Definitions: What is consent?

Sexual exploitation is the development or attempted development of a sexual or romantic relationship between a person in any ministerial position, lay or ordained, and an individual with whom he or she has a Pastoral Relationship, whether or not there is apparent consent from the individual.

In order to talk about consent we need to look a little more at the qualities that make up the pastoral relationship.

The pastoral relationship is predisposed to intimacy. People may bring their deepest fears, relationship problems, health issues and grief to the pastoral leader. People trust the person in pastoral leadership to have their best interest in mind. This trust gives the pastoral leader power.


In addition,

  • the clergy or pastoral leader may be in a position of teaching a class, or
  • be the one to provide access to other activities in the church, or
  • be a representative of God in the eyes of the parishioner


The practice of hearing ‘confession’ (or the Reconciliation of  Penitent) also increases the vulnerability of the penitent and likewise increases the authority and power of the listener. The penitent/ confessee shares very personal details about his or her Iife. During confession, the priest is perceived as a vehicle for God’s grace thus intensifying the spiritual power the minister has.


That power can be used to serve in the best interest of congregants or it can be used against them to exploit them.  It is the  responsibility of the pastoral leader to maintain appropriate boundaries no matter what the level of provocation or apparent consent seems to be.


A story:

During the course of a project I was working on during seminary I consulted a rabbi who was an expert in Holocaust studies. After a brief introduction, I asked him about the project. He kept steering the conversation to personal matters. He said that he felt confined as a rabbi and needed to talk to someone who was not a member of his congregation who would understand his problems.

I felt sorry for him and listened to him talk.  I also felt flattered that such a prominent scholar would confide in me. After a while I tried to steer the conversation back to my research, without any success. He said he needed to see me again and  that he was  attracted to me.  He  asked me to accompany him on a business trip saying that  we could have a lot of fun doing things  together including having sex. Although he was married and had four  children he said that having sex with me would not violate  his marital vows.  Since I was not  officially his student, nor a member of his congregation having sex with me would not violate any code of ethics. He tried to convince me that he had it all well thought out.

I had only been there a short time and could not  believe what I was hearing. I got out of there as quickly as I could and  met with the the Dean at my school the next day. I told him what happened.

Several months later I got a call from the Dean. He said that four women had filed a lawsuit against the rabbi for sexual exploitation. The women were afraid that they wouldn’t be believed and the Dean asked if I would talk with them.  I subsequently met with two of the women and spoke to another third. I was struck by the fact that all of them were professional and successful women. They did not fit my image of someone who was vulnerable.

The characteristics of power in this case were:

  • education
  • counseling women which  gave the clergy access to intimate information
  • age
  • knowledge
  • charisma

During that same time period a Roman Catholic Diocese was battling a similar case in the court. Three women filed a complaint against a priest. Both of these incidents tore the respective congregations apart. Both pastors were beloved by their congregants. The congregations divided into two camps; one camp blamed the victims for destroying  their spiritual leader and the other blamed the rabbi/priest.

I realized the problem of ministerial sexual exploitation had serious and complicated effects on victims, congregations, and religious institutions. People were deeply hurt, some lost their faith in the church or synagogue. Many lost their faith in God, and all struggled to keep their faith in humanity.

Sexual exploitation can cause significant  psychological and spiritual pain to the victims and compromises the integrity of the ministry and the mission of the church in the world.

Food for thought:  Think of the recent case involving former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Click here to read an article about it.  Do you think that his staff member could  give consent?

*What are some characteristics  of power that are inherent in the pastoral relationship?

Have you ever experienced a time in your ministry in which someone wanted to talk to you about a situation that weighed on their heart and they confided in you?

Have you ever had the experience in which you confided in a priest, deacon, Stephen Minister or other pastoral leader about something you couldn’t talk to anyone else about?

How were those situations different for you?

What kind of emotions did those situations evoke in you?


In the lawsuit Strock v. Presnell, the judge said that a sexual exploitation case involving a pastor was not “your garden variety seduction scenario. The wife did not get involved with the milkman, the mailman, or the guy next door. Here, the couple’s minister, under the guise of offering pastoral counseling services, abused the trust placed in him. The trust was the raison d’etre of the relationship.”  (Benson, Gordon  Sexual Misconduct by Male Clergy with Adult Female Counselees: Systematic and Situational Themes.)



Next: Click on Session II: Effects of Exploitation Overview.

One Response to Definitions: What is consent?

  1. Randy Lee says:

    I don’t believe “He had it all well thought out”… How can an extramarital affair NOT violate his marital vows?

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