Not On My Watch: Exposing Sexual Predators in the Church

by Simone Oliver

At first, when her call came, I thought she was calling to console and encourage me in my grief and recovery, but she called to share her own story. Like me, she found that the connection with her pastor as a confidante and spiritual mentor had morphed into a relationship that turned controlling, threatening, and abusive. As we swapped stories we both bemoaned our stupidity, naivety, and had taken to self-loathing. Her plan was to leave town and start all over in another state. My plan – to continue praying that I would miraculously recover from the 28 stab wounds he inflicted resulting in my paraplegia. When the third call came, different woman, different pastor, similar story I knew that there was something bigger going on. Bigger than being “stupid”, “naïve”, or “making poor choices”. Like most women, we had learned how to turn on ourselves, but as I considered their stories, others that I had heard, and things I had witnessed in the church I knew that we could not all be stupid, naïve, or just making poor choices, there had to be another dynamic at play.

The simple fact is that clergy sexual misconduct is widespread in all faith practices and Christian denominations. It is not a few random, charismatic preachers that prey upon their followers as most folks commonly believe. In a study that occurred concurrently with a survey by the Baylor University School of Social Work, survivors of Clergy Sexual Misconduct (CSM) hailed from 17 different Christian and Jewish affiliations: Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Seventh Day Adventist, Disciples of Christ, Latter Day Saints, Apostolic, Calvary Chapel, Christian Science, Church of Christ, Episcopal, Friends (Quaker), Mennonite, Evangelical, Nondenominational (Christians), and Reformed Judaism. While in general this is pretty troublesome, what’s really alarming is that this type of misconduct is three times more prevalent in the African American community! Of those who attend religious services at least monthly, 1.7 percent of white women and 9.2 percent of African-American women reported being the object of sexual advances by a clergy person or leaders in their own congregation. Taking other circumstances into account – the clergyperson was married to someone else and the two never became an openly acknowledged couple – the numbers are 1.4 percent for white women and 5.3 percent for African-American women.

Okay, why is this happening? Patriarchal dominance? A perverse sense of entitlement? An abuse of power? I believe these issues are at the root but, what makes a person so vulnerable? The stark reality of the matter is that clergy persons are the only professionals who can intrude into the intimate lives of people and are welcomed when she or he does so. This kind of behavior would be viewed as unprofessional or boundary crossing in any other profession, yet for clergy persons this behavior can be perceived as caring or protective and that immediately makes the recipients vulnerable. Clergy persons can meddle in the personal lives of congregants without suspicion and this type of intrusion can be constructive or coercive. Clergy persons, may know one’s family dynamic and can use this information to either empower or exploit. The pastoral/congregant relationship is never equal and this imbalance of power in the hands of corrupt leaders is a recipe for disaster.

Still on the road to recovery, I have returned to my seminary campus sharing my story. I cannot tell you the horror stories I have heard of pastors, deacons, youth workers, the leaders in general molesting, raping, and otherwise exploiting the most vulnerable of the flock – women, children, and those with disabilities. I have even heard of a woman minister who was invited to preach and later raped by that pastor. Who is looking out for our best interest? If we don’t speak up to protect ourselves and our children, no one else will. While I was recovering from my attack, my new husband gained custody of his beautiful, developing, just turning 13 years-old daughter. I fell in love with her immediately. As I looked at her blossoming, womanish body I was taunted by a flash back: 15 years-old, playing the piano for the youth choir at the United Methodist church, called into the office by the pastor who grabbed me, stuck his tongue into my mouth, kissing me and, touching my body. As I wrestled myself away from him, I backed slowly out of the office – stunned. I never told anyone. I left the church. As I snapped out of it, I made this promise. Not. On. My. Watch. Blame, shame, and silence are the veneers that cover and perpetuate this ugly truth. Not. On. My. Watch. Patriarchal interpretations and misrepresentations of women in the biblical text perpetuate this ugly truth and misplaced loyalty to pastoral leaders and conspiring to protect them while rejecting and excluding the victims perpetuate this ugly truth. Not. On. My. Watch.

I returned to church years later like many of us do. The reality is that African American women attend church in numbers that exceed any other population, if we do not speak up to protect ourselves, our children, and members of other vulnerable populations, who will? Chances are you would question a job that didn’t have a sexual harassment policy and procedures in place and you would not enroll your child in a care institution that did not background check its’ teachers, but we attend and participate in the activities of the church with the full confidence that we and our children are safe and our best interests are being served. I’m not disparaging the church. I love the church and still believe it is the most vital, viable, and valuable institution in the world, but the church is only microcosm of the world, it is made up of broken people. It is because I love the church that I assert that we must raise our voices and demand that policies be put in place to protect vulnerable populations. I raise my voice not only because I love the church but I love the God of the church who is too often obscured by the conduct of the church. No, policy alone will not eliminate the culture of privilege and exploitation that has permeated the parish but it will send a message. It sends a message to both the leadership and the congregation. Church leadership will be well aware that no longer will the vulnerable become the “spoils of war” and the congregation will know not only that they are valued and respected but they are expected to value and respect one another. This type of policy protects not only the vulnerable but it protects those in leadership who lead with integrity.

Well, I have had a miraculous recovery and as part of my celebration I have given up the social and religious inclination to remain silent. Silence is fraught with misunderstanding. Silence is fraught with danger. It protects the guilty and shames the innocent. No more. No longer will we be the spoils of war. No. Not. On. My. Watch.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Simone Oliver is a preacher/educator/survivor/wife/mother/sister/friend and currently completing her M.Div. at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ.

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