the Hope of Survivors

Pastoral Sexual Abuse: It’s Not an Affair, It’s Abuse—Sandra Gates

Imagine a woman, after years of abuse (sexual, emotional, physical and substance), who thinks that she has finally found true love. This love was found at a church, with a Pastor who seemed to understand and love her unconditionally. This Pastor and the congregants of this church became a safe haven where this woman felt she could place all of her love, hope and trust.

With each passing day, she grows more dependent on her pastor. He encouraged her and accepted her in a way that no one else ever had (according to him). He encouraged her to come to him for counseling, and that he would be there for her any time she needed him. Finally she succumbs to his suggestions, starts counseling sessions, and eventually trusts him enough to tell him her darkest secrets.

Eventually the counseling sessions began to take a turn in a different direction, the pastor began to tell her that she is someone who was very special to him and that he had never felt this way about anyone before. He even goes as far as to tell her that he has fallen in love with her and that he would never do anything to hurt her.

Imagine how confusing this must have been. Inwardly she questions the morality of his statements, yet she’s fearful of hurting his feelings. This is no an ordinary man, he is a pastor. He is a man that she has learned to look up to, someone she has grown to trust, and to love. Someone she believed would never hurt her or do anything wrong. He is directly under God! This is a man that God has chosen to be a shepherd to His people, this man would never hurt God’s people or lead them in the wrong direction; God wouldn’t let him because he is a “Man of God!”

Imagine this woman thinking these thoughts as something else began to stir within her. This “Man of God” had awakened something in her that she didn’t realize she still possessed; he had awakened some forgotten feelings of desire. Along with these feelings of desire came hurtful feelings of guilt. She’d had these same feelings as a seven-year-old child, when her uncle would creep into her bedroom late at night and touch her in places that she knew he should not have been touching. Even though she hated for him to come into the room and do the things he did, still something in her body would respond to his unwanted, intimate touch.

She questioned the pastor whether it was morally right to fall in love with each other and he assures her that it was all a part of God’s divine plan. “God knew that we would be together, this is why we crossed paths, its God’s will.” She wonders if something like this could possibly be right in the sight of God. He continues to assure her that God had sent her to that church just for them to be together. “He knew that we would be together, it’s part of His divine will,” was what he would tell her.

The pastor begins to place the woman in many positions within the church, which made her feel even more obligated to him (he continuously reminded her of how he is the only person that had ever invested any “real” trust or love in her). Several times, because of the overwhelming feelings of guilt, the young woman would try and stay away from having a relationship, but the pastor would tell her how much he needed her and how he could not believe how she was treating him after everything he had done for her. So this woman, laden with guilt, believes what is being said to her by the “Man of God” and consents to an illicit love affair with him.

The problem, this is not a love affair, this is an imbalance of power; abuse of power. This is, “Pastoral Sexual Abuse.”

The Hope of Survivors,, moral standards (2003):

Words like “adultery,” “affair,” “relationship,” etc., typically take the forefront when an adult is abused. You are not having an affair with your pastor. These are improper words to describe what happens in this type of situation. The “relationship” between a Pastor and his Congregant (or Counselor/Counselee, etc.) Is NOT an “affair”—it is ABUSE. Due to the imbalance of power in the relationship between Pastor/Congregant (Teacher/Student, Counselor/Counselee, etc.), there can be no mutual consent to any type of intimate behavior or sexual activity. In fact, a woman who has been victimized in the past (either during her childhood or in other ways) may find that she is, in effect, virtually UNABLE to WITHHOLD consent. She may feel, due to circumstances, that she is not free to refuse any unwanted sexual advances. In reality, she may be subconsciously re-enacting her earlier abuse (by someone else) In the situation with the pastor, especially if the pastor is much older than she is and if he is not someone she would ever be attracted to if it were not for his power, age and authority over her. Pastoral sexual abuse doesn’t always occur due to transference. Sometimes it happens simply because he is a sexual predator.

I intend to illuminate the increasing problem of sexual misconduct by a pastor to vulnerable female congregants, which in my opinion is increasingly reaching epidemic proportion.

