Feb 7, 2023
Season 1: Episode 3
Adult Clergy Sexual Abuse
In a previous podcast, Tamra (an advocate and abuse survivor) shared her story of adult clergy sexual abuse. Of course, when Tamra was living in it, she didn’t have such a clear definition. So, today I’d like to talk about what Tamra learned about herself and her circumstances and about some of the difficulties for people as they seek to understand adult clergy sexual abuse.
On the Safe to Hope podcast, names have been changed in order to protect those associated with these stories. The HelpHer ministry exists to help people in crisis and to train people helpers, so integrity is one of our concerns. To the best of our ability we have sought to honor the privacy and dignity of those who share their precious stories with us.
I encourage you to listen to episode 1 if you have not already. Tamra did a great job explaining how she was groomed by an abusive pastor, what made her vulnerable, and why she didn't speak out for so long. Tamra, thank you, again for coming back again to share the second part of your story.
Tamra: Thank you for having me on your podcast to share about this important topic.
Ann Maree: Once again, I’d like to remind the audience listening at home that there may be some things discussed that can be triggering. If you’re a victim or survivor we want to just let you know Tamra’s story may be hard to hear. Maybe find a trusted friend to sit with, or someone you can talk to and process after you’ve heard her experience.
Tamra, before you disclosed the abuse, was there a point in time when you learned that what was happening to you had a name–adult clergy sexual abuse?
Tamra: Yes, there was. During the time I was being abused, I found a website. Somehow–I don’t remember how–I found a ministry online called The Hope of Survivors, and it finally gave me the language to describe what was happening to me: clergy sexual abuse. I had no idea this form of abuse existed or that pastors abused adults. Having been trained by the pastor in spiritually abusive practices, labeled “leadership training”, I normalized abusive behavior.
But I was blown away because it was like reading about my own life. It clearly described what I was going through, as if I wrote it myself, and stated emphatically that this was abuse, not “love” as the pastor had framed it.
It helped me see that the way I responded to my pastor was the result of grooming–that I had been conditioned to respond the way I did. The bond I did have with my abuser, one of dependance, subservient to his every wish, overly reliant on his approval, vulnerable to his opinions and desires, and defenseless when he wanted me physically, was anything but love.
Still I was too confused and scared to say anything, I thought: what will be the response if I say something? Maybe I’m just delusional like my pastor says I am. Besides, who would I tell? Many Christians I hung around with were quite zealous like me, and some were a bit judgmental, and back then, I was quite judgmental myself. I thought, no one is going to believe I’m being abused. I don’t even know if I’m being abused.
Others thought so highly of me that I was afraid that if they knew what was happening to me that they would label me a charlatan and maybe even lose their faith because of me.
Even though I was able to see it right there on that website —that I was being abused, I couldn’t believe it, or maybe I didn’t want to believe it. I was horrified that this was happening to me. This couldn’t possibly be my life. So, I put it out of my mind.
It wasn’t abuse according to him. It was “love.” He had a way of explaining away everything and putting fear in my heart so I wouldn’t protest. So, I just hid everything from that website in my heart–just in case it was true. But ultimately, I put it out of my mind. That simply couldn’t be my situation. The pastor doesn’t think so. That’s their situation. Not my situation.
Then, something happened. It was that “something” I had been waiting for. A former participant in one of the connected ministries, who had already left, was able to put language to what he had experienced in the ministry. He was the first one to define the system and the behaviors. He had learned about spiritual abuse and decided to sound the alarm and alert people in the ministry and supporters of the ministry to what was going on. He wasn’t aware of the sexual abuse I was enduring, but he was able to identify the toxic practices.
His whistle blowing, which I look back on now as a gift from God to me, sent shockwaves through the system. A young woman who had also left joined him by sharing that the pastor had actually spoken to her inappropriately. When she spoke up, and put questions in the minds of people about the pastor’s integrity and behavior, I believed that if I didn’t squeeze through that slightly opened door and flee, I would be locked in that jail cell of oppression for the rest of my life. This was my chance to finally say something and possibly be believed.
Ann Maree: Since there was no one else with oversight in your church except the pastor, to whom did you disclose the abuse? How did you find someone to trust?
