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- What is Clergy Sexual Abuse (CSA)?
- How Does CSA Happen?
- How to Avert CSA

Most Christians, and people in general, do not understand clergy sexual abuse (CSA). The level of evil that happens in CSA is just too great for many to comprehend. Therefore, it is difficult to get people to understand the scope of CSA, and what it entails—for the perpetrator, the victim, the church leaders, the congregation, and even the communities in which it occurs. While most would acknowledge its existence, largely in part because of the continuous stream of scandals that have bubbled to the surface in the Catholic Church in America, yet many do not believe it could happen “in my church.” The sad reality is that it happens in every denomination, in both big and small congregations, in rich and poor churches, in large and small communities. Just because we don’t hear about it in the news media does not mean it isn’t happening. Part of the reason we don’t hear about it is because of the way churches and church leaders collude to cover it up.

This page offers information about clergy sexual abuse: what it is (and isn’t), how it happens, and what can be done to avert it.

What Is Clergy Sexual Abuse (CSA)?

Clergy sexual abuse (CSA) is the sexual abuse/assault (including any sexual impropriety) of a member of the laity by a member of the clergy. It is useful here to understand what is meant by “clergy” and what is meant by “laity.” Though it may seem a bit cumbersome, the following will give definitions of these terms to understand the full impact of the seriousness of clergy sexual abuse.

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “clergy” as “person ordained for religious service, as ministers, priests, rabbis, etc., collectively.” Webster’s defines “minister” as, “. . . anyone authorized to carry out or assist in the spiritual functions of the church.” Webster’s defines “priest” as, “(1) a person whose function is to make sacrificial offerings and perform other religious rites as an intermediary between deity and worshipers; (2)(a) orig., in the early Christian church, a presbyter, or elder (b) in hierarchical Christian churches, a clergyman ranking next below a bishop and authorized to administer the sacraments; (3) any clergyman.” Webster’s defines “rabbi” as, “. . . an ordained Jew, usually the spiritual head of a congregation, qualified to decide questions of law and ritual and to perform marriages, etc.”

“The idea of a priesthood connects itself . . . with the consciousness…of sin. … [People] crave for the intervention of some one whom they can think of as likely to be more acceptable [to God] than themselves. … [A priest] becomes their representative in ‘things pertaining unto God.’ He may become also…the representative of God to man” (Unger’s Bible Dictionary, p. 881).

It is understood in our society and in many cultures that members of the clergy are God’s representatives.

Webster’s defines “laity” as “all the people not included among the clergy; laymen collectively.” In other words, the laity is all the people who are “below” the clergy, and are not God's representatives. The clergy and laity are not on the same power plane!

While the term “laity” includes any member/attendee of a church, in the context of sexual abuse by clergy, it usually means women or children. The clergy perpetrator preys on the victim and participates in sexual activity that is inappropriate and immoral, absolutely out of the limits of the clergy profession. While it might be possible for a clergy perpetrator to be a woman, in the vast majority of reported CSA cases, the clergy perpetrator is a man. Therefore, throughout this website, in making reference to a member of the clergy who perpetrates against women and children, the term “clergyman perpetrator” is used, as well as “clergyman sex offender.”

Before further exploring what CSA is, understanding what CSA is not provides valuable insight into the act of CSA.

Clergy sexual abuse is not a consensual act. Mutual consent is impossible in clergy sexual abuse because of the difference in power between the clergy and laity. Upon entering the clergy, a man (or woman) is commissioned by the church to be exemplary in actions. Clergy are looked up to by society as being morally upright in all they do. The clergy person holds great power in our society, which, in turn, envelopes a great sense of responsibility. As such, it is the responsibility of the clergy to stop any inappropriate behavior with a member of the laity. I have heard Christian leaders warn young pastors about “women” who are out to destroy their ministry. There are no “women” out there trying to destroy pastors! That is because even if a woman were to go to her pastor and “throw herself” at him, it is his God-given duty to prevent her from participating in sexual activity with him!

