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The Truth About Clergy Sexual Misconduct

When clergy use their position of authority to take advantage of trust, they may be committing clergy sexual misconduct. Learn more.

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Victims of betrayal and emotional abuse may look to their faith-communities for support. When clergy engage in inappropriate sexual behavior toward congregants, sacred trust is shattered and victims are left feeling confused, devastated, and, often, ashamed.

Dave Gemmel, Associate Director of the NAD Ministerial Association, joins Anne on the free BTR podcast to discuss clergy sexual misconduct and how it can be prevented. With many years of pastoral experience, Dave understands the trauma that women experience when they experience secondary trauma at the hand of clergy.

Listen to the free BTR podcast or read the full transcript below for more.

What Is Clergy Sexual Misconduct?

[Clergy sexual misconduct] is a betrayal of sacred trust and can be on a continuum of sexual or gender-directed behaviors, either a lay or clergy person with a ministerial relationship, whether they’re paid or unpaid.

Dave Gemmel. Associate Director of the NAD Ministerial Association

Congregants seek spiritual guidance, compassion, and leadership from clergy. When pastors, bishops, and other spiritual leaders use their position of authority to destroy a congregant’s trust through sexual misconduct, that sacred role is diminished and victims may experience severe trauma which often includes a crisis of faith.

What Does Clergy Sexual Misconduct Look Like?

Dave enumerates some of the ways that clergy can violate trust and commit sexual misconduct:

  • abuse
  • adult sexual abuse
  • harassment
  • rape
  • sexual assault
  • sexualized verbal comments or visuals
  • unwanted touches and advances
  • use of sexualized materials including pornography
  • stalking
  • sexual abuse of youth or those without mental capacity to consent
  • misuse of the pastoral/ministerial position
  • Can include criminal behaviors that are against the law in some nations, states, and communities.

I Had An Affair With My Pastor, Was It Actually Clergy Sexual Misconduct?

As Dave explains, pastors have spiritual authority that makes it impossible for an “asymmetrical relationship” between himself and a congregant.

Any sexualized relationship between a pastor and a congregant, I believe, is clergy sexual misconduct and cannot be considered mutual consent.

Dave Gemmel. Associate Director of the NAD Ministerial Association

Because of the lack of “considered mutual consent,” a sexual relationship with a pastor or bishop is not an affair but is, in fact, sexual abuse. Women who have experienced this form of abuse may blame themselves, but abuse is never the victim’s fault.

Understanding How Clergy Sexual Misconduct Happens

The reality is there are some sexual predators who’ve managed to become clergy. That number, although it’s not large, because they are sexual predators, can make huge impacts. Predators use whatever tools they can, and spiritual power is a very strong power and, if they can use that to gain their way, they’ll do whatever they can to achieve their goal.

Dave Gemmel, Associate Director of the NAD Ministerial Association

When clergy take advantage of their position of power, congregants may feel disloyal or unworthy if they report the sexual misconduct. Further, congregants, especially abused women, may doubt their own perception of reality. This makes identifying and reporting clergy sexual misconduct difficult.

Utilizing Women’s Intuition Helps Prevent Clergy Sexual Misconduct

Because women have particularly adept intuitive abilities at deciphering safe or unsafe individuals, Dave suggests that all religious organizations implement a 50% policy. This means that in search committees, boards, and other leadership committees that determine who is leading a congregation, women make up at least half of the group.

If you just have one gender, you only get half of the picture. If there are only men on these committees, you’re half-blind. Many times, women can pick up on things that us men are clueless to.

Dave Gemmel, Associate Director of the NAD Ministerial Association

Betrayal Trauma Recovery Offers Powerful Support For Victims of Abuse and Betrayal

When women discover betrayal and identify abuse in their relationships, they often seek support from clergy. Dave recommends that women and couples do not seek therapeutic counseling from clergy:

Formal training of pastors and, particularly, lay leaders do not equip them to engage in therapeutic counseling.

