It's not just about the children anymore.
For well over a century, institutions such as the Boy Scouts of America and the Roman Catholic Church have been dealing with the issue of pedophilia and sexual abuse of minor children. Now, a new report published this week in the San Diego Union-Tribune highlights another class of victims: adult women.
Although reporter Peter Rowe's story focuses on sexual assault of women by priests, the problem is not unique to the Roman Catholic Church. Such abuse occurs in all denominations. It is a common story. An emotionally distraught woman seeks counsel from her pastor, minister, or priest, who in turn exploits her vulnerability. In 2006, the journal Social Work & Christianity published an article which gave an account of a woman having marital problems who sought counsel from her clergyman (the denomination was not identified). He in turn exploited her emotional distress in order to draw her into an “affair” with him.
She was not the only one to fall for his advances.
Although the aforementioned case did not involve forcible rape, it may as well have. On the surface, such encounters appear to be between “consenting” adults of legal age. However, the reality is that the dynamics of the relationship makes them something else altogether. In fact, under legal statutes in many states, sexual assault is defined as having sex with any adult who is unable to give consent because of psychological or emotional vulnerability, or because of the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim (i.e., the former holds some kind of power over the latter). This includes people in spiritual distress who come to their clergymen seeking comfort and counsel.
There is another unfortunate aspect to this issue, which involves women who are members of the clergy themselves. In 2005, Christopher Lind, writing for the journal Theology & Sexuality, pointed out that the fear of harassment is a common problem for female clergy. He states: “Female pastors are concerned about protecting themselves from unwelcomed approaches.” At that time, there was very little formal data about this subject. More recently, however, the women clergy in the Church of England (Anglican) began speaking out about sexual abuse and harassment within the clerical hierarchy.
There are also “sins of omission.” Earlier this year, the Washington Post published a story about evangelical churches' failure to protect their members who are victims of sexual assault and abuse. Not surprisingly, these evangelical clergymen protect the abusers and even blame the victim. This past May, the former president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was forced to resign after having told a rape victim to “forgive her assailant” rather than file a criminal complaint with local law enforcement. Furthermore, leaders of these evangelical churches often turn a blind eye to the behavior of such “spiritual” leaders.
The good news is that some churches are beginning to recognize the problem of sexual assault and abuse within their organizations and are taking steps to address it. The United Methodist Church, which has traditionally been one of the more progressive Christian denominations, began leading the way over 20 years ago when it published guidelines on recognizing and dealing with sexual misconduct within the church as well as society at large.
Nonetheless, there is much work to be done. While church leaders bear most of the responsibility, it will also require that more victims speak out – and it is up to those leaders to provide a safe, judgment-free venue in which victims can tell their stories and expose those who misuse and abuse their position for the purposes of self-gratification.