Sexual Misconduct in the Church When Mentor Becomes Molester Ministers are often granted immediate trust . . . but some betray it.

by Alexa Smith

Reprinted with permission from Presbyterians Today, magazine of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

See also these sidebars:

  • Caring for the Congregation
  • Resources/Networks and Books for Prevention and Healing.

When Anne’s minister first began approaching her sexually, she was utterly dependent on him in other ways. He was her counselor, her mentor and, she thought, someone who had her best interests at heart.

She remembers how the mentoring slowly turned sexual. He said having sex wasn’t wrong, even though she didn’t feel it was quite right.

Why didn’t she tell? She would say she thought no one would believe her, a “20-something-nobody” who was new in town and didn’t have many friends anyway. “There was nobody to tell,” she says. And even though her marriage was emotionally bankrupt, what would her husband do?

Many victims say it was their absolute trust in their minister that got them into trouble.

“I felt I wouldn’t be believed. It would be my word against his. And it was risky–what would it do to my marriage? At the time, people didn’t understand the dynamics of the abuse of power, and I didn’t either. I just felt I’d done something bad.”

Like most women, it took Anne years to tell. And though she finally helped draft her presbytery’s first sexual misconduct policy, it took a supportive new relationship and years of reflection before she understood how her pastor had simply used her for sex while she was supposedly in his care.

The Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) estimates that there are about 50 clergy sexual misconduct cases every year. Although cases in the PCUSA tend to involve adult women and male pastors, there are sometimes cases reported that involve children and other men.

Some of the cases involve men who are predators, who repeatedly prey on vulnerable women and lack remorse for their behavior. Other sexual abusers are what experts call wanderers–people who have crossed sexual boundaries inappropriately but, with treatment, have a fairly good prognosis for change. For predators, who are sociopathic, the statistics are not as hopeful.

According to the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle, Washington, both categories of abusers tend to have little sense of the damage their behavior causes, have limited impulse control, are often charismatic and talented, but secretive, and tend to confuse sex with affection. They also have little awareness of how much power they wield, and they tend not to recognize their own sexual feelings.

How do women get into relationships with them? Research shows that most women who are abused by clergy are initially approached because they are too insecure or too vulnerable to say no or, perhaps more important, to tell anyone about it. Or they may be in the midst of a life crisis and especially vulnerable. Usually they are women who want to please the man who has become indispensable to their emotional lives, either as a confidante, counselor, priest, or they might even say savior because of the kind of dependency they have felt.

Clergy misconduct is especially insidious because ministers are often granted immediate trust in a way other professionals are not. When special attention from a minister turns sexual, women are often unprepared to stop it. This may be because the woman emotionally needs him, or because he has the authority to ruin her career if she challenges him, such as in the case of a student or associate pastor.

“The shame keeps people silent,” says Emily, a young minister whose former pastor gradually introduced sex into their relationship while she was a teenager, although he was careful not to have intercourse until she turned 18. “This is not something you really want your parents to know about you,” Emily says.

All her friends in high school were in that church. And all their parents. “I rarely go back to that church even now,” she says. She is still unsure what is whispered about her there. It is ironic that while most churchgoers find repugnant the very thought of clergy sexually exploiting church members, victims feel they will get little support if they file a complaint. According to experts who have watched the process unfold, that fear is not unfounded.

Most mainline denominations, like the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), have policies detailing how to respond to allegations of sexual misconduct. But policies are only as good as the people who use them. Most congregations want to believe sexual misconduct could never happen in their pastor’s study, but they need to know how individuals get victimized and why they do not tell if they are abused.

“I was in an emotionally starved place and I was new in the community, and isolated,” says Anne, looking back almost 25 years to a time when there were no procedures to address clergy misconduct. “What made me most vulnerable was my emotionally empty marriage. And he offered me all kinds of opportunities in church. I was, for the first time, active and involved, speaking up. He was my mentor and coach and I would have given up anything for him.

“It was a good thing he was doing–but then he crossed the line and began manipulating, setting me up for his own personal needs.”