Years prior, I had made a sort of escape plan, or what many people refer to in the domestic abuse advocacy world as a “safety plan.” I didn’t even realize I had done it. But, I had spent years in silence looking for a trust-worthy person–looking for a person who seemed like if I shared this, they would care, and they would not call out all the townsfolk to grab me and slap a scarlet letter on me and lock me in stocks and throw stones at me. Before I disclosed, I was always silently observing and thinking who could actually help me if I told or who would be dangerous if I told?
If I saw that a person reacted in judgmental or harsh ways toward others, especially people they didn’t agree with, I would deem them as someone I should not share with. I didn’t trust that they would give me the Christ-like care I needed.
Survivors and victims are always silently asking these questions–how would this person respond if they heard my story? Even today, I don’t share my story with many.
After I disclosed, there were people who would ask me “Why didn’t you tell me?” It made me feel so ashamed, like I was a child and they were scolding me. The question implied that I could’ve said something sooner, so shame on me for not knowing that I should’ve told them. The implication was that if I had only made the “right choice” to tell them, then I wouldn’t be in this mess.
But, there was only one person that I felt safe disclosing to–one pastor from another church. I told myself, “If you ever get the chance to finally tell, tell this guy. He’ll care. He’ll help you.” When that young woman who had left the ministry shared that he had spoken to her in a way that made her uncomfortable and was believed, I felt like this was my opportunity to tell.
Ann Maree: That is an important message for us in the Church to hear: we need to handle these stories with care and not further harm the victims. What was it about this pastor that made you feel like you could disclose to him?
The person I chose seemed to always speak with grace yet was firm in his convictions. He seemed to see humans as humans, and not just objects to be preached at or rebuked, to be put into categories and then treated according to their label. I just felt like he saw me. Like he cared for me as a person–not just because I agreed with him theologically or wowed him with my ministry skills. He saw me apart from my ministry work and apart from my matching belief system. I was an actual person to be loved and cared for; someone who was made in the image of God. And this is how I see Jesus interacting with people in the Bible. And I believe that’s what I saw in him–Christ.
But, I didn’t disclose immediately. I was still wrestling internally. I was still deeply confused as to what God wanted me to do, what was right, what was wrong. The pastor was still there convincing me the whistleblowers were supposedly “demonic”–a hindrance to gospel work.
Everything seemed chaotic and loud. It was dizzying. It seemed like there was a massive earthquake in the ministry and no one could get their footing.
Even the pastor seemed skittish, and I started gaining some sense that this could possibly be my final days under his oppression.
I wonder if he saw that he was losing control of me. Whatever it was, at some point, he suddenly decided to just close the church abruptly. He had told me so many times before that if I ever left, he would just close the church. And then all of a sudden, he did.
I don’t have the perfect vocabulary to properly describe how I felt during those last days, except that I was on edge, frightened, hyper-vigilant and losing what seemed like 2 lbs per day. I was walking on eggshells with this volatile man inching ever so slightly toward the exit door.
I think it empowered me to know that other people saw what I saw, meaning his toxic and inappropriate behavior, and were starting to label it as “spiritual abuse.” But, they didn’t even know half of it yet.
Yet in all this, I was still ambivalent.
Finally, when the tangible controls, like him having my house keys, were returned to me, and I thought that I might be believed if I told, I went and I told the good pastor.
And he believed me.
Within a very short amount of time, with the support of the good pastor and my parents who were no longer estranged from me, I left everything and moved back into my parent’s home. God used that good pastor to keep me alive, because I could’ve taken my life at that time. He gave me so much hope and good counsel. He really was Christ to me.
Ann Maree: After you were freed from the abuse, how did you process what you had gone through?
I dove into the research and education on adult clergy sexual abuse and read numerous testimonies from other survivors. I learned that I wasn’t alone. I came to understand that sadly many people have experienced what I experienced–some listening may be experiencing it right now. I learned that in many ways my experience was a classic case of clergy sexual abuse, specifically the vulnerability, the coercive control, the gaslighting, the twisting of scripture, the dissociation, and especially the false belief that there was something intrinsically wrong with me that caused this person to abuse me. That is a lie from Satan.
