Defining the Problem

Sexual Misconduct Arising in a Ministerial Relationship

What constitutes a “ministerial relationship”?

This is a relationship in which a person is receiving pastoral care from a Church leader.

 Whenever a person begins a relationship with any person in his or her capacity as a Church official or leader, a ministerial relationship is created. This applies to:

  • Clergy (bishops, priests and deacons);
  • Members of religious communities (priests, brothers, sisters);
  • Lay ministers, lay pastoral associates, youth ministers, liturgical ministers;
  • Spiritual directors and pastoral counselors;
  • School personnel;
  • Seminary faculty, staff, and administrators;
  • Religious education teachers, church camp counselors, choir directors, etc.

The Nature of Sexual Misconduct

Sexual misconduct is a general term that includes sexual harassment, sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. More specifically:
What is sexual misconduct arising from the ministerial relationship?
While ministry is never about sexual contact, sexualized contact or sexualized behavior may arise within a ministerial relationship. In our Catholic faith, this is never acceptable in a pastoral relationship with a parishioner, employee, student, spiritual directee, counseling client, or anyone who has sought the Church’s ministry.
What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is unwanted sexualized conduct or language between co-workers in the Church setting. Although difficult to define precisely, sexual harassment may include but is not limited to the following:

  • Making unsolicited sexual advances and propositions;
  • Using sexually degrading words to describe an individual or an individual’s body;
  • Telling inappropriate or sexually-related jokes;
  • Retaliating against the co-worker who refuses sexual advances;
  • Offering favors or employment benefits, such as promotions, favorable performance evaluations, favorably assigned duties or shifts, recommendations, etc., in exchange for sexual favors.
What is sexual exploitation?
Sexual exploitation is the sexual contact between a Church leader and a person who is receiving pastoral care from the Church leader.
What is sexual abuse?
Sexual abuse is sexual contact between a Church leader and a minor or a “vulnerable adult” as defined by law.  Either sexual exploitation or sexual abuse can include physical contact from the Church leader such as:
  •  Sexual touch or other intrusive touching (i.e., tickling, wrestling, or other physical contact) that causes uneasiness or discomfort in the one touched;
  • An inappropriate gift (such as lingerie);
  • A prolonged hug when a brief hug is customary behavior;
  • Kissing on the lips when a kiss on the cheek would be appropriate;
  • Showing sexually suggestive objects or pornography;
  • Sexual intercourse, anal or oral sex.

  Sexual exploitation or sexual abuse can also include verbal behavior such as:

  • Innuendo or sexual talk;
  • Suggestive comments;
  • Tales of sexual exploits, experiences or conflicts;
  • Making sexual propositions.
What factors might lead to sexual misconduct in a ministerial setting?
It is a common dynamic in ministry for some to feel attracted to those in Church leadership positions, or to feel flattered by his or her attention. This never excuses any form of sexual misconduct. Clergy or other Church leaders who engage in any form of sexual misconduct are violating the ministerial relationship, misusing their authority and power, and are taking advantage of the vulnerability of those who are seeking spiritual guidance.
Because of the respect and even reverence with which many people seek help from the Church’s ministers, there is an imbalance of power and, hence, a vulnerability inherent in the ministerial relationship. In these circumstances there is an absence of meaningful consent to any sexual activity, even if the person is an adult. This imbalance of power makes it never okay. It is the responsibility of the Church leader to maintain appropriate emotional and sexual boundaries with those with whom he or she works or serves.
What impact could ministerial sexual misconduct have on its victims?
Victims of ministerial sexual misconduct frequently feel deep shame or self-condemnation. They may fear not being believed or fear being blamed by Church officials or members. Many times they may not even realize that the way they were treated was abusive. Sadly, victims can experience a crisis of faith and even leave the Church altogether.