IMG_6111Representing the Anabaptist Mennonite Chapter of SNAP, Dr. Cameron Altaras delivered the following speech at the Annual SNAP conference in Alexandria, Virginia on August 2, 2015. More than 300 survivors of sexual abuse in faith communities and their loved ones gathered to hear speakers from around the world who educated and inspired us to “protect the vulnerable and expose the truth” about sexual abuses of power in our own denominations.  A video of this speech can be found here.  BG

(Note: Although a male pronoun for the pastor and female pronoun for the victim is used here, victims and perpetrators can be any gender.)


A woman went to her pastor for advice.

Not for sex.

She never imagined her pastor would do something so egregious as to manipulate her into having sex with him.

The worst part was that because they were both adults, the woman blamed herself for having an “affair” with her pastor and then hid silently in her shame.

But it was not an affair.

It was an abuse of power.

Sex between two parties where there is a power differential is not and can never be labeled “an affair.”

Sex between persons with unequal power is not even about sex. It’s about power and control over someone with less power.

If approached by a stranger at a party, the sexual advances would have been obvious to the woman. But when her pastor became amorous, the woman was caught completely off guard. She thought she was making more out of the situation than her pastor intended. She ignored her screaming intuition, warning her that something was terribly wrong. It was not easy to rebuff her pastor, whom she held in the high esteem afforded by his position. She didn’t want to offend her pastor by refusing his pastoral hug the first time and it became increasingly awkward to refuse to hug him each time after that.

When looking back, the hardest thing for the woman is to forgive herself. She asks: “Why couldn’t I have stopped it? I’m an adult, why did I just let it happen to me?”

What she doesn’t understand, however, is that she was completely unaware of what was happening to her when it was happening. And it’s hard to admit that she was being used, that she had been duped by someone she trusted.

Predatory pastors subtly manipulate potential victims like this woman to the point where her ability to say “NO” was completely undermined. But just because she didn’t say “NO” does not mean she said, “YES.”

The problem was not that the woman was vulnerable because she had less power than her religious leader. The real problem was that the pastor preyed upon and exploited that vulnerability.

imagesPastors who are predators set the stage perfectly. They play the roles of devoted husband, father, and servant of the church community. They are masterful at managing impressions others have of them. They paint a portrait of their self as an exemplary, charismatic leader and teacher.

But the pastoral portrait is more like that of Dorian Gray. There is a secret and deceitful monster, locked away in a dark, hidden closet. This is the perfect set-up so everyone will believe the perpetrator. And his victim knows that until the real portrait is unveiled, no one will believe her.

This woman and many others like her get caught in what is referred to as “the grooming process.” When pastors overstep professional boundaries with someone under their care, they become sexual predators. They interact with their victims in the same destructive ways as non-clergy offenders. They slyly spin their web around a potential victim and then slowly, methodically, move in for the kill.

Step 1: Gain her trust.

Step 2: Physically isolate her in a one-on-one meeting or a counseling session, for example.

Step 3: Give short pastoral hugs upon meeting and parting.

Step 4: Move to emotional isolation. Make the conversation increasingly personal to learn her issues, her weaknesses, her dreams and offer to mentor her. Slip in subtle questions about aspects of her sexual life. Touch her hand in a caring, pastoral manner and lengthen the pastoral hug.

IMG_6113Step 5: Prime her for the next steps through flattery and making her feel special, thus warranting the pastor’s attention. She won’t think to question the integrity of the words of a man of God.

Step 6: He then enmeshes himself in her life by befriending her family, her spouse and children, especially in public. This is to ensure that everyone, especially the woman, sees the relationship with the pastor as completely normal.

Step 7: In public, throw her knowing glances, brush by her in very non-accidental ways to cement the secretive specialness between them.

Step 8: Psychological isolation: in private, subtly question, perhaps even criticize her friends, her family, her spouse and give an even longer, more meaningful pastoral hug.

Step 9: Share privileged information even of the pastor’s own unhappiness, his loneliness, especially his marital dissatisfaction.

In brief, the pastor seeps under her skin and into all her places of least resistance and greatest need. He sets it up so the woman comes to believe she needs the pastor.

This grooming process can take a few days or last a few years, depending upon the skill and patience of the perpetrator.

Step 10: Move beyond pastoral hugs to sexual touching.

imagesAll of this causes great confusion for the woman. How is she to reconcile the public man venerated by so many with the secret man doing something so wrong with her? She is an adult and she should know the difference between right and wrong. And the pastor is the epitome of a public example of what is right. Yet the pastor is able to manipulate his victim’s sense of self to such a point where the concept of right and wrong becomes totally distorted. It is almost impossible for the victim to pinpoint exactly when the warm and comforting pastoral hugs became sexualized.

The bond between victim and perpetrator is sealed, when the pastor receives the assurance, articulated or not, that their secret is safe – and of course the pastor told her that she was the only one!

The woman wonders what she did to invite this. Did she maybe consent to his sexual advances because she didn’t resist them? Perhaps she tempted this revered man of God and possibly now poses a threat to his reputation.

Through her silence, the woman:

  1. adds to her own victimization,
  2. becomes complicit in protecting the perpetrator, and
  3. can’t warn any other victims.

IMG_6119At the core of the woman’s silence is the knowledge that the pastor is a widely respected public figure and the doubt that anyone will believe her.

She knows it’s risky to reveal the abuse to the religious authorities with the power to hold the perpetrator accountable. Will she be believed and supported? Or will she be re-victimized to protect the institution and blamed for having an affair? Re-victimization is even more traumatizing than the initial abuse.

On top of all of this is her embarrassment that she, an adult, fell into this!

The damage caused by clergy sexual abuse reaches beyond the victims, violating the spiritual life of the entire church community. There is a massive sense of betrayal.

Not to recognize that this is a pastor blatantly abusing his power and call it “an affair” excuses the heinous acts of one who betrayed so many and attempts to blame the one who was betrayed the most.

And the woman feels betrayed by her very self: “Why did I just stand back and watch this man ruin my life?”

Do not ask her to forgive her perpetrator.

First, she must travel a very long and very difficult healing path to a place where maybe someday she can reach a place where she can forgive herself.

Sex with a pastor can never be called an “affair.”

Sex with a pastor is abuse.

Cameron Altaras grew up in a Mennonite community in Ontario, Canada, was educated in a Mennonite High School and College, then went on to write a PhD dissertation on issues of power and authority in church institutions, only to acknowledge much later that as a young adult she had been a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of one of the pastoral leaders in her own church community. Through many years of therapy, she also recovered the memory of childhood sexual violation by her teenage uncle. Legally changing her birth name was one important step on her healing journey. To name one’s self is a powerful image for her, as she reclaims the voice she lost at the hands of men she deeply trusted. Contact Cameron directly at