Although there are many similarities in my story with other stories that I have heard from survivors, there are also differences, and I want people to understand that my story should not be the “go to story” on what adult clergy sexual abuse looks like.
Ann Maree: What might other cases of adult clergy sexual abuse look like?
My former pastor was openly cruel to me in many ways in that he would get loud and insulting, while other abusers use coercive control, but never get loud. They may be quite friendly and are often well liked in their church and local community. I was abused by a pastor of a small church with only a handful of people, but other abusive ministers are leaders of mid-size or large churches, or even world-wide ministries.
My former pastor had no seminary education. But others may be Bible scholars and eloquent expositors who many refer to as having “solid theology.” But remember, orthodoxy doesn’t equal orthopraxy, meaning, what we believe doesn't always equal what we do. Predatory spiritual leaders will use their power and authority to get what they want from a person entrusted to their care, and they will twist scripture to their advantage to accomplish this.
The patterns of abuse may be similar, but the abuser may present himself differently. So don’t be fooled by the “theologically sound” wolf because you assume wolves are only in those other types of churches.
It’s also not just pastors either. Those who abuse could be a seminary professor, an itinerant preacher, an elder, deacon, a counselor, a pastor from another church, or even a respected member of the congregation, who doesn’t have an official title, but is looked to as a spiritual authority. I’ve heard many stories. In each case, the abuser is leveraging their spiritual authority and sacred trust to groom, abuse, and silence the victim. It’s also important to note that abusers don’t only groom the victim, they also groom the whole church and the victim’s support system. They’re very tactical.
The pastor can be married or single. If the spiritual leader is using coercive control tactics to become sexual with a person under his care, his marital status is irrelevant. That is not a dating relationship. That is clergy sexual abuse.
Though rare, an abuser can be a woman in leadership. Survivors can be men or women. When it’s a male pastor abusing a man, it can get dismissed as quote “a gay sexual relationship” and not rightly named clergy sexual abuse. The focus then becomes sexuality, not sexual abuse, which is another false narrative propogated to the detriment of the survivor, who is assumed to be complicit in the abuse.
No matter the details of what the abuser looks like or what specific role he or she has, the result of adult clergy sexual abuse is trauma. I have not met one survivor–and I’ve met many, who have not been traumatized by adult clergy sexual abuse.
Ann Maree: That’s an important point–abuse is unique in every circumstance. Yet similarly, all abuse results in trauma and clergy sexual abuse is no different. Can you speak more about that?
Sure. Many people downplay clergy sexual abuse and treat it as if it were a mutually agreed to romantic relationship or some sexual fling between two consenting adults. But a mere fling does not result in trauma. Survivors are traumatized because what happened to them was abuse–spiritually, psychologically, sexually.
Additionally, most survivors are retraumatized when they’re victim-shamed and blamed, which happened to me. Since I was part of the toxic system, I think it was very hard for some people to be able to understand that I was not complicit in my abuse. It was not a quote “relationship,” though at the time that was the word I used to describe it. I was still confused as to what happened to me.
Most survivors don’t have the language or capacity to clearly explain what happened to them at the time of disclosure. And that inability to name the abuse specifically and correctly is often used against them, and a narrative quickly spreads that is inaccurate and extremely harmful to the victim, yet beneficial to the abuser.
Ann Maree: Yes, you’re right. Language is so key, especially because using wrong language can unintentionally harm survivors. How can pastors and people helpers be mindful not to speak about clergy sexual abuse using language that obscures its reality and impact?
Unfortunately, adult clergy sexual abuse is almost always referred to using language that softens the offense of the abuser while framing the abuse as an act the survivor wanted. The terms “relationship,” “inappropriate relationship,” “sexual relationship,” or “affair” are often used and normally understood to mean a mutually agreed to romantic relationship. That word “relationship” was really weaponized against me. Our words build a narrative and that narrative–the one that says “she or he was complicit” is so detrimental to the survivor.
But this is the narrative that abusers benefit from. Mislabeling the abusers actions as a “lapse of judgment” or “misstep” signals to other leaders that this could easily happen to anybody, so don’t be too harsh on the guy. So they give the abuser the benefit of the doubt because, hey, we all mess up sometimes, not understanding that this was actually calculated predatory behavior.
