Clergy and Sexual Boundaries: Addiction and Sexual Orientation Issues

By Amico, Joseph M. | Addiction Professional, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Clergy and Sexual Boundaries: Addiction and Sexual Orientation Issues


Amico, Joseph M., Addiction Professional


While listening to the news a few years ago during the outbreak of the expose of sexual abuse scandals in the Boston Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church, I happened to look up at the television screen as an accused priest was brought into a courtroom in shackles. My interest was piqued when I recognized that the priest was from my hometown parish when I was in high school. It was then that I decided to speak out on how the suppression of sexual orientation contributes to sexual addiction and inappropriate sexual acting-out among clergy.

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First of all, I want to be clear that not all homosexual clergy have inappropriate boundaries, and not all homosexuals are addicts. However, there are some systemic issues that contribute to inappropriate behavior in gay clergy, which will be outlined in this article along with clinical suggestions for treatment.

I want to emphasize further that this is not only a problem for the Roman Catholic Church. It is apparent across all denominational lines, especially in those that have an emphasis on celibacy and prohibitions on homosexual identification or actions.

Over the years, I have worked with many clients who chose to go into the ministry as a way to cope with their sexual orientation issues. ("If I go into the ministry, perhaps God will forgive me for these thoughts and keep me clean.") In churches that allow heterosexual clergy to be married, some clergy have forced themselves to get married, thinking that will "save them" from their homosexual thoughts and tendencies. Both lines of thinking have resulted in disastrous addictive behavior, including inappropriate sexual acts.

One way to describe what happens is to think of a game of "keep away" at the beach with a blown-up beach ball. If you try to suppress the ball under the water to keep it away from the opposing team, eventually the pressure under water will cause the ball to slip away from the controller and pop off in a direction the person didn't intend.

Churches that prohibit homosexuality and require celibacy have the same effect on homosexual clergy. The more they try to suppress their sexuality, the less control they have over it, and it ends up being expressed in inappropriate ways (i.e., acting out with parishioners and seminarians, and sometimes, tragically, with adolescents or children).

More than one Roman Catholic has told me how he thought he would be safe when he made the commitment to celibacy and then found himself accosted sexually by faculty in the seminary. Clergy of all faiths report "falling in love" with parishioners who show them understanding and compassion in a profession that is often stressful with little or no helpful supervision. Most clergy, after all, are "lone rangers" as pastors of a church. As wounded healers, they become vulnerable in a profession that has not had sexual boundary training until recently.

Keep in mind that only a generation ago, it was not unusual in many denominations for a bachelor pastor to be "hooked up" with available singles in his parish with hopes by the congregation that a marriage would result. In the counseling profession, we would never think of dating a client. Not long ago, congregations would see their pastor marrying the church organist, secretary, or Sunday school superintendent as a plus for their parish. Seminaries did not teach anything about sexual boundaries. My own judicatory just had its first required boundaries workshop for all clergy just two years ago!

Now consider that clergy meet with parishioners when they are most vulnerable, and usually in the parishioner's home (i.e., illness, death, baptisms, births, marital crisis). The pastor's nurturing and care can be misunderstood as a romantic advance, and without proper training and boundaries the pastor can quickly be in ruinous trouble. Add to these common situations an addictive personality, and we have a sex addict's paradise. …

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