Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Archive for the ‘What Is CSA?’ Category

Pastor or Predator? Sexual Misconduct in Youth Ministry.

Kudos to Princeton Theological Seminary! Their Institute for Youth Ministry recently invited six leaders to submit responses to the topic on clergy sexual abuse in youth ministry. The series, “Pastor or Predator? Sexual Misconduct in Youth Ministry.,” was published this week. 

Here are the highlights. To read the whole essay, just click on the author’s name.

Linda Crockett says that the church often shortcuts justice by urging survivors to forgive too soon. As a result,  “victims carry the burden of shame that rightfully belongs to the offender.” Crockett urges the church to help young people recognize the red flags of sexual abuse. Although youth programs often each about the dangers of substance abuse, “we shy away from frank discussion about sexual offenders and how they operate. … We don’t tell them most offenders are not strangers, but people in our families, churches, neighborhoods, schools, and sports clubs.” 

Sharon Ellis Davis shares for the first time that “my Black Church experience also includes my being the victim of childhood sexual abuse by ‘men of God.’” She says, “It was the secret I was determined to hold onto no matter how much this abuse had negatively impacted my life choices… I could not, and I would not go against the ‘men of God.’ “ Ellis Davis only began to heal when she found a wise, compassionate listener who was willing to be a holder of her long-kept secret. As she healed, she was able to become a holder for others’ secrets as well. She reminds youth leaders that “many times we are… called to be holders” even if we “may not have adequately dealt with [our] own childhood victimization and are now forced to remember while providing care for others.

Hillary Scarsella writes, “Sexual abuse and assault are silencing.” She explains: the offender and the religious institution work hard to silence survivors, but survivors also silence themselves because of the stigma surrounding the experience of sexual assault. “We need to make it our regular practice to talk about sexual violence accurately, sensitively, and often,” she says, “because talking about abuse and assault has a significant degree of power to prevent and stop both.” The kind of speech we need, says Scarsella, “is the kind that believes and respects victims and survivors, the kind that empowers youth to love and protect their bodies.”

Justin Holcomb offers biblical encouragement to survivors dealing with the stages of aftermath of sexual abuse. He assures survivors that “what happened to them is not their fault. They are not to blame. They did not deserve it. They are not responsible for what happened to them. Nobody had the right to violate them… They were sinned against.” To survivors who despair of ever healing, Holcomb reminds them, “God promises a hope and a future.”

When Wes Ellis was in the 7th grade, his “funny, likeable” youth pastor inspired him to go into youth ministry. In college, Ellis was devastated to learn that this minister had sexually assaulted several young woman who had been Ellis’ friends in youth group. Ellis offers a clear, challenging theological response to clergy sexual abuse. “For me to come to terms with my own story,” he writes, “is to accept that the person who was eventually imprisoned for sexual misconduct… was the same person who mentored me, cared for me, and helped me to find my calling. He was not a monster, but a human being like me. … In recognizing his actions as sin… I am forced to face the sin of which I myself am capable.” At the same time, Ellis urges readers to “not treat this as an abstract philsophical problem or a problem of mere policy, but as a real human experience.”

I am honored to be the sixth voice in this series. I share the case study of a young woman who became suicidal when the church tried to silence her complaint against a youth minister, and I offer a series of steps the church must take to protect the young people in its care, including age-appropriate boundary training for youth and regular, vigorous discussions of this topic by the adults in the congregation.  

As I researched my piece, I discovered two great resources. 

1. Author and clergy spouse Sabrena Klausman has a wonderful piece entitled “Dangerous Volunteers: Understanding Signs of Sexual Abuse in Youth Ministry.”  She says the church MUST do a better job screening, monitoring, and training the clergy, staff, and volunteers who work with youth.

2. Tim Challies spells out “6 Reasons Why Sexual Predators Target Churches.”  It’s not a hopeful essay. Challies points out the deeply rooted structural issues that put children and teens at risk in just about any church. But it’s required reading for anyone who wants to solve the problem.

Focus on the Family: Ignoring the Voices of Survivors

Last month I shared an open letter from Geraldine Stowman to Jim Daly, president of para-church mega-ministry Focus on the Family. Professor Stowman objected to a recent FOTF broadcast that minimized the harm of clergy sexual abuse by casting it as mere “marital infidelity.” In nearly 40 years of operation, FOTF has never identified CSA as a problem on its own. When they mention it at all, they call it “adultery,” “an affair,” or “sexual indiscretion.”

