“Clergy Sexual Misconduct: Exposing the Elephant in the Living Room”

By Rev. Joel A. Bowman
Founder & Senior Pastor, Temple of Faith Baptist Church, Louisville, Kentucky

“. . . Though an able speaker charms me with his eloquence, I say,
I’d rather see a sermon than to hear one, any day.”
-Edgar Guest

We have recently been bombarded with allegations that “mega-church” pastor, Bishop Eddie L. Long, coerced several male members into sexual relationships. If you\’re like me, your initial response was, “Not again . . . please say it isn\’t so!” Though each of us might have our own personal opinion regarding Bishop Long\’s innocence or guilt, no one in the general public knows what really happened. However, I hope and pray, for the sake of the alleged victims, Bishop Long, and the Body of Christ, as a whole, that the accusations are not true.

However, one thing is unequivocally clear. This scandalous situation provides us with the opportunity to openly discuss one of those “sick secrets” of the Church: clergy sexual misconduct. It is the proverbial “elephant in the living room” that we all see, some of us have talked about, but few have attempted to address. But, address it, we must, in a constructive, informed, and biblical manner. The “elephant” must be exposed, so that clergy sexual misconduct can be prevented, and our congregants will not be victimized.

Our first order of business is to define “clergy sexual misconduct.” Heretofore, we have referred to this in the following ways . . . “I heard, Pastor so-and-so had ‘an affair\’ with one of his members,” or, “You know, Reverend so-and-so has always had ‘a zipper problem.\’” However, whenever a preacher engages in sexual activity with a church member, or member of their faith community, that is more than “an affair,” or, “a zipper problem.” That is “an abuse of power.” There is a power differential between a preacher and “a regular church member” or “attendee.” So, for ministers of the Gospel to engage in sexual activity with members of their faith community, to whom they are not married, is exploitive and abusive of such persons.

Okay, I know what some may say, “Some women come to church to prey (that\’s p-r-e-y) on preachers” . . . “They\’re like ‘groupies\’ on a rock music or Hip-Hop tour.\’” While it is true that some women are infatuated with “men in uniform” (clergy robes included), that does not excuse clergy who engage in such illicit and inappropriate relationships. That would be tantamount to a doctor sexually exploiting a trusting patient, or a therapist using his or her power to manipulate a client for selfish gain. In the case of doctors or therapists, they could lose their license to practice, if allegations of abuse were substantiated. Whether forced or “consensual,” clergy sexual abuse is dead wrong, sinful, and yes, criminal. Ironically, though, sexual misconduct by clergy is only illegal in the states of Texas and Minnesota. Therefore, much work needs to be done in this area of legislation.
In 2008, my colleague, Dr. Diana R. Garland, Dean of the Baylor University School of Social Work, conducted a study on clergy sexual misconduct (also known as CSM). To date, this is the most comprehensive and significant piece of research done on this subject. As both a pastor and clinical social worker, I have been honored to serve as a consultant on this project. Dr. Garland\’s research revealed that Roman Catholic priests are not the only “offenders.” Clergy sexual misconduct crosses all religious, denominational, and racial lines. According to Dr. Garland and her research partners, “clergy sexual misconduct refers to a religious leader’s sexual overture, proposition, or relationship with a congregant who is not his or her spouse or significant other.”

Of the 3,559 respondents surveyed by Dr. Garland and her partners, in 2008:
• More than 3% of women who had attended a congregation in the past month reported that they had been the object of CSM at some time in their adult lives;
• 92% of these sexual advances had been made in secret, not in open dating relationships; and
• 67% of the offenders were married to someone else at the time of the advance.
• In the average American congregation of 400 persons, with women representing, on average, 60% of the congregation, there are, on average of 7 women who have experienced clergy sexual misconduct.
• Of the entire sample, 8% report having known about CSM occurring in a congregation they have attended. Therefore, in the average American congregation of 400 congregants, there are, on average, 32 persons who have experienced CSM in their community of faith.
This is a serious problem for which God will hold religious leaders and the Church accountable. But, in order to fix this problem, we must face it. Ignoring the “elephant” will not make it go away. Let\’s face it; ministers across the country have even fathered children with church members they have offended. Some of these men remain in their positions, without serious consequences. We mustn\’t bury our heads in the sand, and thereby, pretend that there is no “elephant in the living room.”

The call to ministry is noble, indeed. God takes this call very seriously, for the Apostle Paul says, in 1 Timothy 3:2, the pastor is to be “blameless” or “above reproach.” As Bishop Long implied, none of us is perfect. However, this fact can never be used as an excuse for one to take advantage of God\’s precious sheep.

Countless persons have been victimized by “preying preachers.” As a result, many “survivors” of clergy sexual abuse have either turned away from the Christian faith, or rejected it, altogether. Let us reach out to these persons with the unconditional love of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, let us pray that the “offenders” are brought to justice and provided the professional treatment that they sorely need.