Pastor's Pastor

Pastor's Pastor: Organizational misconduct

Pastor's Pastor: Organizational misconduct

Sexual misconduct by clergy has dominated the headlines in recent months.

James A. Cress is the Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Sexual misconduct by clergy has dominated the headlines in recent months. Predatory violation of children is particularly reprehensible and demands for punishment and reform have come from laity as well as fellow clergy who realize their own rep utations are besmirched by the sinful behavior of a few miscreants.

As the media reports on individual clergy criminals, another level of wickedness organizational misconduct should be carefully evaluated by every denomination. When a clergy person is transferred from one location to another with judicatory administrators aware of sexual misconduct by, accusations against, or even suspicion surrounding the transferred pastor, then the wider group contributes to the sin of the minister and should be held accountable.

And this is not just a challenge for one religious organization. These evils cross denominational boundaries. Sexual misconduct by clergy is every one's problem, but the particular responsibility of administrators who should faithfully serve the congregations and parishioners under their jurisdiction. Church members expect more than well-meaning empathy for perpetrators of abuse. They are increasingly unwilling to merely accept reassurances from leaders who are either cluelessly unaware or negligent in their duty.

Various factors motivate administrators who avoid dealing with guilty clergy and, subsequently, transfer them to new locations. Perhaps the greatest contributing factor is the misconception that the church's reputation must be protected at all costs, even by keeping secret the sins of the clergy. Like the proverbial ostrich head in the sand, some leaders choose to believe that if we ignore a problem, the tragic consequences cannot possibly be factual and the church's image will be preserved.

Another factor misinterprets the gospel mandate to forgive sinners. Thus, pastoral sexual misconduct is viewed more as a moral lapse than as a betrayal of professional trust. Of course, this ignores the Savior's directive that those who harm little ones should be severely, even irretrievably, punished. Remember, sexual misconduct is seldom a need for a sexual relationship as much as it is an abuse of power and position.

Denominational policies are also violated by well-intentioned leaders who believe that selective enforcement is more merciful than zero tolerance, particularly for a first offense (typically the situation which is reported is not the first offense, but only the first of which the administrator has become aware).

When organizational behavior does not match organizational policy, pastors conclude they will be disciplined on the basis of who they know more than on the basis of what they did. Consequently, if administrators set up themselves rather than policy as the final arbiters of justice, they must hide their actions or disguise their motives when their own variance with policy becomes known.

Likewise, for those denominations, my own included, whose official policies offer no rehabilitation process and anticipate that every moral fall means dismissal from ministry, leaders believe they must selectively ignore policy for some offenses while punishing others. Again, the individual administrator, not the body, becomes the judge. Such pol icy and procedural variances need serious evaluation and either amendment or enforcement.

Furthermore, when an organizational culture refuses to deal with reality, training in sexual ethics and professional responsibility may be woefully lacking.

Too often organizations express more concern for their employee than for the victims. Misguided empathy for the needs of the clergy often takes precedence over the needs of a victim to see justice. A rush to forgive errant clergy and to absolve them professionally from employment consequences often ignores the severe trauma experienced by the victims' unheeded need to express their pain. Victims, already violated, feel violated again by leaders who refuse to hear their cries. In fact, victims are often blamed by the organization for seducing the clergy. One victim said, "I was made to feel that a man's job was more important than a woman's virtue" (clergy sexual misconduct is almost exclusively a male problem). Because the church must not only do right, but also "appear right," laity should serve on all committees that deal with issues of misconduct and violation.

Another group of victims often are blamed for clergy sexual misconduct. Pastoral wives are viewed as contributing to their husband's sin by the assumption that they did not "meet their spouse's needs." Do not underestimate the consequential victimization of pastoral wives and families when justice does not consider their situation.

Absolute integrity in disclosure of misconduct and even unproven accusations should inform every transfer of employees. Otherwise, the organization participates in and perpetuates the very misconduct it purports to abhor.


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James A. Cress is the Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

September 2002

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