The Common Good

'From The Beginning:' Addressing the Roots of Sexual Violence in the Church

Editor’s Note: As we continue reporting on the important topic of sexual abuse and violence, Sojourners has opened up the Sexual Violence and the Church blog series for submissions. This piece is one such submission. If you are interested in submitting a post for the series, please email the Web Editor HERE.

Young pastor with Bible silhouette, Africa Studio / Shutterstock.com
Young pastor with Bible silhouette, Africa Studio / Shutterstock.com

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"From the beginning …" began my pastor, rising slowly from his armchair. With his next words, he broke my world apart. From the beginning, he had been attracted to me as a woman. From the beginning, his interest in me had been personal. He told me the reasons why, and then he said these words: "If we were both single, and if I weren't your pastor, we'd be going out to dinner." He paused a long beat. “And we’d see where it went from there." 

Were my pastor's words an act of sexual violence?

When we hear the words "sexual violence," we may envision a forcible rape or a sexual act with a person incapable of consent. Many of us would consider unwanted groping or uninvited embraces to be acts of sexual violence. Some of us would include "consensual" sex between persons of different rank, because we understand that power disparity makes meaningful consent impossible. But what about the manipulative behavior that gives rise to the delusion of consent? Was my pastor's not-quite-a-proposition an act of sexual violence? Could a lingering handshake, a compliment on spiritual gifts, or an offer of pastoral support be acts of sexual violence? Most of us would say no. And most of us would be missing the boat.

I began admiring our new pastor before he and I had exchanged a single word. He preached a brilliant social gospel. He loved and respected his wife. He seemed sweet, genuine, and remarkably humble for such a high-profile clergyman. When he offered himself as a sounding board for my struggles, I was surprised, but it never occurred to me to doubt his motives. He was my pastor, and I trusted him. 

We implicitly trust our clergy. Most of them earn our trust most of the time, but the church has ordained enough rogues to have created an epidemic in clergy sexual misconduct. When Baylor University interviewed regular worshippers from a broad range of faith traditions, they found that one in 33 women(nearly all victims are women) had suffered a clergyman’s sexual advances during her adult life. An average-sized congregation likely holds at least half a dozen survivors. And every survivor remembers the moment her eyes were opened.

"From the beginning, it's as a woman ... as a woman ... that I've been attracted to you." 

As my pastor spoke, the floor seemed to fall away beneath me. I have sometimes wondered why I found this moment so shocking. His awkward speech echoed a scene that I had already imagined many times. After years of pastoral counseling, I had developed a serious crush, and my fantasies already had this ground well covered. I had even disclosed my feelings to him a few weeks earlier, using the clinical word "transference." Then why did I feel so dizzy as he spoke? 

Because I trusted him. I could privately nurture my innocent fantasies (We walked! We talked! We held hands!) because I knew he would never enact them. I knew that when we were together, my safety was his highest priority. Now, as he spoke his desire, sickening cracks appeared in the walls of my refuge. Even as I flushed with thrill and embarrassment, I could feel the foundation crumble. By the time my head cleared, my safe place was in rubble. As I tried to fathom his intent, my horror only grew. Had he marked me as a conquest from the beginning? 

A predator pastor (and it was weeks before I allowed myself even to think this word) watches for vulnerabilities in the women who cross his path. He may target someone with a troubled marriage or a history of abuse; he may look for a newcomer or a recent immigrant; he may seek a very young woman or an older fading beauty. Any frailty can give him a point of entry. When he identifies his victim, he works patiently to gain her trust. He studies her vulnerabilities even as he ministers to them. He seduces her into sharing her deepest needs and fears. If she has marital worries, he listens with special care. And when the furrows are dug, he begins to test her boundaries. Perhaps he "accidentally" brushes up against her. Perhaps his emails take on a flirtatious tone. Perhaps he reveals tensions in his own marriage. She feels flattered and confused, and she rarely protests. He escalates his assaults. As she remains passive, she may come to believe she is consenting. She may begin to participate actively in her own seduction. She may even speak the first word of desire. 

If the victim can pull away in time, or if a bystander comes to her rescue, she may escape without physical harm. But the moment her eyes are opened, the damage is already done. Whether the offender brings grooming to completion, the victim looks into the same abyss. Her shepherd is actually a wolf. Her safe pasture is now a dangerous wilderness. If the church cannot see her distress, she is left without hope or refuge.

Ten days after my pastor spoke, I told him I could no longer meet him for counseling. Within weeks, he invited me to fill a key role at our church. A few months later, he asked me to fill another. I thought I was safe in accepting these invitations; I now understand that with every “yes,” I was saying “yes” to the original violation. The longer I stayed, the more dissonant my world became. When the pain and distortions became too great, I left my church and reported my pastor for sexual misconduct. The church focused only on his actions ("Did he touch you? No? Good."). They didn't consider the impact in my life. They didn't consider his intent. 

Were my pastor's words an act of sexual violence? I believe they were.  

If the church is serious about ending sexual violence, we must take seriously the first steps on the path of abuse. We must judge an offender’s crime not with standards that we create in a vacuum, but by weighing the harm to the victim. We must acknowledge that sexualized grooming is in and of itself, always, and in all circumstances, an act of sexual violence. If we want to shine God’s light in the world’s dark places, we must start with the darkness within our own walls.

Catherine Thiemann blogs at SurvivorsAwakenTheChurch.com.

Image: Young pastor with Bible silhouette, Africa Studio / Shutterstock.com

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