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Clergy sexual misconduct: Naming a subtle demon

Posted by Ron George on May 11, 2009

“Nos Dio su sangre/Scapegoat” (2002), by Megan O'Beirne

“Nos Dio su sangre/Scapegoat” (2002), by Megan O’Beirne

Congregations and individuals struggling through the aftermath of clergy sexual misconduct (CSM) have to deal from the beginning with some thorny issues of terminology and language, witness some comments to the previous post. I’ve just finished a book recommended by our bishop, When a Congregation is Betrayed (WCB), said to be a survival manual for so-called “afterpastors” and the congregations they lead. The language is not always precise, but the overarching assumption is clear: By implication, CSM is said to be of a piece with rape and spousal abuse, hideous crimes of violence against women that historically have been ignored or excused by blaming the victim. I don’t buy it, and neither did many members of my congregation at a recent meeting with our bishop — and it wasn’t all about denying the conduct and/or blaming the victim. It just didn’t seem edifying to the church’s vital conversation about CSM to embrace criminal-justice language without qualification.

Which is not to say there are no resonances between CSM and sexual crime. There are CSM perpetrators and victims and God knows there is trauma; and it may be, as with rape, more about power than sex — a debatable point that varies from case to case — but it is not about the violence of blackened eyes, bloodied noses, flying fists, blunt objects and even beatings unto death. CSM is insidious and exploitative, but it is simply not of the same kind of offense as violent, criminal sexual behavior and the black-and-white language rightly applied to it. Scapegoating the victim may be common in both CSM and rape, but that does not make CSM like rape. Similar outcomes do not define similar origins.

Some disclosure: I am a priest who was removed from pastoral office for sexual misconduct in 1982. I have researched this issue formally and informally for a number of years, and I am in agreement with most of the CSM consultant community’s findings from some 20 years of research.

  1. There is no excuse for clergy sexual misconduct. It’s one strike and you’re out; restoration to ordained ministry possible but rare and only after demonstrable repentance, amendment of life and submission to in-depth psychological and spiritual examination and moral scrutiny.
  2. Care for the victims of CSM is primary and fundamental. Victims include sexual partners, immediate families of both parties and congregations overseen by the offending pastor.
  3. The church must take affirmative steps ensuring that blaming victims does not occur. It is obscene but true that even offending pastors’ wives are sometimes blamed for their husbands’ infidelity.
  4. CSM is not just incidental but seems to be an outcome of historic, entrenched patriarchy, which calls for considerable rethinking of how congregational ministry is structured. It’s not just a matter of policies and practices but also fundamental assumptions regarding pastoral authority and the role of lay responsibility in church leadership.

The list is not complete and it is laden with debatable points, as demonstrated in the pages of WCB. Notably missing, however, from most research and consultant conversation about CSM is any in-depth discourse on continuing pastoral care for clergy offenders, let alone the very idea of spiritual nurture. Clergy sexual misconduct takes root among many factors, and not least among them is the profound decision to break faith with Christ in his church. That, however, is another topic altogether from the matter of criminal-justice language applied to CSM. Some key refinements of that language are in order regarding the nature of the offense and the harm that is done.

The nature of the offense. CSM is a breach of morals, ethics and law. Its ripple effects harm a variety of victims, including the pastor’s exploited sexual partner, the families of both parties and the pastor’s congregation. Pastors are in the power position and bear ultimate responsibility not only for their actions but for violations of pastoral boundaries; which is not to say, however, that offending pastors’ sexual partners are exempt from any degree responsibility for their actions. No one wears a white hat in these matters; however, the overal tenor of the CSM research/consultant narrative depicts the tableau of “guilty clergy offender and innocent woman victim.” (Almost all CSM is perpetrated by men.) The narrative is constructed around the blanket insistence that “it’s not an affair” and “it’s about power not sex,” which partakes of a proper understanding of rape and marital sexual abuse but which is misapplied to CSM, except were rape and sexual abuse actually occur.

It’s maddening to congregations, even to those that have no thought of blaming the victim, when church officials employ the “power not sex and not an affair” model to what was clearly an illicit sexual affair between their pastor and his exploited victim (“exploited” by definition because of the power imbalance in the pastoral setting). The pastor was irresponsible but the victim could have declined, as many women do. Such sexual affairs — and that’s what most are — are somewhat tragic in that no good can come of them, but they are not tragically unavoidable. It is simply not helpful to conceive of these cases as though either party were powerless; indeed, it is confusing and frustrating for vulnerable congregations to cope with conforming their language with that of consulting specialists. At worst, it’s patronizing for experts to suggest that mature adults don’t understand what their common sense is telling them about what is otherwise inexplicable.

