Clergy Sexual Abuse

M. Irons

Sexual contact between a church leader and a church member is often dismissed as an "affair" between "consenting adults". That is a completely inappropriate description. There is a power differential between a church leader and a member, especially if it is the pastor. [i]

  • Church members depend on the pastor and other leaders to know what God wants and to lead them properly. They are trusted spiritual authorities. The moral and spiritual authority vested in the leaders give them unequal power in relationships with the people.
  • Church members trust that the leaders are using their role to care for the flock, for their nurture and benefit. This is a level of trust that is not individually tested, proven, and earned in each relationship, as it is in life in general, but is based on the nature of the position of church leaders. It is similar to the trust one places in one’s doctor.
  • In the church, as in society in general, there is a power differential between male and female.
  • There is usually an age differential between the leader and the person caught by his inappropriate advances.
  • Often that person is a counselee, doubly dependent and vulnerable to the authority of the leader.

These factors make it extremely difficult for a church member to say no to the inappropriate advances of a leader. The responsibility is squarely on the leader to always maintain appropriate boundaries.

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 leadership position involves responsibilities and the authority to carry them out, it is inappropriate to call a sexual encounter with a member 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.

There are several types of clergy offenders. One is the case with a single victim and a remorseful pastor, where situation and timing provided opportunity for a single offense. These clergy sexual abusers are sometimes referred to as "wanderers".

But the type of clergy offender we are concerned with here is the sociopathic narcissist, who is manipulative, self-centered and gratification-oriented. He shows no concern for harm to others. He refuses to even admit harm. He plans ahead to trap the innocent, he spends time grooming his victim, he lies about it afterward, and is a repeat offenders. Leaders of cults and totalistic authoritarian Christian organizations (TACOs) like the Assembly are often sociopathic narcissists. This was George, and several others in the Assembly.

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

The power differential in the Assembly between George and the Assembly members was far greater than between the pastor and the church member in normal churches.

  • George claimed to be the Lord's servant with a special anointing from God that was quite beyond the ordinary pastor and which he claimed gave him apostolic authority. George's message was special revelation from God. As others have done, he even used the ploy of a “special revelation from God”, a dream that was specifically about each woman to trap his potential victim.
  • George’s word was law. No-one could successfully challenge him on anything, not even the Leading Brothers, because they had been chosen primarily for their loyalty.
  • Serving George was equated with serving God. By setting it up that serving him was serving God, he created the perception of the power differential.

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.

  • They have already agreed to mega encroachments on their time, resources, privacy, career goals, personal decisions. With each boundary violation there is increasing numbness to further boundary violations.
  • There are no outside relationships with family, friends or other Christians to provide perspective and support. Close friendships within the group are discouraged. The TACO isolates people’s connections from even normal social mores, so they are on an isolated ship with no land in sight from which to take bearings.
  • The code of silence makes it unthinkable to confide in another member that the revered leader was behaving inappropriately— it would simply not be believed.

[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

Two examples of clergy sexual abuse in the Assembly:

"Kristin's" Account
Beth's Account
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