The pastor who abused me would convince me not to tell, saying that it would be better for him to be the one to speak about it, and that he would refer to it as an “inappropriate relationship.” According to him, this was his way of supposedly “protecting us.” Since then, I have learned that these terms are used frequently by abusers and enablers in public statements.
But, these terms don’t capture the coercive control, the horrific spiritual abuse, twisting of scriptures, and the trauma that results. In fact, adult clergy sexual abuse is illegal in some states. So, even certain states recognize that when a clergy member behaves in a sexual way toward a person under their care it’s wrong and causes enough damage to the victim that it should be criminalized.
In other words, this is not an affair, which implies mutual consent. There are laws that refer to it as quote “sexual assault” and “non-consensual.”
Ann Maree: I don’t think many church leaders are aware that adult clergy sexual abuse is criminalized in some states. What is an example of one of those laws?
In Texas, the law states, “A sexual assault is without the consent of the other person if: the actor is a clergyman who causes the other person to submit or participate by exploiting the other person's emotional dependency on the clergyman in the clergyman's professional character as spiritual adviser.” George W. Bush signed this into law when he was governor of Texas.
This is extremely serious and the church needs to have a zero tolerance policy for adult clergy sexual abuse, as well as proper procedures for protecting both children and adults and a policy on how to respond appropriately, if this kind of abuse is discovered.
Instead, the abuse is often downplayed, labeled consensual, and the abuser is eventually restored to his position where he can abuse again, while the survivor is often demonized for referring to herself or himself as a victim.
Words that do not appropriately describe the experience of the survivor, which is one of abuse and trauma, should not be used. No one hearing the word “affair” or “sexual relationship” is going to picture the story I shared with you in the first episode. They aren’t going to register that this is criminalized behavior.
Ann Maree: You shared some terms that are not appropriate to use when referring to clergy sexual abuse. What are appropriate terms we can use when addressing this type of abuse?
We need to use language that captures both the abusive behavior of the leader, meaning the targeting, grooming, coercion, sexual exploitation, and the direct impact on the victim–the trauma. The only word that I can think of to adequately and appropriately describe my experience and why I struggle with post traumatic stress from this ordeal is the word “abuse.” That is the term that people should be using.
To use biblical terminology, the word “oppression” is most fitting to describe my experience, not “immorality,” “adultery,” “lasciviousness,” and certainly not “Jezebel.” All these terms imply and come across to others that I somehow wanted this, and that is so deeply hurtful. Darby Strickland, a counselor, has said when we soften the language we minimize the devastation. Victim's who have been coercively controlled by spiritual leaders are confused, disoriented, and emotionally and physically distraught. To add complicity is to cause someone a severe and overwhelming burden which is not theirs to carry. It can be so dangerous to their well being.
Ann Maree: Yes, I’ve seen that. This is so true. Victims of any kind of abuse overwhelmingly agree; secondary abuse– what happens when they disclose– is far worse than the primary abuse.
Tamra, your experience devastated your whole person. Can you share a little more about the ways in which the abuse impacted you spiritually?
Tamra: Sure. I think a common misconception of adult clergy sexual abuse is that the victim was complicit because of their own sexually immoral desires and lack of godliness. However, in my own situation, in the research I’ve read, and survivor stories I have heard, this is simply not the case. Typically, the victim is like me, in that I had a strong desire to please God and submit to authority as I was taught the Bible required of me.
Those godly desires of mine were twisted by the leader and used against me. My desire for the gospel to be advanced was used against me. The message sent to me was that if I cared about souls and wanted the gospel to go forth, which I absolutely did, then I should not tell anyone.
Besides, according to the pastor, who I was supposed to submit to, this behavior was permitted by God. In other words, I, like so many other survivors, were endeavoring to please God, but were led incorrectly and ended up pleasing the leader, not God.
This is why the accusation that it was because I was so unspiritual is so devastating and destructive. I desired to be led by a godly leader–a strong Christlike shepherd, but instead I was led by a wolf. Instead of being led like a sheep to green pastures to graze and eat, I was led away from the sheepfold to be fed on.