The nature of the offense in most cases, then, is that of two unequally culpable adults who have chosen by various means — but always secretly — to be sexual partners. There is an infintely broad range of particulars, but generally speaking both parties knowingly put themselves at risk for a host of personal and social adversity, especially if the particulars include their both being married with children. It is not a private matter but a most public one, which incrementally heightens the risk for both. Criminal-justice terminology does no justice to these cases.

The nature of the harm. What is initially traumatic about CSM is the stunning disclosure of an illicit sexual relationship between a pastor and a member of his congregation. The CSM research/consultant narrative has done the church a great service in preventing continuing trauma by discovering predictable responses, such as scapegoating, and offering a variety of strategies for short-circuiting harm caused by irrational reaction. It is especially helpful to know, as from the pages of WCB, that recovery is likely to be a complex process of some years taking shape around three major themes: restoration of pastoral-office integrity; cultivation of mature, knowledgeable lay leadership; and establishing clear and open channels and practices of intramural communication. The CSM research/consultant community also has identified short- and long-term pitfalls to be avoided by congregations and “afterpastors” alike. (There must be a better term than “afterpastor”! No term at all would be better than this sticky-note shortcut.)

Offending clergy no less than their exploited sexual partners are traumatized by disclosure, although to suggest this invites a species of misguided “compassion” and “forgiveness” that tends to turn a blind eye to the offense, something the CSM research/consultant community absolutely abhors and for good reason. Nothing the church does must be construed as letting clergy off the hook for CSM, but that doesn’t mean they ought to be “let go” with minimal effort to help them recover from the trauma — not just from being “caught” but from the “rest-of-your-life” pain associated with having squandered the gifts and responsibilities of pastoral leadership. I’m not suggesting that anyone feel sorry for clergy guilty of sexual misconduct; however, I would argue that the church is obliged to long-term pastoral care and spiritual nurture of CSM offenders. WCB’s suggestion that the church provide three to six months of counseling is patently absurd.

The ripple effect of harm stemming from CSM courses through families and congregations in as many permutations as there are cases. These are well documented and discussed in WCB and numerous other sources. Congregations are well served by such insights and ought not discount their value simply because our initial encounter with this research presents us with some untenable assumptions about the nature of the offense. There is an agenda here, and it’s one I happen to favor; viz., abolishing the church’s patriarchal assumptions in theology and polity and discovering ways of thinking and being church that neither patronize nor diminish the role and contributions of women.

The abuse that occurs in CSM is abuse of authority, the erosion of pastoral office. There are no doubt many cases of emotional abuse and some of outright criminal behavior. It is not helpful, however, to label all cases of CSM as sexual abuse, because it sows confusion, frustration and anger among congregations struggling to comprehend irksome pastoral behavior. CSM is not sexually abusive by definition, except as that terminology applies to exploitation of the inherent imbalance of power or, in some cases, to physically abusive behavior prosecutable under criminal law.

The church would do well to take into account the subtleties of clergy sexual misconduct and not to paint all cases with broad brushstrokes of black and white.


2 Responses to “Clergy sexual misconduct: Naming a subtle demon”

  1. Jan said

    I read the book, but find your reasoning more relevant to how I am feeling and wondering right now. I’m glad you are continuing to write about this; you know much more than the book relates in my opinion.

  2. Charles Shamel said

    Good analysis and review, but I don’t think I’ll read the book.
    I was an elder in a Presbyterian church in California back in the 70s. The Teaching Elder was my best friend and confidant, an excellent preacher — on a par with David in scholarship, spiritual growth (we didn’t call it that back then) and also in pastoral care. He was counseling a woman who was in an abusive relationship which led to an affair. He was as much seduced as She. He got an seemingly amicable divorce from his wife of 20 years and married the woman raising her son, all the time maintaining close ties with two of his three teen aged daughters. His credibility with about half of the congregation was gone and he left California, but soon turned up in a big biracial inner-city church in Michigan. He was a big hit there for about 10 years and finished a long career in the Presbyterian church back in California.
    I guess California was a bit faster and looser back then, but if he had been forced out of his ministry it would have been a great loss.

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