Clergy Sexual Abuse

M. Irons

Sexual contact between a pastor and a church member is often dismissed as an "affair" between "consenting adults". This article discusses why that is an inappropriate description.


Sexual contact between a pastor and a church member is often dismissed as an "affair" between "consenting adults". This is a misnomer for several reasons.[i]

These factors combine to make it difficult for a church member to say no to the inappropriate advances of a pastor. They place a weighty responsibility on the pastor to always maintain appropriate boundaries and the integrity of the pastoral relationship with the people.

An "affair" is a term used to describe a sexual liaison between peers, or equals. It places equal responsibility for the behavior on both parties. Because the pastoral relationship carries with it certain responsibilities, and the authority to carry them out, it is inappropriate to call a sexual encounter with a member of the congregation an affair, since it is not a peer relationship.

Therefore those who are violated by a pastor's inappropriate sexual behavior are not to be blamed that it occurred. The pastor had the greater power in the relationship and he misused it. Should the allegation be raised that the church member initiated the advances, it must not be overlooked that the pastor has the vested authority, the greater power in the relationship, and the responsibility to refuse impropriety and not allow it to happen.

The temptation to blame the victim is a reflection of the difficulty people have believing that a person who carries moral and spiritual authority, who is respected and trusted, can also be guilty of misusing his power and authority.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of clergy sexual offenders. [ii] The first type is the situation with a single victim and a remorseful offender, where situational factors and timing have played a major role. A lack of training and good organizational structure and supports appear to be the basis for crossing boundaries which set the stage for the involvement. One specialist in clergy sexual abuse calls these clergy sexual abusers "wanderers".

The second class exhibit various pathologies designated in the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistic Manual. The type most pertinent to this article is the sociopathic narcissist. This type of clergy sex offender is manipulative, self-centered and gratification-oriented. Good at manipulating and getting out of trouble, he shows no concern for harm to others. He is willing to move from church to church, and may even change denominations to escape being caught.

Wanderers seem to fall into an immoral liaison by carelessness. An example is Gordon McDonald, former president of Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship, who after a one-time adulterous incident, was thoroughly and publicly repentant, and restored to an exemplary life. [iii] Narcissistic offenders, on the contrary, plan ahead to trap the innocent, lie about it afterward, and are repeat offenders. Leaders of cults and totalistic authoritarian Christian organizations (TACOs) are often sociopathic narcissists.

The dynamics in a TACO further intensify the difficulty of resistance.

The power differential between the leader of a totalistic authoritarian group and the members is far greater than between the pastor and the church member in normal churches.

The TACO creates dependency in the followers, so that they become less and less able to function autonomously, and therefore less able to set proper boundaries.


[i] Many points in this section are taken from "Why It’s Not An Affair?" by Rev. Patricia L. Liberty, Associates in Education and Prevention in Pastoral Practice, with her kind permission. Her complete article can be read on Advocate Web

[ii] Points in this section are taken from " Typology of Clergy Who Engage in Sexual Misconduct" by Gary Richard Schroener.

[iii] Recounted in a sermon by Dr. Peter Barnes, "Learning to Live in Forgiveness and Grace"



Two examples of clergy sexual abuse in the Assembly:

"Kristin's" Account
Beth's Account


Menu ·  Top of Page