Diana Garland has written, "The reality of clergy sexual abuse of adults, usually women, is breaking on congregations and church denominations. It is a more difficult issue to understand than the abuse of children because there is the assumption that if both are adults and there is no physical coercion, then the relationship is consensual. In fact, however, when persons with power—social workers, counselors, pastors, seminary professors and administrators, pastoral and clinical supervisors, and religious employers—attempt to seduce into sexual relationships those over whom they have power, the relationship is not consensual."
HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN? That's the first question that is so difficult to wrap our heads around. In reality, the process used by the offender is the same in every situation. Here's what Diana Garland says:
“Grooming” is a process whereby the religious leader breaks down a woman’s defenses, making her feel special, perhaps pointing out her spiritual gifts, or in other ways using his position as a religious leader to develop a close relationship and isolate her from others. He uses personal warmth to obscure what his true intention is. According to Patrick Carnes, some of the ways this warmth is expressed include: expressing admiration, caring, and concern; indicating that he looks forward to a long-term relationship with her; making affectionate gestures and touching; talking about a shared project; complimenting and sharing personally in ways that are inappropriate for a relationship between a religious leader and parishioner, student, or employee (Carnes, 1997). He co-opts religious and spiritual language into an agenda designed to meet his own needs. It is a gradual and subtle process, and one that has extraordinary power, desensitizing her to increasingly inappropriate behavior while rewarding the victim for tolerance of that behavior."
Unfortunately, unless there is a correct understanding of this issue and an established plan of action, the easiest and usual choice of action on the part of denominational leaders is to label the situation as an affair, "Two people who simply fell in love." This is a misdiagnosis of convenience. It maintains distance, it's black and white, and it lacks the power to bring redemption and healing.
SHE MUST HAVE KNOWN WHAT WAS GOING ON! This may be our next reaction and again, a legitimate question. Most times the victim senses something is not quite right, but it is a relationship she has been taught to trust—he is a spiritual leader, after all—so she allows him to say and do things she would not allow a man to do in a normal friendship. However this makes her feel more and more anxious, and as Patrick Carnes points out, "Anxiety escalates physiological sexual attraction and arousal (Carnes, 1997), therefore intensifying the bond between them."
The victim is now in a relationship which was originally set up and is sanctioned by the church. It is clearly understood that in order for the relationship to be successful, whether it is a counselling relationship or any kind of mentoring, there will have to be trust and openness. This provides easy access to intimate settings under profoundly intimate circumstances. “Even a woman with a firm sense of boundaries in other kinds of relationships may well stop guarding them so that her core may be seen and known by this man” (Flynn, 2003, p. 19). He has socially sanctioned and preconditioned access to her very soul (Liberty, 2001).
A victim becomes bonded to her perpetrator. Carnes defines “betrayal bonds,” as the strong attachment of a victim to someone who is destructive to him or her (1997). De Young and Lowry define trauma bonding as the emotional dependency between two persons of unequal power. “The nature of this bond is distinguished by feelings of intense attachment, cognitive distortions, and behavioral strategies of both individuals that paradoxically strengthen and maintain the bond” (De Young & Lowry, 1992, p. 165). In clergy sexual abuse, like incest, the perpetrators exploit their power over those who are most vulnerable."
AND WHAT HAPPENS TO THE VICTIM? This is the question many people are afraid to ask. And as long as we continue to cross over on the other side; as long as we draw our robes around us so we can remain untouched, we will not have to be affected by the self-blame and the shame and the confusion that victims experience. We will not have to ponder the deep sense of betrayal that causes many to leave the church. And perhaps, for awhile at least, we will be able to keep pretending this issue simply doesn't exist.
Clergy Sexual Abuse hurts. It hurts victims, it hurts the church, it hurts the perpetrator, it hurts the families most closely associated, and it hurts the heart of the Father.
(Some material borrowed from When Wolves Wear Shepherds' Clothing: Helping Women Survive Clergy Sexual Abuse, Diana R. Garland. Social Work and Christianity International Journal - Spring 2006. Volume 33, Number 1)