Not On My Watch: Exposing Sexual Predators in the Church7/21/2014
by Simone Oliver At first, when her call came, I thought she was calling to console and encourage...
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.
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.
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Simone Oliver is a preacher/educator/survivor/wife/mother/sister/friend and currently completing her M.Div. at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ.