Clergy Sexual Abuse

Clergy Sexual Misconduct

What is Clergy Sexual Misconduct?  And why is it considered Clergy Sexual Abuse?

Baylor University researched Clergy Sexual Misconduct and defined it as follows:

Clergy Sexual Misconduct (CSM): refers to a religious leader’s sexual overture, proposition, or relationship with a congregant who was not his/her spouse or significant other.

Abuse of Power: Religious leaders are by definition community leaders who carry spiritual as well as organization and community leadership roles. They are expected to be compassionate, ethical, and moral leaders who hold the well-being of those they lead as a sacred trust. The differential of power between a religious leader and a congregant is like that of a physician and patient or counselor and client, although with the added dimension of sacred trust. Because of the power the leader holds and the attachment of congregants to their leaders, the congregant has much less power to say “no” to sexual overtures, rendering the concept of “consent” virtually meaningless. Any sexual relationship between a religious leader and a congregant is thus more accurately described as “abuse of power” rather than “affair,” which implies mutual consent.

Faith Trust Institute defines sexual abuse as:

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.

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.
Hope of Survivors:

Imbalances of Power/Authority of Pastor and Congregant

4 Major Imbalances

1. Imbalance of Authority

The pastor is always the spiritual leader, the shepherd and guardian of the flock.

In his pastoral role as a representative of Christ, he is expected to act accordingly in all of his interactions with the congregation under his care. This creates an imbalance of power/authority since he is the one spiritually in charge of the church.

2. Imbalance of Knowledge

He is also the one who has the greatest spiritual knowledge and many years of Biblical training. He knows that his role is to lead sin-sick souls to the “Fountain of Life.” The pastor has the ability to lead others to Christ, or away from Christ, if he chooses to distort Scripture.

3. Imbalance of Experience

Just as a physician is trained to help the physically sick and, with his knowledge, diagnose the illness, so too, the pastor with his many years of education and experience can, with the mind of Christ, see that this is someone who is not spiritually whole.

4. Imbalance of Responsibility

A physician is sworn to uphold the position he occupies and to heal the sick, so too, the pastor must take responsibility for upholding the position he has pledged to God.

We could also add a 5th imbalance, age. Many women, especially if they have been abused as children, have a desire to have a father-figure in their life, one who will treat them better than their own father. When the pastor is much older than the woman he abuses, it is often the case that she looked up to him, admired him as a father-figure, but never as a partner or spouse.

“Counseling Relationship” Used to Exploit Sexually

Clergy that sexually abuses their congregant almost always uses the “counseling relationship” in order to exploit the innocent victim.  The minister, pastor, rabbi, or religious leader is in a position of authority over the emotionally and spiritually dependent congregant.

Iowa Code titles this 709.15 Sexual Exploitation by a counselor, therapist, or school employee.  In section 1.b. they define it as such:

Emotionally dependent means that the nature of the patient or client’s emotional condition or the nature of the treatment provided by the counselor or therapist is such that the counselor or therapists knows or has reason to know that the patient or client or former patient or client is significantly impaired in the ability to withhold consent to sexual conduct.

Iowa defines the counselor or therapist as:

1.a. Counselor or therapist means a physician, psychologist, nurse, professional counselor, social worker, marriage or family therapist, alcohol or drug counselor, member of the clergy, or any other person, whether or not licensed or registered by the state, who provides or purports to provide mental health services.

The Prevalence of Clergy Sexual Misconduct

The research at Baylor University in 2008 used General Social Survey (GSS) to estimate the prevalence of clergy sexual misconduct.  The research used a random sample of than 3,559 American adults.  Listed below are the findings reported by Dr. Diana R. Garland in the Research Study Executive Summary that shows this is a pervasive problem:

Of those surveyed:

More than 3% of women who had attended a congregation in the past month reported that they had been the object of CSM at some time in their adult lives;

92% of these sexual advances had been made in secret, not in open dating relationships; and

67% of the offenders were married to someone else at the time of the advance.
In the average American congregation of 400 persons, with women representing, on average, 60% of the congregation, there are, on average of 7 women who have experienced clergy sexual misconduct.

