Sex and Sexuality for the Developmentally Challenged, continued

Some time ago, I was asked to teach a workshop for counselors at an upcoming church camp. Much of that workshop was devoted to sexual abuse, and I think that I will share some of that material with you. However, please remember that I am not trying to scare you, just the camp counselors to whom I was speaking.

Sexual Abuse by Clergy and Other Church Leaders 1

  1. Most church organizations are patriarchal.
  • “…positions of leadership, authority and decision making tend to be held by men.  Women tend to fill positions of child care, nurture, and service.  Like parents, pastors are often privy to intimate knowledge about parishioners.  And like children with parents, parishioners assume they can trust the pastor not to misuse or violate their trust and vulnerability.  Tragically, just as in the biological family, power and trust are sometimes abused and betrayed in the church family.”
  1. Many people (most people?) find it unthinkable that someone called into a position of spiritual leadership would ever betray that trust.  However, “pastors are also people.”
  • Christianity Today conducted a poll to determine the extent of sexually inappropriate behavior among pastors.  One question asked was, ‘Since you’ve been in local ministry, have you ever done anything with someone (not your spouse) that you feel was sexually inappropriate?’  Twenty-three percent of the pastors answered ‘yes.’”
  • “Research conducted by Lebacqz and Barton [Sex in the Parish.  Louisville: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1991] found that ten percent of pastors surveys admitted they had become sexually involved with a parishioner.”
  • “Because the energies of human spirituality and sexuality are similar in some ways, working with a parishioner on spiritual issues in an intimate setting such as the pastor’s office may trigger sexual feelings in both the pastor and the pastored. …it is the pastor’s responsibility to assure that those feelings are not acted on.  When people come to the pastor for counseling, they should be able to assume that even though their defenses are down (a necessary and important step in the counseling process), the pastor will keep them safe and set appropriate boundaries.
  • “… any relationship that moves us deeply, even if it is clearly nonsexual, can stimulate sexual fantasy.” (Rutter, p.63)


  1. Because the pastor is often seen as a spiritual mentor and model, the spiritual damage is profound when mentor becomes abuser, as is the case when clergy become sexually involved with their parishioners.
  • Note that the problem is not the sexual involvement per se (although that may be a problem as well, i.e., adulterous behaviour); the abuse lies in the fact that there is a power differential between clergy and their parishioners , so that there is, in effect, a betrayal of trust by someone who was supposed to be looking after the parishioner’s welfare.
  • For a woman who is in any kind of mentoring relationship — and this would include all relationships between pastoral counsellors and their parishioners — “the mere presence of sexual innuendo… can become a barrier to her development.” (Rutter, pp.23) because it is inherently exploitive of her trust.
  • “Under these conditions [i.e., in a mentoring relationship], sexual behaviour is always wrong, no matter who initiates it, no matter how willing the participants say they are.” (Rutter, p.28)
  • Worse still, abuse by a spiritual leader has the very unfortunate consequence of interfering with one’s spirituality.  This may result in rejection by and of the leader, the congregation, the church, or even a rejection of or alienation from God.
    1. When clergy abuse does occur, the church’s most frequent response – which definitely has to change! — has been to:
    • Hush up the offence.
    • Discredit and reject the victim(s).
    • Do nothing either to prevent its re-occurrence or to heal the victim.
    1.  Congregations should provide regular supervision for clergy who engage in counseling, so as to prevent the very real possibility of (often unwitting) exploitation by clergy. [I once had a female client that I though needed physical contact, and I contracted with a female counselor who had extensive experience working with the victims of sexual abuse to provide me with close supervision thoughout the process of desensitizing her to touch.]
    2. The church should provide counseling for the victims of abuse when it does occur.


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