Ascertaining adult victim culpability

In a recent training on the topic of pastoral sexual misconduct, I was asked a question about the culpability of an adult victim. The question went something like this:

I know that a pastor who engages in sexual activity with a parishioner carries the bulk of responsibility for the immoral conduct. But doesn’t the woman that he had an affair with have some responsibility as well? Isn’t she culpable for something?

It is a question I have been asked many times–and a very good one. It is good because it causes us to think through how to respond to such individuals caught in a tragic situation. It is also good because it causes us to examine our own beliefs and impressions about justice.

Now, let me give you all some context on that question I received. This kind of question usually arises when discussing how we think about sex between a pastor and an adult parishioner that appears to be consensual. It usually is asked after I have made the case that the ONLY proper term for sex between someone with authority (legal, spiritual, work, etc.) and someone who is under authority is…sexual abuse. In this case, it is pastoral sexual abuse. Consequently, we ought NOT use the word affair to describe the relationship. The reaction behind the question about culpability has to do, I think, with the perception of choice, freedom to say no, signs of pursuit of a sexual relationship, etc. It doesn’t seem fair or just to let the person (woman in this example) off the hook.

The world recognizes that sex between teacher and student, pastor and parishioner, prison guard and prisoner, adult and child are wrong. Sex in these “forbidden zones” is abuse. But of course some power differentials don’t seem so large as others. We get that a prisoner has little choice to say no to a prison guard. But what about a friendly pastor and a lonely woman who enjoy each other’s personalities and then end up engaging in an affair? Is it really abuse? Is it abuse if she sought the relationship or sought to continue it after the first line crossing?

Here’s how I tend to try to respond. Stick with me as the matter is complex.

1. No matter what efforts the woman makes, the pastor is ultimately responsible to protect the integrity of the relationship. Thus, the pastor bears all the culpability for crossing the line.

2. The woman may bear some culpability for decisions and choices that set her up for this relationship. Maybe she fantasized about being loved, maybe she have desired power and found that sex is the ultimate power move. But just as likely she may have VERY LITTLE culpability. I’ll explain why next. But even if she does bear some…here’s a question I want you to pause on:

Why do we jump to this question right away? What drives us to want to settle questions of responsibility? What do we fear will happen if we treat her as a victim right now and leave culpability questions for a later time?

3. Not only does the pastor bear the blame for the sexual relationship, the pastor is likely to have used any number of techniques (in a knowing way or a self-deceived way). What are most pastors good at? Words. Words with emotion. Setting a tone. A pastor is usually quite gifted in convincing others that what they think, say, feel is right. Thus, their words shape, manipulate, coerce, groom the other into being open to a sexual relationship.

4. How do most cases of pastoral sex with adult parishioners begin? In the pastoral counseling office. A needy person feels desirous of pastoral care, seeks out the pastor and within that context, the pastor begins shaping the relationship which leads to sex. Now, it is possible that the parishioner is also a leader in the church, either paid or volunteer. Would such a person have greater culpability. Likely. But again, I could not answer this question until after evaluating the techniques of deception used by the pastor.

Conclusion? Culpability lies so heavily with the  person in power–the pastor–that victim culpability cannot be ascertained until (a) the pastor’s techniques of deception are better understood, (b) the victim has received help for the damage done to him/her by the pastor, and (c) opportunity for spiritual healing is present. Finally, this set of values I have laid out here do not require that we treat the pastor harshly. We also want to help the pastor understand what brought him/her to this point in life. And yet, we do not need to spend much time, at first, trying to determine guilt.


Filed under Abuse, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, Uncategorized

7 responses to “Ascertaining adult victim culpability

  1. Barb Boswell

    I agree that it is above all else an abuse of power and influence.

  2. Victor Ortega

    Phil, this is indeed an interesting topic. I’m wondering, though: would you say the same thing regarding a situation in which the pastor is female, and the parishioner is male? What about a case in which the pastor and the parishioner are both single? Also, a former coworker of mine told me that he once ended up working for his wife; I would think that such a case would be categorized as a conflict of interest rather than sexual abuse. Thanks for the thought-provoking article.

    • Victor, nice to hear from you. I would say the same if the pastor was a female and the parishioner a male or female/female, male, male. I do know that society doesn’t always see these things the same way. For example, some see a 16 year old male with a 27 year old teacher as non-abuse. I do not see it as non abuse.

      I do think two single people might engage in a relationship where there is a power difference and not have it be abuse. The power differences would be minimal, the basis for the relationship would not be formed in secret nor within the context of one-way ministry.

      ********* Philip G. Monroe, PsyD Professor of Counseling & Psychology Director, MA Counseling Program Biblical Seminary 200 N. Main Street Hatfield, PA 19440 Following Jesus into the world

  3. Phil, thanks for this, much needed, topic. I’m amazed at how often, when these things happen in a relationship or counseling situation, that people often see the woman as, maybe, even more guilty or the ’cause’. Of course its all about the power and influcence which the church leader (pastor, elder, deacon, Sunday school teacher, etc.), by nature of their position and authority, has over the other person. Why then do we seek to sympathize with the pastor? Maybe our nieve hearts–and our need to have “sacred” heroes.
    In the work we do at Harvest USA, we have even see this happen between with male or female church leaders, with adult counselees or congregants of the same sex. The same principle applies.

  4. Armando D'Angelo

    I agree that anyone in a position of power has a higher standard to maintain. The Bible is pretty clear on this as well. For me the question is not who is guilty but rather since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, what is each guilty of. Each person should receive counsel toward healing, repentance and forgiveness in accordance with their motivations, sinful desires and behavior. The fruit of repentance and price of the fall will undoubtedly be greater for the individual in who rested the greater authority.

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