Sexual Abuse and the Orthodox Clergy

Author: Matushka Ellen Gvosdev
Date Published: 04/01/1993

POKROV NOTE: This guest editorial first appeared in April, 1993.
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Almost weekly we read about a new case of sexual misconduct within the Roman Catholic clergy. Sensationalizing the sexual abuse cases of celibates sells newspapers and promotes high ratings for talk show. However, we cannot simply dismiss these stories as titillating “tell all” peculiar to the Roman Catholic Church. For clerical sexual misconduct spans all religious judicatories, and the Orthodox Church is not immune.While pedophilia, the heinous molestation of children, captures headlines in most abuse cases, in actuality over 90% of all clerical sexual abuse and misconduct cases are perpetrated against women. Although actual figures are difficult to gather because of the churches’ reluctance to discuss such sensitive matters, it is estimated that clerical sexual abuse occurs at a higher percentage than abuses perpetrated by doctors, therapists and others in authority positions. A random survey of 1,000 priests and ministers concluded that 79.5% of them personally knew of another cleric who had been or was currently sexually involved with one or more female parishioners.Clerical misconduct and sexual abuse takes many forms, from verbal harassment, to explicit sexual talk; from improper touching to unwanted advances; from outright sexual demands to supposed “love-affairs.” There can be no consensual involvement between cleric and laywoman because of the power imbalance–and, clerical sexual involvement is an abuse of power and authority (in the name of God). Several states have included laws on their books making any form of clerical sexual involvement with parishioners a felony tantamount to rape and incest. In the Orthodox Church, however, there are two more forms of abuse that occur. One involves the use of the confessional to inquire about sexual fantasies, explicit sexual acts and sexual desires. The other abuse, bordering on the Satanic, is called sacramental sexual battery, wherein during the sexual abuse, degradation, and/or rape of a woman, something from sacraments, liturgy or ritual is employed.What can we do as a church? First, we must accept that the problem of clerical misconduct occurs. We must stop being silent on the issue and stop sweeping abuses under the rug “for the good of the church.” We must acknowledge victims, believe them, and offer them a forum in which to present their cases. Second, we must educate ourselves and our laity. In particular, vulnerable children and women need to be taught what constitutes acceptable behavior for the clergy. There need to be clear, definitive limits and boundaries placed on our spiritual fathers in whom we bestow our trust.As a church, as Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we have to reach out to each other to find healing within a spiritual context, and remember that sometimes prayer alone is not enough. We have to encourage victims to seek professional help. If not properly cared for, child victims can carry guilt of their victimization and scars from those wounds for their entire lives. Adult women display the same symptoms as incest victims. We must give them the help they need and restore them to full healing in body, mind and soul.

One abuse victim put it very succinctly when she said that her cat had shown her more compassion than her church. This is quite a sad commentary on ourselves, our leaders and on what God expects from us. The victim and the church do not have to be enemies. They can work in harmony to perfect an atmosphere which is truly Christian and loving rather than dysfunctional and at odds. Such cooperation and understanding requires much introspection and hard work. In order to move forward we must first look inward.

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Matushka Ellen Gvosdev is a doctoral candidate in Pastoral Theology specializing in clerical sexual abuse at the Union Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio.