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Blaming Women for the Sexually Abusive Male Pastor

by Ann-Janine Morey

Ann-Janine Morey is associate professor of religious studies at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 5, 1988, p. 867. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


With the exception of a few recent articles, most of them cited here, studies on clergy sexuality published in sociological, psychological or religious periodicals -- as well as fictional treatments -- have focused on male clergy adultery without mentioning the consequences suffered by women involved. Not only does the literature say almost nothing about the other woman," but it fails to pay any serious attention to the fate of the minister’s wife when she discovers her husband’s sexual betrayal.

The term "adultery" does not adequately define male ministers’ sexual involvement with female parishioners. Marie Fortune, executive director of the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle, suggests that a male pastor’s sexual advances toward a woman that occur while he performs his professional duties are better understood as "sexual abuse." Whereas the term "adultery" implies that both participants are consenting equals, the term "sexual abuse" assumes that a person has used personal, social or physical power to coerce sexual intimacy.

Sexual abuse by pastors exhibits the same dynamic as incestuous abuse, which takes place within the context of an intimate relationship (family, church, counseling) between an authoritative and powerful person (a relative or minister) and a person who is vulnerable to and trusting of that power (a child or counselee) Victims often feel responsible for the abuser’s activity and so are bound in secrecy by a double burden of guilt and shame. Even if the victim does speak up, she or he may not be believed.

Pastoral counseling is one of the pastor’s professional tasks that is likely to offer opportunities for sexual abuse. We know that about 10 percent of professional therapists admit to sexual contact with clients, and we can guess that the same figure applies to clergy (see Marie Fortune, "Betrayal of the Pastoral Relationship," unpublished article available from the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, 1914 N. 34th St., Suite 105, Seattle, Wash., 98103). We guess, because our knowledge of the circumstances and frequency of inappropriate sexual behavior is largely anecdotal.

Many women don’t speak out about sexual abuse by pastors because, along with enduring terrible damage to their own self-esteem and relentless public shredding of their reputations, they will suffer the loss of personal and community relationships -- what may amount to a devastating social and spiritual exile. The time-honored response to such situations is to blame women -- the "other woman" or the pastor’s wife -- for the sexual transgressions of a male minister.

Typical of recent treatments of the topic is "The Sexual Hazards of Pastoral Care" (Christianity Today, November 8, 1985) , by Dean Merrill, which describes the minister as an attractive target for "the Enemy," or a "sitting duck for the romantically starved." The pastor’s work "allows for a flexible schedule with little accountability"; he is "attuned to the aesthetic, emotional and interpersonal side of life" -- all reasons why "moral failure in the ministry is more often the result of inattention than intent." These excuses portray him as a misguided but innocent victim of circumstances -- he was manipulated by a predatory female; he suffered from flextime confusion.

Ministers’ wives, on the other hand, are often indicted for being discontent with their role, uninterested in sex and less spiritually committed than their husbands, forcing the pastors to seek support and adoration elsewhere. Robert J. Stout’s article "Clergy-Divorce Spills into the Aisle" (Christianity Today, February 5, 1982) blames women who encumber the pastor’s career. "Women of today" are not content sharing their husband’s vocation; perhaps her paycheck is larger than his; the wife does not understand the personal sacrifice necessary "for the work of the Lord to be effective," and so hampers the work of the church’s leader. Finally, "there is a percentage of women who consider the sexual conquest of a pastor a goal worth pursuing." The author makes no mention of the pastor’s possible interest in sexual conquest.

In short, most discussions of the sexually abusive pastor perpetuate the misogyny of our theological heritage. The excuses offered -- female turpitude, wifely incompetence and diabolic intervention -- relieve the male pastor and the institution he serves of responsibility for his actions.

If anything, 20th-century writers are more hostile toward women than were 19th-century novelists. A number of parsonage romances produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries use theological/social drama as a vehicle for the romances. Writers such as Jane Ludlow Drake Abbot (1888-1962) , Elsie Marion Oakes Barber (1914-?) , Ruth Lininger Dobson (dates unknown) , Louis Platt Hauck (1883-1943) , Agnes Sligh Turnbull (1888-1982) and Nelia Gardner White (1894-1957) give the reader the impression that falling in love with one’s minister has something to do with restoring a purer gospel and a better world.