Dave Gemmel, Associate Director of the NAD Ministerial Association

Instead, women suffering from the effects of betrayal and abuse can utilize professionals who are trained in trauma and abuse.

The Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group is led by trauma and abuse-informed APSATS certified coaches. If you are seeking validation, empowerment, knowledge, and support, join the Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group today and find the community that you deserve.

Full Transcript:

Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.

I have an amazing guest on today’s podcast, and I’m going to do his full bio and introduction in just a second, so stay tuned. We’re going to talk about clergy sexual misconduct today. We’re also going to talk about it next week.

Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group: Accessible and Affordable

Before we get to that, if you are struggling with trying to figure out what is happening in your home and you suspect that you may be suffering from emotional abuse or psychological abuse, or sexual coercion, perhaps you’ve found pornography on your husband’s phone or computer, and you’re wondering what to do. Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group is the most accessible and most affordable constant support out there.

We have multiple sessions per day, in every single time zone. Hope to see you in a session soon.

Now, to our amazing guest.

Anne: Our guest today is Dave Gemmell. He is an Associate Director of the NAD Ministerial Association. His role at Ministerial is to discover, develop, and distribute resources for the pastors of the NAD. He also seeks to enhance the pathway into professional ministry for new pastors.

In addition, he serves as a volunteer Associate Pastor for the New Hope Seventh Day Adventist Church in Fulton, MD. He received his Doctor of Ministry with an emphasis in multi-cultural leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1992, Master of Divinity at the Seventh Day Adventist Theological Seminary in 1981, and his Bachelor of Theology from Pacific Union College in 1978.

He began pastoring in the San Francisco Bay area in 1978, continued pastoring in Maui and served for ten years as Senior Pastor of Las Vegas Mountain View Church. He transferred his service to the NAD in 2002 where he served the Adventist Television Network, Church Resources Center, and is currently with the Ministerial Association. Welcome, Dave.

Betrayal Trauma Recovery Advocates For Women

Dave: Thank you very much, Anne. It is a delight to be with you, and I love your mission. BTR aims to protect women from emotional abuse, psychological abuse, and sexual coercion, we’re on the same page.

Anne: Alright Dave, let’s just dive right into talking about clergy sexual misconduct. Many believe clergy sexual misconduct pertains only to preying upon minors. Could you please define clergy sexual misconduct?

Myths About Sexual Clergy Misconduct

Dave: Yeah, that’s a mouthful isn’t it? Clergy sexual misconduct. Typically, we think of all the stories in the news, the stories of the Catholic Church with pedophilia (abusing little boys in the church), that’s what comes to mind when we think of clergy sexual misconduct. Actually, the scope is a lot bigger than that.

Anne, if I could give a little preface here before we jump into it. Let me just say that, by far, most clergy do not engage in sexual misconduct. Most clergy are honorable, spiritual leaders who provide quality spiritual direction and support for their congregations. Many, if not most, have advanced education and have been carefully screened before endorsement by their congregations. Most are highly trained, behave with great integrity and professionalism.

Having said all that, there is a tiny segment of volunteers and professional clergy who violate this sacred trust and, in doing so, damage the reputation of all clergy. That’s the segment that we’re going to zoom in on today, but I want to make sure that we realize that that is a very tiny minority of clergy.

What Is “Clergy Sexual Misconduct”?

What is clergy sexual misconduct? It’s a betrayal of sacred trust, as I mentioned, and it can be on a continuum of sexual or gender-directed behaviors, either a lay or clergy person with a ministerial relationship, whether they’re paid or unpaid.

Here are some of the things that it can include: abuse, adult sexual abuse, harassment, rape, sexual assault, sexualized verbal comments or visuals, unwelcoming touch and advances, use of sexualized materials including pornography, stalking, sexual abuse of youth or those without capacity, consent or misuse of the pastoral/ministerial position. It sometimes includes criminal behaviors that are against the law in some nations, states, and communities.

That’s an official definition of sexual misconduct by clergy that’s in the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, which is one of the best that’s out there.

