When individuals of any community fail in their integrity, everyone is a victim and everyone suffers. Nowhere is this more evident than when clergy and religious compromise leadership and violate their trust through sexual misconduct. – Roman Paur
Recommendations of the Executive Director
The Humanity of Belief Systems: Twelve Critical Issues
The treasury of religious traditions is rich with the wisdom of enduring values and spiritual yearning. Believers embrace their traditions that guide relational well being and anchor hope as they struggle with human weakness and divine assurance. Although differences among and within systems of belief are vast, all affirm integrity, look out for those who are disadvantaged in any way but especially the very young and the very old, believe in the grace of intervention, and rely on their faith communities for safety and salvation. Those who are entrusted by the faithful with leadership, ordained and lay, are privileged to serve as models of what belief means, through doubt and hope and through failure and success.
When individuals of any community fail in their integrity, everyone is a victim and everyone suffers. Nowhere is this more evident than when clergy and religious compromise leadership and violate their trust through sexual misconduct.
It is not true that the rules have changed. Such behavior that continues to be exposed has never been right. Our critical challenge is to do thoughtfully everything we can to prevent any action that violates the integrity of another and to face squarely the appropriate demands of healing because of the past.
This challenge is enormous and can be appropriately met not in secrecy and isolation but in close cooperation among the professions — medicine, psychology, law and religion — and in listening carefully to those who are violated sexually by the misuse of power and trust. The issues identified below provide a point of view about the work we must face together.
1. The ecclesial culture of abuse: The fundamental challenge of religious leaders across faith systems is to examine how abuse of power through the sexual misconduct of clerics is reinforced by their interpretative documents and traditions. Such an examination is formidable because it goes to the core of structural and institutional identity as evolved over time, claims on originating sources, understanding of ordained and lay leadership, and mandates of mission and purpose. Rigid truth imperatives impede understanding about theological positions on matters related to human sexuality such as, for example, gender equity and the role of women within faith traditions, sexual identity, sexual preference and practice in relational intimacy, requirements and choices of sexual expression in clerical leadership, and the psychology of sexualized power in faith communities. The idea of such conversations is met with suspicion because of the perception that the invested leaders, who position themselves often through closed and secret procedures of appointment, are the very ones guarding these sensitive doctrines and practices.
2. Entitlement: The consequences of entitlement within the leadership of faith traditions and on the faithful themselves are pervasive and profound. Entitlement seems to be endemic both to the structures of religion and to the psychology of believers. By definition entitlement is appropriating for oneself privileges of position for personal advantage at the expense of others. It can shield leadership from accountability, intimidate faithful into compliance, and put vulnerable people in harm’s way. The model of Church as “pilgrim journey and listening community” where each person is equally accountable to everyone greatly reduces the likelihood of the abuse of privileged position.
3. Vox populi: It is creedal that the leaders of faith traditions listen to the voice of the people, the wisdom of the faithful, in an attitude of equality, learning, and prayer. Patronizing and condescending administrative posturing within any ecclesiastical tradition, regardless of its structure and understanding of the role of ordained leadership, not only compromises the origins of belief but blurs positions of power with personal ambition. It is the sensus fidelium that instructs and guides the service of leadership authority measured first by relational respect and gender equity in every detail of service to humanity. Leadership of faith traditions at all levels, ordained and lay, is legitimately expressed only on the foundation of human respect. Regular listening forums within faith communities can generate a culture of disentitled humility where leadership trust is earned and monitored.
4. Power of perception and position: Clergy and religious frequently, if not typically, are quite unaware of their relational “power,” and often do not appreciate how they are perceived by the faithful within their congregations or, for that matter, by people at large. They can express genuine surprise and consider themselves even powerless and ineffective toward achieving their pastoral goals. Such lack of awareness can jeopardize relational integrity by minimizing appropriate differences in wanting to be perceived as just another guy or crossing lines of professional propriety with indifference or distortions of transference and counter transference. Power is often more a matter of how clergy are perceived by others than how they perceive themselves. In any case it is imperative that clergy be clear about who they are in their various roles and the relational requirements these roles impose on them. Power derived from the authority of pastoral appointment is rooted in the community of the faithful and in the service of their safety, freedom, and growth.
5. Information disclosure: Prevention requires offender disclosure. Victims demand justice. Faith sources propound truth. Violators and criminals need due process. Secrecy itself is the likely slide of continuing offending behavior because there is no apparent external accountability to the faithful when personal internal controls fail. However, the collusion of autonomous leadership that puts the public image and other vested interests of the institution above the safety and well being of vulnerable people belies the very essence of religion as “salvation.” The “I know best” mentality of leadership that protects its own at the expense of all else is not just a matter of the bad judgment of a poor leader but a very good picture of a critically flawed understanding of ministry and power.
