Pray for me: A woman’s escape from spiritual, sexual abuse by a pastor

The pastor would later tell Linda he set eyes on her the first day he met her — on his first day assigned to a church in the Bangor area. She was actively involved at the church and married, with children. Once, after conducting a church event, the pastor remarked to her, “I fell in love with your hands.”

But it wasn’t love. He relied on his position of power to gain her trust and draw her into his life over a period of three and a half years, Linda said. Then he took advantage of their relationship sexually.

Art by George Danby

Art by George Danby

Clergy sexual abuse of children has rightfully drawn much public attention in recent years, as more and more priests have been found guilty of sexual assault or sued for covering it up. But clergy sexual misconduct also extends to adults. It is not a crime under Maine law for a pastor to have sex with a member of his or her congregation, but it violates professional boundaries and is an abuse of power. And it can certainly feel like a crime to the victims, who find their vulnerabilities exploited.

Indeed, 13 other states have made clergy sexual relations with congregants illegal. Some include language specifying that the misconduct happen within the counseling relationship. While it is illegal in Maine for psychiatrists, psychologists or licensed social workers to have sex with their patients, the statute does not refer to clergy.

“The manipulation of false authority, manipulating you through the sacred texts, that’s where the grooming happens. That’s where the damage is,” said Linda, which is not her real name. She wanted to talk about her experience to prevent future abuses and remind people it’s OK to question automatic authority. Just as most people are not perpetrators, most clergy aren’t either. But the few who are can exact lasting damage on their victims and communities.

Linda said she was physically abused as a child. When she was little, she thought it happened to most people. She was told to be quiet, so she sought refuge in faith: “I would still fall back on my God because he still loved me.” When the pastor started at her church, she found his theology resonated with her. He encouraged her to voice her opinions and emphasized the importance of outreach and community service. She decided to get a degree in human services and loved studying psychology and sociology — “the meaning of people in community.”

Nothing was particularly wrong in her marriage in the 1990s, she said. It was just dry. She met with the pastor once every week on Sunday to plan church activities and once every two weeks for counseling.

Gradually, he wove his way into her life. Knowing her affinity for nature, he invited her to a lake. He shared personal details about his family. He attended her community functions. He built a connection with her husband, inviting him to go fishing. At one point, the pastor said to her, “I want you to be in ministry with me.” She felt a solidarity with him. Looking back now, she said, “really it was just tightening the web.”

Because he was gaining her trust, she dismissed the odd, boundary-crossing things he began to say. “‘You remind me so much of my mother,’ he’d say. ‘Really?’ ‘She committed suicide,’” recalled Linda, who works in a school setting. If a supervisor at work had said that to her, she would have responded differently, she said. But her pastor? “I was afraid to question the awkwardness of his personal sharing because he would just dismiss it and tell me I wasn’t being compassionate or some other ‘Christian trait.’”

She showed him a poem she wrote about God’s love. “It almost made me have an orgasm,” the pastor said after reading it. His comment “almost made me fall through the floor,” Linda said. “I said it wasn’t OK. He was dismissive. … Then he’d say, ‘No wonder [your husband] doesn’t respond to you.’”

She tried to avoid him for awhile but couldn’t go far. They attended church every week. She had meetings and community functions. Not to mention “forgiveness is always the script,” and “if I got away, I would lose a huge part of me that was really real and authentic.” The church was home to her friends, her faith and activities that were inherently good.

After three and a half years, the first sexual incident took place at a conference out of state. She was the one who found herself apologizing. “I’m like, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. Let’s pray together. Let’s say the Lord’s Prayer together.’ Classic.” She was distraught, but he didn’t acknowledge it. Later, he told her she wanted it. She said she didn’t. “Yes, you did. I know you,” was his reply.

“You give into it. You become part of it. You move to that place,” she said. “You dissociate.”

She didn’t tell anyone at first because she thought she knew what would happen. Shame and embarrassment would fall not just on herself but her husband and children. No one would believe her. The congregation would support him. He wouldn’t suffer a thing.

She decided to go to a different church, though it was affiliated with the original one, which meant she still saw its pastor periodically. She watched him become possessive, controlling and demanding of her — even in public. It was exhausting, she said, but she continued to deny what had happened. She remained silent.

It was while participating in a meditation group that “something moved me,” she said. She realized she was done. She told the pastor she didn’t want to see him any more.

