Sexual involvement with parishioners

An attorney's view of illicit sexual relationships between pastors and parishioners

Philip Hiroshima, J.D., who practices law in Sacramento, California, has represented church entities over the past 20 years in a variety of legal actions.

As an attorney, I have represented church entities in many cases involving illicit sexual relationships between ministers and parishioners.

In doing this work I have noticed a similarity in the events and in the patterns of behavior that repeat themselves in these unfortunate and terribly painful lawsuits. What are some of the common factors and, more significantly, what are the best solutions in these no-win situations?

The typical scenario

The pastor is busy in the church and the community. His wife, meanwhile, may have been busy attending to her own needs, such as the pursuit of an educational degree because the children are grown and no longer require so much of her time. Or she may be preoccupied with an illness of her own. Whatever the particular specifics, the wife is spending less time with her pastor husband, and a significant, though not necessarily an obvious, emotional distance has developed in the pastoral marriage.

In his work, the pastor finds him self counseling a female parishioner who complains about her spouse. She is not appreciated by her husband, who is too busy working or too domineering or does not perform his share of the family responsibilities. She wants more from him.

In an attempt to help the woman build her self-esteem, the pastor may compliment her smile, her hair, or some other attractive physical attribute. As the counseling progresses, the pastor may also sympathize, implying that the husband could have noticed the value of his wife who deserves more attentiveness and sensitivity.

The parishioner listens and wonders why her husband does not recognize these qualities the pastor recognizes. The counseling continues, and she becomes infatuated with the pastor, valuing his sympathy and recognition of her attributes. Each session ends with prayer and also a pastoral hug. In Western society, hugging by pastors is acceptable. However, in the counseling sessions, the hugs may get a little longer and a little more affectionate. The mutual hug is, perhaps, the most physical contact either party has recently had with a member of the opposite sex.

A little touching, with slight sexual overtones, may begin, even though it may still be seen to be within the limits of propriety. However, this tends to move further. I have discussed the is sue with ministers and, to my surprise, many believe that sexual touching, even oral sex, is not adultery. This type of thinking soon culminates in visits to the parishioner's home or another place that allows the pastor and parishioner "to better discuss their concerns." They may travel in their cars to meet at these locations because the pastor claims to not have time to go to the church office. Many excuses are utilized to enable the pastor and parishioner to be alone.

Although some pastors do recognize the vulnerability of anguished parishioners and may purposely and premeditatedly take advantage of them, this is rare. Generally, the pastor is excited that someone as nice as this parishioner is attracted to him. He often does not consider the far-reaching consequences of his indiscretion.

Once they become sexually involved, both pastor and parishioner realize the wrongness of their behavior. They may try to terminate their involvement, though by this time they are physically attracted, and so the relationship continues. At this point either the parishioner and/or the pastor may, because of their guilt, disclose their activities through some comment, ad mission, or involuntary slip. Thus an investigation may ensue.

Ultimately, the parishioner may feel that she has been exploited and claim that damage has been done to her and her spouse. Understandably, the husband feels that the pastor should be punished. He may want revenge. A law suit may be initiated. The woman and husband sue the pastor, the church, and, possibly, church officials. The church may be implicated in such a lawsuit through a claim of negligent supervision of the pastor, the charge being that the church knew, or should have known, of the pastor's propensities.

Prevention

As a pastor or clergy, do you recognize yourself in any of the above stages? Are you counseling a parishioner. If you do recognize yourself in a similar situation, you should discuss the matter with your spouse, a trusted col league, or church officer. You must acknowledge, immediately, that conditions exist that could lead to unintended indiscretions, along with unmitigated agony and loss to you, your family, your church, and of course the one with whom you are in danger of becoming involved and her family. You should at tend a continuing-education class on pastoral counseling (or something similar) that will give you better insight into avoiding such a far-reaching mistake.

I have spoken with many psychologists and psychiatrists. Knowing their own vulnerabilities in these areas, they are concerned with the lack of training that pastors receive that if received would better enable them to recognize individuals with the kinds of disorders or circumstances that make them and the pastor emotionally susceptible. Improper counseling by a pastor, especially in the inappropriate venues in which such counseling often takes place, tend to make the pastor particularly prone to indiscreet behavior. No matter how good his intentions, in all of this a pastor can end up seriously injuring a parishioner. Most often, when there is an emotional problem, the pastor can best help the parishioner by working in conjunction with a trained counselor, who would be most effective in providing the parishioner with the needed psychological counseling, while the pastor would be most effective in providing the needed spiritual and ecclesiastical counseling.

When confronted about an extra marital relationship, pastors generally acknowledge their involvement but also tend to give a variety of excuses. Whatever the circumstances, the fact remains that such indiscreet and sinful actions can snowball with effects far beyond the two parties sexually involved. If the pas tor rationalizes the belief that sexual touching is not adultery, he needs to know that such a fatuous belief will not make much difference to his family's hurt and embarrassment or his church's disillusionment and its discipline of him. The pastor must recognize that sexual indiscretion, of any kind, will eventually be discovered and can very likely destroy his ministry and his personal and family life.

Churches need to be more responsible in these situations, and this means not merely transferring ministers to another church when they have been sexually involved with a parishioner. Because of the potential liability to the referring church or conference, the conference will generally terminate the pastor's employment and, possibly, annul the ordination.

I very strongly recommend to my church clients to terminate the offending pastor and not allow him further opportunity to victimize others. There are too many good candidates for the ministry to retain or transfer a minister who has proved himself a risk.

If as a pastor you have an inclination to become sexually involved with your parishioners, get out of the minis try. Eventually you will be discovered and thus become the cause of much damage to others besides yourself. In addition, and possibly saddest of all, you will compromise your personal integrity and the trust extended to you by your church and your family.


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Philip Hiroshima, J.D., who practices law in Sacramento, California, has represented church entities over the past 20 years in a variety of legal actions.

November 1999

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