Whenever pastoral/clergy sexual abuse is mentioned, it is automatically assumed that it is the sexual abuse of young boys. The reality is that women too, are often victims of sexual abuse by pastors, Whenever it is mentioned in the news about a well known Televangelist having sexual contact with one of his congregants, it is most likely labeled as a scandal or an “adulterous affair”. Again I argue that these are not affairs, it’s pastoral sexual abuse!

Pastoral/Clergy abuse is many things. It is a relationship of trust that has been broken by sexual behavior. It is when one who is in a position of trust or power takes advantage of the person he is supposed to help and care for. It is when someone who is supposed to help another takes advantage of her to satisfy his own selfish sexual or emotional needs. Abuse of power causes tremendous harm to both parties (and their respective families, church, etc.), but especially the one whose trust (and body) has been violated.

The opening paragraph gives an illustration of how easy it is for a woman to become emotionally and sexually involved with her pastor. Some women feel compelled to do whatever her pastor asks her to do; most times all it takes is for him to assure her that it’s the Lords will.

“A sexually abusive pastor can easily exploit his authority by telling the woman that their “sexual relationship” is part of a divinely ordained plan.”—A quote from Sex in the Forbidden Zone by Peter Rutter, M.D.

In my opinion, these abusing pastors will also manipulate vulnerable women into thinking that they are responsible for everything that pertains to him. These women will sit quietly and accept the guilt and pain of these unhealthy relationships so as not to hurt their abuser.
My belief was that a pastor was someone who was in a position of “power.” This power is given to him directly from God, he is considered to be someone that could do no wrong; meaning that he is someone that does very little that could be defined as sin.

Most congregants often feel the need to protect the pastor (abuser), a term that Debbie Baier, AdvocateWeb, calls “The Perpetrator as Victim.” This author talks about how the perpetrator becomes the victim, congregants will turn on the actual victim and accuse her of hurting the perpetrator. These people refuse to believe that the perpetrator is anything other than a lovable, but misunderstood, person. The victim is often accused while excuses are made for the abuser.

I can recall a time that I was summoned into a meeting with the Pastor’s wife because as I was going through the fellowship line the pastor grabbed me and held me so close that my head was pressed into his chest (his hand pressed my head to his chest). The wife accused me of purposely laying my head on his chest. Her explanation for his close hug was, “he’s just a lovable, hands-on pastor.” I ended up being scolded because he held me close to him and pressed my head to his chest with his hands! (A personal testimony, Sandra Gates).

Pastoral sexual abuse goes far beyond sex, it is the abuse of power, trust and care for an unsuspecting, and most times, already emotionally damaged woman or child. Author, James Newton Poling, states in his book, The Abuse of Power, page (183-184) that “church and society must be reorganized so that victims have adequate resources for prevention and healing from sexual violence.” He also stated that, “many victims of sexual violence have been silenced and isolated because their suffering is “taboo.”


a. Victims of sexual abuse must have access to counseling, education, support groups, and other resources for healing. As the issues of sexual violence have been identified in recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in victims seeking help and protection. Yet they do not begin to have affordable counseling and other services that are required.

b. There must be more effective procedures for crisis intervention when sexual abuse is disclosed. Recent research has shown that early intervention is important because it provides protection from further abuse and interrupts the tendency of victims to blame themselves and internalize the abuse. Children who disclose their suffering and get help are more likely to ameliorate the consequences of their trauma. Women who receive needed resources after sexual trauma suffer fewer long-term symptoms.

c. There must be great emphasis placed on teaching and other preventive programs to increase protection for those who are vulnerable to sexual violence. One of the principle reasons for the prevalence of sexual violence is the secrecy and ignorance of the public about this problem. Everyone needs to know that sexual violence is common and preventable.

The author goes on to write how the church and society need to come up with “more effective accountability to challenge the ways men use and abuse power.” He also wrote about how there should be better ways of handling disclosures of sexual abuse.

