A few months ago, I was talking with my dad about my work on this issue. I told him that in many states, pastors can go to prison if they have sexual contact with a congregant. I could see the skeptical look on his face.
“You seem surprised, Dad,” I said. “Why?”
My dad asked, “Why is it the state’s business who a priest has sex with?” In other words: what’s wrong with a little canoodling between consenting adults?
The problem, of course, is “consent.” It’s hard to say “no” to someone more powerful than yourself. And if you can’t say “no,” your “yes” has no meaning, especially when the “yes” is won by emotional manipulation and deceit. My former pastor gained my trust, and eventually my romantic feelings, by feigning interest in my soul. If he had been open about his lust from the beginning, I never would have given him the time of day. But by the time he spoke, I was completely dependent on his pastoral care. It took me nine days to get the clarity of mind to say, “No.” That one word took all my strength, and ultimately I couldn’t make it stick.
I didn’t share all this with my dad; I just said that the power differential made meaningful consent impossible. Aha! I could see the light coming on. My dad said, “So it’s like when psychologists sleep with their patients!” Exactly right. The Hippocratic Oath prohibits sex with patients, and in all fifty states, a therapist can lose his or her license for being sexual with a patient. In many states, that therapist can end up in prison. And in 13 states (Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin) and the District of Columbia, the fiduciary duty law applies to clergy who offend sexually within a pastoral counseling relationship. The National Organization for Women supports efforts for legal reform in all states.
I’m not a lawyer, so I was glad to find a paper explaining the legal issues on the resources page of the Baylor clergy sexual misconduct study. If you’re curious, you can dive into some of these links. Sexual Misconduct of Clergypersons with Congregants or Parishioners — Civil and Criminal Liabilities and Responsibilities (Helge and Toben) is not easy reading, but it offers a deeper understanding of state laws on clergy sexual misconduct. In 11 of the 13 states, CSM is illegal only when it arises from a formal therapeutic counseling relationship. Only Texas and Arkansas criminalize clergy/congregant sex per se. The Texas law, like an earlier Minnesota law, refers to “the clergyman’s professional character as spiritual advisor.” That clause in the Minnesota law was struck down on the basis of church/state entanglement, and the Texas law still faces challenges. In contrast, the Arkansas law never mentions religious practices; it only requires that the clergyman be “in a position of trust or authority over the victim,” using that trust or authority to engage in sexual activity. The Arkansas law has so far stood up to all challenges.
Even as you read these words, the advocacy team at Predatory Pastor is trying to get clergy added to Virginia’s Fiduciary Code and Criminal Statutes. Jim Wright makes a clear supporting argument on his Crossroads Junction blog. I hope you will join me in signing this petition.
And if you are a lawyer interested in getting something started in California, let’s talk.