses especially must be loving, supportive, and patient with their partner. Many marriages affected by sexual assault end in divorce but that does not have to be the norm if these two myths can be obliterated. The sexual assault was not only a violation against the body but a violation against the soul. Victims who are abused by clergy are changed for life. The abuse by clergy doesn't have to be a violent rape to traumatize. A kiss, groping, tight hugs, seemingly "small" assaults can cause traumatic results when perpetrated by clergy. For Catholic victims, their faith in the Catholic Church is not just a religion but it is a way of life. Catholicism affects every aspect of life - finances, time, sex life, school, work, etc ... It is extremely difficult for the victim after the assault knowing that everything in her life will be affected and ultimately be changed forever. Therefore, spousal support is key to the victim's survival and healing. It is important that the spouse continually give reassurance to his loved one that it was not an affair and that she did nothing wrong. Singles must also build a strong support system. Whether married or single, contact the local sexual assault center and ask who they recommend for a therapist. A good therapist is vital in the healing journey. After a few sessions with the therapist it should be evident if she is a good fit or not. Sometimes it takes a few tries before finding just the right therapist. A strong support system is a necessity because in the initial stages of healing a victim does not even trust herself. Victims need to be continually reminded that they are good, loving and trustworthy.


      Some therapists compare the clergy/parishioner sexual abuse relationship to domestic violence situations. The woman does not feel safe, she knows the situation is not healthy but she does not have the power to break away because of the dependancy she has on her perpetrator. This dependancy is usually an emotional dependancy - time, energy, validation and love, all the things that in an ideal world she would be strong enough to give to herself. But life being what it is, a rollercoaster of ups and downs, she is "depending" on someone else to give her what she emotionally needs and the clergy predator is always ready and waiting to pounce on easy, vulnerable opportunities.


      This type of abuse is very much related to Stockholm Syndrome. An infamous victim of Stockholm Syndrome was Patty Hearst. After being with her abductors for two months, she began to actively take part in their robbery scheme. She was convicted and sent to prison but after a period of time and much educating, the public accepted that Stockholm Syndrome was very real and that in fact a victim could evolve into a protector of their abuser. Educating the public of this fascinating yet debilitating syndrome resulted in Bill Clinton pardoning Hearst and ultimately giving her a portion of justice. Stockholm Syndrome is common in battered persons, rape, childhood sexual abuse and even in adult clergy sexual abuse situations. The victim is totally debilitated while feeling sympathy for her assailant and as a result does not have the power to fight back or end the relationship or even say "No!".


      In order to dispel these myths regarding adult clergy sexual abuse we must continue to keep this topic in the public eye. The extreme ramifications this type of abuse are unknown to the general public.  Education is key to discrediting these myths and changing attitudes which in turn will result in justice for adult victims of clergy sexual abuse. Clergy sexual predators are no different than any other sexual predator. They lie, cheat, take advantage of the vulnerable, abuse their position of power and ultimately assault and rape the soul. At one time there was an ideology, an attitude, a belief, a myth that a woman could not be raped by her husband.  Now after much educating and hard work by courageous wives, that ridiculous belief has been obliterated. Adult victims of clergy abuse must be willing to do the educating and the same hard work to wipe out these outdated beliefs pertaining to adult clergy sexual abuse and put an end to these myths once and for all.


Copyright May 2007, Peggy Warren.  All rights reserved.


Clergy Sexual Abuse

M. Irons


Sexual contact between a pastor and a church member is often dismissed as an "affair" between "consenting adults". This article discusses why that is an inappropriate description. Sexual contact between a pastor and a church member is often dismissed as an "affair" between "consenting adults". This is a misnomer for several reasons.[i]


  • Church members depend on the pastor to know what God wants and to lead them properly. He is a trusted spiritual authority. The moral and spiritual authority vested in the pastor give him unequal power in relationships with the people.

  • Church members trust that the pastor is using his gifts and calling to care for the flock, for their nurture and benefit. This is a level of trust that is not individually tested, proven, and earned in each relationship, as it is in life in general, but is based on the nature of the position of pastor. It is similar to the trust one places in one’s doctor.