In conclusion, researching the information for this paper brought back hidden memories of past abuse in my own life (sexual, emotional, physical, and substance). Reading some of the statements made by author, James Newton Poling, I have also come to realize that the pastoral sexual abuse I have suffered, as shameful and degrading as it was, is also categorized as sexual violence. The research on this subject matter has prompted me to advocate for the many faceless women who, for fear and embarrassment, have carried the secret of these abusive “relationships” with their pastors.

This type of abuse needs to be stopped! It should be a crime, punishable by law. These men are getting away with murder. (Spiritual Murder). There are countless women who have walked in the doors of a church with hopes of finding the unconditional love that the Bible says God and the people that hold the position of a pastor are supposed to have, instead these women find themselves caught up in a web of deceit, lies and abuse from these supposedly “Men of God!

There were allegations of Pastoral sexual abuse dated as far back as 1872, according to Marie M. Fortune, author of Is Nothing Sacred. One is the story of a woman by the name of Victoria Woodhull who had the nerve in that day and age to publish allegations of what she penned a “sexual liaison” between a pastor by the name of Henry Ward Beecher, and a woman by the name of Elizabeth Tilton.

What I found to be ironic is that the members of this church reacted to those allegations back in 1872, just as they do today in 2004, they will come to the defense of the perpetrator and accuse the victim!

Rev. Pamela Cooper wrote an article called Soul Stealing: Power Relations in Pastoral Sexual Abuse. I found this article to be very informative and interesting. And excerpt from that article reads:

…One out of three women in the U.S. is raped; one out of four (according to the FBI) or even one in every two (according to California’s attorney general) is battered by an intimate partner; at least one out of five is an incest survivor.

Despite an increased awareness of that violence, only a few works have addressed the issue of pastor’s sexual abuse of parishioners. Most of these frame the problem as a psychosocial one rather than placing it squarely in the spectrum of power abuse.

Cooper also writes that many victims of pastoral abuse will neither stop nor report the abuse. Cooper writes that there are several reasons for this, among the many reasons were the feeling of being responsible for the abuse. But as Maria Fortune has written, even if a woman initiates the sexual contact out of her own need or vulnerability, the pastor holds the responsibility to maintain the appropriate boundary, just as a therapist or counselor is expected to do. Cooper states that even society blames women for attracting the man.
Adultery, Affair, Sexual Liaison. These words should not be associated with a pastor unless he is taking a stand concerning the morality issues that surround them.

Hurt, pain and shame should not be the “monsters” a woman faces when she looks to her pastor for counseling. I will continue to advocate for the rights of sexually abused women everywhere; especially those sexually abused by a pastor.

Finally, I say again, this is not a love affair by two consenting adults. This is an imbalance of power, this is an abuse of power, I strongly urge that one simply considers and then realize that this ugly beast is nothing short of PASTORAL SEXUAL ABUSE!

Baier, Debbie (2002),
“When parishioners deny there is a problem with pastoral sexual abuse, and the victim becomes the accused. Parishioners feel it necessary to protect the perpetrator, thus enabling him to continue his destructive pattern.”

Cooper, Pamela Rev., Soul Stealing: Power Relations in Pastoral Sexual Abuse:
“Despite an increase in awareness concerning pastoral sexual abuse, still there are very few services in affect to address this growing problem.”

Fortune, Marie M., Is Nothing Sacred (1989):
“Different stories of women who were sexually abused by a pastor and how the congregation would rather up-hold him, and blame the victims.”

Gates, Sandra, personal testimony:
“After researching the subject of pastoral sexual abuse, realized that I am not alone.”

Poling, James Newton (1942), The Abuse Of Power: “Challenging the Theological community that this is a growing Theological problem within the church.”

Rutter, Peter, M.D. (1989), Sex in the Forbidden Zone:
“Sexually abusive pastor exploits his authority by telling vulnerable women that their sexual relationship is ordained by God.”

The Hope of Survivors,
A web site ministry that provides support for victims of pastoral sexual abuse.

White, Ellen G., The Adventist Home:
“When pastors betray the trust, and abuse the power he has and takes advantage of the unsuspecting female.”

*This paper was originally written for Communication Skills I, HUSB 119/86, Professor Williams, March 31, 2004.

The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart...Psalms 34:18