Priests, clergymen, rabbis, pastors and the like are not just men who go to work at a job. These are men and women who have chosen a profession that represents God to people. Their very office places them morally above others in the churches and communities where they serve. The clergy is looked up to and revered by our society. These are not just mere humans. They are, rightfully so, considered holy representatives of God.

There is without question a difference in power between a member of the clergy and a member of the laity. It is therefore impossible for a woman or child (as is the case in most CSA situations) in the church body to consent to participate in sexual activity of any kind with a priest or clergyman.

Clergy sexual abuse is not an “affair,” as many churches or religious institutions like to define it. For the reasons stated above, that would be impossible. An affair is between two individuals who mutually and equally consent to the immoral activity. An affair is a sinful act of betrayal of the marriage vows of one or both of the individuals. An affair disgusts God, and is considered sexually immoral. Many church leaders seem to think that by labeling clergy sexual abuse as an “affair,” they will somehow minimize the reality of the crime of clergy sexual abuse. Use of the term “affair” in referring to clergy sexual abuse is an attempt to cover up what actually happened.

However, even if a pastor were engaged in an “affair,” he should be removed from his position and have his title removed because having an affair is immoral! The church where my abuse took place actually asked the congregation to fully “restore” the clergyman perpetrator because he supposedly confessed to “one count” of “sexual impropriety”! Even if there was only “one count” (there were actually thousands of counts of sexual abuse), the man should have been removed from the church and had his ministerial license revoked! Just “one count” is too many.

Clergymen who engage in sexual abuse are really sex offenders. That is hard for many Christians to accept, but it is true. A clergyman who sexually assaults a woman or child uses the same stages in the assault as any man who sexually assaults a woman or child. There are different types of sex offenders, ranging from the man who merely gets a thrill of speaking "dirty talk" for shock value, to the man who engages in showing pornography or flashing himself to others, to the man who acts out violently (including groping, kissing all the way to violent rape), to the narcissistic serial sex offender who uses psychological and emotional means to entrap his victims. Dan Allender, in his book, The Wounded Heart, Hope for Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress 1990, p. 90) lists four stages that many sex offenders take in assaulting a victim. They are:

“Stage 1: Intimacy and Secrecy” – building a relationship with the victim and gaining the trust of the victim, making sure the victim will keep the secret.

“Stage 2: Physical Touch that Appears Appropriate” – hugs, pats on the back, even perhaps a kiss on the cheek.

“Stage 3: Sexual Abuse Proper” – groping, fondling, caressing, kissing, etc., all the way to intercourse, and anything in between.

“Stage 4: Securing of Silence and/or Maintenance of Sexual Abuse Through Threat and/or Privilege” – in this stage, the perpetrator “pleads for forgiveness, states the consequences of exposure (jail, loss of career, and public humiliation), offers greater privileges”; or “reminds her of his good reputation with the [church] family and threatens her with disbelief and horror of others, which would result in her shame and ostracism.”

Other than the particulars of how the crime is carried out, there is essentially no difference between a clergyman sex offender and a layman sex offender. The difference to the victim, however, is profound, especially in cases involving clergy. (For more information about what happens to a victim of clergy sexual abuse, see the section “What Are the Wounds of Clergy Sexual Abuse.”)

Clergy sexual abuse is a crime against women and children. It includes sexual harassment, and may include illicit sexual acts, such as rape, oral copulation, etc. or may simply be groping and/or kissing. The clergyman is responsible, and is always at fault, because of his fiduciary duty as a member of the clergy and because of the vast difference in power between the clergy and laity. Unfortunately, the laws of our country, in protecting religious freedom, protect clergyman sex offenders. Criminals of the clergy hide behind these protective laws. It is difficult to try a case against a clergyman sex offender.

Some states, however, have taken clergy “counselors” out from under the authority of the church and placed them under the authority of the State Psychology Board. This opens the door to protect women from clergy who offer “counseling.” Many clergyman sex offenders offer “counseling” to lay women in their churches. They use the guise of “counseling” to prey upon women. It seems reasonable, and hopeful, that some states have recognized that these clergymen are offering the same services as professional M.F.C.C.’s, M.F.T.’s, and Psychologists. It seems right to hold these clergymen counselors to at least the same moral and ethical standards as secular professionals in the field of counseling by placing them under the authority of the State Psychology Board.