6. Gender equity: At the very least abuse is about individuals who are vulnerable in how they use power and how they accede to persuasion. At another level abuse is about attitudes that permeate religious culture. Abuse doesn’t just happen. It points in the direction of role expectations deeply ingrained and frequently tied to “sacred” sources that theologically shape religious institutional identity and practices. Even when unwitting, such practices perpetuate gender stereotyping that is subjugating and demeaning of women while garnering the leadership of men. In communities of faith (as well as in society at large), the symbols and language of leadership can be profoundly condescending toward women who may be handicapped by a spirituality and habits of dependence that can make them especially vulnerable to being abused.
7. Seminary curriculum and seminarian screening and formation: Seminaries are in urgent need of sound human sexuality courses that are integrated with the ongoing spiritual development of seminarians. The substance of these programs ought to include basic current information on human sexuality from a psycho-social and developmental perspective that addresses fundamental issues of personal development and self-identity, sexual needs and lifestyles, relational health, spirituality of sexuality, caring for the care-giver, etc. Essential to balanced development programs for seminarians is a process (time) for personal conversation, learning, and integration in an environment conducive to reflection and wholesome social exchange with women and men. Although there are clear early warning signs for obsessive and predatory behaviors, many inappropriate sexual contacts can be circumstantially-based and not identifiable through testing procedures or otherwise anticipated. In addition to observation and discussion, vocation discernment must include a responsible background investigation and a sexual history.
8. Victims and support resources: Victims of sexual misconduct by clergy and religious can experience severe and prolonged consequences, not only because of the breach of relational trust but also because of the subsequent inappropriate official response and lack of adequate follow-up for personal and professional care. As a result victims are often marginalized in their communities of faith and made to feel that the original behavior and subsequent disruption in the community following disclosure are their fault. Appropriate attention to the well-being of victims and their families is crucial to the health of individuals and communities. The first requirement of justice is that responsible authorities listen to victims and respond with openness and compassion.
9. Relational respect and boundaries: Apart from the development of policies some of the top leadership in faith traditions are quite reluctant to take proactive measures to minimize power abuse within their organizational structures. Such action, they would say, can be seen as attracting unwarranted public attention in a way that distorts the overall picture by casting unfair suspicion on all clergy in greater or lesser positions of power, thus putting the leadership even more unfairly on the defensive. Informed awareness of faith leaders and congregations alerts the faithful both to the possibility of individual human failure, regardless of one’s office or responsibilities, and to procedures for minimizing any likelihood of institutional neglect.
10. Human sexual awareness: Understanding and integrating a healthy human sexuality for both the clergy and the faithful are core dimensions of prevention of sexual misconduct. What is healthy sexuality, and what are the elements of a balanced theology of human sexuality? What is a healthy spirituality of sexuality, and how is it expressed in choices within marriage, friendships, and celibacy? How have theologies contributed to unhealthy attitudes about sexuality that can increase vulnerability to being both abusive and abused? How do unhealthy attitudes about human sexuality rooted within religious traditions contribute to abusive behavior? What is a wholesome understanding of sexual preference, and how can religious traditions affirm minority sexual identities in addition to heterosexuality?
11. Congregational education: Faith communities can deal responsibly with whatever life dishes out. They must not be shielded from any information and especially the kind that can put them in harm’s way. A healthy community can deal responsibly with known individuals who could otherwise endanger the safety of others, but such a community is highly vulnerable to abuse when real dangers are concealed for any reason. The authority of leadership rests with the (faith) community in a relationship of trust, openness, and disclosure. Congregations require ongoing education, specific awareness, clear explicit guidelines, and appropriate vigilance as a process of prudent alertness and accountability that comes from within and that holds everyone equally responsible for the values of relational respect.
12. Empirical research: A good deal of data is emerging about clergy sexual misconduct even though access to this information is often made unnecessarily difficult. The behaviors and the conditions appear to be quite similar across religious traditions and within the Judeo-Christian experience. Sexual misconduct within the leadership of religious traditions is a failure that is long-standing, pervasive, compromising of cherished beliefs, destructive of faith systems, and devastating to people. There is also a considerable amount of misinformation and premature judgments based on spurious statistics and irresponsible comments by high profile voices that prejudice fact. What is urgently needed is a thoughtful and systematic examination of offender, victim, and response data in order to understand especially what it is that is common within and among the traditions to aid prevention. How are institutions of religion and people vulnerable to abuse? Where does it come from in the faith-filled societies that are based on their understanding of high moral values of leadership and interaction? And what are the lessons of such primary research for prevention?
Everyone stands to gain by together openly examining the issues and by providing the means to promote confidently an informed awareness of our failure. Just as we cannot be ruled by fear, neither can we be consoled by ignorance. These twelve critical issues focus on the humanity of belief systems that can violate human beings irreparably and tarnish the treasury of reassuring spiritual truths.
Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute, Roman Paur, Executive Director
Recommendations of the Executive Director
Roman Paur – firstname.lastname@example.org – 877.672.3257