Emily’s story is similar, although she was a teenager when she was first approached by a pastor, who was so trusted by her parents that they invited him on a few family vacations. “This guy was treating me like an adult,” Emily says, “and at 16, you want to be treated like a grown-up.” He shared with her his own problems and his other infidelities, so that she came to feel like his confidante. “He told me he couldn’t trust anyone else. He said he couldn’t talk to anyone but me, and I wanted to feel special. I wanted to feel important, and here’s the pastor, trusting me.” Resistance to sex, gradually, was not a question, although her fantasy was to be taken into his family as a daughter to get away from the confusion in her own home, where her parents were divorcing. “I remember thinking, “This must not be wrong because he’s saying it is not wrong. And who am I to question the authority of the minister?’ “

Marie Fortune, one of the country’s foremost experts on clergy sexual misconduct and the director of the Seattle center, says often it is the victims’ absolute trust in their minister that has gotten them into trouble. “He basically talks them into things, justifies, rationalizes, makes it OK. Clergy are frequently our moral guides, which is why I think clergy abuse is more insidious even than abuse by a therapist or a teacher, because of the role the pastor plays in the victim’s life.”

Often Fortune says to victims: “Visualize the minister. Take him out of the pulpit, out of his robes, and put him next door, in old clothes, mowing his lawn. Is he someone you would get sexually involved with?” And consistently they say, “No. Why would I want a relationship with that person?” Fortune emphasizes that women, some of whom have been abused before, say the pastor is the first man to take them seriously intellectually, to encourage their abilities and applaud their achievements in the church. Their faith in him compromises their moral sense.

Fortune believes women have to acknowledge how they participated in the relationship in order to heal. But most victims, she says, err by taking more responsibility than they should, blaming themselves for the abuse. “At the same time, the person who has done this to them is not taking responsibility.”

The PCUSA’s manager of polity guidance training, Mark Tammen, says that he has been consulted in 90-some sexual misconduct cases in the last five years. Only two of the cases were clearly unfounded. Tammen says when victims do report the misconduct they generally do not demand money or jail for the perpetrator, but want repentance and restoration.

“They really want the church to act like the church,” says Tammen, and defensiveness on the part of congregations is not helpful. “If a person has cancer or if a woman is molested by a pastor, she’s hurting. And in the latter case she’s been hurt by the church. The church has to deal with her as a person who is hurting.”

Tammen says congregations are better at handling abuse cases than they were in the past because sexual harassment and misconduct information is part of most companies’ employee training and churchgoers are somewhat familiar with the problem. Not very long ago presbyteries and congregations could not imagine that a minister could go astray.

In most presbyteries sexual misconduct policies are modeled on an Assembly-level paper approved by the 1993 General Assembly. Confidentiality is stressed for both the accuser and the accused. A session may not know that its pastor is under investigation unless the evidence leads to a disciplinary action. Typically only a few people on the pastoral team designed to care for those involved in the case, including the families of victims and pastors, know the name of the accuser, even if the pastor is publicly disciplined.

So a victim may or may not identify herself in a congregation. “But a lot of information gets passed informally,” says Fortune, who has watched congregations ostracize a victim because they are upset and unhappy about the pastor’s dismissal. If the word gets around in a small town, there may be social stigmatization as well.

Carolyn had grown up and left her church. But her family, who were very involved in the church, had not. In fact, it was her parents who had taken her as a troubled 12-year-old to the minister for counseling–never imagining that he was a predator who would place sexual demands on her for the next 17 years. Since the case was initially tried in a secular court, Carolyn says her parents “went through hell,” because the pastor was prominent in the community. Ultimately it became an ecclesiastical case, although the minister had since left the Presbyterian church. The presbytery took its case to his new denomination, which subsequently barred him from ministry.

Why did so many years pass before Carolyn said anything? “There was no way I could accuse him of anything,” she explains, remembering how as an adolescent she had thought of him as her savior–a dependency he cultivated by depicting her parents as bad. “He was the one with the reputation, with the charisma. I was the one in counseling. And I would have said he was God’s gift to save me from parents who were so horrible to get along with.” Now she says, “Of course none of that was true.”

After years of therapy, Carolyn is still working through the abuse that has deeply affected her spiritual life and the lives of her husband and children. “I can’t look at my wedding pictures, or my daughter’s christening. . . . He did my confirmation class, taught me how to take the bread and hold it in my hand, to think through what it was. Now I almost want to drop it on the floor. . . . It is so hard to separate the human from the divine. This guy’s in my head for life.”

Fortune says spiritual crisis is common among victims. “They’re asking: ‘Does God still love me? I have no church; where do I go?’ They feel cast adrift. And churches that have been victimized themselves are struggling with their own anger, fear and betrayal at the duplicity of the minister. They may not respond pastorally to the victim.

