samedi, janvier 16, 2010

Latest Lancaster Column: When Clergy Transgress

Secrecy. Guilt. Shame.

As these are the hallmarks of victims of sexual misconduct and abuse by men and women "of God," so they also are, interestingly enough, feelings experienced by many clergy offenders, and by those who simply find themselves caught in a web of sexual addiction.

"Lusting after the Big Fix, we gave away our power to others," says the pamphlet for recovery group Sexaholics Anonymous. "This produced guilt, self-hatred, remorse, emptiness and pain, and we were driven ever inward, away from reality, away from love, lost inside ourselves."

It is very difficult, in spite of a promise of anonymity, to find clergy willing to openly discuss their battle with sexual addiction. They are often, perhaps correctly, afraid that they will be found out and exposed. In the course of researching this commentary, I have been threatened with a lawsuit, not had my phone calls returned and seen many leads evaporate.

• • •

What does it feel like to be a clergyperson with a deep, dark secret?

One clergyman willing to share his struggles and insights is the Rev. Dr. Mark Laaser. Ordained by the United Church of Christ, Laaser has written six books, including "Healing the Wounds of Sexual Addiction" and "The Pornography Trap." He and his wife, Debbie, run the Minnesota-based Faithful and True Ministries for individuals and couples grappling with the consequences of sexual addiction.

In the mid-1980s Laaser was a pastoral counselor and part-time pastor who crossed the line and became sexually involved with some of his counseling clients.

"I led a double life," he wrote in a 1998 article, "Therapists Who Offend."

"To the world I was a charismatic and talented leader, counselor, preacher and teacher. In many ways I was a healer ... . No one knew of the dark side of loneliness and anger that affected my spirit or of the sexual fantasies that burned inside my soul."

Eventually one of his pastoral clients, in treatment for another problem, reported him to another therapist &tstr; and he was fired.

"I was lonely, addicted and pretty self-centered," Laaser reflected recently. "I had lots and lots of anger, at the world, at God, at my spouse. I think I had a lot of anger at women."

In the article, Laaser delineates a spectrum of offender traits in therapists, ones that also could be applied to clergy.

Some clergy can be so narcissistic that it is hard to pierce the armor of self-involvement.

But Laaser wasn't one of them.

"I got broken, humbled and totally contrite ... and was able pretty quickly to see where my own 'stuff' came from and to look at my own shame" he said.

His intervention, which included 30 days of treatment, was the start of a new adventure: helping laypeople and clergy who are burdened with one form or another of addiction to sex.

• • •

One fascinating arena for exploration is why some churches have generations of clergy offenders.

Research has shown, Laaser said, that some congregations can inadvertently provide fertile environments for potential boundary violations.

"A congregation may need a strong, charismatic, adrenaline-filled leader — guys who build a cult around themselves and don't know about good self-care and healthy maintenance of boundaries."

I asked the counselor whether he felt that churches had adequately addressed the problem of sex addiction among clergy.

While he praised the work done by mainline denominations in the 1990s and an evolving openness among evangelical denominations and congregations, he said, "I'd like to see it discussed a whole lot more than it has been. I've seen a general level of silence and avoidance."

Making a more general comment, Laaser added that churches are good at telling people what they shouldn't do. But when it comes to discussing what it entails to be sexually healthy, they haven't spoken up.

"I'd like to see more education. (We) need a whole lot more conversation about sexual boundaries and modesty," he said. "There is so much sexual energy, and we are bombarded with uninvited sexual offensive triggers.

"I think our people in this world are just lost."

• • •

Laaser is a rarity, taking the raw materials of exposure and rehabilitation to minister to others — and speaking openly of what others do in secret.

Near the end of the article he wrote more than a decade ago, he encouraged Christian counselors to "maintain like a warrior" their boundaries with clients, be accountable to others, recognize that others give them great power, and "seek God's wisdom in understanding your own vulnerabilities."

Until it is possible for clergy and others to feel that they can own up to their weaknesses in a safe environment, sexual addiction and misconduct (addiction does not always lead to physical misconduct) will thrive in darkness.

But what can communities of faith and their lay and clergy leaders do to strengthen congregations so that misconduct and addiction are less likely to occur? That is the subject of the next and final part of this particular series on sanctuary shadows.

For more information on sex addiction, write Sexaholics Anonymous at SA, PO Box 3565 Brentwood, TN 370024, or visit

If you want to know more about Faithful and True Ministries, send an e-mail, visit or write to: Faithful and True Ministries, Inc. 15798 Venture Lane, Eden Prairie, Minn.

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