The psalms speak of devastation caused by evildoers laying traps, digging pits, devising plans, all to ensnare God’s people. These psalms resonate with me deeply.
Psalm 140:4-5 says, “Guard me, O Lord, from the hands of the wicked; preserve me from violent men, who have planned to trip up my feet. The arrogant have hidden a trap for me, and with cords they have spread a net; beside the way they have set snares for me.”
I truly believe that if I didn’t say anything, I would still be in that oppressive situation right now. There was no end in sight.
When he was abusing me, it was like time stopped. I couldn’t imagine myself five years in the future. I didn’t even know if I would live that long. The future was just an empty black-hole.
Those were supposed to be some of the best years of my life–not just as a young woman starting out in the world, but as a new believer starting out on my faith journey. I was just getting to know my Savior. I was just beginning to understand the Bible, to be sanctified in the Word, to be conformed to the image of Christ. It was incredibly beautiful and that abusive pastor took all that beauty and twisted it to his own advantage and perverse pleasure. Those were my youthful years that I can never get back. And I’m still grieving that.
I was stripped of so much spiritually, mentally, physically. Even my physical possessions that I had acquired as an adult were left behind in that darkened apartment when I fled the abuse. In the same way I left my parent’s house with whatever I could fit in the car when I moved to the state where I was abused, I left with whatever I could fit in my car.
Ann Maree: Do you wonder about what your life would’ve looked like if you had not encountered this man?
Tamra: I do. I wonder how much I would’ve grown spiritually, how I would’ve matured in the faith, grown in my Christ-likeness and Christ-like love for others.
I go back in my mind, to when I was that bright eyed bushy tailed new believer, and imagine what it would’ve been like to be a new Christian in a church that wasn’t spiritually abusive and to learn from a pastor who didn’t sexually abuse me and fill my head with evil teachings. My formative years in Christ would’ve been very different. That’s loss. That’s real loss.
Instead, when I returned home after years in that church, I wasn’t built up in Christ, I was incredibly broken. Instead of being thankful for a pastor who led me closer to Jesus, I went to court to get a restraining order against him.
Ann Maree: Tamra, I know you somewhat, so I know you grieve that loss but I also know, you don’t stay there. I know you believe what God says in Rev. 21:5, that he is making all things new. How does your confidence in that promise help you find hope in the here and now?
Tamra: I know that God wastes nothing. And that’s exactly why I’m here today sharing my story. I hope that my story brings hope to someone who may be experiencing oppression, right now. I hope that someone who didn’t have the language to describe what happened to them or is happening to them, will begin the process of naming what they experienced, and be able to disclose to someone they trust.
I hope that my story will educate people about this form of oppression so that wolves will be identified, held accountable, and not enabled and re-platformed where they can abuse, again.
Most of all, my hope is that Jesus is looked to as the Good Shepherd He is. He cares for His flock. He gave His life for His flock. This is a far cry from the self-seeking wolves who devour sheep for their own pleasure. I hope Christ shines brighter in stark contrast to the darkness of abuse.
There is hope after disclosure. The Lord is close to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
This experience changed a lot for me, but it certainly doesn’t define me. My life is very full and being a survivor of adult clergy sexual abuse is just one aspect of me. I’m a friend to many. I’m a happily married wife to an amazingly supportive husband. I’m a mother to beautiful children who I treasure, and I have a busy and fulfilling life that I never dreamed possible.
I want to testify that coming out of oppression means being liberated to a life where freedom in Christ can be deeply and richly enjoyed.
Ann Maree: That’s beautiful! Well, again. I so appreciate your transparency, Tamra, and allowing us to enter into this story with you and hear your heart. In our final episode together, we would love to hear more about how you see God transforming these evil circumstances into good. I look forward to our next Episode together.
That’s all for today, on Episode 4, Dr. David Pooler and I will talk in-depth about Clergy Sexual Misconduct. Dr. Pooler is considered a hero in the adult clergy sexual abuse survivor community as he is one of the leading researchers in this area. I’ll be asking Dr. Pooler to help us understand many of the dynamics of CSA, and specifically the impact on the victims.
Make sure to join us again as we explore how, despite sharing in Christ’s sufferings in a fallen world, we can be Safe to Hope.