Southern Religion

Sexually abusive pastor profile and technique

What are the characteristics of the ministers, pastors, priests, rabbis and other clergy responsible for sexually abusing just over three percent of women who regularly attend religious services?

The perpetrators of this pervasive adult sexual abuse are likely to be charming, even charismatic and apparently self-assured while actually driven by an unquenchable need for attention, affection, admiration and control.

Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland and Christen Argueta summarized [.pdf] the results of a study which involved interviews with offenders:

Offenders were male and had functioned in ministry for at least 25 years. Based on this sample [of 25 who had been reported for sexual misconduct] , [Mark] Laaser and [Nils] Friberg conclude that the most common offender is a man who is reasonably successful and has a combination of narcissism, sexual compulsion, and need for affirmation.

In their book, Before the fall: preventing pastoral sexual abuse, Friberg and Laaser explain that six were identified as having full-blown personality disorders. 15 others had “patterns of personality problems not strong enough to be considered a full-blown disorder,” with narcissism as the primary issue. Add “coexisting anxiety disorders and dependent personalities.”

The result, they explain, is someone who is in fact brutally unconcerned about others;

This creates a need for affirmation and validation on the one hand, but an exterior appearance of not needing anyone, even to the extent of being blatantly unconcerned about what others think of them.

Case studies reveal a process of seduction is as ruthlessly exploitative as descriptions of the narcissistic personality type imply. Clerical sexual abusers first avail themselves of the emotional environment of the church. There is a carefully cultivated trust in the sanctuary of the church, and as a result the target trusts her (or in rare cases his) religious leader. The predator exploits that trust and the power of his position as her religious leader, and sometimes his dual role as religious leader/counselor, carefully grooming his victim [.pdf]:

Grooming is essentially seduction in a relationship in which a religious leader holds spiritual power over the congregant.

Using religious language to "frame" the relationship is apparently commonplace. P.L. Liberty writes in the Journal of Religion & Abuse:

You are an answer to my prayer; I asked God for someone who can share my deepest thoughts, prayers, and needs and he sent me you.

The grooming process is gradual, typically involving the well-practiced alteration of the victim’s sense of what is and is not appropriate. In general concept, the predatory grooming of adults is not different from the predatory grooming of children. Cold-blooded opportunism is used to build deceptive trust and to entrap. Consider the Baylor case study account of a Lutheran woman named Carolyn, below :

You can see that the church environment is remarkably well-suited to the needs of predators, who carry out a form of rape. Dr. Gary Schoener, Executive Director of the Walk-In Counseling Center in Minneapolis which serves both offenders and victims of clergy sexual abuse, told the St. Petersberg Times that “17 states see even adult relationships with priests as a type of statutory rape. The victim can’t possibly consent because the power relationship so clouds the issue.”

It is also a crime in more than one sense, to permit further preventable incidents by failing to bring the full power of the church to bear on the problem.


September 15, 2009 - Posted by | Churches, Health, Religion |

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