In such novels the minister is always boyish and innocent of the darker designs of natural life, yet possessed of an irresistible virility. While fending off pathetic spinsters, he courts/converts a rebellious but ultimately tractable young woman, while on a third front he just barely evades the clutches of the attractive but unscrupulous divorcée. Because of the divorcée’s malice he is accused of sexual improprieties, but is always proven innocent in the end. At the same time that he wins the girl he defeats the local captain of industry.

When marriage rather than courtship receives fictional scrutiny, the heroic and boyish young minister patiently trains an unsuitable wife for her role or he becomes a martyr to her unworthiness. He bravely renounces his attraction to another woman, whom he may kiss once but will never marry. Wives in such novels are overbearing and selfish; in one temperance tract novel the minister’s wife is a morphine addict and drunkard who inadvertently kills her children (Annette L. Noble, The Parsonage Secret, 1898).

The stylized romance plot, then, expresses a good deal of hostility toward both the wife and the "other woman." If a woman is previously married she is unworthy of the minister’s affections (all the seducing women in these novels are widows or divorcées, reflecting vintage attitudes about divorced and single women) , yet once married to him she again turns out to be unworthy. Women are "good" only when poised on the brink of matrimony -- a fragile moment indeed.

Corra May White Harris (1869-1935) , herself a minister’s wife, offered this description of the sexual hazards of the ministry in a popular fictionalized autobiography, A Circuit Rider’s Wife (1910) :

When we hear of a minister who has disgraced himself with some female member of his flock, my sympathies are all with the preacher. I know exactly what has happened. Some sad lady who has been "awakened" . . . by his sermons goes to see him in his church study. First she tells him she is "unhappy at home," . . . finally [she] confesses she is troubled with "temptations." . . . He sees her reduced to tears over her would be transgressions, and before he considers what he is about he has kissed the "dear child." That is the way it happens nine times out of ten, a good man damned and lost by some frail angel of his church.

Harris goes on to say that the minister’s wife has a duty to cultivate the wisdom of the serpent, and she advocates a "new set of civil law that would apply to the worst class of criminals in society. . . , the women who make a religion of sneaking up on the blind male side of good men" (pp. 162-170)

Harris’s vehemence is replicated in a much later novel by Agnes Sligh Turnbull. In The Bishop’s Mantle (1948), the young minister contemplates his precarious position:

In spite of himself he thought of the ministers, from Beecher down, who had had trouble with women. Every city clergyman had to recognize this menace. A few to his own knowledge through the years, in spite of their utter innocence, had yet escaped scandal by a hair’s breadth. A few here and there had not even escaped. There were always the neurotic women who flocked not only to the psychiatrists but also in almost equal numbers to ministers, pouring out their heart confessions and their fancied ills. There were those pitiable ones in whose minds religion and sex had become confused and intermingled; there were those who quite starkly fell in love with a clergyman and wanted love from him in return. Yes, a man of God had to be constantly on his guard in connection with this problem of women [p. 267, italics mine].

Beecher (1813-1887) , known for preaching of God’s comforting love, was the pastor of the powerful and wealthy Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, New York. Elizabeth Tilton was a parishioner married to Beecher’ s friend Theodore. Beecher became intimate with Elizabeth sometime in 1868, opportunity having been afforded by pastoral visits to console her for the death of her infant child. Henry advised Elizabeth that the world would not understand their love, and so they must practice "nest-hiding." But despite such pastoral counsel the emotionally vulnerable Elizabeth confessed to her husband that Henry had justified their union by an appeal to "pure affection and a high religious love."

Rumors of the affair went beyond the Tilton household in 1872. The pressure of the scandal was varied but ultimately unrelenting, and in 1875 Theodore Tilton sued Beecher in the first of several ecclesiastical and legal actions. Despite "almost irrefutable evidence," the congregational investigating committee "issued a report completely exonerating Beecher." In fact, Beecher’s suffering provoked it to express "sympathy more tender and a trust more unbounded" than ever before. Because its confidence in Beecher’s integrity was incompatible with the evidence, it considered the evidence false.

This congregational charity was not extended to Elizabeth, who along with all the others who testified against Beecher was finally, excommunicated in 1878. Unlike Beecher, Elizabeth had no office to protect her, and even less cultural or religious power. "Ostracized by Plymouth Church, Elizabeth Tilton died in 1897, lonely and blind, at the home of her daughter in Brooklyn," Altina Wailer reports in Reverend Beecher and Mrs. Tilton (University of Massachusetts Press, 1982). Beecher’s wife’s fate and feelings are also missing from the historical record.