Inspired by Professor Stowman, I sent my own letter to Jim Daly:

Please insist on a strong distinction between “affairs/adultery” and clergy sexual abuse. An affair, or sexual consent, can only happen between two people of equal power. This is never the case between a minister and a congregant or church staffer. We hold our ministers in such high respect that there’s no possibility of meaningful consent to a sexual relationship. A minister cannot have an “affair” with a congregant. If he allows the relationship to become sexualized, he is guilty of a harmful abuse of power. Many victims lose their marriages, their health, their faith, or even their lives in the wake of a pastor’s abuse.

Two weeks later, FOTF’s Jeremy Hill responded on Daly’s behalf:

We appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts regarding our recent broadcast featuring Dave Carder… We could tell from what you wrote that you speak to the problem of clergy sexual abuse from personal experience, and we want to assure you that we would never wish to diminish the significance of this issue. At the same time, we feel we should explain that this broadcast wasn’t intended to explore the topic of abuse. Instead, Mr. Carder offered the story that opened this program simply as background in explaining what drives his encouragements for married couples to guard themselves against sexual infidelity. Furthermore, this radio show was excerpted from a presentation given by Mr. Carder to a broad Christian audience; it was not directed at members of a specific demographic.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Plenty. With help from the insightful Professor Stowman, I offer this translation. Here’s what Focus on the Family is really saying.

Thanks for writing, little lady! Since your perspective is jaundiced by your experience as a survivor, let me help you understand our work more objectively. We aren’t trying to diminish the importance of this issue. Instead, by consistently refusing offers from ministries like The Hope of Survivors, Tamar’s Voice, Advocate Web, and the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute to appear on the show, we flat-out deny that the problem exists at all.

It goes without saying that this broadcast wasn’t intended to explore the topic of clergy sexual abuse, because NONE of our broadcasts have ever explored this topic. We are confident that our “broad Christian audience” wouldn’t be interested. When we say we want to help couples guard against sexual infidelity, we aren’t talking about the couples whose marriages are threatened by predatory ministers, nor are we interested in helping inexperienced ministers understand the risk of transference and counter-transference in their counseling.

In short: don’t waste your breath trying to tell us anything. We don’t care, and we’re not listening.

“Affair”? “Adultery”? No! When Pastors Do It, It’s ABUSE.

Is clergy sexual misconduct primarily about sex? No — it’s primarily about power. CSM happens when a pastor exploits his or her power over a congregant. But most Christian leaders focus on sex, and assign equal or greater blame to the victim. Take the parachurch ministry Focus on the Family. FOTF recently re-aired an interview between their president, Jim Daly, and “affair recovery and prevention expert” Dave Carder. (You can listen here and here.)

Dave begins with a lurid story of his respected senior pastor “running off” with a woman from his congregation. Shaken to the core by this betrayal, Carder ended up charting a new career. For the past 30 years he has tried to understand what causes marital infidelity.

Unfortunately, he makes no distinction between a genuine affair (marital infidelity involving two people of equal power) and the exploitation of a vulnerable congregant by a pastor. When Carder surveyed 4000 ministers, he found that 21% had been “sexually indiscreet.” What a euphemism! The words make a dangerous abuse of power seem like a parlor game.

Thankfully, FOTF has sharp listeners like Professor Geraldine Stowman of Minnesota State University Moorhead. After hearing these programs, Stowman composed an Open Letter to FOTF President Jim Daly. She has allowed me to share her letter here. She says, “I think he needs to hear from survivors,” and I agree. If you feel moved to contact President Daly, you can reach him at Ofcpres@fotf.org.

Here is Geraldine Stowman’s letter.

 An open letter to Jim Daly, President, Focus on the Family

If Focus on the Family were serious about helping clergy “guard against inappropriate intimacy,” you and your broadcast experts would stop putting pastors who make sexual contact with congregants in the same category as Christians who commit adultery with peers (FOTF broadcasts on April 14 and 15, 2015,  “Friendship or Flirtation? Danger Signs for Couples.”)

