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Ministerial sexual misconduct, child abuse, and their prevention and redress

29 February 2012


From Mrs Alison Moore

Sir, — What a relief to see the Revd Dr Thaddeus Birchard’s article on clergy sexual misconduct (Com­ment, 10 February), and also the very proper reminder in last week’s letter that this is damaging and abusive behaviour that should incur a suitably serious response from church authorities. I do not think that Dr Birchard needed to apologise for “writing about [this] in an open way”.

The most telling part, for me, of his article was his research finding that “clergy have substantially higher rates of sexual misconduct than other caring professions,” and that this is usually between male clergy and adult women. I was sorry, therefore, that much of his article focused on sexual addiction, when, as he explained, there are many other ways in which unhealthy sexual interest and activity can become the outward evidence of unresolved issues and a poor sense of self-identity.

But it is important to say that this does not occur only for those who have little self-awareness. It can happen to anyone. The combination of intimacy and vulnerability found in many pastoral encounters is a potent breeding ground for sexual attraction, even more so when you add into the mix stress and tiredness, and unrealistically high expectations of the clergy, which can encourage the “spiritual complacency” to which the letter refers.

The article was entitled “Ways of preventing sexual sin”. May I add two practical resources that could be helpful?

The first is the presence in most dioceses of an Adviser in Pastoral Care and Counselling. Our roles vary, but we all know where to find local sources of training, to increase awareness of sexual issues, self-development, abuse issues, etc. We can also help to find supervision support for pastoral ministry. Last but not least, we can provide or point to counselling support.

In Durham diocese, this counsel­ling is open to anyone in the churches; so we can work with lay people affected as well as clerics. Even where the Adviser works only with the ordained, he or she is likely to know where to gain access to local counselling resources.

The second resource is a book: Sexual Issues: Understanding and advising in a Christian context, edited by Brendan Geary and Joanne Marie Greer (Kevin Mayhew, 2010). In 16 chapters, 14 authors introduce a range of subjects — for example, sexual development, abuse, the internet, gender, ageing, perversions, mastur­bation, and marriage.

The chapter that I co-wrote, “Sexuality in Ministerial Relation­ships”, is precisely relevant to the issues in Dr Birchard’s article.

Durham Diocesan Adviser in Pastoral Care and Counselling
Carter House
Pelaw Leazes Lane
Durham DH1 1TB

Sir, — Supporting your anonymous writer (Letters, 17 February), I would point out that Dr Birchard failed to distinguish between two forms of sexual addiction: addiction that harms none but the addict, and addiction that generally causes immense harm and abuse to others, often children. I am deeply disturbed when I come across people who remain neutral or passive on hearing that yet another priest or church official is discovered to have abused children.

Sexual abuse of a child is far more damaging than, say, breaking his or her arm; yet how many priests would be tolerated for ten minutes if they deliberately broke a child’s arm? I am ashamed to be a member of the Church of England when, as Dr Birch­ard says, the commonest atti­tude is avoidance, as if the prob­lem will go away if ignored.

I was sexually abused as a boy for about six years. My abuser was in an equivalent role to a priest’s — that of head teacher in a C of E boys’ school. He had just retired, but continued to come into the school. The damage that he did to me was immeasurable, but includes an almost complete loss of trust in authority, failing to relate easily to my peers as a teenager, and difficulty with intimate relationships. I will never know who I might have been.

Thankfully, I was brought to Christ by a group of Christians who followed Jesus’s command to love and not to abuse. I am now a priest trying to wake people up to the seriousness of sexual abuse and bullying. As a priest, I have yet to work in a benefice where there has not been one or more cases of child abuse by priests or church officials.

Jesus, at his most caustic, recommended tying a millstone around child-abusers’ necks and drowning them. His point wasn’t really about the punishment, but simply emphasising the terrible nature of their crime and their hypocrisy.

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