  • In the church, as in society in general, there is a power differential between male and female.

  • There is usually an age differential between the pastor and the person caught by his inappropriate advances.

  • Often that person is additionally dependent on him as a counselee, or a church employee under his supervision.


These factors combine to make it difficult for a church member to say no to the inappropriate advances of a pastor. They place a weighty responsibility on the pastor to always maintain appropriate boundaries and the integrity of the pastoral relationship with the people.


An "affair" is a term used to describe a sexual liaison between peers, or equals. It places equal responsibility for the behavior on both parties. Because the pastoral relationship carries with it certain responsibilities, and the authority to carry them out, it is inappropriate to call a sexual encounter with a member of the congregation an affair, since it is not a peer relationship.


Therefore those who are violated by a pastor's inappropriate sexual behavior are not to be blamed that it occurred. The pastor had the greater power in the relationship and he misused it. Should the allegation be raised that the church member initiated the advances, it must not be overlooked that the pastor has the vested authority, the greater power in the relationship, and the responsibility to refuse impropriety and not allow it to happen.

The temptation to blame the victim is a reflection of the difficulty people have believing that a person who carries moral and spiritual authority, who is respected and trusted, can also be guilty of misusing his power and authority.


Broadly speaking, there are two types of clergy sexual offenders. [ii] The first type is the situation with a single victim and a remorseful offender, where situational factors and timing have played a major role. A lack of training and good organizational structure and supports appear to be the basis for crossing boundaries which set the stage for the involvement. One specialist in clergy sexual abuse calls these clergy sexual abusers "wanderers".

The second class exhibit various pathologies designated in the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistic Manual. The type most pertinent to this article is the sociopathic narcissist. This type of clergy sex offender is manipulative, self-centered and gratification-oriented. Good at manipulating and getting out of trouble, he shows no concern for harm to others. He is willing to move from church to church, and may even change denominations to escape being caught.


Wanderers seem to fall into an immoral liaison by carelessness. An example is Gordon McDonald, former president of Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship, who after a one-time adulterous incident, was thoroughly and publicly repentant, and restored to an exemplary life. [iii] Narcissistic offenders, on the contrary, plan ahead to trap the innocent, lie about it afterward, and are repeat offenders. Leaders of cults and totalistic authoritarian Christian organizations (TACOs) are often sociopathic narcissists.The dynamics in a TACO further intensify the difficulty of resistance.


The power differential between the leader of a totalistic authoritarian group and the members is far greater than between the pastor and the church member in normal churches.

  • The leader claims to be the Lord's servant with a special anointing from God that is quite beyond the ordinary pastor and which bestows apostolic authority. And his message is special revelation from God that has been given to no other living person. For these reasons he is held in supreme awe and esteem. This leader may use the ploy of a “special revelation from God” or a dream that is specifically about her to trap a potential victim.

  • The leader’s word is law. No-one can successfully challenge him on anything, not even the lieutenants under him, because they have been chosen primarily for their loyalty.

  • Serving the leader is equated with serving God. Can there be a greater disparity of power than between the sovereign God and His people who are His servants? By setting it up that serving him is serving God, the leader creates the perception of that power differential.


The TACO creates dependency in the followers, so that they become less and less able to function autonomously, and therefore less able to set proper boundaries.

  • They have already acceded to mega encroachments on their time, resources, privacy, career goals, personal decisions. With each boundary violation there is greater numbness to further boundary violations.

  • There are no outside relationships with family, friends or other Christians to provide perspective and support. Close friendships within the group are discouraged. The TACO severs people’s connections with even normal social mores, so they are on an isolated ship with no land in sight from which to take bearings.

  • The code of silence makes it unthinkable to confide in another that the revered leader was behaving inappropriately—it would not be believed.


[i] Many points in this section are taken from "Why It’s Not An Affair?" by Rev. Patricia L. Liberty, Associates in Education and Prevention in Pastoral Practice, with her kind permission. Her complete article can be read on Advocate Web

[ii] Points in this section are taken from " Typology of Clergy Who Engage in Sexual Misconduct" by Gary Richard Schroener.

