Thinking about sexual abuse in churches

My previous blog post opened my awareness to a very crucial insight in understanding the dynamics of abuse in church. I mentioned that Christians were often people who were in touch with the child-like qualities of trust and openness. These same qualities are encouraged by Christian teaching and also necessary for developing the attitudes that undergird spirituality and the capacity to worship. In worship we are encouraged to open ourselves in hope towards an unseen heavenly Father. This ability to worship does seem to tap into abilities that we learnt as children, but it is none the worse for that. The problem comes when this capacity to tap into the ‘inner child’ is exploited in some way by another person. If I speak about naivety among Christians, I am not implying that this quality should be deplored. I hope I am simply describing the way that Christian naivety can lead to a state of dangerous vulnerability. The same child-like trust in a heavenly father can easily be transferred into a trust in a manipulative ‘man of God’.

The accounts of sexual exploitation by clergy of children and adult women almost invariably involve what is known as ‘grooming’. I leave to one side the whole issue of child abuse in the church as it is not a subject on which I feel qualified to speak. But the sexual exploitation of women in the church is something that has crossed my radar and I would even go so far as to say that it is relatively common. It occurs right across the board in the church and can happen quite independently of the theology that is preached in a particular church. The case study that I produced in my book, ‘Ungodly Fear’ did in fact concern a Baptist minister. Talking to or corresponding with a number of women who had been abused by clergy, I got used to the idea that part of the grooming technique by the minister or priest was to suggest that ‘God has brought us together’. Another ‘chat-up’ line appears to be the notion that the woman concerned was learning about ‘God’s love’ through the ‘love’ being shown by the exploiting minister. Many of the women concerned, who were caught up in these abusive relationships, were totally unaware of anything being wrong until the ‘affair’ ended. Then, like survivors from a cult, their eyes were opened to being able to see how much they had been taken advantage of and exploited for totally selfish ends. A particular cruel twist that was a feature of some of my accounts, was that the woman herself was blamed for ‘leading the minister astray’. People in the congregation found it too hard to let go of their fantasy of the perfect man of God who was their leader and guru. One abused woman told me that she was blamed for the minister falling sick with cancer. Ostracism and shunning were the order of the day for this wronged woman.

The technique of grooming, whether of a child or an adult, taps into the vulnerability of everyone to want to feel safe in a caring parental relationship. As I suggested in my last blog post, everyone is capable of regressing into a parent-child relationship, particularly in situations of stress. Nobody is ever so totally grown-up that they are allowed to be free from wanting on occasion to return to the safety of a father’s (or mother’s) care. The minister or priest easily provides the archetypal caring figure who can fulfil this role. Every minister has to work on developing a sensitivity to ward off this kind of projection or handle it extremely carefully. The psychoanalysts call the process ‘transference’ and it is very powerful. When such transference become sexualised on either side, the potential for disaster is acute. But one principle is clear. In any pastoral role, the minister has complete responsibility for every aspect of the relationship. Excuses that the relationship was in any way mutual seldom survive any degree of scrutiny. The minister carries all the experience and the responsibility to keep the relationship healthy. Any relationship that becomes sexualised after a woman is seeking some sort of parenting, can only be seen as abusive.

It is quite hard to see how clergy of any denomination actually form lasting relationships when they carry the baggage of being an archetypal figure to many who look to them for help. This task of successfully negotiating other people’s projections and being pastorally effective is a fraught one. All too easily clergy fall into the trap that I have outlined in a previous post. Here we arrive at the issue of narcissism and its capacity to cause havoc in pastoral relationships. In summary it can be stated that any minister who brings to his (or her) ministry unresolved hungers for self-esteem and status is likely to be in considerable danger for the kinds of pastoral disasters that we see from time to time. Sexual acting-out is but one possible manifestation of this ‘needy’ behaviour and, as we described before, the origins of this abusive pattern can nearly always be traced back to childhood.

From all this it can be seen that I consider narcissism to be an ever-present danger for ministers and clergy. Whether it is acted out sexually, in a variety of power games or through financial skull-duggery, it is something that should be monitored throughout their ministry. I would welcome mentoring and monitoring for all clergy, but sadly as previous blogs have indicated, the clergy of the Church of England are extremely reluctant to have any of their actions or decisions questioned or scrutinised.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

4 thoughts on “Thinking about sexual abuse in churches

  1. I have recently been in touch with someone from an abused background. This was very painful because Mary and I had known her since teenage years. Her father was a militant Pentecostal believer in the ‘Patriarchal’ ownership of his children. He was a demonstrative brute of a man and only God knows what she suffered. Sometimes he would pick her up mid evening and bring her back to her husband very late at night. This was strange to say the very least.
    She always had a hysterical personality but this relationship with her father took her over the edge.
    As I trace this evil back to its roots I am conscious of how quickly the understanding of ‘Truth’ and reality become swamped under a flood of authority, (Biblical authority so called).

    I have become disconnected with the word ‘Healing’ as I am yet to find out how to cross that particular wasteland myself? The wall of indifference inside the established ‘church’s’ to these issues speaks to me of a problem greater than I first thought. I feel a strange eerie silence where an eternal repository of tears fills an empty space. Is God there?

  2. Chris, it is enormously to your credit that you try to listen sympathetically to someone else who has been abused. And if you know them, you really have to do this. But, remember, you can’t squeeze anything else out of an empty sponge! You have been bled dry. Don’t expect too much of yourself. I’m sure your friend was helped by your willingness to listen. And give yourself time to heal. God is there. It’s just that your receptors have been damaged. Or perhaps I should miss out the word “just”. It’s a terrible thing to do to someone, to take them away from God.

  3. i think so this all information about sex and harrasment cases.we all know that it will increase day by day. sex became people violent with we all have to increase a knowlege of sex.

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