Preying preachers: Confronting clergy sexual abuse

Baptist News Global [Jacksonville FL]

March 30, 2023

By Joel Bowman, Jr.

There should be zero tolerance when it comes to clergy abuse of congregants. However, we learned years ago of how child sexual abuse by priests has been tolerated within the Roman Catholic Church. Since then, it has become unequivocally clear that clergy sexual abuse is not merely a “Catholic problem,” but one that impacts Christians across the ecclesiastical spectrum. 

As is the case with Catholic leaders, some evangelical and fundamentalist leaders have enabled and covered up clergy sexual abuse. The same could be said of leaders within mainline Protestant denominations. Church leaders often discredit and dismiss survivors. Therefore, they are complicit in their suffering. 

In recent years, details of a scandal involving the Southern Baptist Convention have come to light, largely due to the work of Guidepost Solutions.

Despite last summer’s damning report by Guidepost, some prominent leaders within the SBC would rather focus on excommunicating churches that have women pastors than on confronting the systemic problem of Clergy Sexual Abuse. This is misguided. 

In 2015, the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University conducted the first national survey of adult survivors of clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse. A total of 280 survivors participated in the study that was directed by my friend, colleague and Garland School professor David Pooler.

The study found just a third (33%) of survivors agreed or strongly agreed that they were believed when they reported the abuse. Only 8% agreed or strongly agreed that their church supported them after the abuse occurred. 

Clergy sexual abuse is all about the abuse of power.

Surely, the abuse of power is nothing new. It is seen in the life of King David, who misused his power to take advantage of Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, Uriah (2 Samuel 11:1-12:15). David’s son, Amnon, forcibly raped his sister, Tamar (2 Samuel 13:12-14). Upon learning of this, David became “furious” but took no real action (2 Samuel 13:21).

Like David, many in local churches take no real action when they learn of abuse. 

Be they entertainers, athletes, business leaders, ministry executives, former presidents or “regular Joes,” men often have taken advantage of physical and/or social power differences in victimizing others. Sadly, clergymen are well-represented among these predators. 

Preachers often prey on the vulnerable. People who experienced trauma prior to experiencing clergy sexual abuse are especially vulnerable. The Baylor study found 65% of survivors agree or strongly agree that they had unprocessed/unresolved trauma prior to the abuse. 

What makes clergy sexual abuse so egregious is that clergymen are supposed to be safe people and churches are supposed to be safe places. According to the study, 75% agreed or strongly agreed that the congregation felt safe before the abuse started. It must be said every religious space that “feels” safe at first, is not necessarily safe. 

In addressing clergy sexual abuse, we must know how to identify it. Clergy sexual abuse happens when a person with religious authority intentionally uses their role, position and power to sexually harass, exploit or engage in sexual activity with a person. This involves sexualizing conversations (including on the phone, through social media or email), asking for or transmitting unwanted sexual images/texts, touching or hugging people who do not want to be touched, pushing for sexual involvement, creating pressure and hostility when boundaries are set, using sexual language and jokes, pressing or rubbing up against someone, or invading personal space.

Clergy sexual abuse can occur even when the congregant is of legal age of consent. It often takes place when pastoral counseling is being provided. The Baylor study found 62% of victims agreed or strongly agreed that they were being counseled by the church leader when their abuse started. 

Clergy must be held accountable for such atrocities. After all, doctors and therapists could lose their licenses to practice if abuse allegations are substantiated. James 3:1 indicates “we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

Many people have been victimized by preying preachers. As a result, survivors of clergy sexual abuse must live with the ongoing impact of the trauma they experienced. They are often shamed into silence. Consequently, many have turned away from the Christian faith, altogether. The Baylor study found 80% agreed or strongly agreed that their experience with the church after the abuse negatively affected their spiritual life. 

Let’s give space to these precious ones who are created in the image of God. May we support them as they engage in the arduous process of healing. 

Ultimately, we as members of the family of believers must advocate for abusers to be held accountable. In so doing, we will practically live out Proverbs 31:8-9, which says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.”