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Some Churches Call Clergy Sexual Misconduct an ‘Affair.’ Survivors Are Fighting to Make It Against the Law.

Advocates push for legislation criminalizing sex between ministers and those they spiritually guide.
Some Churches Call Clergy Sexual Misconduct an ‘Affair.’ Survivors Are Fighting to Make It Against the Law.
Image: Rich Pedroncelli / Assocaited Press
The California state senate effectively killed a bill that would have made clergy sex abuse a crime.

Krystal Woolston struggled with her mental health as a teenager, but she headed to college hoping for a brighter future. Then, a married pastor who seemed to care about her gave her a different path forward. He told her God wanted her to have sex with him to help her heal.

Looking back 12 years later, Woolston realizes how vulnerable she was to his spiritual manipulation.

“I was just falling, freefalling in so many ways,” Woolston said. “Everyone deserves to be able to go to church and be safe.”

It took her six years to understand this pastor’s pattern of “special treatment” was really manipulation and that the sex was, in fact, abuse. It took four more years to get her denomination to stop him from leading church youth trips.

Woolston doesn’t want anyone else to go through the same thing.

She and a small group of abuse survivors and advocates have been working to make sure it doesn’t. They want sex between clergy members and adults they are spiritually guiding to be illegal in all 50 states. It is currently only against the law in 13, including Connecticut, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, plus the District of Columbia. But advocates are working behind the scenes to introduce state legislation saying that these kinds of relationships, often characterized as “affairs,” are not consensual but criminal.

“Criminalizing abuse is another way of saying, Here, see, it’s abuse,” said Kate Roberts, an adult clergy-abuse survivor and cofounder of Restored Voices Collective. “The more it is legitimized as abuse in various ways, the better that is for prevention and for survivors getting the help that they need.”

Many states have laws that say people in some professions, such as doctors and therapists, cannot have consensual sex with clients. Professional authority changes the nature of the relationship between adults, making some very vulnerable to manipulation and thus in need of legal protection. Restored Voices Collective and other victims’ advocates say the same thing is true of ministers.

“If a victim of adult clergy sexual abuse comes forward, there’s a strong likelihood that that person is going to be blamed as somebody who is ruining the pastor’s career and [told] this is something that is purely an ‘affair,’” said Boz Tchividjian, an advocate and attorney who is helping with the effort. “The question is, if a pastor or a faith leader uses their spiritual position to identify, groom, and ultimately sexualize a relationship with a person under their care or supervision, is that really a consensual relationship?”

Tchividjian, who has been advocating for survivors for decades, said he gets more calls from survivors of adult clergy sexual abuse than any other type of victim. In most cases, they’ve never told anyone. They are often not even sure whether or not they are victims of abuse and are consumed with shame and guilt.

“This is something that is very different from child sexual abuse,” Tchividjian said.

Lucy Huh, who researches adult clergy sexual abuse at Baylor University, said victims consider what they have to lose—their reputations, relationships, marriages, faith communities, and even their faith itself—and most remain silent, keeping their trauma to themselves. The result looks very different than what happens to people who have affairs.

“Consensual relationships don’t result in trauma and lifelong suffering,” Huh said.

New research done at Baylor in fact shows that survivors of adult clergy sexual abuse suffer rates of traumatization that surpass even war veterans. In a study that is currently being peer-reviewed for publication, professor David Pooler found 39 percent of adult survivors screened positive for posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. By comparison, slightly less than a quarter of US veterans who’ve been through a war showed signs of PTSD.

Survivors are not surprised by the statistic. Lori Knapton told CT that she didn’t initially know how to describe the sexual abuse she endured. The best she could do was say her pastor had convinced her to have an affair with him. It was her husband who pointed out this was a misuse of the pastor’s spiritual authority and actually not a consensual affair, but manipulation—sexual abuse.

“It was very much emotional, mental, psychological, physical abuse, but the spiritual component was the deepest part of it,” Knapton said. “It felt like he raped my soul.”

When Julie Sale first realized she was a victim of clergy sexual abuse and reported it to her church, she was fighting suicidal thoughts. The response was devastating.

“Originally I was just trying to live, just trying to take another breath,” Sale told CT. “When you've depended on the institution your whole life to guide the way you live—decisions that you make, how you raise a family—and then suddenly that church just kicks you out and says you’re helping Satan essentially, it is soul destroying.”

According to previous research that Pooler has done at Baylor, only about 10 percent of victims who reported their abuse to their church said they received a positive response. Some of those who talked to CT for this piece said their churches ultimately disciplined the pastors. Some pastors were fired, but not all of them—and even those who were dismissed or even defrocked can apply to work at another church and pass a criminal background check with flying colors.

“You’d think pastors would be out in front on this,” Pooler said. “It’s survivors leading the way.”

Maine passed legislation criminalizing adult clergy sexual abuse in 2019. California is currently considering similar legislation. State senator Dave Min, a former law professor at the University of California, Irvine, sponsored the bill in January.

“Consent is not a defense,” the proposed legal language says, “if the person who commits the sexual battery is a member of the clergy who, in such capacity, is in a position of trust or authority over the victim and uses their position of trust or authority to exploit the victim’s emotional dependency.”

Huh, who was involved in drafting the legislation, said she hopes laws like these will change the way people think about this issue.

“The US has the potential to set a true precedent in recognizing that clergy sexual abuse of adults is a serious issue by establishing criminal consequences for those who prey on their congregants,” she said. “Most other countries automatically blame the victim while protecting the abuser at all costs.”

Changing laws is not an easy road, though. At a California Senate Public Safety Committee hearing in April, representatives from the California Public Defenders Association and the American Civil Liberties Union spoke against the legislation for criminalizing consensual sexual contact. Though Sen. Min said he was willing to make changes to the legislation, he drew the line on the matter of consent. The committee decided not to vote on it, killing the bill.

“It is so hard for survivors to be heard, much less to obtain justice,” Huh said.

Huh and others appealed the matter to the governor and plan to keep fighting.

In some cases, legislation takes years to get passed. Sometimes, there is a little progress and then nothing happens. There are few making open arguments against this kind of legislation, but inertia, neglect, and lack of concern present major obstacles for advocates who want to make change.

Knapton decided she would be vulnerable in an effort to humanize the issue and push for legislation. She shared her traumatic story with elected representatives in her state. They seemed like they cared, Knapton said, but the proposed bill was later tabled.

“It felt like that’s what’s been happening for the last five years, people hearing my experience and then being like, We don’t care about it,” she said.

Woolston is in the early stages of this effort. She knows that her story might well be ignored too. But she’s hopeful that things will be different now.

“I have a support network now that I didn’t then,” she said. “I have people who are like, We’re not going to let you fall.”

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