By Samantha Nelson  |  30 March 2021  |  

It happens all over the world, in every faith community, in every denomination, in every church, synagogue, temple, mosque, parochial school, and counseling office. Clergy sexual abuse is a scourge of all faith communities. Whether by members of the clergy, faith-based educators and counselors, youth leaders, evangelists or local congregation lay leaders, clergy sexual abuse has a devastating impact on the victim, as well as the congregation.

And, yes, before you ask, this does happen in our denomination.

Not an “affair”

Clergy sexual misconduct is often wrongly labeled as “an affair” by media, church leaders and others. This incorrect terminology minimizes the accountability of the spiritual leader, and attempts to place equal responsibility and blame on both parties, when the responsibility rests squarely upon the spiritual leader to maintain healthy, safe and appropriate boundaries at all times. 

By definition, clergy sexual abuse is the abuse of a vulnerable individual who is in the care of a spiritual leader. It is referred to as abuse because of the power imbalance that exists between a pastor/congregant, teacher/student, counselor/counselee, etc. The leader may be a paid employee (such as a rabbi, pastor, teacher or counselor) or a volunteer leader in the local congregation (such as a Bible teacher, elder, deacon, youth worker, etc.) all of whom have a sacred fiduciary trust to never betray those who are under their care and leadership

Victims are often vulnerable and seeking help or a deeper relationship with God when they are abused. Most commonly, these individuals were abused in their past and that is one reason they are more trusting and more vulnerable to the predator spiritual leader. Victims of childhood abuse or domestic violence are easy prey for the predator pastor. Vulnerable people are used to doing what they’re told, keeping secrets that could cause harm to people they hold in high esteem, attempting to avoid any angry confrontations or threats—such as what typically occurs when a victim tries to assert themselves and get out of an abusive scenario.

Besides past or current sexual, physical, verbal or emotional abuse, victims may come from a background where they suffer low self-esteem, marital problems, trauma, sickness or death in the family, personal health problems, depression, financial problems, or situations of excessive stress. They are not infrequently attending church alone, or are vulnerable because of cultural diversity and age difference with the abuser, who is often older than the victim.

Setting, opportunity and grooming

It often begins when a vulnerable person seeks counseling or advice from the pastor or spiritual leader—a counseling session, Bible study, a church activity or event. 

The victim, not knowing she is the fly venturing upon the spider’s web, trusts the spiritual leader. As he or she shares her pain and her past, the abuser begins to create a dependence. Soon he is the most important person in her life. The victim doesn’t realize the counselor’s motive. The victim may even come to believe it is somehow her fault or that she is “in love” with her abuser. The abuser may share secrets about his own marriage (whether true or not) in order to lead the victim to sympathize with him and want to help him, rather than recognizing that this man can in no way help her if his own life is not right with God and his spouse. 

That initial lingering handshake, the friendly or comforting hug, leads to more physical touch and then to sexual intercourse, sometimes in the form of forcible rape while the victim is saying “no.” At other times it is effected by emotional force, because the victim’s mental and spiritual health has been compromised by the abuser during the grooming process. This latter is a common scenario in clergy sexual abuse

One of the most dangerous situations is when the leader and victim are only together temporarily, such as the youth pastor or counselor who molests young boys or girls at camp, or the traveling evangelist who takes advantage of the opportunity of always being on the move to abuse someone with whom he comes in contact. He commits the abuse and then leaves the area with no way for the victim—if she’s even in a strong enough mindset to do so—to seek legal recourse or press criminal charges. 

Though abusers may pretend to be compassionate and interested in the wellbeing of the victim, abusers are generally narcissistic. Predatory abusers have multiple victims and though they may lack opportunity for a time, given the chance they will abuse again. 

The groomed church

Congregations are rarely prepared to properly address clergy sexual abuse when it comes to their attention. It’s easier to cover it up and keep it quiet. The victim may even be asked to leave, and the abuser kept in place, or quietly moved to a new church or school. 

It’s important to understand that congregations have typically been groomed along with the victim. Congregations see their spiritual leader as wise, close to God, caring, compassionate, always willing to help. They never see that he (or she, as abusers and victims can be male or female) has been manipulating them into supporting him and trusting him and, thereby, siding with him if he is ever exposed. 

Congregations automatically extend trust to spiritual leaders, and an abuser can easily manipulate this trust. That congregations often protect their abuser and shun the victim is one major reason why clergy sexual abuse continues to happen and why one predator spiritual leader can continue in some form of ministry for decades without any lasting repercussions. Even if local church leadership does confront the abuser, he often feigns repentance to get back into his position and everyone’s good graces.  

Stand against abusers

Meanwhile, the victim is left alone to deal with the shame heaped upon her. She feels like an outcast and unloved by God. It is for this reason that The Hope of Survivors was founded in 2002 and has been able to assist thousands of victims around the world in their spiritual and emotional healing.

