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What is sexual abuse within the ministerial relationship?
Sexual abuse happens when someone in a ministerial role (clergy, religious or lay) engages in sexual contact or sexualized behavior with a congregant, employee, student or counseling client in the ministerial relationship.
Sexual abuse can include physical contact from the person in the ministerial role, such as:
- Sexual touch and "accidental" touch of sexual areas of the body
- Tickling and playful aggression that seem uncomfortable to you
- A prolonged hug when a brief hug is customary behavior
- Kissing on the lips when a kiss on the cheek would be appropriate
- Pressing up against your body when hugging
- An inappropriate gift from your religious leader (such as lingerie)
- Sexual intercourse with your religious leader
- Innuendo or sexual talk
- Suggestive comments
- Tales of his or her sexual exploits or experiences
- Questions about the intimate details of your relationships
- Looking for sympathy about his or her partner's sexual inadequacies
Why is it wrong?
Sexual contact or sexualized behavior within the ministerial relationship is a violation of professional ethics. There is a difference in power between a person in a ministerial role and a member of his or her congregation or a counselee. Because of this difference in power, you cannot give meaningful consent to the sexual relationship.
Individuals usually seek counseling or support from their religious leader at times of stress or crisis. During these times, you are emotionally vulnerable and can be taken advantage of by a religious leader.
Is sexual contact between a religious leader and me ever okay?
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 clergyperson 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 (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?
How do some religious leaders justify their sexual abuse?
Religious leaders are reported to have justified their boundary-crossing behavior in these ways:
- "But he said that love can never be wrong; that God had brought us together."
- "He said we should sin boldly so that grace might abound."
- "She said that ministry was mutual and our relationship was mutual. So she shared her problems with me and the sex followed from that."
- "I was learning about God for the first time. He took me seriously. I went along with the sex so that I could continue to learn from him."
How do I know if my boundaries have been crossed?
Your boundaries have been crossed if:
- You feel uncomfortable and confused with the interaction even if you are initially flattered.
- You are receiving unusual time and attention from the religious leader.
- You are receiving personal gifts from the religious leader.
- When you meet with the religious leader for counseling, you end up talking more about his or her problems than about yours.
- The religious leader is inviting you out for intimate, social occasions.
- The religious leader touches you in a way that you find confusing, uncomfortable or upsetting.
- The religious leader gives you theological rationale for questionable conduct, e.g. "God has brought us together."
What should I do if I am sexually attracted to my religious leader?
There is nothing wrong with you or your feelings. Your religious leader may be a very attractive, sensitive, caring person. Should you choose to share your feelings of attraction with your religious leader, it is his or her professional responsibility to help you to understand that to preserve the integrity of the ministerial relationship, he or she cannot reciprocate your interest in an intimate relationship.
What should I do if I believe I am a victim of sexual abuse by a religious leader?
If you believe you, or someone else, is a victim of sexual abuse by a religious leader:
- Pay attention to your feelings and trust yourself.
- Share your confusion, fear or anxiety with someone you trust.
- Remember that you are not to blame, even if you agreed to the relationship in the beginning.
- Find out if your congregation, synod, conference, etc. has a specific policy and procedure for dealing with complaints about clergy misconduct. Use that process to make a complaint.
- Find an advocate who understands church or synagogue systems; rely on him or her for guidance and support.
- Remember that you might not be the only person to whom this has happened and that your action can help both yourself and others.
- If a child has been sexually abused by someone in a ministerial role, make an immediate report to a law enforcement agency in your community.
- If you wish to make a complaint against a pastoral counselor, find out if he or she is a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. Make the complaint there as well as to the church or synagogue.
How can I help my church or synagogue prepare for the possibility of sexual abuse by clergy?
Your congregation, synod, conference, etc. will benefit from examining the issue of sexual abuse within the ministerial relationship. You may wish to pose these questions as a way of helping your church or synagogue develop a compassionate and just system of responding to the potential problem of sexual abuse by clergy:
- Does your church or synagogue have a policy and procedure for responding to sexual abuse or other violations of professional ethics within the ministerial relationship?
- Is the policy widely disseminated to clergy and members of the congregation?
- Has training on the issue been made available to members of the congregation and clergy?