Clergy Sexual Abuse as Abuse of Power

Everyone agrees that Clergy Sexual Abuse is a bad thing, yet clergy are still abusing.

We have trained thousands of congregational leaders on clergy sexual abuse, yet many churches continue to deny and minimize when a beloved leader betrays their trust.

What is going on here? Why is this problem so stubborn?

Some people say it is just human sin. Individuals enjoy abusing their power to manipulate and control others.

Some say it is because of our confused ideas about sexuality. We can’t talk about sex in church without creating a mess.

Some say it is theology. As long as we promote ideas like sacrifice, servanthood, obedience, and forgiveness, we create clergy who put themselves in the place of God and expect others to serve their needs.

I say that it is all of the above, and the thing that links them together is abuse of power. The problem the church doesn’t talk about is power and how God wants us to use power.

Human sin can be understood as the abuse of power. In our failure to find the nurturing relationships and prosperity we want, humans engage in manipulation and power plays to get what we think we need. In this sense, clergy sexual abuse is just one among many forms of abuse of power in the church, one of “the many temptations that inevitably accompanies power.”

Sexuality can be understood in relation to power. Sexuality is a human drive that permeates all our relationships. Sexuality as a commodity drives advertising and U.S. values. Because we don’t talk about sex in a sensible way, we push sexuality into the unconscious world where its power multiplies. The structure that creates this mess is male dominance or patriarchy.

Theological doctrines are forms of power. All the terms above – sacrifice, obedience, and forgiveness – depend on power – who is sacrificing for who; who is obedient to who; and who is asked to forgive who. Who decides these questions is a matter of power.

So what do we mean by power and the abuse of power? What is power for, and how can we recognize the abuse of power? These questions are important because at this conference we are talking about how to use power to prevent clergy abuse of power. Through our public debates, our policies on sexual misconduct, our training programs, and our response teams, we are challenging the usual power arrangements to provide healing for the victims of clergy sexual abuse and accountability for everyone.

Every reform movement is a claim on power, and the movement to prevent clergy sexual abuse is no exception. We are here because we don’t like the way things have been for many generations. We want to change things – where male and female leaders are excused for abusing power even before they repent and change their ways. We want to change the way the church mistreats victims – by silence, by shunning, and sometimes by forcing them to leave the church. We want to change the ethics of church leadership so that vulnerable people will no longer become victims of sexual exploitation in the church family. We want true repentance and rehabilitation for offenders as they are restored to membership in the community. We want to restore the faith and trust of the congregation so it is empowered to fulfill God’s mission of love in the community.

We are here because we believe that we have power to change all of these things “through Christ who strengthens us.” (Phil 4:13) If we want power, we need to understand what it is, and what God intended when God gave human beings power.

I believe that all power is from God. Abuse of power is the abuse of a gift that God gives to us. God created us; God put us in this garden, the earth, on which we depend for food, warmth, shelter; God gave us loving communities of support and challenge and called us to be witnesses in the world. In Jesus Christ, we have been redeemed from our sinful ways and shown the way of loving power. In John 13, Jesus called us to be servants by kneeling and washing one another’s feet, thus showing us one way of empowering others; in John 15, Jesus called us to stand up and become friends, no longer servants, thus inviting us to claim the power of leadership in the name of Jesus. Whether we are kneeling down as servants or standing up as peers, we are exercising the power God gives us. In Acts 2, God sent power in the form of the Holy Spirit so that we no longer fear the violence of evil forces and the threat of death. We can look even at the horrible event of the crucifixion of Jesus and know that God is with us through whatever happens. We live in the power of the Holy Spirit that has called us into this conference and calls us every day to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8) We have received power from God to live fully in the excitement and challenge of this world until God’s kin-dom comes.

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