One of the few contemporary accounts I have found that speaks for the woman involved is a pseudonymous, first-person narrative by a former church secretary ("My Minister Kept Making Passes at Me," Ladies Home Journal, July 1985) Joan Clayton, working as an essential wage earner for her family, says her minister made repeated sexual advances to her, and her efforts to repel or avoid him were unsuccessful. She finally confided in another church member and learned that several other women in the congregation had endured such harassment. When these charges were brought before the personnel committee, however, the minister, called Smithson in the article, denied the allegations, and the committee immediately dropped the matter.

Clayton filed a letter of intent with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Evidence surfaced showing that members at Smithson’s previous church had leveled similar charges, which were dropped for insufficient evidence. Smithson finally admitted to "hugging and embracing," but said the women had misinterpreted him. It was recommended that he be transferred and that he seek counseling.

But Clayton, who suffered debilitating stress-related illnesses during this ordeal, reports that this was not the end of the matter. "Overwhelmingly, the congregation supported the minister," she complains. People told her that she was at fault for not being able to handle the situation. An anonymous letter accused her of being a liar; she was snubbed at church and labeled a troublemaker. She resigned her job, although that caused great financial hardship for her family. "What hurt me the most was the automatic assumption that because the charges were made against a minister, they must be lies," she says.

Although clergymen protest that they are vulnerable, they in fact enjoy some powerful social protection. Traditional respect for the office, along with the congregation’s unwillingness to believe it could have misjudged its pastor, constitute two parts of his protection. Often congregations are remarkably ready to believe the woman involved to be the greater of the two sinners. Like a rape victim, a woman who becomes sexually involved with her pastor is frequently considered to be the most guilty party -- and it is she, not he, who is ultimately put on trial.

Churches must also stop making excuses for ministers. They should not deny the often unreasonable theological and institutional pressures that pastors endure. But they must acknowledge that a pastor possesses a unique amount of power. Like a doctor or a therapist, he sees people at their most vulnerable, but unlike the other two, his interest is freighted with a divine imprimatur. A sexual encounter between pastor and counselee is a profound violation not only of the body but of the spirit as well. Only death exposes more clearly the mutual vulnerability of body and spirit.

Andre Bustanoby has suggested in his article "‘The Pastor and the Other Woman" (Christianity Today, August 30, 1974, pp. 7-10) that sometimes the ministry attracts a competitive and narcissistic kind of male whose goal is ego gratification and for whom sexual conquest is a key source of gratification. "Those who are concerned about the problem of the other woman in the minister’s life should not look first for a seductress in the congregation. They ought first to concern themselves with the ‘top dog’ minister who grasps at every opportunity to fortify his faltering ego."

Clearly, a man who engages in sexual abuse of female parishioners is sick, and in need of treatment and support. But legitimate concern for a pastor’s well-being ought not to draw support away from the women who are victimized by him. Fortune asserts that "pastorally, the response to the victim is the first priority." Mary Pellauer believes pastors should assent to the guidelines and ethics of accountability applied to therapists. "Professional counselors view any sexual contact between the counselor and the client as the deepest breach of professional ethics. The professional is always responsible; sex with a client is never okay " ("Sex, Power, and the Family of God," Christianity and Crisis, February 16, 1987, p. 47)

We must also be sensitive to the vulnerability of the minister’s wife. Although ministers’ wives may now experience more freedom of personal identity than when Corra May Harris was writing, many marriages still operate on the assumption that the male minister’s vocational identity will determine his wife’s identity as well. If she fails to defend him even when he has clearly betrayed her, she risks doubting the value of her own life dedication, and she calls into question the efficacy of her husband’s entire ministry as it is exemplified in his loving, forgiving wife. Can she expect concern for her welfare from the congregation that may be trying to protect him? Who will minister to her needs, whether she stays with him or chooses to leave? Many ministers’ wives will not risk joining the "other Woman" in exile, and unfortunately traditional responses to male-female dynamics encourage women to blame each other, which only further ensures their own victimization.

No one -- minister, congregation or woman -- escapes unharmed from the church’s failure to confront sexual abuse. But we apologize for the male minister as we do not for women, and our knowledge is seriously skewed. We have only some anonymous stories told by frightened, humiliated women who are trying to speak to an institution that has blamed them in advance because of their female sexuality and bids them be silent. Because of his professional power in an androcentric institution, the male minister is responsible for sexual violations that he commits while tending to his professional duties. Until there is cultural and institutional parity between male clergy and their female parishioners, the church must listen to victims of sexual abuse, speak for those who are afraid or cannot speak for themselves and respond with justice and compassion.


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