What if clergy sexual abuse happens less frequently than research suggests?
Even one incidence of clergy sexual abuse is too many. We surveyed 280 survivors of clergy sexual abuse and followed up and interviewed 27 women who had completed the survey. Their experiences are real. Our focus is on helping religious communities prevent clergy sexual abuse and respond in healing and helpful ways when it does occur.
Don't women "go after" pastors?
Pastors are often compassionate, highly personable and powerful leaders. Women who are lonely, abused, and or spiritually needy may indeed want a relationship with them. However, even when that happens, it is the responsibility of the religious leader to set and maintain safe boundaries. Especially in such circumstances, religious leaders must model how to care for others. They should never take advantage of another's neediness or vulnerability.
Many of us want to believe that the victims are to blame. We don't want to believe that our beloved leader may have abused his/her power. In fact, many have undoubtedly experienced CSA happening in their own congregations and dismissed it by blaming the women, or excusing the pastor, "forgiving" the sexual relationship. That is the only way most people can understand or cope with an action that is so opposite of their perception of their pastor.
Often it is much easier to dismiss, excuse, or forgive an "affair" than an "abuse of power." It also gives members of the congregation an excuse for not helping the victim and not speaking up. However, when a religious leader holds so much spiritual power over a member of the congregation, there is no such thing as "consensual."Aren't you just attacking our pastors unfairly, uncovering things that will split our church?
No. Not at all. In fact, our goal is to bring congregations together by helping them heal and by putting prevention strategies in place to prevent clergy sexual abuse from happening. We also want to protect the many strong, inspirational religious leaders and help them with policies that will help them keep their congregations safe.
We held focus groups with pastors across denominations to share the results of the study with them. They were not surprised at the results, but they were greatly saddened. The great majority congratulated us on this work and was eager to help in developing resource materials. They understood that policies put in place to protect their parishioners would also protect them.
We believe that if a congregation acts proactively, there will be less possibility of clergy sexual abuse occurring. Our research shows that CSA is almost always disclosed, and when it is known, the victim and his/her family are either ostracized or the church does split. CSA is a lose-lose situation every single time. We will never be able to prevent all instances of CSA, but it is possible to have helpful and healing responses that make congregations safer.
Shouldn't we forgive our leaders when they sin? Why talk about this publicly and destroy their ministry?
Absolutely, we should forgive. But forgiving does not mean overlooking or ignoring the actions of another, especially actions that harm individuals. It means not punishing, and instead finding a way to help them keep from sinning again. The most loving response to others when they fail is to help them overcome the sin in their lives. If we ignore it, they are allowed to continue to sin. If clergy sexual abuse were only about the sexual immorality of an individual, then it would make sense to handle it in ways that help that individual live more morally. But because it also involves abuse of the trust and power we bestow on leaders, then we have to deal with the abuse as a community, removing them from positions of trust and power where they can continue hurting others. Removing from leadership is not a punishment; it is a way to allow healing to begin for both abusers and victims.
Won't this study destroy the reputation of the church in our community and the trust people have of their leaders?
By putting in place proactive steps better respond to survivors of clergy sexual abuse, the church will enhance its reputation and create even more trust. Victims of clergy sexual abuse have certainly lost their trust in the church. And members of congregations in which CSA occurred likely wrestle with their faith as well. We want this study to help congregation better respond to vulnerable people. We did this study because we love the church and deeply respect the men and women called to serve it as ministers. The church is full of people, and all people are prone to sin. All the sins of society enter in the front door of every church and sit right down on the pew, and sometimes stand in the pulpit. To believe that doesn't happen is naive and blind. We can't respond well to what we don't acknowledge. As hard as facing this problem is, to try to ignore or cover up what has happened will destroy trust even more. If we face it, and the world sees us taking this problem seriously, it will take the church seriously in ways it will never do if we attempt to cover up our brokenness.