Clergy Sexual Misconduct Evaluating a Complaint

by Gary Richard Schoener

Gary Schoener is a licensed psychologist and Executive Director of the Walk-In Counseling Center in Minneapolis, MN. He is the senior author of “Psychotherapists’ Sexual Involvement with Clients: Intervention and Prevention”, co-author of “Assisting Impaired Psychologists”, and has written many articles on this topic. Schoener has consulted in more than 3000 cases of sexual misconduct by professionals and was a member of the Task Force on Sexual Impropriety of the American Psychological Association and its Advisory Committee on the Impaired Psychologist. The Walk-In Counseling Center was the recipient of the 1977 Gold Achievement Award in Hospital and Community Psychiatry from the American Psychiatric Association.

This article has been reproduced with permission from the Walk-In Counseling Center. Copyright © 1998 WICC.


Created as a presentation for the Church of Norway, Sola Strandhotell, Stavanger, Norway — 1-2 September 1997. Edited by AdvocateWeb, with permission from the author.

Source of Complaint

Awareness of alleged sexual misconduct by clergy & church workers can come from many sources, each one of which presents particular problems in terms of investigation. While the first duty is to be supportive and helpful, at some point the details may be quite important and have to be determined. THIS DOES NOT HAVE TO HAPPEN IMMEDIATELY. Stories always differ a bit because of people’s perspectives, their assumptions, their beliefs, and because they each have a somewhat different set of facts. In the area of vision, depth perception depends on TWO eyes — that is because each sees the scene slightly differently, and it is the discrepancies which produce three – dimensional vision. Each person’s own memory may also change — new details may be remembered in response to questions, subsequent events, hearing someone else’s version, etc. Psychological defenses also color people’s memory of events, as does fear as to how others (e.g. a husband or wife) will react.

Potential sources of a complaint, or rumor are:

1. The parishioner or counseling client: the subject of the complaint may come forward because of personal hurt and injury, because of anger, in order to protect others, upon learning of other victims, to attempt to save a marriage after the relationship has been discovered, etc.

2. Family of the alleged victim: a spouse or son or daughter or other relative may complain; if there is a marital breakup involved, anger & resentment may color judgment.

3. The offending pastor or church leader: The offender may him or herself come forward and self-report misconduct. This can be in the context of knowing that it has been discovered or that a complaint is about to be filed, or due to guilt and remorse and a desire for help.

4. Family of the clergyperson or church leader: an angry spouse or child who has discovered the relationship may complain, and again, anger & resentment can color the picture

5. Friend of parishioner or counseling client: someone in whom the victim has confided, or who has discovered what is going on, may report

6. Another parishioner or counnselee: This person could be friendly towards and protective of the victim, or angry and jealous of the victim; they may have facts, or just suspicions

7. Church staff member or official: those who work with the clergy are often in a position to note behavior which is atypical or unusual, and to suspect or discover misconduct; their role as an employee or leader, however, may complicate their role in dealing with the situation.

8. Another clergy person or leader: such a report can come about when the clergy person tells a colleague, asking for advice, or just to ventilate

9. Rumor in the community: someone who is not a member of the church talks about a pastor’s alleged misconduct.or news account

10. Police or Rape Center or other professional: this is where a complaint is made to the authorities, or to a counselor, and that person undertakes an investigation or phones with a complaint;

**Note that with either 9 or 10 above it is possible that you will learn of the complaint from the news media. For example, there may be a charge of improper sexual behavior in the community in which you later learn the victim was a parishioner. Furthermore, a charge of child sexual abuse in the community would have obvious implications for the church, even if the child was not a parishioner.

Complaint Investigation

The absolute cornerstone of complaint investigation is carefully gathering the details of the alleged relationship and misconduct. It is absolutely critical that you get a detailed account of what happened, and the context in which it happened. The boundary violation precursors to the misconduct are as important as the misconduct itself. “We had sex” means absolutely nothing — it can mean a look across a room, sexual talk, some brief touching, or 30 years of sexual intercourse. At some point an investigator needs to get the specifics.

We then compare stories detail by detail, even including things that are quite simple such as: “Do you agree that she joined the church around March of 1997?” “Do you agree that at first she came to church irregularly….maybe once a month?” “Do you recall that your first personal meeting was in relation to the family’s gift to the church?”
Where there is apparent disagreement, we attempt to find a middle ground. For example: “She says you said you loved her, and you deny it….could you have said that you had deep affection? Did you in fact feel, at least for a time, deep affection? Could you have expressed this non-verbally? Are you really shocked that she would have gotten this idea from you?” [Note: In the USA and Canada we have an additional problem in that the word “love” is used for many types of “love’: parent-child, friendship, agape or Christian love, love for others, romantic love, etc. “I love you” thus is far more ambiguous that I have been told it is in Norway.]

The most important guideline: DO NOT ACCEPT CONFESSIONS as being the whole story, and DO NOT ACCEPT CATEGORICAL DENIALS (e.g. “None of that is true.”) With a confession I still need to check on the rest of the story. More importantly, a “categorical” or complete denial is: (1) virtually never true; (2) often constructed out of distortion. For example, here is a real interchange we have on tape:

Q. Did you have sex with Mrs. G? A. Absolutely not! Q. Well, did you have oral sex with Mrs. G? A. Well, yes, two or three times. Q. You don’t call that “sex”? A. Well, I didn’t know what you called sex.