While Dr. Dave Carder’s advice about “Friendship or Flirtation” could be helpful in peer friendships, it is harmful and misleading to characterize pastoral sexual contact with congregants as “affairs,” as Dr. Carder did in his lead anecdote about his former senior pastor “who ran off with another woman in my church.” The same characterization occurred when you, Dr. Daly, linked the discussion of “affairs” to the 21 percent of clergy surveyed that admitted being “sexually indiscreet.”

In at least 13 states and the District of Columbia, it is a felony for clergy to have sexual contact with anyone to whom they are offering “comfort, aid or spiritual advice in private.” In some states, this does not have to be a “formal” counseling relationship, and consent is not a defense. Clergy who meet regularly with congregants — perhaps before church or after choir practice — to privately discuss emotional or personal concerns are bound by the same laws as psychotherapists.

Why are states moving to criminalize clergy sexual contact with adult congregants? Because churches (and mega-ministries) are not holding pastors responsible for the damage they inflict on people under their care. Clergy are “helping professionals” similar to doctors and therapists.  When they step out of their helping role to enter a sexual relationship with a congregant, they inflict psychological and spiritual harm, committing what Dr. Mark Laaser, a former clergy-offender, calls “authority rape.”

The harm to congregants can occur regardless of whether the pastor is a serial predator or a first-time offender who was “blindsided” by his attraction to someone under his care. Properly trained clergy know that emotions — positive and negative — often emerge in counseling relationships, and they have procedures in place to help them debrief. If they have not been trained to deal with those emotions, they should not be offering “comfort, aid or spiritual advice in private.” And if they’re one of the 37 percent of clergy surveyed by “Christianity Today” who describe Internet pornography as a “current struggle,” they should not offer private counsel to anyone.

 As Christians, we have a biblical mandate to honor our elders, especially those who are preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17). That mandate also heightens the influence preachers have over their congregations. Clergy must recognize that the honor bestowed on their role can push congregants to do things they would not otherwise do. Sadly, pastors who abandon their roles as spiritual leaders to have sexual contact with congregants are not just abusing the congregant. They are abusing Jesus Christ, his church, and every individual who has looked to him or her as a spiritual leader.

Scripture charges us to hold our teachers more accountable (James 3:1) and to publicly reprove them as a warning to others (1 Timothy 5:20). If a pastor sexually abuses a minor, does the church reprove him by saying he had “an affair”? If an elder rapes his daughter, does the church ask him to step down for “adultery”?

If Focus on the Family, Dr. Carder, and you are serious about wanting to save clergy from being “blindsided” by moral failure, you need to stop labeling these betrayals as “affairs.” Clergy have instant, intimate access to people in their congregations, particularly those going through crises, and they have a sacred duty to protect that trust—always!

After Dr. Diana Garland, Dean of Social Work at Baylor University, finished her national survey on clergy sexual misconduct in 2009, an interviewer from National Public Radio asked her, “What would stop this?”

Garland answered, “Education is the way, and I think this begins with (all) of us, to start using language that describes what’s happened. When a religious leader has a sexual relationship with a congregant, it’s not an affair. It’s abuse of power, power that we have all given a leader as a community. So changing our language would be an important way for us to begin to have these conversations, then, about how we can protect both our leaders and our congregants.”

Geraldine Stowman, Adjunct Faculty
School of Communication and Journalism
Minnesota State University Moorhead
Moorhead, MN

Grooming: What it Is, What it Does

The day I left my church, I had only one goal: to get enough distance to turn in “Pastor Kevin.” For five years he had been my priest, my spiritual director, my counselor, my crush, my betrayer and offender, my stalker (not in a legal sense, only in the sense that he wouldn’t let me be; he kept finding ways to keep me within reach), my book partner, my mentor, and my boss. He was a central presence in my life, and my feelings for him were complicated. Even when I had come to despise him, I still felt some tenderness. To build the strength to report him, I had to distance myself completely.

When I finally gained the strength to make the call, I thought my distancing efforts had served their purpose. But as the months went by, as I lived in a world outside his influence, I began to see through his lies. Had I seduced him? No. Had he cared for me or even seen me as a person? No. He had been attracted to me “as a woman,” “from the beginning,” and all his actions had stemmed from that harmful impulse. Holding my memories up to the clear light of day, I believe he subjected me to years of predatory grooming. He never touched me, but he could scarcely have done me greater harm if he had.