“Most of what people are experiencing is still primarily negative. The main thing I hear victims say is that they want to know that the church heard them, that the church believed them, and that the church cared. But the victims feel they are not heard, and nothing is being done. And more likely than not, that is still the case–with some extraordinary exceptions.”

One major complaint by victims is that after a report is filed, the victim often functions only as a witness. And since the case is classified as a personnel matter, unless someone on the committee dealing with it chooses to give her information, very little comes her way. Mary Kuhns, a pastoral counselor in Louisville, Kentucky, who staffed the team that drafted the PCUSA’s policy, said investigatory committees can confuse confidentiality and secrecy. There are ways, she thinks, to let women know what is happening and still keep confidentiality.

“My big bugaboo,” Kuhns says, “is that churches often seem motivated out of fear of litigation, rather than care of either of the parties.”

Judgments in civil court against congregations and denominations since the mid-1890s have cost millions.

Emily–who is now a minister and who did report her perpetrator after she began seminary–says she sees fragile women who are vulnerable to clergy who do not maintain healthy boundaries. “I was a fragile kid. I looked strong and competent, but I was emotionally fragile. And that is true of adult women as well–they are susceptible to the power of the office of the clergy. And they just lap up any attention that comes their way from them.

“It is not their fault. They’ve been hurt, bruised. The church is to be a safe place. Clergy need to honor that.”

Alexa Smith, a reporter for the Presbyterians News Service, is stated supply at Valley City Presbyterian Church in Central, Ind. Cover picture and picture on this page: Dan Vecchio.

Caring for the Congregation

While congregations are caring for those who have been affected by clergy sexual misconduct, they need to remember they also are victims.

“Congregations need to deal with their own feelings of betrayal and anger, hurt, loss of trust and the relationship of what the minister did to their own faith,” says Peg True, co-chair of the National Capital Presbytery’s Response Team. “They need to talk about the misconduct– not about who did what to whom, but what this did to them as a congregation–instead of trying to bury it and make it a secret. And the temptation is to move to forgiveness too quickly, and not take the time to work through the implications of what happened.”

It is not easy to deal openly with this problem. But that is exactly what needs to be done, while confidentiality is respected in regard to the victims–including the members of the victim’s family and of the pastor’s family–and the pastor.

True recommends that congregations:

  • honor the need for confidentiality, so victims do not feel pressure to go public unless they want to do so
  • not blame the victim or victims
  • try to understand, both intellectually and emotionally, what happened in their church so that they may understand why the victim filed a complaint
  • in a case of clergy sexual misconduct, purchase insurance to cover the costs of short-term counseling for those who have been injured

Marie Fortune, of the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle, Washington (an organization that has taken the lead in addressing preventing and recovering from clergy sexual misconduct), says congregations simply need to talk about the possibility of misconduct before it ever occurs. “They need to put policies and procedures into place,” she says. Strong emotions can be managed better when there are clear guidelines to follow.

Resources For Prevention and Healing


  • The Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, 936 N. 34th St., Suite 22, Seattle, WA 98103. Tel. (206) 634-1903.
  • Tamar’s Voice (survivor network, evangelical), P.O. Box 17442, Irvine, CA 92623. Tel. (714) 832-1665.
  • Clergy Abuse Survivors Alliance, 5490 Judith St., #3, San Jose, Calif. 95123. 408-365-7288. (Contact: Mollie or Diana.)
  • Survivor Connections, Inc., 52 Lyndon Road, Cranson, RI 02905-1121. (401) 941- 2548.


  • The Abuse of Power: A Theological Problem, by James Newton Poling, Abingdon Press.
  • Is Nothing Sacred? by Marie Fortune, Harper-Collins.
  • Restoring the Soul of a Church: Healing Congregations Wounded by Clergy Misconduct, Nancy Myer Hopkins and Mark Laaser, editors, The Liturgical Press.
  • Sex in the Parish, by Karen Lebacqz and Ronald G. Barton, Westminster/John Knox Press. Call 1-800-227-2872.
  • Hearing the Silence, Healing the Pain: Stories of Professional Misconduct Through Sexual Abuse in the Church. PDS #72710-95001.*
  • Naming the Unnamed: Sexual Harassment in the Church. PDS #2829012* or call the Women’s Ministries Program Area, 1-888-728-7228 ext. 5382.
  • Sexual Misconduct Policy and Its Procedures, adopted by the 1993 General Assembly. #OGA 93-020.*

* To order, call 1-800-524-2612.

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