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Sexuality and Professional Abuse of Power
Recently, the news media have been reporting the findings of several professional inquiries into sexual misconduct among their members. The Canadian Council of Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church has been exploring the sexual violation of children by priests and teachers in Native schools and in orphanages run and staffed by the Church.

In Ontario, the College of Physicians and Surgeons has recently set up a task force to look into ways of assisting patients who complain of sexual abuse by doctors. (This move came shortly after the College was harshly criticized by women's groups for its handling of the case of a doctor who was accused of encouraging one of his female patients to press her face against his naked pelvis area—an act the doctor apparently described as a form of "bonding" designed to help his patient overcome childhood traumas!)

A few years ago several Christian therapists in Toronto were called to meet three women who had all been sexually seduced by a clinician who claimed to be helping them to heal from their experiences as victims of incest. (He is still in private practice with no professional accountability). The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists frequently lists members whose unethical conduct has resulted in expulsion from the Association—most frequently such expulsions are linked to sexual misconduct.

The tragedy that confronts us in these disturbing revelations is that the helping professions are no stranger to sexual abuse within their own midst. Therapist, clergy, doctors, teachers are all professionals who are involved in positions of trust with those they counsel: a trust that, when violated, can result in emotional damage similar to that wreaked on a child who experiences the abuse of power and trust by an incestuous parent.

I have recently been a member of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto's task force on sexual abuse (released March 30, 1991). Our mandate was to draft policies and protocol for the Church in cases where clergy or other church workers are accused of sexually abusing anyone—adult or child—in their professional care. We included the following in our definition of unethical behaviour: "Exploitation of (the relationship of) this trust through sexual activity, or touching for sexual purposes, or the suggestion or depiction of any such activity." We specifically included the word depiction because we know that pornography is used as a means of introducing and enticing sexual behaviour, particularly in the sexual abuse of children. (Pedophiles are known to carefully stage encounters with children and teens and to use pornography as a vehicle.)

To betray trust by sexually abusing another, whether that person is a child or an adult, is to violate the core of another person. And because the pastoral-counselling relationship, the therapist-client, or doctor-patient relationship is fundamentally a relationship of trust, any exploitation of this trust can be profoundly damaging. Such professionals enter in an ongoing way into some of the most secret, sacred, and fragile dimensions of others' lives. It is, paradoxically, because of these intimate connections that professionals who counsel adults face the risk of engaging in inappropriate or unethical behaviour with those they serve.

We need to think and pray about what restoration would mean for someone who abuses his or her power in a counselling role.

Several therapists at the Institute of Family Living (IFL) are currently working with women who were abused by doctors, teachers, or ministers—some as children or teenagers, others as adults. In addition, we are working with both men and women who were abused as youth by camp counsellors, or by recreational leaders. Over the years, also, we have had to "debrief" and then offer a new beginning in therapy, to clients (all women) who were sexually abused by a previous (male) therapist.

Our IFL Newsletter of April 1985 dealt in detail with adult women clients who were survivors of incestuous abuse and of other forms of sexual abuse (including rape) in their teenage or childhood years, and of the indelible scars they have since borne of shame and fear. Our clients have continued to include a high number of adult sexual abuse survivors, and of child and teenage victims.

Most commonly this is a gender issue, where dominant men in positions of power are the perpetrators, and women and children, in subordinate positions, are the victims.

Shame and Secrecy

As family therapists who seek, whenever possible, healing and reconciliation for the family system as well as for its individual members, such cases are frequently difficult and painful because of the devastating effects of shame and secrecy. Seldom does reconciliation occur, as seldom does the abuser acknowledge the seriousness of his behaviour. Denial is a cornerstone of the personality of abusers. One of our most heartbreaking counselling situations is a family whose three sons were sexually abused by their father—an elder highly respected in his church community. The police got involved in the case, and the faith of the congregation has been seriously shaken.

Another of our clients—a middle-aged woman suffering from chronic depression—was raped in her twenties by her minister. She is still haunted by her inability to trust men and her fear of being victimized again by males in authority. Currently, therapist are working with several male clients who are (or have been) clergy and have transgressed the sexual boundaries of the pastoral-counselling relationship.

Sex and the Pastoral Relationship

These are the agonies at the centre of Is Nothing Sacred? When Sex Invades the Pastoral Relationship, by Rev. Marie Fortune (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989).

Fortune is a minister in the United Church of Christ and executive director of the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle, Washington. She has for many years educated the Church about rape, pornography, and violence against women and children. (Two of her important books on these subjects are Sexual Violence: The Unmentionable Sin [New York: Pilgrim Press, 1983] and Keeping the Faith: Questions and Answers for the Abused Woman [New York: Harper and Row, 1987]).

Is Nothing Sacred? is Fortune's latest book. In it, she tackles the difficult issue of clergy abuse of the pastoral relationship. The book presents a case study of a church that came to her about its minister, who was involved in a series of sexual relationships with parishioners who had sought his pastoral care.

Fortune and the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence work toward prevention and intervention strategies, which they believe are foundational in maintaining the integrity of pastoral relationships. Justice making, healing, and restoration are inextricably interwoven. "Justice making frees persons to forgive, which makes possible restoration with memory: to forgive and remember." As therapists who continue to work with victims of doctor, therapist, and clergy abuse, we agree profoundly. A victim must name her or his pain and violation before she or he can rebuild trust and self-esteem.

But what of the offending minister, counsellor, or therapist? The person who, in a position of trust, abuses the intimacy of a confidential and deeply personal relationship? We need to think and pray about what restoration would mean for someone who abuses his or her power in a counselling role. (The Anglican task force has developed some guidelines for reinstating the offending minister or staff person into a parish—and for that person's ongoing accountability.)

All helping professions need to take preventive steps. One of the most important problems that sexual abuse in professional care relations confronts us with is how we can help those in positions of power deal responsibly with their own emotional needs and their sexuality. How can we train and screen and prepare people for the responsibility for which they are privileged to enter deeply into the lives of others—into their pains, fears, hopes, dreams, fantasies?

People-helpers are frequently poor at setting personal boundaries—but must do so in any counselling relationship. We can never defend sexual indiscretion on the grounds that we were "seduced." So what can seminaries, medical schools, and counsellor-training programs do to prepare people for relationships of deep intimacy combined with clear boundaries where sex is concerned?


How can professionals be helped to be more nurturing and less controlling? What kind of support system and relationships of accountability (such as regular supervision) need to be in place for men and women who go into—indeed are called to—healing work that is deeply intimate?

I am strongly convinced that the exposure and vulnerability of all who work in the counselling professions require us to be in some kind of accountability structure, to be honest and open about our own areas of weakness, and hence to be growing in our own professional lives. Self-deception can trip us all up.

A "macho" ideal of self-sufficiency, to which so many clergy, doctors, and therapist seem to unconsciously aspire, makes matters worse. None of us should pretend we can "go it alone." Thus, we need to seek cooperative professional lives, not "one-man (or one-woman) shows." Abuse of power and sexual temptation can go hand in hand. Thus, we need to put into place policies which affirm clear boundaries in terms of sexuality in our professional relations, and, as well, policies which insure that justice is done and will allow for healing of victims and possible restoration for abusers.




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