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.