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Sexual Abuse

Neil and Thea Ormerod, When Ministers Sin: Sexual
Abuse in the Churches, Sydney: Millennium Books (EJ Dwyer Pty
Ltd), 1995.

Heather McClelland, The Almond Tree: Child Sexual
Abuse and the Church (Stories from Country Victoria), self-published
(PO Box 3 California Gully, 3556), 1995.

Sexual abuse is the ‘Jericho Road’ issue of our time.
Women (and some men) are sitting in our churches – or have left,
disillusioned – psychologically, spiritually and sexually beaten-up,
while pastors and other officials get on with the business of
protecting their church from scandal. These (mostly male) church
leaders pass by, perhaps blaming the victim (‘she must have seduced
him’), or else (not having got in touch with their own ‘money/sex/power’
demons) try to brush off any whisper of complaint against a colleague.

These two books, written by Australians experienced
in counseling sexual abuse victims, powerfully confront the realities
and myths surrounding this painful issue. Fortunately, times are
changing. Self-help groups are forming. Some denominations have
set up special commissions to examine procedural and ethical issues.
Victims are feeling more empowered to tell their stories. And
some of them are horrific.

Neil Ormerod is a theologian, his wife Thea a social
worker. ‘When Ministers Sin’ is one of the best three or four
books to have appeared on this subject in the last ten years (together
with John Sandford’s ‘Why Some Christians Commit Adultery’, Karen
Lebacqz & Ronald Barton’s ‘Sex in the Parish’, Marie Fortune’s
‘Is Nothing Sacred?’ and David Rice’s ‘Shattered Vows’). The Ormerods
unashamedly take the role of advocate, standing with victims.
Their main thesis: Sexual abuse by clergy and other church leaders
must be understood in terms of the power of the abuser. The greater
the power of and trust in the abuser, the greater the damage.
Sexual abuse is any behaviour which erodes the sexual boundary
between two persons: ranging from verbal innuendo to inappropriate
touching to full genital intercourse.

What is the incidence of sexual abuse in churches?
Presbyterian clergy in the U.S.: between 10 and 23%; a Christianity
Today sample: 23% of clergy confessed to ‘sexually inappropriate’
behavior, 12% to adultery; conservative evangelical writer Tim
LaHaye’s figure: 33% confessed to ‘sexually inappropriate behavior’.
A 1990 United Methodist study found that 23% of laywomen had been
sexually harassed, 17% by their pastor (9% by another minister).
Up to 38% of Western women experience some form of sexual assault
or abuse before the age of 18.

Last year, in the U.S., an Episcopal diocese was
landed with a $1.2 million judgment against it – even though the
courts found the woman had taken some initiatives in the sexual
side of the relationship with her priest. (Press releases indicated
that the denomination was found guilty of not ensuring their clergy
were in proper supervisory relationships: most Australian denominations
are now discussing this need for their counseling pastors).

The myths and rationalizations for innapropriate
sexual behaviour are often very creative – and they are legion:
‘priests need intimacy too’; ‘this is how I show affection’; ‘it’s
not sexual unless it’s genital’; ‘women throw themselves at ministers’;
‘married women are safer’… and so on.

Here are some highlights of the Ormerod’s wisdom:
‘Until the abuser comes to sufficient self-knowledge, through
therapy and other personal support… his apology is meaningless’
(p.43); ‘forgiveness (by the victim of the abuser) [may be] inappropriately
seen as a therapeutic goal because of the therapist’s inability
to cope with the client’s anger’ (p.37); ‘any pressure to forgive
is detrimental to the healing process in the victim/survivor’

Solutions? # First, a preferential option for the
poor – ie. the abused; # better training in seminary in the area
of professional ethics; # proper pastoral and legal procedures
when the story comes to light; # adequate compensations for the
victim (eg. all therapy costs reimbursed); # all clergy should
sign a code of ethics; # ensure adequate structures of accountability
for ministers.

The Ormerods have a provocative chapter on ‘The Theology
of Abuse’ in the middle of their book, majoring on the notion
(my word!) of original sin, and the stories of Abraham and Isaac,
and the death of Jesus. Provocative? Yes, if you’re uncomfortable
with the idea that a redactor put the command to kill Isaac into
Yahweh’s mouth. But the discussion about the death of Jesus ‘appeasing
an angry deity’ is well argued…

The book concludes with some graphic first-person

The only reservation I have with the Ormerods’ approach
is that they are not explicit enough in elaborating on procedural
and ethical issues. Perhaps two appendices would have helped:
one giving suggested guidelines for churches and denominations;
the other a sample guideline for appropriate pastors’ ethical
behavior. (Lebacqz and Barton’s book gives us, in an appendix,
procedural guidelines used by the Northern California United Church
of Christ).

Heather McLelland’s book is more anecdotal, and follows
a different tack: 25 personal stories followed by her comments.
She has been a pastoral counselor in a country Victorian town,
and with her pastor-husband Bryan recently moved to Canberra.

Together with the Ormerods, Heather is appalled that
abusers can hide within the respectability of the churches. She
also warns against the instinct by well-meaning Christians to
insist that victims offer forgiveness to the abuser before the
process of healing is complete: ‘the result is almost always further
damage’ (p.102). Heather’s Conclusion has some excellent tools
to aid the healing process for victims of sexual abuse.


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