[iii] Recounted in a sermon by Dr. Peter Barnes, "Learning to Live in Forgiveness and Grace"


This resource was retrieved from:

Copyright © 2003-2010 Margaret M. Irons.


Clergy Come-ons More Common Than You Think


Congregations who blindly trust the person in the pulpit should tune into a new national study, suggesting clergy sexual misconduct with adults occurs across denominations and religions a lot more often than many realize. The analysis by Baylor University’s School of Social Work found that 3.1 percent of adult women who worship at least once a month have been the target of a clergy come-on since turning 18.


The findings, released today, come from questions included in the 2008 General Social Survey, a survey of a random sample of more than 3,500 American adults conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.  "We assumed that if victims are adults that the relationship must be consensual," said Diana Garland, dean of Baylor University’s School of Social Work and lead researcher on the study. "If it wasn’t physical coercion, we miss the emotional and spiritual coercion ... It’s not an affair. It’s an abuse of power. Regardless of who intended what, the religious leader is the one in the position of responsibility."


Gardner said she has seen too many churches torn apart by abuses of spiritual power and hopes the study will lead to developing effective prevention strategies and policies and statues to make clergy sexual misconduct illegal.  Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, welcomed the study as a wake-up call for congregations. She agreed that legislation should protect people in the pews from predators in the pulpit.


"The state has as much interest in protecting vulnerable citizens whether the predator is a doctor, an attorney, someone wielding a weapon or a clergyperson," she said. "An adult who is talking with a clergyperson assumes there are certain levels of trust and has their guard down and will most likely assume the clergyperson has insights, can offer spiritual guidance, may even have ability to assist the person in getting closer to God ... That’s why when the clergyperson exploits that person it causes such devastating harm."

In addition to analyzing data from the General Social Survey, Garland also gathered first-hand accounts of clergy sexual misconduct. She interviewed more than 80 women and men. This group included victims of clergy misconduct, family members or spouses of victims, religious leaders who have committed misconduct, and professionals who have provided care for offenders and survivors.


From those interviews, Garland learned there were five factors that perpetuate clergy sexual misconduct.


-- Nobody acts in a situation that calls for action.

-- Parishioners don’t want to hurt their pastor’s feelings.

-- Religious leaders don’t have to report to an office or supervisor. And much of their communication is private.

-- People worship in sanctuaries, which means "safe place." That increases vulnerability and lack of awareness.

-- The same person exhorting the congregation from the pulpit is often the same person providing counseling or psychotherapy behind closed doors. The overlapping roles create an inappropriate power dynamic.


What do you think? Should clergy be discouraged from holding down multiple jobs in their houses of worship? Should there be statutes that make sexual advances by clergy illegal?




Common Struggles with Faith and Spirituality


Following a violent experience, survivors sometimes turn to their faith-based community or church for guidance, support, and help in dealing with personal issues and questions of faith. Spiritual health is just as important as emotional and physical health - it is part of the person who was injured and is an area where healing may also need to take place. Some common struggles that survivors have with regard to personal faith and faith-based communities following trauma include:


  • Anger over what happened, and possibly directed at the offender(s) or even God

  • Withdrawal from people and normal every-day activities, including worship services and religious or spiritual practices

  • Guilt over what might have been done to prevent the violence or protect oneself or others

  • Making Sense of the trauma within the context of religious or spiritual beliefs (i.e. Why did God let this happen? What did I do to deserve this? Did this happen to me for a reason? How can I find peace again?)

  • Frustration with the healing process, the criminal justice system, and relationships with loved ones who don't understand the impact of trauma

  • Forgiveness of the offender(s) and possibly family and friends who may not have provided the necessary or expected support

  • Adapting to a changed life and reconnecting with others, which may be very difficult and misunderstood by those who do not understand the effects of violent trauma

  • Impatience with the healing process, because it can be difficult and take time to forgive, heal, and regain a sense of inner peace


It is important for survivors to have a network of support. However, it is hard for those who have not lived through violent trauma to understand how to help. Unfortunately, many congregations are simply not informed or aware of how to help survivors. This disconnect can leave survivors feeling isolated, and ultimately jeopardize the cohesion and strength of the faith-based community. In addition, the road to healing is often a long journey, and while some survivors receive support in the immediate aftermath, they often see their support networks diminish soon after. Survivors need consistent and long-term support throughout the often lengthy healing and criminal justices processes.