Clergy sexual abuse is a crime of violence. Clergy sexual abuse is not an act of sex, it is a violent crime. It uses sex as a weapon to violate women and children.

Many in our society do not believe that a clergyman could commit an act of violence. Because of that, there are built-in protections in our laws for members of the clergy. The laws simply assume that a “man of God” would behave as such! The term “clergy sexual abuse” is an oxymoron! It doesn’t make sense! That is because clergymen are supposed to be “morally higher” than the rest of us. That is why the apostle Paul, in establishing the qualifications for church leaders commanded Timothy and Titus:

“A bishop [overseer] then must be blameless …soberminded, of good behavior … not violent … not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil … he must have a good testimony … lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (I Tim. 3:2-7) …
“Let the elders who rule well be counted of double honor (I Tim. 5:17) …
“Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all” (I Tim. 5:19, 20) and
“…appoint elders [religious leaders] … if a man is blameless . . .not accused of dissipation [indulgent in pleasure] … For a bishop [overseer] must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed … not violent … just, holy, self-controlled” (I Tim. 5:1-8).

There is no place in the clergy for sex offenders! Yet the statistics show that more than 1/3 of clergy professionals in this country have engaged in some kind of sexual impropriety with members of their congregations, usually women and children (cf. Blackmon, Richard Allen, unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, "The Hazards of the Ministry,"1984, Fuller Theological Seminary; Also The Sexual Abuse of Women by Members of the Clergy by Kathryn A. Flynn)

Our churches and society should treat clergy sexual abuse for what it is—a crime of violence against women and children. Any individual in the clergy who is accused of clergy sexual abuse should be stripped of any protections as a member of the clergy, i.e., separation of church and state. This notion is supported by I Corinthians 5, Ephesians 5:1-7, and Revelation 2:12ff which describe God’s attitude toward sexual immorality. There are dire divine consequences for any man who would engage in sexual immorality, let alone men in the clergy! Any clergyman even accused of sexual impropriety by two or three witnesses, according to the Bible (I Tim. 5:19,20), is no longer qualified to be in the clergy. The individual should receive a fair trial in a court of law (not in any church hearing or tribunal); and the victim(s), as civilians in the state in which they reside, should be given the opportunity to have their cases heard.

How Does Sexual Abuse Happen?

In all cases of sexual abuse, there is a perpetrator and a victim. It is unlikely that a perpetrator will have just one victim. How many victims can one perpetrator have? In Paul Rutter’s book, Sex in the Forbidden Zone, When Men in Power … Betray Women’s Trust (New York: Fawcett, 1989), Dr. Rutter states that conservatively there are at least three victims to one perpetrator; though he infers there are probably more (p. 41,42), which is confirmed by Kathryn Flynn's research.

Perpetrators can be victims of abuse or trauma that happened at an early age which was never treated. This mikght explain their lack of conscience about their behavior or why they seldom express any true remorse. If caught, they tend to blame others, especially the victim. Many times they are sociopaths. The personalities of clergyman many sex offenders are eerily similar.

As stated above, many perpetrators go through stages in making their assault. Dr. Dan B. Allender, in his book, The Wounded Heart, Hope for Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse (NavPress, 1991, p. 90) identifies basically four stages of sexual abuse: “Stage 1: Intimacy and Secrecy . . . Stage 2: Physical Touch that Appears Appropriate . . . Stage 3: Sexual Abuse Proper . . . Stage 4: Securing of Silence and/or Maintenance of Sexual Abuse” (see above for a further explanation of these stages). While the particulars in each case are different, the stages are the same.