With most complete denials, the offender ends up admitting to about 90% of the allegation, but is simply denying what he or she considers the worst part of the offense — e.g. whether the victim was attending the church actively at the time; whether sexual intercourse occurred (as with the example up above). Based on a single disagreement with the victim’s account — for example, the claim that he said he loved her — we have had people reject the entire story and deny it completely.

Confirming a Complaint Disconfirming a Complaint

1. Admission by the accused that he did what is claimed, or that he or she did something quite similar to what is alleged 1. Admission by the complainant that is is false, with a convincing explanation as to why it was made — “take backs” can be the result of threats or a desire to protect the offender

2. Witnesses to them having been together in an appropriate place or time, or to some actual physical contact 2. Witnesses to a situation in which comments or touch occurred which was allegedly inappropriate but which witnesses dispute was inappropriate

3. Contemporaneous notes, diary, photos which reveal an improper relationship. These are rarely proof, but can be quite useful as confirmation 3. Records of counseling & consultation which reveal honest attempts to deal with what may be transference feelings as opposed to true seduction

4. Contemporaneous revelations — telling family, friends, counselors at the time the events occurred 4. Consultations with colleagues or others for help in dealing with infatuation which wasn’t desired and which was not the pastor’s fault

5. Letters which reveal the closeness or other personal details 5. Letters admitting that it wasn’t an intimate relationship [see warning in (1) above]

6. Audiotapes (videotapes): some have made tapes of the sexual act, others have taped phone conversations 6. Audiotapes of a conversation in which there is an admission of this is a false complaint

7. Knowledge of body: scars or unusual features only visible when person is not clothed; if male, is he circumcised?; color of the pubic hair [especially if it differs from the hair color on the head] 7. Absence of knowledge does not disconfirm: we have cases of acknowledged sexual contact where the victim, despite multiple sexual contacts over many years, did not notice of a prominent scar

8. Knowledge of inside of home: if sex took place inside pastor’s residence, ability to describe bedrooms which could not have been casually observed. 8. Grossly incorrect description of inside of the pastor’s home

9. Knowledge of details of personal life of the pastor including things which would generally be private or secret 9. Absence of knowledge or incorrect information does not disconfirm since misinformation could have been given to the person by the pastor

Remember, you can always end up by listing what is agreed to or confirmed, and what is not. You may not end up with a complete story that everybody agrees to.

Types of False & Misleading Complaints

Until recently, although one sees reference to allegedly false complaints from time to time, there was virtually no literature on them. Our book Psychotherapists’ Sexual Involvement With Clients: Intervention and Prevention (Schoener, Milgrom, Gonsiorek, Luepker, Conroe, 1989) had a chapter on this issue. More recently there are articles about “false memory syndrome” and the focus has been on memories which were “repressed” and then “recovered.” The vast majority of cases do NOT involve any sort of repressed memory.

1. Misunderstanding by followup helper: This is the most common type we see. The complainant says “we had sex” and the counselor assumes this means sexual intercourse, and then makes a complaint of sexual intercourse.

2. Mistaken identity: this occurs when the victim or some third party is hiding the name of the alleged offender, but drops some sort of a clue — e.g. a first name. The followup helper believes they know who it really is and tells someone else, but is wrong.

3. Misinterpretation of words or touch: while many offenders use this as a defense, in our experience it is quite rare, but it can occur. In most instances where it does, there has been a poor management of professional boundaries, but not necessarily sexual ones.

4. Exaggeration or distortion by parishioner or client: the complainant uses inflammatory terms or language which exaggerates what happened until you clarify the specifics. Examples are “he raped me” in a case where the pastor asked someone out on a date. This does NOT invalidate the complaint, but it may cause you to evaluated it differently, and certainly to describe the offense differently.

5. Hostile & aggressive client or parishioner with an agenda: whether there is a legitimate complaint of some type, this person collects information from many people and presents it in an exaggerated and inflammatory fashion which makes it seem that the pastor is a hard-core offender with a long history of misconduct when in fact this is not the case. However, just because someone has a vendetta doesn’t mean that parts of the story aren’t true.

6. Personal rather than professional relationship: someone angry when a relationship does not work out or when they feel used may imply that they were in a pastoral or counseling relationship, whereas this is not true.

7. Apparent fabrication: these are extremely rare, and we don’t believe we’ve had one involving a pastor, but we have had a few with psychotherapists. In one instance there was no apparent reason, but in two there were revenge motives relating to limits-setting

8. False “recovered” memory: while still a small subset of cases, in North America there has been a growth in people remembering early abuse which was believed to be totally outside of consciousness — that is, repressed. Most of our cases involve people not thinking about the abuse or not remembering it at first — not true repression. Some spontaneously remember — some do so in therapy. If the memory was induced by hypnosis or some other technique, like it or not, it is hard to evaluate. Some are subsequently proven completely true, some are proved clearly false, and some appear to be a mixture of things which are, or could be true, and things that can’t be true. Investigation may not be possible and “false memories” are just as vivid as “real memories.”

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