Whether they begin in the workplace or within a religious community, sexual relationships involving clergy are an especially sensitive topic. Beliefnet spoke with three experts who deal with clergy sexual misconduct professionally:

Robert Clark (RC) is the head of the Clergy Consultation Service; the Rev. Thelma B. Burgonio-Watson (TBW) is the director of Training and Education at the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence; and the Rev. Bud Holland heads the Ministry Development Office of the Episcopal Church in New York.

How widespread do you think clergy sexual misconduct is?
RC: This has been going on for a long time. I bet if you asked clergy who are 50 to 60 years old, many of them met their wives in the young adult group they used to lead. It used not to be sexual harassment; the church used to be a very good place for clergy to meet their mate. Denominations have mostly been dealing with this in recent years and have come up with policy statements within the last five to six years to protect themselves, most of which are punitive rather than helpful. TBW: We do not have hard data on hand, but as far as we know it is very widespread. We hear from survivors of clergy sexual misconduct from the denominations and religious groups that we work with, this problem cuts across religious lines/faith traditions.

BH: I don't think it is widespread, but whenever it happens it feels like a huge problem. It feels more pervasive than it is because it has so many tentacles, with people hurt and parishioners disillusioned and abused.

What are some of the causes of clergy sexual misconduct?
RC: When there is sexual misconduct, it mostly comes back to power. Authority and power are very serious issues. Of course, clergy are sexual beings and they can get caught in transference issues, where congregants can transfer feelings about their father, brother, or lovers. Clergy generally have very little training programs to prepare them for this.

TBW: We talk more about what sexual abuse is in the ministerial or professional relationship and why it is wrong than [about] its cause. It is, after all, an abuse of power and a violation of professional ethics. One cannot give meaningful consent to sexual contact when there is a difference of power between a professional and his/her client or between a clergy and a congregant.

BH: Clergy are in helping professions. Misconduct is the result of a helping relationship in which the roles change from counselor into a friendship - and that leads to the next role change. Clergy are uniquely susceptible to this boundary crossing. They see each other at the clergy's office, at worship, at social functions, and on church boards. No other profession offers so much contact between the person in the helping role and the receiver.

What are the steps that denominations are taking to prevent this kind of abuse?
BH: Sometimes these acts are committed by a manipulative, predatory type of person. However, mostly the clergy who are guilty of sexual misconduct are real people who are not evil but who have a personal deficit in their interior life. For that reason, dioceses are more and more concerned with clergy wellness. We promote self-care and health in the lives of our clergy.

We give mandatory eight-hour training to all clergy and lay leaders in every diocese to avoid this happening. We talk openly and clearly about issues of responsibility and abuse of the power differential between the parishioner and the clergy. We have also placed restrictions on clergy acting as counselors without strong counseling credentials.

RC: This is more likely to occur in the free church tradition (Baptist, non-denominational) than in the hierarchical traditions where the church denomination can force clergy to attend training seminars.

TBW: At least at the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, we have developed a comprehensive training curriculum for clergy, religious administrators, and for seminary faculty and administrators that are available for all denominations, seminaries, and religious organizations that work with clergy.

What responsibility does the congregant have?
RC: [It's] difficult to know the part the "so-called victim" plays, as they are rarely talked to by the denominations to find out what role they may have played.

TBW: There is an imbalance of power between a clergy and his/her congregant. The professional responsibility fully lies on the clergy.

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