Clergy Misconduct is not a new problem. It is only recently however, that church officials, congregations, and professional organizations have begun to deal more openly with it. Within faith communities and ministries professional misconduct can involve pastors, lay leaders, camp staff, volunteer church leadership, or representatives of a faith community.
Clergy misconduct includes sexualized behaviour, inappropriate words and innuendo, harassment, threats, physical movement and contact, hugs, kisses, touching, intercourse, emotional and spiritual manipulation. It is a grave injustice toward another person, which violates personal boundaries. At the same time, it violates the entire religious community, because a sacred trust with the congregation has been betrayed.
Defining the terms
The term sexual misconduct is often used to describe sexualized behavior by a professional (coach, teacher, pastor) towards someone with less power. It may or may not be criminal in nature. It includes a spectrum of behaviors from boundary violations (a youth pastor asking a youth on a date), to sexual harassment (a pastor making sexualized comments with or about a congregant), to sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse, on the other hand, is any type of unwanted sexual contact where the victim is violated repeatedly by a person who they should be able to trust. When the undesired sexual action occurs only once it is typically called sexual assault. Any type of sexual activity between an older individual and a minor (under the age of consent) is understood as child sexual abuse.
Clergy or other professional sexual misconduct is always a power issue. Even if it is framed (by the perpetrator or others) as a sexual or relational issue, it is always at its core an abuse of power. The risk of misconduct is inherent in the very job of clergy because the nature of pastoral ministry involves building relationship and nurturing one’s spiritual life while at the same time holding power. People let clergy into a vulnerable part of their lives, into the most sacred parts, and parishioners assume a level of safety and trust with a clergy.
Any sexualized behaviour of a church leader towards a congregant or youth is sexual misconduct regardless of whether there was perceived consent or given consent. It is a breach of fiduciary duty. Similar to therapists and counsellors, church leaders must abide by the professional code of ethics held by their denomination or congregation, which does not tolerate any sexual contact with those whom they are serving.
If the individual experiencing clergy misconduct is a minor, it must be immediately reported to the police or child welfare authorities.
Clergy Misconduct is:
- a violation of professional ethics
- a violation of personal boundaries
- a violation of trust and power.
Clergy Misconduct is not:
- an affair
- a “fall”
- a mistake
- an indiscretion
- a lapse in moral judgment
“But the congregant consented—it was mutual”
When a leader excuses their behaviour by suggesting that the sexual contact was mutual, it’s important to understand that a coercive and calculated process may have precipitated the sexual contact.
Sexual misconduct is not “an affair”. To suggest otherwise assumes that both the pastor and congregant had equal power in the relationship, and that consent was freely given without the presence of coercion, manipulation, or grooming. Church leaders have an ethical obligation to maintain healthy boundaries with their parishnors. Any type of sexual interaction a pastor has with a congregant is sexual misconduct.
Marie Fortune, in her book Is Nothing Sacred delineates the difference between “wanderers” and “predators.” A wanderer, she notes, is a leader who “has difficulty maintaining boundaries in relationships, and attempts to meet private needs in public arenas.” They do not initially set out to take advantage of a vulnerable individual, but may find themselves crossing a boundary if they are neither self aware nor attending to their personal needs and/or are in a time of crisis and stress.
Someone with a predatory nature, on the other hand, is a leader who uses manipulation, control, and deceit, and intentionally uses their position of power to take advantage of peoples’ vulnerabilities. Marie Fortunes writes, “He may also be charming, bright, competent, and charismatic. He is attracted to powerlessness and vulnerability. …He has little or no sense of conscience about his offending behaviors. He usually will minimize, lie, and deny when confronted. For these offenders, the ministry presents an ideal opportunity for access to possible victims of all ages”(p.47).
These types of offenders will typically groom a vulnerable individual. Grooming is an intentional process of gaining the trust of an individual, creating dependence, and then sexualizing the relationship. For more info on grooming.
Some examples of inappropriate boundary crossing and grooming behaviour include:
- Meeting a congregant secretly outside of the church.
- Asking highly personal questions, such as inquiring about one’s sexual experiences.
- Counselling a congregant whose presenting issues require professional therapy (e.g. sexual trauma, childhood sexual abuse). Pastors can offer a congregant spiritual support but should not be offering sexual abuse counselling.
- Sharing personal details about one’s life to a congregant and treating them like a confidant.
- Initiating or allowing any type sexually physical contact to occur.
Can a person in a position of trust or leadership ever be romantically involved with a congregant, student, or counselee?
Faith Trust Institute states the following:
“Meaningful consent can occur when two people are relatively equal in power and when fear, coercion or manipulation is completely absent from their relationship. Clergy who are seeking a romantic relationship can do so outside their own congregations. If a religious leader becomes interested in dating or romance with a member of his or her congregation (though this is complicated and not advisable), the clergy person must remove him/herself from a ministerial role in that person’s life before ethically pursuing a relationship of this nature.”
Questions that need to be asked to evaluate if it is possible to pursue this type of romantic relationship include:
- Was the ministerial relationship minimal in nature (g. no counseling involved)?
- Is the religious leader willing to remove him- or herself from the ministerial relationship?
- Is the religious leader willing to be open about the relationship with the congregation?
The climate in which clergy sexual abuse occurs
It’s important to understand that the sexual abuse by a church leader does not generally occur in a vacuum. Here are some warning signs that might indicate unhealthy power dynamics in a church or other community
- Isolated, closed system with a tendency to be suspicious of connections with other groups or assistance from outsiders.
- Previously existing divisions, blurred boundaries, and lack of room for people to have their own views and convictions within the faith community.
- Tendency to cover up unpleasant events or silence those who disclose bad news such as abuse.
- Authoritarian leadership; blind obedience to leadership.
- Leaders are placed on pedestals and members want to believe they can do no wrong.
- Leaders lack support, supervision, and accountability.
- The church has no abuse-related policies and guidelines.
Understanding the climate in which the abuse occurs is important. It helps explain how the abuse could continue for such a long time without anyone saying anything. Disclosing abuse in this type of congregational climate is extremely challenging, as the pastor’s justifications and explanations are often accepted while the victim’s experience is minimized.
Understanding these dynamics prepares those who confront the abuse for the many levels of resistance they may encounter as they work for healing and justice. They are confronting not only individual behaviour but deeply ingrained patterns in the community. This does not, however, excuse a leader’s behaviour or justify avoiding responsibility.
When a case of abuse comes to light in a church community, the congregation becomes a secondary victim; experiencing a range of emotional responses from anger, a sense of betrayal, disbelief, shock, taking sides, confusion.
- Sacred Trust is an excellent resource by Carol Penner that expands on this topic through stories, reflections, and theological discussion.
- Understanding sexual abuse by a church leader is an MCC publication that further explores topics such as power, the patterns of a perpetrator, and what is necessary for change, justice-making, and how to support those impacted.
- Abuse by a Clergy FAQ
- Broken and Beautiful: Chalmers and Peters