By Tarris Rossell
If you do NOT want to help prevent clergy sexual abuse, STOP READING NOW and go do something else.
Especially if you do NOT want victims of clergy sexual abuse to come to you for help, STOP READING NOW. And whatever you do, NEVER get training regarding what to do about clergy sexual abuse. Just don’t. If you DON’T want to help.
But if you DO want to help prevent abuse, if you want to help those who have been harmed by clergy who abuse their power, then continue reading. I have been where perhaps you are now, and maybe I can help.
It was January 2000. I was in my first year of teaching at a seminary that wanted to do something to prevent clergy sexual abuse. The seminary president, his spouse, the academic dean and I all went to Seattle for a 3-day training with the premier authority and trainer at that time. We spent those days with Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune, founder of the FaithTrust Institute and author of multiple books and materials aimed at preventing clergy sexual abuse and otherwise helping victims when prevention had failed. I left Seattle with an armful of curriculum, a head full of new knowledge, and a heart bent on becoming a better helper.
It’s not that I had not been called upon to help in this regard ever before. One cannot be a pastor for more than a few months without someone coming to you with a story of being abused by someone else. And sometimes, regrettably, that abuser was also a trusted pastor or priest or youth leader or college chaplain. A faith leader in some role and capacity. And an abuser also.
I don’t recall the first story of that sort that I was told by some congregant in confidence. I do remember some of the many stories heard thereafter. Too many stories. Too many abusers. Too many victims. Too little prevention. Too little, too late.
“It almost never ends well. So just DON’T abuse. PREVENTION is key.”
This is what I always tell seminarians—hundreds since January 2000—at the conclusion of what is now a 2-week module of my Christian Ethics course. For the past couple of years, the primary online curricula used for that module are the freely available resources of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) and Baptist Women in Ministry (BWIM), created in collaboration with their Clergy Sexual Misconduct Task Force. All can be downloaded or viewed at: https://cbf.net/safechurches, which is where seminarians are sent in that learning module titled, “Ministry Ethics and Sacred Trust.”
“Sacred Trust” is terminology coined by Marie Fortune many years ago. It struck a chord with me, and seems to with my students also. I tell them that they needn’t be ordained pastors in order for people to inordinately trust them, even with their deepest, darkest secrets. Once someone enrolls in seminary, they already are viewed—rightly or wrongly—as “representatives of God to the People of God.” Ministers of all sorts, even while studying for ministry, are trusted in that “sacred” sort of way. Violating that trust is serious. Egregious. So DON’T do it. Never. Ever.
I say to seminarians at the end of that “sacred trust” module, which comes at the end of the Christian Ethics course, that now—having been made aware of the problem of clergy sexual abuse (and abuse of power generally) and with knowledge of professional boundaries, roles, relationships and responsibilities—now they are without excuse. We discuss other preventative and clergy self-care strategies, also, of course. I know that simply saying “DON’T” is likely to be ineffective as a prevention strategy without adding others more, well, strategic.
We discuss what to do when prevention had NOT happened, when someone, usually a victim of abuse, comes forward with a story. What then? We talk a lot about this because the typical response of all stakeholders, EXCEPT the primary victim(s), is to jump from disclosure to forgiveness of and reconciliation with the abuser. Shame, I say. That is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Short-circuiting the gospel has the effect of heaping further abuse upon those already victimized and enables the abuser to go on and abuse again. And again. And again.
Living out the gospel entails going from acknowledgement of sin through the several steps required before possibly enabling the discovery of forgiveness much less reconciliation or even restoration. God does forgive even the worst of sinners, yes, but there is repentance involved in that process. The lived out gospel is illustrated in the story of Zacchaeus who not only confessed his sin, but then demonstrated true repentance by sincere apology and times-four restoration to his victims of financial abuse. When the egregious sin of clergy abuse is committed—especially sexual but also financial or emotional or spiritual abuse—there is hope for forgiveness and reconciliation. But it takes awhile and a lot of hard work on the part of the sinner and his/her victims, AND of anyone who agrees to help.
So to seminarians, I also tell my stories (without betraying confidences) of situations in which I agreed to help achieve a gospel response to clergy abuse. In every case, helping involved a considerable expenditure of time and effort. Oftentimes all that time and effort yielded something less than a good ending regardless. I have seen too little gospel lived out by clergy abusers despite all the gospel they had preached over the years. Shame, I say.
Which is why I focus on prevention. Very few if any seminarians enter their ministerial studies with the goal of abusing those who will trust them. Clergy sexual (and other) abuse CAN be prevented. It begins with moral education, although helping ultimately might be required of teachers as well when students’ stories are told and heard. Some of us anyway will both educate and help, whether or not it ends well. Will you?
If you have read this far, I presume you aim to do what you can to prevent and respond to clergy abuse. If so, help for you is available also. You might start with those “Safe Churches” resources found online at https://cbf.net/safechurches. Then if more help is needed, feel free to contact me or Jay Kieve or any of the members of the Clergy Sexual Misconduct Task Force. We want to help.