Clergy Sexual Abuse Essay

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Clergy function as religious leaders in a wide variety of religious traditions. In order for them to be effective leaders and counselors, they must be trustworthy. Specifically this means they must not take advantage of the vulnerabilities of those they serve by crossing sexual and emotional boundaries. If they do betray this trust, they do damage to individuals, congregations, and their entire faith community. Although this is not a new phenomenon (the historical record is extensive), it has only begun to surface in public awareness since the mid-1980s. Sexual abuse by clergy is a major crisis for both individuals and institutions.

It is a violation of professional ethics for any person in a pastoral role of leadership or pastoral counseling (clergy or lay) to engage in sexual contact or sexualized behavior with a congregant, client, employee, student, or other person (adult, teen, or child) while within the professional (pastoral or supervisory) relationship. It is wrong because sexual activity in this context is exploitative and abusive.

In the mid-1980s in the United States, persons who had been victimized by their clergy began to disclose their experiences, which resulted in panic and disbelief at every level of religious institutions. Every tradition was and continues to be confronted with the fact of abusive leaders who take advantage of the vulnerability of their followers, whether these followers are children, teens, or adults. Often in response to civil litigation, slowly denominations, movements, and organizations with responsibility for oversight of clergy began to respond. Every religious institution continues to struggle to find effective means to prevent sexual abuse by its clergy and to screen, supervise, and if necessary, suspend abusive religious leaders.

Although ministerial violations of boundaries involving sexualization of a relationship can take place in the staff supervisory or mentor relationship, instances of pastoral misconduct are most likely to occur in the ministerial relationship or the counseling relationship. When an individual congregant seeks guidance, instruction, or counsel from a clergyperson or spiritual leader and the minister sexualizes this relationship, it is similar to the violation of the therapeutic relationship by a therapist or the violation of a teaching relationship by the teacher. When a child or teenager is the object of the sexual contact or sexualization, the situation is one of pedophilia or child sexual abuse, which is by definition not only unethical and abusive but criminal.

When clergy and pastoral counselors cross sexual boundaries with congregants or clients, the pastoral relationship and the trust necessary to that relationship are lost. Congregants and clients seek the help of a clergyperson assuming that they will be safe to address their concerns. Consequently, they make themselves vulnerable, but also they become an easy target for a clergyperson who has no respect for boundaries or the well-being of the congregant or client.

Sexual boundary crossings that constitute sexual contact or sexualization of a pastoral relationship include but are not limited to sexual comments or suggestions (jokes, innuendoes, invitations, etc.), touching, fondling, seduction, kissing, intercourse, molestation, and rape. There may be only one incident or a series of incidents or an ongoing intimate relationship over time. Neither the nature of the boundary crossing nor the duration necessarily determines the negative impact or damage to the congregant. What may appear to an outsider to be a “minor” incident may have major consequences for the recipient and should not be minimized.

Sexual boundary crossing by clergy in pastoral relationships is an instance of unethical professional behavior that is often minimized or ignored. It is not “just an affair,” although it may involve an ongoing sexual relationship with a client or congregant. It is not merely adultery, although adultery may be a consequence if the clergyperson or congregant or client is in a marital relationship. It is not just an instance of bad judgment by the minister or counselor. It is often a recurring pattern of misuse of the pastoral role by clergy who seem to neither comprehend nor care about the damaging effects their behavior may have on the congregant or client.

Although in reported cases most clergy offenders are adult heterosexual males and most victims are adult heterosexual females, it is clear that neither gender nor sexual orientation excludes anyone from the risk of offending (clergy) or from the possibility of being taken advantage of (congregants or clients) in the pastoral relationship.

Sexual abuse by clergy violates professional ethics in the following ways:

It is a violation of role. The expectations of the pastoral role include making available certain resources, talents, knowledge, and expertise to serve the best interests of the congregant. Sexual contact or sexualization of the pastoral relationship is not included in the clergyperson’s role.

It is a misuse of authority and power. Inherent in the pastoral role is a degree of authority and power with which the clergyperson provides leadership to a congregation. This power is intended to be used to benefit individuals and congregations. But it can easily be misused, as is the case when a minister or counselor (intentionally or unintentionally) uses his or her authority to initiate or pursue sexual contact with a congregant. Even if the congregant sexualizes the relationship, it is still the clergyperson’s responsibility to maintain the boundaries of the pastoral relationship in the best interests of the congregant.

It is taking advantage of vulnerability. The congregant is by definition vulnerable to the clergyperson; he or she has fewer resources and less power than the clergyperson in the pastoral relationship. If the clergyperson takes advantage of this vulnerability to gain sexual access to the congregant, then he or she violates the mandate to protect the vulnerable from harm. (For Jews and Christians, the protection of the vulnerable is an expectation that derives from the Jewish and Christian traditions of a hospitality code.)

It is an absence of meaningful consent. Meaningful consent to sexual activity requires a context of choice and equality; meaningful consent requires the absence of fear or the most subtle coercion. There is always an imbalance of power and thus inequality between the clergyperson and those whom he or she serves in a pastoral relationship. Even if the clergyperson and congregant see themselves as “consenting adults,” the difference in role precludes the possibility of meaningful consent.

The violation of pastoral boundaries when a religious leader sexualizes a pastoral relationship is a common problem in all religious traditions (Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Native American, Muslim, etc.). The unethical and exploitative misconduct of a few undercuts the integrity of all as it destroys the trust necessary for a healthy and meaningful pastoral relationship. The impact on laypeople who are members of these various traditions is usually painful and can be long term. It is the responsibility of the church, synagogue, or other religious organization or group to protect its members and provide a safe place for religious practice.


  1. Fortune, M. M. (1988). Is nothing sacred? The story of a pastor, the women he sexually abused, and the congregation he nearly destroyed. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press.
  2. Fortune, M. M. (2005). Sexual violence: The sin revisited. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press.

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