What is grooming, and why does it cause so much harm?

Forensic psychologist Michael Welner names six stages of grooming in child sexual abuse. The Hope of Survivors’ former board chair, Dr. Martin Weber, describes how clergy offenders use exactly the same process. “It starts with grooming the victim into thinking she is special — at first to God because of her talents, and then later to the pastor because of her sweetness or beauty. Such flattery may cement an emotional bond between the victim and her pastor/predator… The victim may be groomed so skillfully, and manipulated so totally, that she may even initiate sex with the pastor… This often happens in a counseling environment, where he discovers the secrets of her previous abuse and then exploits those vulnerabilities.”

But grooming does more than break down our defenses. It also breaks down our sense of self. We stop trusting our own instincts. We begin to confuse abuse with love, abuser with God. We absorb the abuser’s cognitive distortions. If he thinks we seduced him, we come to believe it. If he thinks he “did nothing,” we feel shame for overreacting to “nothing.” Experts at a U.K. clinic believe that grooming itself is harmful, with or without sexual assault, and that the harm begins with the first exposure to the offender’s distorted attitudes.

What kind of distortions live in the mind of a sexual predator? The Willows Clinic in the U.K. lists them on pages 7-10 of this report. Here’s a summary:
* Euphemistic labeling. Rape becomes “horseplay.” Sexual touch becomes “hey, I’m a hugger.”
* Denial of memory, intent, or facts. “I can’t believe she interpreted my words that way.”
* Moral justification. “How else am I supposed to have a love life?”
* Blaming the victim. “She seduced me.”
* Blaming external factors. “My wife doesn’t have sex with me.”
* Shrugging off the harm to the victim. “She was a mess before I ever knew her.”
* Offense-minimizing comparisons. “At least I didn’t have 30 victims like that other guy.”
* Unrealistic optimism about chance of reoffending. “You can trust me; I won’t do it again.”

Under the influence of predatory grooming, we come to believe those things too. The damage is worse if the grooming happens over a long period and/or multiple stages of life, if the predator is a family member or otherwise central to our lives, or if previous abuse has damaged our sense of self.

How do we get free? We start by walking away, leaving our church if we have to. We seek support from people who understand what grooming does to body and soul. And we wait for time to pass. Two weeks after I left my church, I suddenly realized, “I never have to see him again.” But it was months before I could see his manipulations for what they were, and even longer before I could see that the leaders at my former church enabled his behavior with their own dysfunction. What helped me the most? Joining a healthy church whose pastor was a man of integrity, humility, and compassion. Sometimes we don’t know we’ve been in a sick system until we finally find a healthy one.

Finally, a few words of encouragement to victims and survivors trying to get free from the toxic effects of predatory grooming. These are not my words, but the great poet Mary Oliver’s. In her poem The Journey, you might recognize your own path to freedom.

Survivors Awaken A Powerful Media Outlet

I’m on the road this week with my home-schooled son, so it’s been hard to keep up with the news. But I can’t miss the furor around one story. A few days ago, Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal published a former youth minister’s account “My Easy Trip from Youth Pastor to Felon.” The author wrote about his predatory sexual assault on a teenaged girl as if he’d enjoyed an extramarital affair with a consenting adult of equal power.

The online community of survivors and survivors’ families and allies spoke up in strength. Here are three of the best responses.
* An anonymous survivor writes, “I am the other side of the coin.” She writes, “Just like the youth pastor in that article, [my abuser] made me believe it was a consensual relationship. He made me believe I wanted it just as much as he did.” She adds, “These things? They do not happen by accident. A youth pastor does not accidentally become ‘friends’ and later ‘sexual partners’ with a female minor from his church. A 40+ year old does not accidentally find himself actively and relentlessly pursuing a 15 year old.”
You can read her courageous account here.
* Suzannah Paul makes a strong claim that Christian “purity culture” protects abusers and harms victims by reframing pastoral sexual abuse as a sin against sexual purity, in which “victims are rendered ‘impure’ and at fault alongside their abusers.” She writes, “Leadership Journal allows a convicted child abuser a platform to manipulatively frame this as a story of personal selfishness and infidelity without one word about molestation, statutory rape, sexual grooming, or the abuse of power.”
Suzannah’s message is superb, and you can read it here.
* Tamara Rice speaks directly to the editors. She asks, “Did you ask [the victim’s] family for permission to let this predator tell it this way? Did you ask his wife (his former wife?) for permission to let him tell it this way? Did you consider getting perspective… from ANYONE who is a victim here?” She suggests a warning that this pastor should have offered: “If you find yourself attracted to one of your students, get out of youth ministry ASAP and get yourself into counseling… YOU ARE CONTEMPLATING A SEXUAL CRIME.”
You can read Tamara’s excellent post here.

