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Soul Stealing: Power Relations in Pastoral Sexual Abuse

by 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).

My own 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 any church.

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).

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