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Soul Stealing - Part II

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 respon- sible. 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 men.

reprint from:The Christian Century magazine

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests