What Is Clergy Sexual Abuse and How Does It Happen?
By Stephanie Dickrell
St. Cloud Times
February 18, 2018
The recent arrest of the Rev. Anthony Oelrich, a Catholic priest who has worked in the Diocese of St. Cloud since 1992, has the community asking a lot of questions.
What happened? How did it happen? Who's at risk?
Oelrich is facing a charge of third-degree criminal sexual conduct after he was accused of engaging in a sexual relationship with an adult to whom he was a spiritual counselor.
Bishop Donald Kettler removed Oelrich as pastor of the Newman Center and suspended his priestly faculties, which means he cannot function or present himself as a priest.
Oelrich has not been convicted of a crime.
David Pooler, associate dean for academic affairs at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University in Texas has studied the impact of clergy sexual abuse.
"There are people who really do look to pastors," he said. "A lot of research around people with mental health problems says a local congregation, local pastor is the first stop for people with mental health problems, not a social worker or psychologist. Enormous trust is given to pastors."
People often assume that if an incident involves two adults and they consented, it's consensual.
"We're at a place in the church and society where we know sexual abuse of children is wrong," he said. "What the church and society haven't completely figured out yet is adults."
A Minnesota law that prohibits intimate relationships between therapists and counselors and their patients also specifically prohibits such relationships between members of the clergy and those they counsel.
Pooler has continued the tradition of Diana Garland, namesake of his department. She was a professor who researched clergy abuse, including studies that look at how often it happens.
In one project, he surveyed adult survivors of clergy sexual abuse and sexual misconduct. He wanted to know who gets abused and how it happens. Pooler's and Garland's research informs much of the rest of this story. Legal implications and definitions vary from their research and from state to state.
What is clergy sexual abuse and misconduct?
According to researchers, clergy sexual abuse occurs when a member of clergy uses his or her position and power to exploit, harm and sexually abuse a member of their congregation.
Consent is not a defense, because the clergy member is assumed to have more power in the relationship, making it more difficult for the second party to refuse.
What does clergy sexual abuse look like?
Clergy sexual abuse and misconduct can look a lot like other forms of sexual harassment and assault.
Harassment can include sexualizing conversations, touching and hugging without consent, creating an environment of hostility, pressure for sexual involvement, using sexual language and jokes and purposely invading personal space.
Isn't that just an affair?
"Really, the power differential makes it not consensual," Pooler said.
One other myth to shatter? Parishioners seduce pastors. It can happen, but it is still the responsibility of the person with more power to shut that interaction down.
What does the law say?
As of 2013, only 13 states and the District of Columbia have laws that make it a crime for clergy members to engage in sexual misconduct with adults. Most of these states, including Minnesota, specify that the abuse takes place within a counseling relationship.
Pooler said a broader definition is needed, because clergy sexual misconduct can occur outside formal counseling relationships.
How often does it happen?
A study published in 2009 tried to determine the prevalence of clergy abuse across denominations.
Researchers found that between 2 and 4 percent of female church-goers have experienced a sexual advance, sexual harassment or sexual assault by a member of the clergy at some point in their life since turning 18.
"That could be anything from sexual harassment to something far more insidious," Pooler said.
"It's not super common, but it's not insignificant," Pooler said.
How long does clergy abuse go on?
The abuse may occur frequently or infrequently, but Pooler's research found the average length of abuse for a church leader abusing adults is four years.
"What I learned from interviews is that once the person has access, they continue to have access," he said.
Who is most likely to be abused?
Men and women clergy can and do abuse men and women congregants. But due to the highly gendered nature of religion in the U.S., the majority of clergy sexual abuse is perpetrated by men and the majority of the victims are women.
Pooler found three out of four victims had unresolved prior trauma before they were abused by their church leader.
The average age of the victims when the abuse started was 30 years old. Race also plays a factor. Researchers found abuse was more common in African-American churches. One factor, he postulates, is the historic role of the African-American congregation.
"For years, and still to a certain degree, it was the only situation where African-Americans have ... complete control," Pooler said. "Embedded in that is an enormous amount of power."
Who are the abusers?