In order to prevent and stop abusers in the church, the members of the congregation must first be willing to take a firm biblical stand against abuse and hold the abuser accountable. This may include notifying law enforcement immediately—yes, even before contacting someone in the church hierarchy—if the victim is a minor. 

Like those who continue to support Ravi Zacharias and his writings—even though he is a proven predator and his ministry has finally admitted how wrong they were to not take his victims seriously and do something to help them and stop the abuse—followers of a beloved spiritual leader will often come to his defense and be willingly deceived by his lies and manipulation. 

But what’s wrong with his books?

Many ask, what harm can come from reading, selling or promoting the writings of an abuser? Wasn’t there truth in what he said?

Of course people love and trust a pastor or spiritual figure. They see him as a godly man who preaches and teaches the Word of God each week. Perhaps they are enthralled with his books or other writings. They may even become like groupies following a band—they tend to follow this spiritual leader and all he does and never actually ponder what the truth may be because it would shatter the image of the idol they have created of the spiritual leader. 

But why would you choose to continue to read books and articles or watch sermons and seminars by someone who was not walking with God?  Someone who clearly was not practicing what he was preaching? A minister who betrays his sacred trust to engage in abusive sexual relations is definitely not walking with God. No matter what is written in the books about lifestyle, dietary habits, forgiveness, sin, or escaping to God in the wilderness, if the author himself was not practicing what he was preaching, if he was not purified and cleansed by the blood of Jesus, why would you want to read his books? 

Whenever I have been in a bookstore and noticed books written by abusive spiritual leaders, I always tell the store manager. Most of the time, they remove the books from the shelves. They had not known the truth until it was shared with them, and they chose to take proper action. It is never wise to promote or support someone who is walking contrary to God. 

Your salvation

Even if this person shares the same religious or lifestyle ideologies and convictions as yours, if you have to set aside biblical morality and truth to support your idol, you are giving assent to their manipulation and lies. In such situations, you should think about your own salvation.

Revelation 22:15 says, 

For without [speaking of the heavenly city] are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.

Note that those who lie and those who love or partake of the lie—even if they wrote some true things in the course of their ministry—are outside of the City of God. Supporting a known sexual predator in the church is supporting a liar and an adulterer, and you are partaking of his sin. Your eternity is hanging in the balance with his. That’s how seriously God takes abuse!

Here is Jesus speaking in Matthew 18:6: 

But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. 

I’d say that taking sexual advantage of a vulnerable child, youth or even adult falls under the category of “offending one of these little ones.” 

The example of Eli and his sons Hophni and Phinehas in 1 Samuel 2:22-4:18 is a very sobering lesson in condoning sin by doing nothing to stop it and failing to hold abusers accountable. 

On the other hand, some incorrectly use King David as an example of God’s love and forgiveness when He called David “a man after mine own heart” Acts 13:22. Yet, if you pay close attention to the story of King David and Bathsheba, you will notice that when God sends Nathan the prophet to confront David, he says the traveler “took the poor man’s lamb” (2 Samuel 12:4). The word “took” does not imply consent: Bathsheba was raped by the highest authority in the land. David was the only one admonished, not Bathsheba. Clearly, David is not a man after God’s own heart at this time. 

Ellen White

In the book The Adventist Home, page 330, paragraph 1, the author writes (about abusive spiritual leaders), 

When Satan’s bewitching power controls a person, God is forgotten, and man who is filled with corrupt purposes is extolled. Secret licentiousness is practiced by these deceived souls as a virtue. This is a species of witchcraft. . . . There is always a bewitching power in heresies and in licentiousness. The mind is so deluded that it cannot reason intelligently, and an illusion is continually leading it from purity. The spiritual eyesight becomes blurred, and persons of hitherto untainted morals become confused under the delusive sophistry of those agents of Satan who profess to be messengers of light. It is this delusion which gives these agents power. Should they come out boldly and make their advances openly, they would be repulsed without a moment’s hesitation; but they work first to gain sympathy and secure confidence in themselves as holy, self-sacrificing men of God. As his special messengers they then begin their artful work of drawing away souls from the path of rectitude by attempting to make void the law of God.

That is serious and it requires prompt and serious action on our parts when we come to a knowledge of abuse by someone in the role of spiritual leadership. 

If you are a victim of clergy abuse, please contact Hope of Survivors, so we can put you in touch with someone who can help you.

Samantha Nelson is a pastor’s wife who serves alongside her husband, Steve, in Wyoming. She and Steve lead The Hope of Survivors, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting victims of clergy sexual abuse and providing educational seminars to clergy of all faiths. She and Steve love traveling, hiking in the mountains, and enjoying the beauty of God’s creation.

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