Without time to comb the internet this week, I don’t know whether anyone has made the point that just as children and teens are never to blame for the predatory sexual abuse committed against them, neither are adult victims to blame. Even if we believe we are consenting to our pastors’ predation — indeed, even if we believe we are initiating the connection –we are not to blame. I was a middle-aged woman when my powerful pastor targeted me. I’ve already shared the story of how he took advantage of my vulnerability when I sought spiritual guidance. Because I stopped the abuse before it became physical, he was able to frame me as an emotionally unstable parishioner whose sexual advances he responsibly turned down. But the truth is: he abused his power, pure and simple. Even if I had allowed him to violate my physical boundaries, the blame and shame would have been his, and his alone.


Thankfully, the Leadership Journal has taken down the offensive and harmful post. In its place, they share an unreserved apology for posting a story that focused on the predator’s losses while ignoring the far greater harm to the victim. They will offer any revenue from the post to Christian organizations that work with survivors of sexual abuse.

By speaking our truth, the community of survivors and advocates has turned on one more light. The Leadership Journal now knows who we are and what we stand for. They owe much to the courageous souls who called them to account. If they want to repay the debt, they can open their pages to our voices, to our stories and to our call for safer churches.


*  Heather Celoria (Junia Project, June 17) offers an excellent reflection on the decisions of the Leadership Journal both to post the article and to take down the post. The Junia Project website is a great resource for understanding and deconstructing the patriarchal mindset that makes it so easy for male clergy to abuse female congregants with impunity.
* The first link in my essay now leads to the complete original article (my original link did not). I have also captured all the text in the article as a Word file. If the link stops working, send me an email and I’ll send you the article. The Leadership Journal is rightfully ashamed and embarrassed of having published the story, and they may hope that by taking it down they’ve made the controversy go away. But the story is evidence, and we can’t let it disappear.

Teresa Pecinovsky and #YesAllWomen

The massacre at Santa Barbara triggered a twitter campaign, #YesAllWomen. (This triggered another campaign, #NotAllMen; you can read this excellent response by Presbyterian pastor-in-training Chris Chatelaine-Samsen on the Sojourners website.) Riding the #YesAllWomen wave, blogger Rachel Held Evans published a guest post by Vanderbilt divinity student and clergy sexual abuse survivor Teresa K. Pecinovsky. Teresa tells a story of abuse of power, first by her minister/professor/mentor, and then by the university that employed him. When her offender began sending personal emails, she thought she was safe because he was a minister. (“He wouldn’t do anything to hurt me, right?”) When he sent a sexually explicit email, Teresa cut off the relationship, but the trauma continued to haunt her. Her institution offered therapy to both her and her offender — but they paid for his PhD, while they turned her away from their seminary.

You can read Teresa’s account here. She writes beautifully, and there’s not a physically graphic word in the story — but I’m still going to offer a trigger warning. If, like me, you were the victim of a skillful emotional seduction and an institutional silencing, Teresa’s story may bring up painful memories. But since she was brave enough to write it, I can be brave enough to read it and share it.

I salute you, Teresa K. Pecinovsky, for the courage you showed in stopping the abuse, reclaiming your life, and sharing your story to encourage other survivors.

My Offender Speaks *

* NOTE: This is a work of imagination. I learned last week the specific lies my offender told after I left the church, and to whom. “Pastor Kevin” has never spoken or written publicly about this matter. But if he did, and if he were honest, this is what he might write.