Process for Women To Let Go of the Guilt and Shame


Now is the time to let go of the guilt and shame carried as a result of sexual exploitation by clergy. This is a new day, research studies are being funded by respected foundations to educate and gather statistics regarding adult clergy sexual exploitation. Recent news stories are shedding light on the subject, as more women find their voices and the courage to speak out. Protestant faiths are addressing adult clergy sexual exploitation in their sexual misconduct policies. Catholic bishops are publicly removing priests that get sexually involved with adults. States are criminalizing this exploitive behavior at the felony level. Now is the time to hand the guilt and shame back to the instigator - the perpetrator, the man in power that abused his position in order to exploit for his sexual and power-seeking gratification. Now is the time to start the process of ridding yourself of the negative and regaining your life.

The scenarios rarely expose any real differences, only different names, different cities, and different denominations. Yet, the dynamics are all the same - control freak in position of power, exploits a true believer, gets caught or decides to move onto his next conquest, whichever comes first., the woman is left to pick up the pieces of her soul and the perpetrator is left to live his life as he knows best which is to continue using and abusing.


The first phase in letting go of the guilt and shame, …ultimately the first step in healing is to speak out. Tell somebody,… tell anybody: your husband, girlfriend, his superiors, the local newspaper, and/or the authorities. If you do go to his superiors, take someone with you, never go alone. Let the church know that they will need to pay for individual therapy as well as family therapy, if spouse and children are involved. Speaking out does not occur without consequences. There are possible outcomes to fear when speaking out against the clergy perpetrator: loss of job, loss of husband, family, friends, and loss of spiritual community, etc…But there should be a greater fear of what is to become of others if silence is fostered. There will be other women, families and communities shattered by clergy that are left to continue exploiting their flock. More than any other loss associated with keeping silent is the loss of any shred of self respect that was left after the exploitation.


There will also be unimaginable gains by speaking out. Personal gains will include: increased self-confidence, inner peace and strength that you never dreamed possible. There will also be gains within the community. Other victims will hear your voice and gain the courage to speak out. Faith communities will be forced to take action by addressing the issue within their own congregations. Law enforcement will take notice and know that changes in legislation are right around the corner. Your voice will educate the world.


The second phase of this evolutionary process is loving yourself. Letting go of the guilt and shame is extremely difficult but it is what must be done in order to achieve your ultimate goal of inner peace. Surrounding yourself with supportive people is key, at the same time removing negative people out of your life. Contact an attorney who specializes in clergy sexual abuse. The majority of these men and women who fight for justice do it because they have big hearts. They are usually willing to give advice over the phone, if they can’t help, they can usually lead you in the direction of someone who can help. Just because you attain an attorney does not mean that you will file a lawsuit. Think of the attorney as a mediator, someone speaking for you when you’re having a hard enough time getting out of bed, let alone talking to a church who doesn’t want to listen. Next, find a therapist who has experience with treating victims of clergy sexual abuse. Call several therapists and interview them or call your local sexual assault center and ask who they recommend. Finally, join a support group, either local or on-line, participating should be a positive experience. If you feel worse after the time spent, then maybe that group isn’t right for you. Women in every city, state, region and country are willing to lend support. You will not be alone, although it may feel that way at first. You will have to do hard work to build up the support team around you, which in turn will help you get your life back.


Letting go of the guilt and shame is possible. There will come a day when your life will be richer than ever before. Initially it feels like the pain will never cease but it will, with much time, energy and education. Remember you are a beautiful woman who deserves to be treated with love and respect, neither of which the perpetrating clergy ever gave a second thought. He does not know the concepts of love and respect, in his world his exploits were his fantasy game and you were his pawn. God is the farthest thing from his mind. His actions are not of that of a clergyman; therefore, do not think of him as such. You are the most important person in your life, take care of yourself, love yourself. You deserve only the best!


Source: All rights reserved. Copyright - Educating To End Abuse - Peggy Warren - 10/21/08


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