When The Unspeakable Happens

By Ellen Gvosdev, Ph.D.

Sexual Abuse In God’s Family

It is time for the church family to bring sexual abuses out of the closet, to face this problem, and to move forward rebuilding the shattered image of the family of God when such abuses occur. Overt sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, molestation, incest all happen in the Orthodox Church.

The perpetrator can be a trusted family friend, a parent or relative, the conscientious parish volunteer, or even one who is ordained. The abusive behavior can be termed “violence against women” when adult females are victims of humiliating or debasing remarks, unwanted and/or threatening behavior, or downright criminal acts. When children are the victims, the sexual abuse perpetrated against them is in the form of pedophilia or incest. Within the church family, acts of abuse or violence are also perpetrated against men, in some instances cleric upon cleric.

In all such cases, these acts of sexual persecution and violence are not “sexual” in nature, but rather stem from issues of power and control. There is a potential for such abuses whenever someone is in position of power over another, or assumes a position of power over another.

The term “violence” is used even if the abuse itself is not physically violent because any such abuse is an attack on the spirit, a violation of the person. All such abuses are unethical, immoral, and spiritually as well as emotionally damaging. Many such behaviors are illegal and/or criminal: overt harassment is against the law; molestation of children is a crime that must be reported to civil authorities; rape is a criminal offense; any sexual relationship between a clergyman and an adult female parishioner is not considered consensual, but tantamount to incest in over 10 states as well as being considered unethical by all major religious judicatories.

While victims can be of any age, physical bearing, or education, women and children who are especially needy emotionally, overly trusting, and unquestioningly obedient to authority are most vulnerable. Perpetrators can be “loving” fathers and husbands, pillars of the church, charismatic clergymen, “humble” monks.

When abuses are suspected or reported

Some facts for clergy to consider when abuse is suspected, or a victim or victims come forth with reports of abuse:

  1. Perpetrators are repeat offenders. Whether the perpetrator is a pedophile or involved in misconduct/abuse with adults, the perpetrator will have many victims. Once an abuse has occurred, it will occur again either in the same place, or a new place. Hiding the misconduct and removing a perpetrator from the scene does no good. if the victims are children or the abuse violent, it must be reported to civil authorities.
  2. Offenders lie, minimize their behavior, deny misconduct, and/or implicate the victim reversing the situation, blaming the victim, If they admit to a wrong-doing, they will act remorseful and even provide proof of their good intentions to never repeat Please be mindful that perpetrators need to receive professional help in order to begin to heal emotionally and psychologically, and some perpetrators may never be cured.
  3. Spiritual guidance for both perpetrators and victims must be done in conjunction with professional therapy. In the case of children and female victims, it is essential to use a female spiritual guide/advocate. Do not feel pressured to offer quick forgiveness to perpetrators, but rather include absolution as a condition for proven change (continued therapy, fulfillment of civil punishment, etc.)
  4. Especially in the case of offenses committed within the church family, remember that “God”, the “God factor”, “religion” will be used as part of the offence. Sometimes this takes the form of persuasion using “God”, other times the “God factor” becomes almost satanic.
  5. Believe the victims. Research and experience show that victims rarely lie about sexual abuse, in the case of children, less than 1%.
  6. Clergy must seek out resources for parishioners who are victims of domestic violence, and not try to take the place of professionals trained to deal with such cases. Likewise seek advocacy for victims of clerical sexual misconduct.

A few signs of child abuse include, but are not limited to: the physical, unusual knowledge of things sexual, emotional problems including bedwetting, unfounded fears of persons or places, acting out, boisterous behavior, withdrawn behavior. Reporting child abuse has been called an “ethical mandate” for ministry. (The Center for Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence) Failure by professionals (that includes clergymen) to report suspected child abuse is a misdemeanor in most states. Research has shown that pedophiles gravitate to professions and institutions that enable them by giving them access to children. The church, therefore, is not immune.

Protecting against accusations

What can a bishop or priest do to protect himself against accusations or questionable situations? As a rule of thumb, do not say something to a woman that you would not say to a man. Hugging or kissing a parishioner is all right if it is done to male and female alike and in an equal manner. Do not touch a woman in a way that you would not touch a man. Ask yourself, would I do or say this if my parents (or my bishop or God Himself) were watching me?

In the case of children, do not create situations that may raise concern: for example, don’t take overnight trips alone with the altar boys; don’t be alone with young children of either sex. It is a good idea to meet with children and/or parishioners of either sex in open, more public facilities. Don’t visit a female parishioner if she is home alone. Bring someone with you.

If you are the victim of another cleric, write down the facts, and then speak to a trusted bishop or priest about the facts. You have recently received guidelines from the Holy Synod on appropriate actions to take. Do not attempt to see or speak to the perpetrator. (It is never a good idea for a victim to come face to face with the perpetrator.) Work for justice-making and help for all concerned.

Anyone can be a perpetrator

This article has been geared more toward the clergy, addressing issues of clerical sexual misconduct; either on how to present personal involvement or how to deal with allegations. The importance of this issue, as well as the sensitive nature of the issue has demanded an overview of the situation. However, in no way should it be construed that only clerics abuse. Any member of the church family, male or female, can be the perpetrator. It is necessary to keep an open mind and adjudicate the issue for the benefit of the church family. We can help our brothers and sisters by education, understanding, and sensitivity to the issues involved.

If there is abuse in your parish, remember that the parish is a family and all members of the family suffer. Be honest regarding the abuse, and seek spiritual guidance for healing the congregation. The unspeakable does happen in the church family, but it does not signal the destruction of faith or spirituality. Handling the situation correctly is paramount to healing.

Dr. Ellen Gvosdev obtained her Ph.D. in Pastoral Practice with a speciality in clerical sexual abuse and misconduct. She fell asleep in the Lord on July 23, 2009.