Sociopathic perpetrators scope out who they might assault before they begin the relationship. In my case, the clergyman perpetrator, who was the senior pastor of the church, introduced himself to me at a church social gathering. At the time, I thought it very strange for him to come up to me and ask personal questions of me. While absolutely nothing inappropriate happened in that first meeting, it was odd that the senior pastor would approach me—a new comer to the church. I barely knew the college advisor, let alone any other pastor on staff. In my innocence, I rationalized that perhaps he was just trying to be friendly and get to know new parishioners. Only later did I find out he distanced himself from getting to know most people in the church! He spotted me in the congregation and decided to “make his move” to get to know me. It was the beginning of Stage 1. He marked his prey.

By the time the relationship advances to Stage 3, it is nearly impossible for the victim to escape. This is because in Stages 1 and 2, the perpetrator is working to gain the trust and allegiance of the victim. Once the perpetrator feels the victim trusts him, he will make his inappropriate moves. This, of course, traumatizes the victim, which has all kinds of repercussions. The victim becomes confused, will question the perpetrator (who then rationalizes that what is going on is normal, and right), and leaves the victim emotionally and psychologically helpless to get out of the situation. Many times, a victim will “dissociate” in order to endure the trauma. This is the stage where the sexual assault proper takes place. This is where the crime, in legal terms, takes place.

Someone told me once that they thought I should have known that what was happening was wrong and simply walked out of the room! What that person didn’t understand was that by Stage 3, I was brainwashed, confused, and abused! And even though I refused to take my clothes off (which, considering what he did to some of his other victims, was a miracle), I was emotionally and psychologically helpless to get out of the situation. The perpetrator uses Stage 1 and Stage 2 to pave the way for Stage 3.

By the time the relationship has reached Stage 4, the victim realizes she is trapped. It is in this stage that the perpetrator threatens the victim with harm (or threatens loved ones with harm) if the victim tells the secret. Many times Stages 3 and 4 overlap. In my case, the clergyman perpetrator made direct threats (“If you tell, I will deny it, and no one will believe you!”). He also made an indirect death threat. He said if I kept insisting on being “right,” I would be “dead right”! He threatened to kill several other of his victims as well. When the truth came out, he came looking for me, even staking out my house all night waiting for me and my family to come home. Thankfully, our friends realized we were in peril, and opened up their home to us until the danger passed.

What about victims? Is there a common thread among them? Is there something about a woman or child that lends them to being victimized by a clergyman? Age does not seem to be a factor. Clergyman perpetrators target children up to the age of 18, and women ages 18 and older! Does “beauty” seem to play a role? Or, perhaps what the victims wear—their clothing—that predisposes them to being targeted? No, these do not play a role in a woman or child becoming the prey of a clergyman perpetrator.

What seems to lead a woman or child to become a victim is their vulnerability. For whatever reason a woman or child is vulnerable (which could simply mean that they are present in the congregation), the clergyman perpetrator uses his power and authority as a member of the clergy to take advantage of the victim’s vulnerability. Children are vulnerable by the very fact that they are children. Women may be vulnerable for any number of reasons, but mostly because of our patriarchal society in which men desire to dominate. There does not always have to be a predisposed vulnerability that leads to clergy sexual abuse on the part of the victim (cf. The Sexual Abuse of Women by Members of the Clergy, by Kathryn A. Flynn. Jefferson, N.C., 2003), but there can be. Kathryn Flynn says, "When ordinary, healthy people become entrapped in prolonged abusive situations, they suffer psycological consequences... This tendenacy to consider the trauma response as the cause and not the result of pathology is called 'diagnostic mislabeling' by Herman (1992) and others, and has serious implications for the treatment of trauma survivors...Understanding that a normal person with no predisposition can suffer from post-traumatic stress is almost a total reversal of traditional attitudes" (pp. 29,30). It is possible for women who have had earlier traumas than the clergy sexual abuse to become victims, but these are not necessarily preconditions for being abused.

In my case, just prior to my attending the church where the abuse took place, I had several things happening in my life that left me vulnerable. I had started work on my master’s degree at a large university after graduating from a small Christian college. It was “shocking” to see rampant homosexuality before my eyes on the university campus. (There was homosexuality on the Christian college campus, but it was hidden. We all looked the other way, not wanting to acknowledge it existed.) My boyfriend moved home with his parents hundreds of miles away. We went our separate ways. I was stretched financially to pay for my education. There were also traumatic things happening in my own family. All of these left me very vulnerable!

