The Christian Century magazine
Febuary 20, 1991
Soul Stealing: Power Relations in Pastoral Sexual Abuse
Rev. Pamela Cooper White
ONE of the most important tasks of the
women's movement in the past two decades--if not the most important-has been to bring violence against women in all its forms out of the closet. Contrary to the opinion of a man who called in to a radio talk
show to tell me that the work of battered women's shelters was "the promulgation of victimization," the often overwhelming task of bringing this information to light is one of empowerment.
Understanding that knowledge is power, women have bravely spoken up about their experiences of abuse and formed supportive organizations that send a message to survivors of male violence: you are not alone.
One out of three women in the U.S. is raped; one out of four (according to the FBI) or even one in every two (according to California's attorney general) is battered by an intimate partner; at least one out
of four has been abused as a child; and at least one out of five is an incest survivor.
Despite an increased awareness of that violence, only a few works have addressed the issue of pastors' sexual
abuse of parishioners. Most of these frame the problem as a psychosocial one rather than placing it squarely in the spectrum of power abuse. Important exceptions are Marie Fortune's Is Nothing Sacred? When
Sex Invades the Pastoral-Relationship (1989) and Peter Rutter's Sex in the Forbidden Zone: When Men in Power-Therapists, Doctors, Clergy, Teachers and others-betray Women's trust (1990).
observations are based on working more than ten years in the battered women's movement, in the church since 1984 as an ordained pastor, and since August 1989 as a consultant in a program for survivors of
clergy exploitation. In convening a support group for such survivors, I have witnessed the lasting devastations that these women have experienced. The many parallels between male pastoral sexual abuse and
wife or partner battering have become increasingly clear, especially as the church is so often portrayed as family. (I agree with Fortune that we should be de-emphasizing the image of church as family in
favor of images of community, in which boundary expectations are more clearly defined.)
Pastoral abuse-pastors engaging in sexual or romantic relationships with their parishioners or counsels--is much
more prevalent than is commonly supposed. Estimates exceed the 10 percent figure Rutter ascribes to male psychotherapists. The abuse often is seen by parisioners and denominational executives as something
else--a problem with alcohol, for example, or an emotional or relationship problem of the pastor or the parishioner, or a parish conflict. A single pastor relating inti- mately with a single parishioner is
typically seen as an acceptable and time-honored practice. I argue, however, that such intimate relating is always an unethical boundary violation and that it is always the pastor's responsibly to maintain
the appropriate boundaries. As with rape, a pastor's sexual or romantic involvement with a parishioner is not primarily a matter of sex or sexuality but of power and control. For this reason I call it
pastoral sexual abuse rather than "pastor-parishioner relations" or, worse, a matter of private activity between consenting adults (which is almost always how the perpetrator will describe it).
Even when adultery is involved, unfaithfullness is not the primary issue. I have found that ministers enter into romantic or sexual relationships with parishioners primarily because there is an imbalance of
power between them at the outset and because they need to reinforce and heighten the intensity of that power dynamic. This is need is driven by internal forces and Is reinforced by societaly conditioned
expectations that women will function as a nurturing, sexual servant class.
WHY SHOULD these relationships be considered abuse? If both the minister and the parishioner are single (usually not the
case), what's wrong with their havinging a relationship?
As Fortune has outlined, there can be no authentic consent in a relationship involving unequal power. And no matter how egalitarian a pastor's
style of ministry, he carries an authority that cannot be ignored. I deliberately use the term "he" because, as in domestic violence, the vast preponderance of these cases involve male clergy. It
is possible for a male parishioner, particularly one with special financial or organizational clout--a church council member for instance--to harass a woman minister. It should also be noted that abuse also
occurs between pastors- and parishioners of the same sex. In such cases, the same power dynamics also pertain, further complicated by internalized homophobia and pressures and fears on the victim not to
disclose or report.
The clergy role carries a great deal of power in and of itself, and one of the most insidious aspects of that power is the role of "man of God." In some sense the
minister carries ultimate spiritual authority, particularly in the eyes of a trusting parishioner who looks to him for spiritual guidance and support. But the male minister also possesses other forms of
power: as a man, he carries the power society confers upon men and socializes them to hold over women, often in the guise of being their protectors. He is often physically stronger and more imposing. He may
be an employer. He may also assume a teaching or mentoring role which encourages women to listen to his advice and correction. Often he also functions as a counselor, with all the transference inherent in
such a relationship.
Because of this power, ministers must not ever get involved with parishioners. (For a contrasting, less absolute viewpoint, see Karen Lebacqz and Ron Barton's article
"Pastor-Parishioner Sexuality: An Ethical Analysis." Explor, Winter 1988. They argue that it may be legitimate intimate for single pastors to fall in love with single parishioners. In this
treatment of the theme. Lebacqz and Barton also caution that a complex power dynamic must be taken into consideration.)
In addition, the pastor must remain aware that dual relationships-where the
pastor is also friend, spiritual adviser, pastoral counselor, administrator, CEO and even employer to his parishioners-can become exploitive or inappropriately intimate. While dual relationships are often
difficult to avoid. Pastors should be trained to be conscious of the potential for harm. and to understand that they hold the ethical responsibility as professionals for keeping the boundary intact.