Of course, CSM does not occur evenly across congregations, but these statistics demonstrate the widespread nature of CSM and refutes the commonly held belief that it is a case of a few charismatic and powerful leaders preying on vulnerable followers. In the nonrandom qualitative study that occurred concurrently with the survey, survivors hailed from 17 different Christian and Jewish affiliations: Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Seventh Day Adventist, Disciples of Christ, Latter Day Saints, Apostolic, Calvary Chapel, Christian Science, Church of Christ, Episcopal, Friends (Quaker), Mennonite, Evangelical, Nondenominational (Christian), and Reform Judaism.

In summary, one in 33 women adult women (3%) will experience Clergy Sexual Misconduct in their lifetime. Adult women make up 60% of congregations across the United States.  According to the U.S. Religion Census: Religion and Membership Study, 2010, there are a total of 344,894 congregations with 150,686,156 adherents in America.

So, 60% of 150,686,156 would equal 90,411,694 adult women.  Therefore, 1 out of 33 of these would mean 2,739,748 women would experience clergy sexual misconduct sometime in their lifetime in the United States.

Prevention Strategies

Baylor University proposed four strategies to help prevent Clergy Sexual Misconduct.

Below are listed their strategies:

The project proposes four strategies for lowering the incidence of CSM:

Educate the public about CSM as “misconduct” and “abuse of power,” not a consensual affair between persons of equal power. Give the public language and permission to identify what they experience as inappropriate conduct and important early warnings that can enable prevention or early intervention.
Provide religious education based on the scriptures about the role of power, and its use and abuse, in the workplace, the community of faith, and the family. Power and its use and abuse are not unique to religious congregations. Supervisors, teachers, community leaders, and parents need to understand and handle power appropriately, according to their religious faith. (Study series from Baylor School of Social Work on Christianity and the Abuse of Power is forthcoming.)
Provide a code of ethics and clear role expectations for leaders that protect them from multiple and conflicting roles and provide them with appropriate oversight and support.
Provide model legal legislation that defines sexual contact with congregants as illegal, not just immoral. See Helge and Toben, “Sexual Misconduct of Clergypersons with Congregants or Parishioners – Civil and Criminal Liabilities and Responsibilities.”
Clergy Abuse Laws

Only thirteen states and the District of Columbia have penal statutes that, in at least some circumstances, support the criminal prosecution of clergy persons engaged in sexual misconduct with congregants or parishioners.

These statutes, enacted by Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Dakota, Texas, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia turn on various linguistic formulations, including, most commonly, the specification that the misconduct occur within the confines of the counseling relationship.

Laws sited of 13 States & D.C. Criminalize Clergy Sexual Misconduct

Ark. Code Ann. § 5-14-126.

2005 Connecticut Code – Sec. 53a-65.

DEL CODE § 761 : Delaware Code – Section 761.

2011 Iowa Code 709.15 Sexual Exploitation By a Counselor,Therapist, or School Employee

Kansas Session of 2009 HOUSE BILL No. 2100
609.344 – 2014 Minnesota Statutes
2010 Mississippi Code
Chapter 47 – Mississippi Vulnerable Adults Act.
43-47-18 – Sexual battery of vulnerable adult

2006 New Mexico Statutes – Section 30-9-10

North Dakota Code 12.1-20-02 and North Dakota Code 12.1-20-06.1

Texas Penal Code, Section 22.011 – Sexual Assault
2006 South Dakota Code – 22-22-27 — Definition of terms–Sex offenses by psychotherapists.

Utah Code Section 76-5-406.Sexual offenses against the victim without consent of victim –Circumstances.

Wisconsin Statutes 940.22 – Sexual exploitation by therapist; duty to report

Code of the District of Columbia

§ 22–3015. First degree sexual abuse of a patient or client.

Pending Bills:


Legislative Document No. 566

LARA – House Bill 4525 (As Introduced) – Michigan