The majority are men. On average, they are 45 years old at the beginning of the abuse. About 90 percent of them are married.
Members of clergy who are highly stressed, lack training about clergy abuse and have no written guidelines are more likely to become perpetrators of abuse.
Other factors include how a clergy member copes with stress, is able to set boundaries and understands power.
One set of researchers categorized abusers as one of three types: predators, wanderers or lovers. Each still exhibits predatory behavior and there is no difference in impact on the victim. What primarily differentiates them is motivation, Pooler said.
Predators are usually charismatic, actively seeks to abuse a victim and is often a repeat abuser.
"One is the true-blue predator, who has a narcissistic personality, a wolf in sheep's clothing, they'd do this wherever they are," he said. "That's by far the largest group of people."
Wanderers typically don't intentionally seek out victims. A crisis or life transition may lead to an abusive relationship with a congregant.
"This is someone who has a really good heart, but they have real unresolved issues," Pooler said. "They aren't able to maintain the boundaries and feel flattered by the attention they're getting from someone."
Lovers view themselves as being in love with a congregant. This type of relationship often begins in counseling sessions where the abuser can offer and receive individual attention from the victim.
Pooler described the thought process of the lover as: " 'I'm in love with this person, I want to spend my life with them. ... I'm just abusing them short term so I can be with them.' "
What beliefs enable abuse?
Pastors are endowed with trust because many people believe God specially appoints or calls these leaders.
"There's a culture of niceness in congregations, implicitly trusting someone with the title of pastor," Pooler said. "They make assumptions (the pastor) would not harm people."
Victims also tend to place implicit trust in the church and assume its leaders were ôsafe."
"They view a pastor as not completely human, but not God either, but somewhere in between," Pooler said. "It's the perfect platform for the abuser to use to gain access."
How does an abuser maintain an abusive relationship over time?
Abusers simultaneously stroke the victim's ego and break them down. It's common for the perpetrator to blame the victim. At first, there is no obvious talk of blame and the victim is made to feel important and special.
But if a victim starts to pull away or question the relationship, the perpetrator may use guilt or shame to maintain silence and access to the victim.
What happens to the victim when abuse is exposed?
"They are deeply wounded on multiple layers," Pooler said.
For many victims, "they're losing everything," he said. "[The church] is the primary place where [they] receive nourishment, support, social support, [their] primary connections."
Many survivors told him that the exposure was worse than the abuse.
"The lack of validation and belief from members of the congregation was actually more traumatic than the betrayal and abuse itself," Pooler said.
"Many people talked about a full-blown loss of faith," he said. " 'I believe in God still, but I no longer believe in this institution.' "
Still, two-thirds of survivors are still part of a congregation.
What happens when the congregation finds out?
Disbelief and blame are common, experts say.
"Congregations often immediately side with the abuser," Pooler said. "It creates so much dissonance ... the idea that their spiritual leader had done the harm that is alleged."
The victim is often blamed and excluded from the congregation.
What responsibility does the congregation have for abuse?
In a healthy congregation, there is power sharing and it is OK to respectfully question leaders. Healthy congregations also address reports of abuse quickly and use resources to help the victim and stop the abuser.
How can we stop abuse and prevent it from happening?
"Some of the things are common sense: more training on ethics and boundaries," Pooler said.
He suggests better screening tools before people join the clergy.
Most importantly, it is important for congregations to be prepared, he said.
"Less than 10 percent of churches even had a policy to guide them," Pooler said.
What should those policies cover?
"Teach people in congregations, when they see something that alarms them, it's really OK to ... ask some questions, bring something to light, that we're all responsible," he said, for the safety of each other.
What kind of institutions are more prone to abuse?
"Where there are high levels of authority that are very centralized in the pastoral role," Pooler said. "In congregations that have the narrative that you don't question the authority of a pastor or a leader. There's no room for dissent in any way."
But, he stressed, abuse does not just happen in conservative churches.
"There are sick, predatory people in all churches who prey on the vulnerable," he said.
Follow Stephanie Dickrell on Twitter @SctimesSteph, like her on Facebook, call her at 255-8749, or find more stories at sctimes.com/sdickrell.