Clergy ethics and sexual abuse

In seminary, I received no ethical training. My former denomination provided no ethical training and no ethical guidelines. Numerous times when I have inquired about such policies, I was either ignored, told that unethical behavior will not occur in our denomination/diocese, or have been given ambiguous information that provides no real guidance. The general area of clergy ethics is of great interest to me.

I have been recently reflecting on the issue of clergy sexual abuse. Various sources on this subject estimate that 15-20% of clergy have sexually abused someone. Sadly, many cases of sexual abuse are unreported, ignored, allowed to continue, or hidden by church leadership. Many churches do not have established policies for handling sexual abuse allegations.

In the interest of ministerial accountability, I have drafted the following statement. This statement is offered as a model for Christian leaders in developing some fundamental approach to dealing with sexual abuse in the church. It does not cover all areas but is intended to address proven abuse by clergy. Any person or organization is free to use or adapt this text if it is found helpful.

If you have comments or suggestions on this issue, please reply with your comments.

Suggested policy on clergy sexual misconduct

When any secular court of law or any agency or committee of this church authorized to adjudge such matters shall find that any ordained minister of this church is guilty of sexual misconduct or sexual abuse of another person, such minister shall be immediately deprived of ministry in this church, shall retain no emoluments thereof, and shall not be restored to such ministry and emoluments unless proven innocent of the sexual misconduct or abuse in question upon proper appeal in the respective jurisdictions.

Sexual misconduct is defined as sexual touching or sexual relations with any person who is not the minister’s spouse. Sexual abuse is defined as (1) rape, or (2) attempt to coerce into sexual touching or sexual relations any person who is not the minister’s spouse.

4 responses to “Clergy ethics and sexual abuse”

  1. Daniel J. Sparks Avatar
    Daniel J. Sparks

    Based on reader suggestions, I have altered this suggested policy somewhat to include the phrase "sexual misconduct" to describe instances where "abuse" is not an appropriate description. Essentially, my position is that any cleric who engages in sexual activity outside of marriage is unfit for ordained ministry. There are many other considerations in a total clergy ethics policy set that this single suggested policy does not address (for example, counselling, investigations, etc.). One issue of concern with this policy may be that it does not address the case where a cleric is courting a parishioner (or even a non-parishioner). Hugging and kissing of another person would not fall under the terms of this policy unless such hugging and kissing were of a sexual nature. In other words, parents would be allowed to kiss their children; pastors would be allowed to hug parishioners (hopefully only in public settings); dating partners would be allowed to hug. This distinction may require a working definition of “sexual touching”.

  2. The Waffling Anglica Avatar
    The Waffling Anglica

    You beat me to the “sexual misconduct” instead of “abuse” thing. That is a rather succinct and to-the-point definition. I am sure there are many who will find it insufficiently nuanced, but I think you’ve about covered it. I am not a trained ethicist, but nevertheless (or maybe “therefore” 🙂 most ethical questions strike me as fairly simple. Frequently agonizing, and sometimes darn near impossible to adhere to, but generally pretty simple. I wonnder how often the complexification of ethics is just an attempt to give ourselves wiggle room.

  3. Joey Avatar

    Hmm… so you think having an affair with a parishioner outside of marriage is misconduct but not abuse…. Difficult to know, as questions of abuse of power may still be a factor.

  4. Daniel J. Sparks Avatar
    Daniel J. Sparks

    Joey, surely such an affair is misconduct. It could only be abuse if it was forced (rape or coercion). Certainly, as you point out, there could well be cases of abuse of position, which is not something this particular policy recommendation addresses.