One in thirty-three women who currently attends church is a victim of clergy sexual abuse (CSA) and clergy sexual misconduct (CSM) as an adult. Of course, that doesn’t take into consideration the women who have left the church due to pastoral abuse. Most church folks have never heard of such a thing, mainly because it’s not discussed in polite circles. I was once in the majority, too, until I was sexually harassed by my pastor.
What began as a six-month counseling relationship ended as a scar on my soul. Because I was raised in the church and taught to give automatic trust to faith leaders, I sought out my pastor for guidance during a spiritual crisis. I thought nothing of his wanting to meet off-site, away from his church office, because I assumed he wanted to protect my privacy. I didn’t see that he was guarding his own privacy. When he told me that I had “deep spiritual gifts” and that he was learning from me, I hoped he was discerning something about me that I couldn’t see in myself. I missed that he was pulling out all the stops to make me emotionally dependent on him. When he admired my outfit or the way I styled my hair, I was appreciative of his kind words. What I failed to see was his leering at me. When he asked probing questions about my deepest insecurities, I divulged my childhood wounds, believing that he needed to know intimate information to provide better counsel. I didn’t see that he was exploiting my trusting nature for his own pleasure. When he shared his own personal information with me, telling me that his wife wasn’t interested in theological conversations and that God had brought me to him to fill a gap in his life, I felt sorry for him, flattered that he would choose me to be his sounding board, and emotionally bound to him. Yet he was abusing my compassion. When he tried to convince me that my husband and children were abandoning me yet promised he never would, I accepted his words as truth, because he was a man of God. I was blind to the fact that he was crafting a story wherein I was his main character. I missed all the signs that he was grooming me—breaking down my defenses by gradually and methodically desensitizing me to inappropriate behavior by using warmth, flattery, secrets, and abusive spiritual language. So when he slipped the first of many sexual comments into a conversation, I thought I misunderstood him. Pastors don’t say things like that, do they? But I did the most dangerous thing I could have done: Nothing.
As weeks turned into months, my husband saw that I was irritable, distracted and rapidly losing weight (due to the stress of being in an abusive relationship), so he confronted me. I confessed that I had conflicting feelings for the pastor and that I was afraid to end the relationship because of my dependence on him. With my husband’s help, ended the relationship, sought counseling, and addressed the areas where I was vulnerable to abuse.
CSA/CSM victims are filled with shame, blaming themselves for the abuse. I became depressed and suicidal due to the spiritual trauma. Most CSA victims battle trust issues for months or years after they leave the abusive relationship. A tremendous source of wounding is that the place where an abuse victim should be able to go for help—her church—is no longer safe. My family and I have left both the church and the denomination where I was abused. But the greatest wound is that many victims have difficulty separating God from their spiritual leader, so once they realize that they can no longer trust their pastor, they walk away from God. My faith has ultimately been deepened by my experience, but it’s been a bumpy road, and I grieve for and with those whose faith lives have been destroyed.
The upshot? God provides healing. CSA education saved my marriage and my life, searing some important facts in my mind that are share-worthy.
CSA is not an affair, emotional or otherwise, because the term “affair” implies consent. CSA is an abuse of power between people of unequal status, so it is never consensual. A pastor has spiritual power over his flock as well as a sacred trust to protect his parishioners’ best interests.
It’s the pastor’s responsibility to maintain professional boundaries at all times. Parishioners should be able to trust their faith leaders to minister to them without sexualizing the relationship.
I learned that the right language is critical to healing. Diana Garland, Dean of the School of Social Work at Baylor University, published a paper on CSA/CSM that should be required reading for anyone attending church. My correspondence with The Hope of Survivors, Tamar’s Voice, and FaithTrust Institute, gave me a verbal framework for my experience, which taught me to stop blaming myself. And, because I also learned that I was far from alone in my experience, I was able to face my life.
Recently I read a statement that affected me profoundly: You cannot heal what you cannot talk about. I confided my story to a few friends who believed me and provided me a safe place to share. Having trustworthy friends is worth its weight in gold. In the telling, I reclaimed the power of my voice.
Months after I left the abusive relationship, I brought charges forward to denominational leaders to hold the pastor accountable for abuse. While this step isn’t for everyone, it was a crucial one for me. Even if victims don’t get justice, healing is still possible because, as Jesus tells us in Matthew 19:26, “With God, all things are possible.”
- Survivor Girl