The harm done to victims can best be understood in terms of the opportunities pastors have for ministry and how these opportunities are destroyed by violating sexual boundaries. In their counseling role,
pastors have an opportunity to heal and strengthen fractured boundaries, and many parishioners suffering from childhood abuse have these fractures. Moreover, if a parishioner acts out sexually, the minister
should recognise it as a clear cry for help. The last thing he should do is read it as a valid invitation. It is even more reprehensible for him to initiate a sexual relationship and exploit this
vulnerability. The pastoral relationship can and should be a sacred trust, a place where a parishioner can come with the deepest wounds and vulnerabilities-where she can even act out sexually. By modeling
appropriate boundaries and healthy responses, the pastor can begin to empower her to heal those wounds. The harm done when this is exploited is no less than a violation of sacred space, which further
ruptures and destroys the women's boundaries, devastating her mental health and her sense of self. What every therapist knows (or ought to) about this should also be required training for every pastor. A
pastor's sexual or romantic involvement with a parishioner is primarily a matter of power and control.
Pastors have an opportunity to emphasize a power-with rather than a power-over model in the
parish. But sexual relationships with female parishioners reinforce a traditional male power dynamic and breed a closed, destructive parish model. In his pastoral role, the pastor has opportunities to
validate the gifts and talents of his parishioners. When he focuses on a woman's sexuality, whether or not he denigrates her other abilities, those talents are discounted. Frequently the very talents that
attracted him to her in the first place become discounted and devalued by him once the sexual relationship begins.
Finally, when a pastor violates a parishioner's boundaries he takes away the church's appropriate,
powerful and sustaining spiritual guidance and support and, because of threats to her reputation, robs
her of an important arena for her creativity and contributions. Many victimized women report that not only have they lost their parish community, but their trust has been so violated that they cannot go to
Both pastor and victim lose. Their families lose. And the church loses. But the woman victim loses the most and, as things stand in most denominations, the pastor loses the least.
Typically, when such a relationship or multiple relationships are uncovered, he gets a slap on the wrist, a lot of sympathy and is referred to a counselor. The parish is left to cope with feelings of
betrayal and rape--most often directed at the woman as seductress. His family is angry at his betrayal (although they often minimize and deny it). and his wife is usually left feeling confused, abused and
fearful. The family of the woman involved is generally broken up and the burden of blame placed on her. She loses her reputation. her parish, sometimes her job and even her whole life in the community. The
best she can usually expect from denominational leaders is sympathy, not Justice-that is. they take no action to prevent the pastor from doing it again, nor do they recognize the seriousness of his
violation. At worst, she can expect to encounter disbelief or blame.
LIKE BATTERERS, abusive pastors are frequently charming and charismatic In situations outside the abusive relationship, because the
real dynamic is power, not sex, they are often perceived as having strong leader- ship qualities and are often described as visionaries or political movers and shakers (or they believe that they are), They
are often manipulative and foster a climate of secrets, gossip and an inner circle. As with batterers, there is no racial or class profile to this group.
In my experience, about half the time these men also abuse alcohol. But, as with domestic violence,
drinking is not the cause of the abuse, although it is often used as the excuse. The common myth,
probably held by his wife, the parish and the denomination, is that once he admits and deals with his
alcohol problem, the sexual misconduct will stop. My experience is that sexual misconduct and
exploitation does not stop until it is dealt with explicitly. A purely addiction-treatment model will not address a male power addiction, because the dependency model does not confront the root social forces
sustaining and normalizing male power over women.
It is difficult to guess how consciously these pastors abuse women. They tend to see themselves, when questioned, as victims of female wiles.
Sometimes--as when threatened with suspension by their denomination--they admit that they are in need of treatment to "build up their fortitude against being seduced." What they generally fail to
see is their own responsibility.
The internal dynamics at it work in these men may include: history of an abusive childhood; low self-esteem and a fear of failure; deeply held traditional values about
male and female roles, however disguised in liberal rhetoric; poor impulse control; a sense of entitlement, of being above the law, or other narcissistic traits, difficulttry accepting responsibility for
mistakes and difficulty establishing appropriate intimate relationships and friendships with male peers (he may have what Mary Pellauer calls a "Lone Ranger" style of ministry).
No one type
of woman is predisposed to victimization, however. In battered women's work, we know from experience that, contrary to prevailing myths and stereotypes, because of the way both women and men are socialized,
any woman can be bartered. There are some learned susceptibilities that incline women to overlook, forgive and tolerate a pastor's sexual exploitation: women's socialization to be polite, nonconfrontational
and accepting of men's behavior; their training and design to heal men's wounds (these men often present themselves to women as needing their special love and healing); the sense of submissiveness as a
Christian value, especially ingrained in churchwomen; and having one's identity defined by society as primarily sexual.