Clergy Sexual Misconduct Is Mysogynistic

Anne: In your definition, you said gender-directed behaviors. Are you talking about misogyny there, and can you talk more about that?

Dave: Yeah, that is absolutely misogyny, and that is proclaiming that the women are not as valuable as men and men have the right to dictate women’s behavior.

Anne: For the purposes of this podcast, since our listeners are all victims of emotional and psychological abuse and sexual coercion from their husbands, who often go into the clergy. In my particular faith, all of the clergy are volunteers and none of them are highly trained.

Validation For Victims of Pastoral/Clergy Misconduct

In my particular faith’s case, it’s quite problematic in this way, but when they go into clergy—and I’ve heard stories of this from all faiths—frequently, clergy doesn’t understand the abuse. Are you folding into this definition, and I’m guessing that you’re not, when clergy reacts inappropriately, or harmfully, to a victim of abuse in giving her counsel about her situation?

Dave: That may not be considered clergy sexual misconduct, but it certainly is unprofessional and does not fit with the sacred trust of ministry. I would call it pastoral misconduct or clergy misconduct, in general.

Anne: Okay. After talking about clergy sexual misconduct, because we’re going to stay on this topic for a little while, perhaps at the end, we can talk about clergy misconduct in that regard a little bit later as that’s what so many of my listeners are dealing with. We’ll leave that until the end.

The “Affair” Myth (It’s Actually Clergy Sexual Misconduct)

Let’s talk about your contention that pastors having affairs with church members is a myth.

Dave: Yeah, you know we hear about that sometimes where a spiritual leader is having an inappropriate relationship with a member of the congregation and we write it off as an affair. I don’t believe it’s an affair, and here’s why. The word affair implies mutual consent between two adults, but there is an asymmetrical role between pastor and congregant.

In other words, the pastor has spiritual authority which does not put them on the same playing field, that’s why it’s asymmetrical. Any sexualized relationship between a pastor and a congregant, I believe, is clergy sexual misconduct and cannot be considered mutual consent.

Clergy Sexual Misconduct Can Occur Without Physical Coercion

Even if it’s not physical coercion, the clergy is the one in a position of spiritual and emotional power and must be held responsible for the abuse of power, so any sexual relationship between a spiritual leader and a member is not having an affair. It is clergy sexual misconduct.

Anne: Thank you for making that so clear. I had a woman on the podcast who, her episode will air after this, explained this situation with a therapist that it was kind of an emotional affair with a therapist or she was wondering if it was at the time. Really, that was therapeutic abuse, in that scenario, because he was abusing her during their sessions.

A Therapist/Client Relationship Is Professional Sexual Misconduct

It’s the same type of thing where: Can you have an affair with your therapist? The answer to that is also no, because he’s in a position of power and he’s also in a position of treating you. His role is to treat you for mental illness. I think that would fall into the same category there, in terms of therapy or other professionals, right?

Dave: Absolutely and a therapist should lose their license and be barred from practicing.

Anne: Yes. In terms of clergy sexual misconduct, when this happens well-meaning people often minimize the actions of the clergy member by saying, “He never meant for it to happen.” You also consider this a myth.

How Clergy Sexual Misconduct Is Justified By Abusers & Enablers

Can you talk more about why people are justifying this type of abuse?

Dave: Yeah, I use the word myth—again, it’s on a continuum, and at first, it might be unintentional. It may be that a pastor falls, unintentionally, into a non-professional relationship and we do need to talk about the unique temptations of the clergy and the member, in just a moment, but let’s hold off on that for now. Those situations don’t seem to fit all cases.

Sexual Predators Who Become Clergy

The reality is there are some sexual predators who’ve managed to become clergy. That number, although it’s not large, because they are sexual predators, can make huge impacts.

