Combating Clergy Sexual Misconduct

By Schaefer, Arthur Gross | Risk Management, May 1994 | Go to article overview

Combating Clergy Sexual Misconduct

Schaefer, Arthur Gross, Risk Management

To sue or not to sue - that is the question victims of clergy sexual abuse are increasingly asking themselves. In the not too distant past, the answer was usually a resounding |no'. Victims of abuse were generally too ashamed to publicly accuse a pastor of sexual misconduct and were frightened of the community's reaction to their allegations. Like the heroine in The Scarlet Letter, most victims preferred to bury the memory of the abuse deep within their souls.

However, today's more open climate regarding disclosure of sexual abuse has clearly encouraged violated congregants to speak up. The media's continual reporting of sexual misconduct by some of the most respected clergy in virtually every denomination has kept the spotlight focussed on this increasingly public problem. As a result, lawsuits are a growing reality. When allegations of sexual abuse arise, the particular clergyperson, church, synagogue or lay leadership rightfully fears legal action. In some cases, the legal finger may also point to regional and national religious bodies that failed to warn a congregation about a pastor's history or did not take appropriate action when they became aware of allegations of sexual misconduct.

Sadly, several religious bodies have reacted to the issue of clergy violations out of fear of legal liability rather than a sense of religiously motivated ethics and morals. A recent article in a national publication for mainline religious institutions suggested that the best way to deal with clergy sexual misconduct is to have clergy stop any activity that could conceivably lead to a charge of misconduct, and to buy more insurance. Some clergy have taken this advice to heart and now will no longer give a congregant a hug or engage in counseling. Others make sure their doors are kept wide open when they are being visited by a congregant of the opposite sex. Several clergy have even removed couches from their offices, some tape-record their office meetings, and others study the "correct" body position to adopt when hugging others.

However, while the cessation of religious counseling and appropriate hugging may be a method for reducing the potential for legal liability, it is also a prescription for making clergy's counseling less effective. Taking actions, such as eliminating hugging to prevent legal liability, does not deal with the underlying causes for the inappropriate behavior. Education and response procedures, rather than limiting actions, are the best way to curb sexual violations and potential legal liabilities. Insurers, risk managers and religious organizations must therefore play an active role in helping develop and implement the educational programs that can help reduce the likelihood of clergy sexual misconduct.


Educational programs for dealing with the threat of clergy sexual abuse focus on instructing clergy about the complex psychological forces that can lead to sexual misconduct. For example, because society tends to regard ministers as being "perfect" people, congregants who socialize with a pastor often do not get to know the real person "behind the cloth." For some clergy, the resultant feelings of loneliness and insatiable demands from congregants can cause them to pursue sexual intimacy as a way to escape their isolation. Conversely, for the congregant, the lure of forbidden activity, the hope to heal the wounds of past pain, or the desire to become close to God may cause him or her to turn to the clergy for intimacy - a situation that can lead to sexual behavior. Finally, in some extreme cases, individuals with aberrant sexual tendencies such as pedophilia may be drawn to the ministry, thinking that they will be able to control their desires if they live in a cloistered environment while "under the watchful eye of God."

For both clergy and congregants, these unconscious psychological motivations are complex, convoluted and difficult to uncover. …

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