Often times, when a clergyman sex offender goes on the “prowl,” he looks for women who are vulnerable. He will usually lure them into some kind of a relationship before making his strike. Once he gets to "know" the victim, and see where the vulnerability is, he may then offer his “help” through "counseling." That is why in many cases of clergy sexual abuse, the victim believes she was seeing the clergyman for “counseling.” In my case, I became the clergyman perpetrator's secretary, which meant that I was at his disposal every day I went to work. Under these and other guises, many clergyman perpetrators are able to get their victims alone behind closed doors. Once behind closed doors, the victim is even more vulnerable, even though she may or may not realize it. The clergyman perpetrator uses his power and authority as a clergyman to overtake her.

How to Avert CSA

Clergy sexual abuse can be averted several ways. One way would be to stop the abuse and traumatism of very small children (under the age of three). That would eliminate victims who grow up to be perpetrators. Without perpetrators, there can be no sexual abuse. However, doing that is much easier said than done. Sadly, in our society, small children are being abused too often.

Another way to eliminate perpetrators would be to provide psychological services to victims of early childhood abuse, so they can deal with the abuse, and therefore hopefully not become perpetrators. I once taught a teenager in a behavioral hospital who was being treated for terrible abuse that happened with his natural parents who were Satan worshippers. Even though he was adopted by, and living with, wonderful parents, he needed help in dealing with the Satanic ritual abuse he suffered before he was two years old. After months in the hospital, he began to make significant strides in understanding what had happened to him as a baby. He had hope of not becoming an abusive adult. It is possible to help victims of early childhood abuse.

Another way to prevent clergy sexual abuse (or any sexual abuse, for that matter), is to educate women and children about sex offenders and alert them to be careful. My mother used to tell my sisters and I to stay away from men who made advances toward us. She told us to get away and fight them off! However, she never imagined I would have to “fight off” my pastor! My mother was wise in trying to warn her daughters. Education is important.

One thing I discovered, in examining what happened that allowed the clergyman perpetrator to harm me, was that the abusive meetings started out with a legitimate professional reason to meet. As his secretary, he would call me into his office to get a transcription tape, or other information. I would have to deliver information to him as well, like important phone messages. Once inside his office or study, he would instruct me to close the door so we could discuss "confidential" matters. He would then turn the conversation to personal things about me. The conversation becoming personal was the turning point where he would then get physical. So, perhaps one thing women can learn from what happened to me, is that if a man in a position of authority starts getting personal, then it is time to leave the room—before anything happens!

There was a woman who attended our church who became the nursery director. Shortly after she assumed her position, the senior pastor (clergyman perpetrator) called her into his office. She thought it was strange because she reported to the children’s pastor, not him. He made up an excuse for her to come to his office—alone. She told me that after a few minutes of “chit-chat” about how the nursery job was going, he started asking her personal questions about her husband and marriage. She felt he was way out of line! She immediately excused herself and left his office. She discussed the meeting with her husband, and they decided she would quit her position as nursery director. Further, they left the church! She was able to avert being sexually assaulted by the senior pastor! She was not surprised when the news broke that he had sexually assaulted women in the church!

Another way to prevent clergy sexual abuse is to not allow perpetrators into the ministry in the first place! Seminaries and churches alike need to better educate and screen candidates for ministry. The psychological makeup of a sex offender is not a secret. It seems there should be some way of screening out such a bad seed. Once found out, clergyman perpetrators should be held accountable, and banned from the ministry; not church membership, but banned from church leadership. It would behoove institutions to somehow interview or test candidates as to their godliness and worthiness for such a sacred office. One seminary official said he didn’t feel it was the seminary’s responsibility because churches called the pastors to office. I imagine churches blame the seminaries because they train the pastors. They both need to do much more in keeping sex offenders out of the clergy!