Cover Story

Breaking faith

As sexual scandal rocks the Roman Catholic church, Protestants face a lurking sex scandal as well. Will churches and national organizations take biblical steps to prevent further shame?

Issue: "Clergy Sexual Abuse," March 30, 2002

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE IS ABOUT AN OFFENSIVE SITUATION AND THEREFORE CONTAINS OFFENSIVE MATERIAL. PARENTAL DISCRETION IS HIGHLY ADVISED.

Sometimes the truth is unpleasant. No one enjoys discussing the lives shattered when shepherds turn out to be wolves. But Paul told the Ephesians: Do not only shun the "unfruitful works of darkness, but instead even expose them." Though the apostle concedes it is disgraceful even to speak of wicked things done in secret, he adds that exposure drags dark deeds into the light, waking "sleeping" believers that they in turn might walk wisely.

A disturbing pattern of sexual exploitation is afoot in some churches, including churches that generally teach biblical truth. As God told Cain, sin is always crouching at the door, making it essential for both church leaders and members to understand the problem and its warning signs, if they are not to fall into nightmares like these:

  • In Homestead, Pa., William Michael Altman, senior pastor at nondenominational Grace Christian Ministries, visits the hospital bedside of Marcia Bezak. Mrs. Bezak, a childhood molestation survivor with a 15-year history of depression and eating disorders, has just attempted suicide for at least the third time. According to Mrs. Bezak's testimony in a civil suit she filed in 2000, Mr. Altman says he will counsel her and help her recover. During counseling Mr. Altman tells her that her husband does not understand or appreciate her; he also allegedly convinces her that it is God's will that she regularly perform oral sex on him. When confronted, Mr. Altman confesses the relationship to church leaders, but later claims it was a consensual affair.
  • In Fergus Falls, Minn., Nazarene pastor Mervin Kelley initiates sex with a female parishioner who came to him suffering from clinical depression related to childhood incest. While providing spiritual aid and comfort, Mr. Kelley tells the woman, who is also the church pianist, about his past experience of having sex with animals. He also tells her he wants to engage in homosexual acts, and invites her to watch. Before preaching on Sundays, he sometimes leaves a "gift" for her on the church piano: a tissue containing his semen. When confronted, Mr. Kelley claims the relationship was a consensual affair.
  • In Detroit, Haman Cross Jr., pastor of Rosedale Park Baptist Church and a nationally known speaker on sexual purity, begins counseling parishioner Donna Scott, first for marital sexual troubles, then for problems related to childhood sexual abuse. According to Mrs. Scott's testimony, Mr. Cross gives her pornography, convinces her that "phone sex" with him will improve her marital sex life, and convinces her that sexual contact with him will help heal her incest wounds. In deposition testimony, Mr. Cross denies saying that the sexual contact was therapy and instead claims the relationship was a consensual affair.

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While northeastern precincts of the Roman Catholic Church writhe in the bonds of yet another sex scandal-more than 80 priests accused of pedophilia and other abuse-the Protestant church has a severe problem of its own: some pastoral counselors having sex with counselees. Such contact can be classified biblically as "adultery" or "fornication," but often is not a "consensual affair." It is sexual abuse-and an egregious abuse of power that can rob women of their faith in clergy, in the institution of the church, and even in God.

Sexual contact during or after any counseling relationship is considered grossly unethical by a broad slice of professional counseling groups, including the American Association of Christian Counselors, the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, and the National Association of Social Workers. That's because of the power counselors hold over clients-power born of authority and being privy to clients' most intimate emotions and fears. Experts say this power is magnified in pastoral counseling.

"With ministers, we let down our guard," said Kansas behavioral medicine specialist Richard Irons. "The counselee often sees the minister not only as a professional with her best interests at heart, but also at times as the very instrument of God's healing power, and possibly as her last refuge of hope."

When a pastor steals that hope by sexualizing a counseling relationship, damage to women can range from depression to relationship trouble to suicide, said Gary Schoener, a Minneapolis psychologist who has consulted in more than 3,000 clergy sexual abuse (CSA) cases since 1980.

Peter warned the early church of "false teachers" who "seduce the unstable ... entice by sensual passions of the flesh," who promise freedom while "they themselves are slaves of corruption." Since most women don't report CSA and most churches don't publicize it, its frequency today is difficult to pinpoint. Joe E. Trull, co-author of the book Ministerial Ethics (1993), helped write the CSA policy for the Texas Baptist General Convention. From his study of literature on clergy sexual abuse, he concludes that "from 30 to 35 percent of ministers of all denominations admit to having sexual relationships-from inappropriate touching and kissing to sexual intercourse-outside of marriage." Mr. Trull estimates that "at least half" of that contact occurs in pastoral counseling.

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