The biggest study was done in 2009, it’s about 10 years old now, from the Journal of Scientific Study of Religion, titled Prevalence of Clergy: Sexual Advances Toward Adults in Their Congregation. It was a two-fold study. It was an in-depth study and it was a wide study as well. Victims of clergy sexual misconduct were studied, from a wide range of religions. They were asked to tell their stories of abuse.

How Do Sexual Predators Get Away With Clergy Sexual Misconduct?

In almost all of those cases, the clergy offenders, in a series of small acts, broke down the natural defenses of the offended, took advantage of a position of spiritual power to eventually sexualize the relationship. What do we call that? That’s a sexual predator.

Somehow, there are a few of these sexual predators that have managed to get in among the ranks of spiritual leaders. Because it’s so dangerous—and here’s why: because the victims and the families and the congregation did not seem to notice it, or refused to confront the clergy with the inappropriate attention given to the victim.

There’s this special fog in a congregation that people aren’t looking for that, so they don’t see it. It makes a nice cloaking place for these very few, but significantly damaged sexual predators who’ve cloaked their way into the ministry.

How Do Sexual Predators Groom Victims of Congregations?

Anne: Would you say this also applies to people in some type of religious authority, even if it’s just volunteer, when they’re not their congregants? For example, a neighbor who thinks, “This man is amazing because he’s a pastor.” He might not be HER pastor, but some religious title.

In my church, we would call it a priesthood calling, a place in the church where they have authority. Even if they don’t belong to the same congregation, do you find that these types of predators use their titles for grooming others, not just the people in their congregation?

Dave: I think that’s possible. Predators use whatever tools they can, and spiritual power is a very strong power and, if they can use that to gain their way, they’ll do whatever they can to achieve their goal.

“Cloak of Clergy”: Predators Receive Un-Earned Trust

Anne: Sometimes, unfortunately, I think it’s an automatic way of gaining people’s trust. People just assume that they’re trustworthy, without looking for the fruits of trust at times because it’s “cloak of clergy,” like you talked about. People might not be on their guard, per se, because why would they be a pastor or why would they be a bishop or why would they be in some type of church leadership, unless they were a good trustworthy person?

What steps can churches take to empower women in the prevention of clergy sexual misconduct?

Preventing Clergy Sexual Misconduct

Dave: Yeah, I think women are the key here, absolutely. First of all, when a congregation or a group is selecting a spiritual leader, you have to check references. We do that in business, how much more important is it in spiritual life?

When I say, “check references,” that’s just not checking the resume and making the cursory calls that are on the resume, but it’s calling previous congregations and talking to people in previous congregations, others that have worked with them, and dig and dig and dig. If this person is a sexual predator, things will pop up. It may not be really obvious but after three or four phone calls and following some threads, it may be possible to uncover it.

The challenge is people don’t want to report these things, for fear of liability, or they’re saying something wrong, so you have to be very careful when you’re asking these questions. With enough reference checks, many times, these sexual predators can be eliminated, so start out with really good references to being with.

Women Should Make Up Half Of The Search Committee/Policy Committee/Board

One other thing, and here’s the power I think women really need to bring to the table, and that is making sure that at least 50% of your search committee—or your policy committee, your boards or however your church or synagogue is set up—50% need to be women.

Here’s why: I believe God created man and woman and man and woman complete humanity. If you just have one gender, you only get half of the picture. If there are only men on these committees, your half-blind. Many times, women can pick up on things that us men are clueless to.

I think it’s imperative that there is 50%, at least, on all of these committees. Does that sound wild to you? That’s my goal.

Anne: I think it sounds amazing. In my particular faith that is not even an option right now, so I’m like, “That would be a miracle if that were to take place,” and I would really appreciate that.

Misogyny Among Church Leaders Allows Clergy Sexual Misconduct To Thrive

The other thing that’s interesting about that idea is that if someone complained—like if a woman complained and said, “Hey, this was creepy or this happened,” so many men would be like, “Oh, he’s just a nice guy, don’t worry about it, you’re seeing things, you’re overreacting.”

