Cynthia* never expected that a pool party with church council members and her pastor would leave her humiliated and traumatized decades later. Most in the pool, including the pastor, were naked. The pastor forced Cynthia out of her swimsuit and asked her to measure his penis. The pastor’s wife and council members saw and heard everything but did nothing to stop it. In fact, witnesses said, they participated in the “game.”
Until this story was told publicly several years later, the minister served in a pastoral role at another church. Although no longer at a church, he still serves in ministry today.
The details of this story aren’t meant to titillate. They’re meant to engender outrage at the kind of behavior—dangerous, abusive behavior—that some Christian Reformed pastors engage in more often than we realize. The victim, often silenced by shame and pessimism, could be your spouse or your child. In truth, we all suffer.
Every incident of abuse leaves a trail of psychological and spiritual devastation, not only for the victims but also for their families, their congregations, their denomination, and the public face of Christianity. Morally, that should be enough to cause concern. But pastors and churches are increasingly becoming legally liable for abuse as well. Witness the financial devastation faced by the Anglican Church and United Church in Canada over court cases resulting from the abuse of Native Canadian students in government residential schools run by the churches.
Still, incidents of abuse are rarely spoken of. Some church members don’t think sexual matters should be discussed openly. Others say such cases should be handled only among the parties involved and the church council. They cite loving forgiveness as the appropriate response and hardly hesitate to endorse a fallen but penitent pastor’s return to the ministry.
But we can no longer relegate pastoral abuse to the deepest recesses of the Christian Reformed Church’s closet, nor ought we absolve perpetrators so readily. The stakes are too high, and abuse happens too often.
A Common Problem
Since 1994, when the CRC established its office of Abuse Prevention, there have been about 150 reports of clergy abuse (not all involve active pastors), with only one proven false. Most involve repeat offenders, but about 10 new perpetrators surface each year.“That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Beth Swagman, Abuse Prevention director. “What we know is going on is only a small piece of the picture. For every one we know of, there are far more underneath.”
A 1988 Leadership magazine survey of 1,000 pastors across many denominations indicates the numbers may be much greater. Eighteen percent of respondents admitted having sexual contact with someone other than their spouses. Churches discovered the illicit behavior in only 4 percent of the cases.Such cases often go unreported, Swagman said, because victims feel overwhelmed by shame. “There’s also the widely held belief that no one will do anything,” she added.
It’s easy to see why people would get that impression in the CRC. Only 16 of 47 classes have established Abuse Response Teams as suggested by Synod 1997, and only a handful of those are ready to function as an advisory board if allegations are made, Swagman said. In most classes, the only available guidelines for handling abuse allegations are Articles 81-84 of the CRC’s Church Order, which deal with the admonition and discipline of members and officebearers. The guidelines do not address ways to help victims.
One of Cynthia’s confidantes later attended the classis meetings where fact-finding and discipline regarding the pool-party incident were to occur. But the friend left the meetings feeling that the classis was concerned only with how the abusing minister, who threatened to sue if his credentials were revoked, might respond to its decision.
“I wanted to say to the CRC, ‘Is this okay with us? Can we allow this?’ and I wanted a resounding ‘No.’ I felt like it didn’t matter to them if it had happened or not,” the friend said. “I didn’t feel he was being called to repent. I felt like they were even saying it wasn’t so bad.”
The friend also said that classical and denominational leaders “scolded” her for not recognizing the legal peril they were in. But she thinks they feared the mouse in front of them instead of the tiger behind them—future victims seeking legal recourse if the pastor were reinstated and then continued to abuse.
Even in more recent cases, support for the pastor eclipses help for the victim. A few years ago, when The Banner printed an article about a Christian Reformed pastor who faced charges of indecent assault, letters poured in denouncing the magazine for even covering the case, saying it only caused further disgrace for the pastor. Few expressed any concern for the victim, and many accused her of trying to circumvent God’s justice by taking the case to court. Many letters cited Matthew 18, in which Jesus spells out procedures for confronting a Christian brother or sister who sins against you: try to work out the matter between the two of you, then get support from a few others, then, if all else fails, take it to the church.
That works fine for cases in which the parties are of equal standing, says Rev. Duane Visser, the CRC’s director of Pastor-Church Relations. But Jesus did not mean for it to apply to any case in which one party clearly has power over the other.In pastor-parishioner relationships—particularly in counseling settings, where most abuse occurs—the pastor always has the upper hand.
“It’s an intimate relationship with people in their most vulnerable times,” Visser said. “Sure, parishioners sometimes test the boundaries [of the relationship], but the person in power has the responsibility not to go over the line. I’m not sure there is such a thing as consensual sex with a person in authority.”
Swagman says most offenders behave as predators who try the find the easiest target. “All [abusive pastors] identify needy or vulnerable women or children they’re working with,” she said. “They seek out the vulnerable—new widows, those with a history of sexual abuse, those new to the community—to exert power. Ultimately the offense centers around control and power—not sex.”
Nevertheless, victims are often ostracized for seeking help and restitution. People naturally tend to believe the person in power, even though the power is what enables that person to abuse. In religious settings, that tendency is even stronger. “How could the voice of God do such things?” parishioners ask. And even in the most forgiving congregations, abuse rarely is seen for what it is.
“Prior to the 1980s,” Swagman said, “incidents of pastor-parishioner sexual cases were defined as affairs. When they became known, the pastor was generally removed from his position and banished for a period of time. Some were reinstated, especially if the incidents were viewed as consensual. But we’ve begun to recognize that it’s not consensual. It’s about exploitation. Intimacy is part of the relationship, but it’s really about control. It’s not about consent. It’s about being trapped.”
It’s also about stealing souls.
*Names were changed.