And she told her husband. To her surprise, he understood the situation quickly. “This has been hostage taking,” he said. He told her they would deal with the aftermath together.

She needed the support. It was winter, and she slipped outside and hit her head, causing a concussion. She had to stay home from work, and she wasn’t allowed to move much. “I remember just screaming in an empty house. Screaming, like purging.”

It was the pastor at her new church who first mentioned the words “clergy abuse” when she confided in him. She said at first she didn’t understand. “I was scared, petrified. What’s it going to mean? Even to this day, I don’t think I can describe the bewilderment. Now, I get it.”

Linda and her husband pursued civil mediation and won a small settlement for damages, which paid for counseling. It was during the church mediation process, when the pastor tried to deny some of her claim requests, that she felt suicidal. She remembers one hot August night, “I wanted it to all end. Whether I took my life, or they did something, it was pretty much up in the air at that moment.”

Bill Barter is senior pastor of St. Ansgar Lutheran Church in Portland, a licensed psychologist and executive director of the Maine Council of Churches. He’s also familiar with Linda’s story.

It’s useful to know there are essentially three types of clergy perpetrators, he said. With the first type, the encounter is a mistake. The pastor, who normally acts ethically, offends against an adult parishioner, quickly admits the mistake and doesn’t let it happen again. With the second type, the clergy offender is a pedophile and has an attraction to children or teenagers.

The third type of clergy perpetrator has a characterological problem. As it appeared to be the case with Linda’s former pastor, he said, this type of offender usually lacks empathy, doesn’t have a strong conscience, has an ego and is at risk of reoffending. Essentially the person “just doesn’t get it right when it comes to acting socially, responsibly,” Barter said.

So what can churches do to protect against all types of offenders? “The best policy is a strong policy, and you don’t make exceptions to it,” Barter said.

That means, in the rare event that a church or synagogue has a predator or a leader with simply bad judgement, “opportunities to offend are minimized, and the opportunities to report any irregularities are maximized,” he said.

At his church, no one can work with children unless they have child safety training; everyone is invited to participate in the training. A classroom must have windows. If an adult needs to help a child in the bathroom, someone else waits outside the door. An adult cannot be in a room with children or transport children alone. If a pastor visits someone’s home, a lay leader comes along, too. Background checks are done on any new pastors.

Congregations need to talk about the need to speak up if people see boundaries being crossed. “People are taught to be silent and taught very quickly they are the cause of the problem, rather than being the victim,” he said.

Sex with a church leader may be consensual under the law, but it’s still a form of exploitation. “It’s a fine line of definition,” Barter said. “It may well be consensual in a legal sense, but it’s certainly not mutual or fully consensual in a moral or an ethical sense.”

That’s because of the power differential. In many denominations, the pastor represents God. “When the pastor looks at the bread and says, ‘This is my body,’ we believe Jesus becomes part of that bread. That’s power,” Barter said. “You’re trained ostensibly in scripture and morals and ethics, and people trust that inherently because of who you are. Your office gives you not only access to power, it gives you credibility.”

Even if pastors are single and able to date, they are discouraged from dating people in the congregation “because it always has the potential to be exploited.”

In Linda’s case, the Bishop of the Conference moved to remove the pastor’s clerical orders, and he agreed to it. Essentially, he was defrocked. She also learned about others who said they had similar experiences with the pastor. Linda and her husband “were shaken but not broken.” They both have become spokespersons of sorts on ways to prevent clergy abuse of power.

Linda has since written about clergy misconduct for the national, multifaith organization Faith Trust Institute. She became a domestic violence resource center hotline volunteer. She has presented workshops on clergy abuse prevention for churches.

And both she and her husband participated in a study of clergy sexual misconduct, conducted by Baylor University’s School of Social Work. The national survey found that 3.1 percent of adult women who worship at least once a month have been the target of a clergy sexual advance since turning 18. That means about one in 33 women in congregations has been subjected to a sexual advance by a religious leader.

Throughout the years, Linda has questioned what God’s justice looks like. “When we’re at our most vulnerable in our life condition, even if we’re atheists or nonbelievers or whatever, we fundamentally look for meaning,” she said. “Justice is experienced when the community can hold the narrative of one’s pain and suffering without judgment.”

To reach a sexual assault advocate, call the Statewide Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Line at 800-871-7741, TTY 888-458-5599. This free and confidential 24-hour service is accessible from anywhere in Maine. Calls are automatically routed to the closest sexual violence service provider. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.


Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.