To have women make up 50% of that, if all of them are like, “No, this really is true, he really is kind of creepy,” that would make a huge difference. Because men seem to dismiss women’s, either flat-out accusations about factual things that occurred, or also their intuition, sometimes, that something isn’t quite right.

Women: Trust Your Intuition

Dave: Hey, I’m a guy. We don’t have intuition, it’s not there and, frankly, because most of us men have not experienced those advances that are unwanted. It’s something we can’t relate to, many women have, so they immediately pick up on it. To us, it’s just completely off our radar, and that’s why we need women in these decision-making positions.

Anne: I think that’s a fantastic idea. I will pray for that in my own faith and for all faiths because that is a really good suggestion.

Coming back around to the common temptations of the clergy, let’s talk about that now. What were you referring to?

Unique Temptations of Clergy

Dave: This is really the heart of our conversation right now. I’ll bring you into the world of the pastor, and we have unique temptations. If you walk in the role of the pastor for a few moments, I have for 40 years. The role of the pastor is perceived, and you alluded to it earlier, may be attractive to a congregant because of perceived power, perhaps maybe fame, or likely spirituality, caring and implied holiness.

All of these things may have a promise to fill a void in the congregant. For the congregant, the strong and the sensitive male she’s been longing for, who listens to her pain and values her as a person, not only as a woman. That’s from the congregant’s perspective.

Now, from the pastor’s perspective, as the pastor ministers to the attracted congregant, the pastor’s need for validation in ministry is increasingly fulfilled. You can see there is this mutual satisfaction of needs.

Sexualizing Relationships With Congregants

Here’s where the problem is: It may be conflated with a personal attraction in both the minds of the pastor and the congregant, so the mutual attraction can easily become sexualized. That’s the heart of the matter right here.

Anne: I’m thinking of, in my faith, our leaders are called Bishops, and again they’re volunteers. I remember one bishop who I had a very fondness for. He was kind and I really appreciated him, and I think he had a fondness for me.

There were no sexual feelings that I felt, I don’t think he did either. It was a very pure, happy, good, Christlike relationship that we had. One day he emailed me, it was a business email about the business of the congregation, and he signed it “Gospel Love.” I loved that because he really just genuinely wanted to show me care and concern, but he also wanted me to know that this was coming from a Christlike place.

Preventing Clergy Sexual Misconduct Requires Professional Boundaries

I always remember that fondly, of this good experience I had with this particular church leader and appreciated that he knew where those boundaries were. To me, he didn’t even need to think about the boundaries because it didn’t seem like that was the situation at all, so it wasn’t like he was trying to do that. It was a natural place of faith and goodness and wholesomeness. I’ve thought about that often, and since then I have written that to several of my congregation members and said, “Gospel Love,” so they knew, “I want to tell you that I care and love you but I also want you to know that this is the type of love I’m talking about.”

Dave: Yeah, and I believe most lay leaders, and even professional ministers, would fit in that category. They are very professional. They know how to walk the line and don’t fall into that temptation. I did want to identify it because it is there, and it does happen and there are some things that we can do to prevent that conflation.

Dangers Of Using Bishops & Pastors For Therapeutic Counseling

I’m going to give a couple of tips here. This may sound radical but let me say don’t go to your pastor or your bishop for therapeutic counseling. That’s a no-no. Here’s why: Formal training of pastors and, particularly, lay leaders do not equip them to engage in therapeutic counseling.

Therapeutic counseling is a full academic program. It’s full of supervised counseling that takes thousands of hours before you become certified. It takes certification by state and governing bodies, so there are tons of protection and education to be able to provide professional counseling. I believe that it’s very dangerous to go to pastors or spiritual leaders for therapeutic counseling, unless they’ve been licensed and have gone through the coursework and have that supervised counseling experience that they need.

Anne: We are going to close here and pick up on this important conversation with Dave next week.

Stay tuned for my continued conversation with Dave Gemmell next week.

If this podcast is helpful to you, please support it.

Until next week, stay safe out there.

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