Particular situations add to a woman's vulnerabiiity, and the typical clergy
perpetrator has an uncanny knack-some woman call it almost psychic in intensity-for zeroing in on women with these vulnerabilities. (partly because the intimate details are being shared with them in
counseling): divorce, marital conflict or abuse; a husband who shows indifference or is frequently absent; a time of career confusion (his encouragement can be very important) decade passages (a powerful man
can validate her attractiveness a new, young or problem child; a particular dedication to the church-she may be a lay minister, a member of church committees, a church employee or a seminary intern (this
makes for additional potential loss if she confronts him or says no a personal history of family boundary violations--sexual. physical or psychological (this makes it harder for her to be clear i about what
is inappropriate on his part power differentials such as a large age difference or his prominence in the community or denomination. Just about any life change that brings a woman in to talk with her pastor
can be exploited as a gateway to satisfying his own pow er needs.
Many woman neither stop nor report pastoral abuse, for several reasons. First, they usually feel
responsible. But as Fortune has
written, even if a woman initiated the sexual contact out of her own need or vulnerability, the pastor, like a therapist, has the responsibility to maintain the appropriate boundary. It was not her fault.
Society blames women for attracting men--rape survivors usually feel that they are the ones on trial. "She must have done something to provoke it." This is further compounded by myths and
stereotypes portraying male pastors as sitting ducks for the seductive maneuvers of female parishioners.
Victim-blaming, however, can also take the more sophisticated guise of clinical diagnosis of
the women. Such "diagnoses" can range from masochism and personality disorder to "co-dependency" to woman blaming once-removed: blaming the perpetrator's mother for poor bonding and
causing narcissistic wounds. Such strategies divert attention from the only appropriate focus: holding the abuser accountable for the abuse.
Second, the woman may fail initially to stop or report
abuse because she feels validated by it on some level. It's flattering; it makes her feel special. At vulnerable times especially, this is compelling. Third, over time her self-esteem is seriously battered
down by this relationship. fourth, once the sexual relationship is begun, the men frequently engage in confusing behavior. Women have consistently reported extreme highs and lows in the relationship and an
on-again, off-again quality. Promises of marriage are proffered and then withdrawn. Fifth, she may be sworn, with a religious intensity, to secrecy "The parish would never understand our kind of
love." In the wont cases this opens the door for multiple relationships with several parishioners at once.
The woman may not want to hurt his career. She may love him and believe he needs her.
She may feel that the good times make the bad times worth it--or that the good times represent the "real him." She may be unwilling to hurt his wife and family or the church's reputation.
Once a certain determination to think about leaving has taken hold in her, however, fear keeps her stuck. She fears that no one will believe her when it's her word against his. She fears that she will be the
one held responsible. She fears losing her church, community, her personal reputation and, if she is employed by the church, her professional reputation. She fears his retaliation-- sometimes within the
sphere of personal and church life, but also sometimes in the form of physical violence, rape, or threats of violence.
Most chilling, she fears his retaliation on the spiritual level. This aspect
became increasingly clear to me in work with the survivors' group. It is difficult for others to comprehend the sheer terror that accompanies this form of abuse. But often because of the image of charismatic
spiritual power that these men have asserted and fostered. the women's terror is akin to actually being cursed or damned. Sometimes this kind of threat is made explicit by the abuser. Its power is clearly
demonic in nature and intensity-victims fear that their very souls will be stolen.
Colleagues, counselors and denominational staff should be aware of several issues concerning treatment or
intervention with abusive pastors. If the pastor has an alcohol problem, family disruptions, or a parish dynamic of secrecy and closed process, it is important to be alert to possible sexual abuse. Once
sexual abuse has been identified, expect minimization and denial, expect to be diverted onto issues of alcohol abuse or extreme stress. Don't lose sight of the power pattern that is really operative and
needs to remain the focus of treatment. To join in minimizing his responsibility is inadvertently to reinforce his behavior. Give an unequivocal message that all sexual or romantic relations with
parishioners are wrong. Educate him on why they are wrong and how they have come to seem OK. All young men are socialized to some degree to see women as prey, seductresses who will say No and mean Yes. Help
him to see how this has harmed his ability to relate to women and thus harmed his ministry and his life.
The church needs a new ethical code that accurately names and recognizes the prevalence of the
problem, offers justice rather than mere sympathy for victims--including clear policies and procedures for the support of victims and mechanisms for restitution--and that reeducates the perpetrators rather
than offers them only sympathy. In conjunction with this treatment, the local church and denominational office has a responsibility to monitor and evaluate the counseling process. They need to outline clear
consequences that include censure or suspension, with the goal of preventing harm to others.
Each judicatory body of each denomination needs a clear standard of behaviors and a clear disciplinary
process that holds the pastor responsible for all sexual boundary violations. (In most states it will be essential that denominations take the initiative to adopt such policies, since attempts to legislate
pastoral professional ethics, similar to laws regulating professional behavior of therapists and medical practitioners, have been blocked by church lobbies on the grounds of separation of church and state.)
Each denomination also needs an established program of prevention and education about the root causes of male violence and power against women and a commitment to a vision of equality.
We need nothing
less than a total paradigm shift: we need to stop treating the problem as only one of sexual morality, emotional instability or addiction, and address the power dynamics of these mostly hidden abuses. Only
when this happens and the church stops engaging in denial and collusion can the church be a place of authentic power, healing and proclamation for both women and