Dear friends,

Four years ago, a respected congregant filed a complaint of sexual misconduct against me. After Bishop ______ closed the case, she talked with some of you, her most trusted friends. After you heard from her, you came to me with very reasonable concerns. As you visited my office one by one, I shared what happened from my perspective. I set your minds at ease, but I have not slept an easy night since. I didn’t tell any outright lies, but I chose my truths so carefully that I made you believe a lie. In short, to protect my reputation, I destroyed hers. I know that some of you shunned her as a direct result of my testimony to you. Words cannot convey the shame I feel today. In an effort to make amends, I am setting the record straight.

Here is what I have told some of you: “The complainant told me she was attracted to me. My biggest mistake was not ending the pastoral counseling relationship once she revealed her attraction.”

Here is what actually happened: she did reveal these feelings, but her words could never be construed as a come-on. At the beginning of the fourth year of our pastoral relationship, she acknowledged that “transference” had developed. She knew that her feelings might mean an end to the pastoral relationship. At that point, I should have referred her to another counselor. Even better, I should have done so years before. By meeting every two months for years on end, we were within the letter of the bishop’s guideline, but our meetings violated the spirit of that law. I took advantage of her ignorance of the law because I wanted the relationship to continue.

When she revealed her feelings by email, I invited her to meet with me to discuss them. At our next meeting, two months later, I was the one who brought up the subject. Obviously shy on this topic, she answered my questions with scant “yes” or “no.” Undeterred, I went on. I told her that from the beginning, I had been attracted to her as a woman. I told her that if we were both single and I weren’t her priest, I would be asking her for a date. When she left my office, I think we both felt strong emotion.

A week later, I heard back from her. She reminded me that after three years of pastoral counseling, I knew exactly how vulnerable she was. She said that my words had put her emotional and spiritual health at risk. And she ended the pastoral counseling relationship. I asked if we could continue meeting as “partners on the spiritual journey.” She said we could consider it, but not until many months had passed.

I knew she was right, but my strong feelings overcame my better judgment. A few weeks later, I invited her to co-author a book with me. I told her we could meet as often as necessary to move the project forward. That spring, we met nearly every week. I had intended to work on the book during my sabbatical. But as summer approached, I became concerned about her feelings for me. On the last day before my sabbatical, I told her I had changed my mind and would not be working on the book that summer. I was hoping that she would give up on the project, and that is what she did. But she was justifiably angry. She had already done a great deal of work to get the book started.

I came back from sabbatical refreshed and renewed. She kept a chilly distance. I felt guilty about having withdrawn a project that had been important to her, but even more I still felt shame over having expressed my sexual feelings for her a year earlier. I wanted to help with her healing, so I created what seemed like the perfect job, and she accepted. She worked for a year at St. ______’s as the Associate for Peace and Justice Ministries. We were proud to have her representing the church in our community. You can read about all she accomplished in our church’s January 2010 Annual Report.

I don’t know why she waited two years to file her complaint. But I do know that when she spoke, she spoke the truth, and that she took action out of her concern for other women. I had already acknowledged to her that she was part of a pattern in my life. She felt she saw that pattern continuing with specific women at St. ______’s. Indeed I had seen some of those women for pastoral counseling over many years. I pray that I didn’t cause harm to any of them. I no longer offer long-term pastoral counseling to anyone, man or woman. I now abide by the spirit as well as the letter of the law.

It pains me to write these next words, but a full accounting demands them. When some of you visited my office, I gave you the impression that she was emotionally disturbed. If there was any truth to that, I understand that my behavior was the cause. If you doubt this woman’s character or stability, I refer you to her immense contribution toward our church’s mission while she was here, and to her role as a leader in our city’s social justice work ever since.

I wish I’d spoken this truth four years ago. But Bishop ______ chose to handle the matter confidentially. I couldn’t have spoken publicly without directly disobeying my bishop. Even more important, I didn’t want to cause my dear wife any more pain than she already felt. I regret that I didn’t show more courage.

All this is history, of course; the damage is long done. She has severed ties with the Episcopal Church, and I doubt she will change that decision. I doubt that any of the shattered friendships will be rebuilt. I tell this truth today not to change the past, but simply to correct the record and clear her name. This brave woman does not deserve the hostility she has received from our church. Today, I take full responsibility.


______ +

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