Another Voice: ‘Affair’ involving clergy is really sexual abuse

Author: Mary Jo Noworyta
Date Published: 04/07/2016

When I hear the media report a pastor’s sexual sin as an “affair,” it awakens a deep well of despair within me, remembering my own “brush with the devil.” Simple, lax descriptions such as, “falling from grace,” or “an act of indiscretion,” completely miss the mark on what is happening to religious communities throughout the world.

After my “indiscretion” with my pastor, I learned it was not an affair. There was no consent. It was merely an illusion of a consensual relationship when once we understand who is responsible to keep appropriate boundaries and why.

In every helping profession, the helpers are responsible to keep healthy boundaries between themselves and those they serve. One can argue that religious leaders are held to an even higher standard when you add the element of spirituality. By their very nature, they are representatives of God and hold a most sacred, trusted position.

An overwhelming majority of these leaders counsel those in their congregations. Those seeking help are the hurting, the confused, the broken, the lost; people without an answer looking for direction. The leader is fully accountable, working with the vulnerable and wounded. His sole purpose is to help. Never should he take advantage of the person under his care.

Since the entire congregation is under his care, engaging in a relationship with a member of his church becomes an abuse of power.

When my pastor used his position to pursue me, it was clearly diametrically opposed to his role. I went to him for counseling, giving him access to personal and confidential information. When my pastor used my wounds and vulnerability to lead me into a relationship with him, the responsibility fell completely on him. Consent was nonexistent because there was a great imbalance in our relationship.

My pastor held a position of power and authority over me, so how was there equal responsibility when the relationship started? There wasn’t.

My pastor’s sole duty was to protect me. He was the leader. I was the follower. My sole duty was to believe and trust he would not hurt me. But he did hurt me; the pain was excruciating. I now use that pain to help other victims of clergy abuse.

I stress this because reporting these cases as affairs leaves little accountability for the offender and places equal blame on the victim, who was not on equal footing when pursued by her spiritual leader.

When reading reports of “pastoral affairs”’ I work through the despair by recalling the truth of my experience. I did not have an affair with my pastor; my pastor abused me, choosing to ignore his sacred, trusted position of a spiritual leader.

Mary Jo Noworyta, of West Seneca, is executive assistant and victim support coordinator of the Hope of Survivors.