Trigger warning: Discussion of spiritual and sexual abuse
On June 9th, Christianity Today published a story by a youth pastor who had become a sex offender. Presented as a cautionary tale to pastors not to let pride screw up your ministry, instead this was a sob story chock full of victim blaming, wife blaming, oh feel so sorry for me, the poor sex offender. He presented the child he sexually abused as complicit in his “affair”. The whole thing was egregious and created a firestorm of comments and a huge movement of people demanding that they take the post down. They did five days later and issued a sincere apology.
On May 27th, Teresa Pecinovsky wrote a guest blog post on Rachel Held Evan’s I Will Not Be Silent Anymore in response to the #yesallwomen campaign site about a professor and minister who had repeatedly contacted her, slowly chipping away at her defenses until he sent her a sexually explicit text. She then was sick with guilt wondering what she had done.
This spring has brought up a lot of emotions and memories for me due to the blog posts and headlines about young females being abused by teachers and ministers. Pecinovsky’s story hit home the hardest for me because it was the most similar to my story, a person attempting an romantic relationship with someone who is under their authority. It was also similar because we both were lucky enough to be able to stop the relationship before it was physically sexual but was still traumatic.
I was 13 when my 31 year old teacher began singling me out for special attention. I went to a small Christian school with about a hundred children K-12 and it was also a nondenominational church and community center. I easily spent more waking hours at the church/school than at home. Throughout my junior high and high school years, he would call me into his class room to discuss silly insignificant things like the color I had chosen to make my geography maps. Once, when there was a torrential rain pour after school (a rarity in our area of Alaska), I ran outside laughing and twirling as the fourteen year old child that I was. I suddenly caught a glimpse of him staring through the glass doors, frozen, with a look on his face that made me hug my arms over my baggy boy’s polo shirt I was wearing and run inside, feeling guilty and dirty. He later told me that he thought that moment of watching a young teen was one of the most seductive things he had seen.
When I was in high school, he was no longer my teacher but he was the Christian Education Director. His singling out of me intensified. I had begun to attend the adult Sunday School class he taught because I was interested in church history. The summer between my junior and senior year of high school he cornered me and asked if I would run the projector for the summer series on the Beatitudes. I agreed, partly because I thought it would simply entail changing the slide when appropriate and partly because I had never learned to say no to an adult or to trust my feelings. Respect for authority was ingrained to my core and to say no, solely because I felt uncomfortable around him, didn’t cross my mind. In fact, I continued call him Mr. and his last name because he was an authority, an adult, and a teacher. Instead just changing the slides like he had asked, he required me to meet with him for hours each week to discuss the lesson plan. As he ushered me into his office at the church that summer and I vividly remember walking past the pastor’s door with the sign posted “Women meeting with the pastor must leave the door open or have another woman present”. He would shut the office door behind me.
Midway into the summer, I was with him in an empty church office on a Saturday and he asked me to meet at a restaurant next week. I told him I would, thinking that would be better than a closed office. As we were walking out of the office, he grabbed my upper arm so tightly that it hurt. “I want you to know that I’m asking you because I like you as a person, not because of the class.” I said “okay” and he released his grip. His statement confused me and I believe it was intentionally vague. If I had responded “Is this a date?” he could of easily shamed me by my assumption that he would want to go on a date with me, when really he was just valuing me as a person. Conversely, if I later said I assumed this was platonic, he could have said “But I made it clear that it was a date.”
On the day we discussed the “pure in heart” verses, he brought me up to “the Bluff”, a local scenic view, and relentlessly quizzed me “What does purity mean to you?” “Do you think if a guy says ‘that girl is foxy?’ is that pure?” “When does it become impure?” I remember being so incredibly miserable, cringing at every question and mumbling “I don’t know” over and over, but being careful not to cry so he didn’t have an excuse to hug me.
When the class ended, his pursuit of me increased. I would receive letters from him in my school locker accompanied by a Hershey chocolate “hug” candy. He came to my work. He sent me flowers for Christmas. He gave me a card, stuffed animal, and a calligraphy pen for Valentine’s Day. I finally felt I had enough evidence that he was pursuing a romantic relationship with me even though he never explicitly said so. His was intentionally vague as part of the manipulation and I was so naive that I was ashamed because I hadn’t been brave enough to tell him no, that I was “leading him on”. I called him and told him that I did not want to meet alone with him anymore. He asked to meet me in the school cafeteria and told me that I would just need some “time to get over our age differences”. I had used up my courage in that one “no” that he refused to acknowledge. I felt guilty that part of me liked the attention of someone singling me out and calling me special and kept thinking I wasn’t being clear enough.
I asked for help from my female youth leaders, but nothing happened so eventually I became adept at avoiding him and my peers helped by creating human buffers and “emergencies” to call me away from him. Eventually in college, I was able to break all contact with him.
Alaska’s age of consent is 16 and nothing he was doing was overtly sexual so it wasn’t illegal. However, as Pecinovsky brings up, Faith Trust Institute’s ethical standards for clergy that they should not have relationships for those who they are leading. Because this man was in a position of spiritual and educational authority over me, it was immoral and abusive.
Just like teachers, social workers, doctors, and counselors are prohibited from having romantic relationships with their students, patients or clients, pastors are also in positions of power and authority over members of their flock. In fact, the more authoritarian the church is, the more important this rule becomes. Churches which control the way the members dress, earn money, interact with their family and hold claim that they are the only “true” church have enormous power. If a person was to claim a inappropriate relationship in these churches or even “break up” with their pastor, they could fear loosing their family, income and even their salvation. For this reason, in many states, a pastor dating his or her congregant is illegal.
Just to be clear, 100% of any abuse is the abuser’s fault. Policies and laws make it more difficult for the abuser to get away with it and easier for the victim to reach out for help which all decent people desire, however all of the responsibility for the abuse lies with the one perpetrating the abuse.
For more information, see the excellent article 11 Reasons Pastors Should Never Date Their Parishioners by Erik Campano and Denominational Policies on Clergy/Congregant Sexual Contact.