Some Faith Leaders Offer Women More Than Prayer

One in 33 American women who attend church regularly have received some form of sexual advance by a religious leader, according to a recent study by the Baylor University School of Social Work. Valencia Bey, who experienced sexual abuse by a faith leader, tells her story of survival. Bey is joined by Baylor University Professor Diana Garland, co-author of the study , who explains the factors behind such abuse.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, my thoughts in my Can I Just Tell You commentary in just a few minutes. But first, it's time to go Behind Closed Doors. That's the part of the program where we talk about issues that are often kept silent, often due to stigma or shame.

Today, we want to talk about the abuse of trust from the pulpit. We're talking about a study recently released by Baylor University School of Social Work that found that one in 33 American women who go to church regularly have been the target of some sort of sexual advance from a religious leader.

Joining us now to talk about all this Diana Garland. So coauthored the study. She is the dean and professor of social work at Baylor University. Also joining us is Joretta Marshall. She is the president of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. And also joining us is Valencia Bey. She is a survivor of sexual abuse by a faith leader, and she's going to tell us more about that in just a moment. Ladies, thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Professor DIANA GARLAND (Dean and Professor of Social Work, Baylor University): Thank you.

Ms. JORETTA MARSHALL (President, American Association of Pastoral Counselors): Thank you.

Ms. VALENCIA BEY: It's great to be here.

MARTIN: Dean Garland, if you would start us off. What gave you and your co-author the idea to investigate this very sensitive area?

Prof. GARLAND: I have been working with congregations for more than 30 years as a consultant and working in the area of family ministry. My husband is a seminary dean a New Testament professor and often serves in congregations as interim pastor. And I was just tired of watching congregations torn apart by this issue and watching the lives of survivors destroyed, their communities pulled away from them and watching the ministries of leaders destroyed.

MARTIN: Valencia, we appreciate your willingness to join us to tell us what happened to you. Will you briefly tell us your story?

Ms. BEY: Well, my story is this. I was 16, and I was a senior in high school, and I had sex for the first time, and I got pregnant. And I told two people, and I ended up aborting the baby because I had a scholarship to college the following fall. And I went to school, but after the abortion, I felt depressed, and I was very despondent because I'd grown up in the church, and I knew the teachings of the church and that abortion was murder.

So I felt like I killed my baby, oh my God, I killed my baby. And I was in a deep depression. I did well in school, but it was very difficult to move through the day sometimes.

So I went to a crusade, and there was a minister there, and I told her about my experience and my depression. And she said, well, I'll pray for you. And I was still going through a depression, and she was very concerned about me. And a few weeks later, there was a larger crusade where a traveling prophet was coming through. And long story short, the prophet said yes, I can help you. I can help you with your depression. I can help you with the guilt and the same that you feel.

And by this time I was 17, and we sat down one evening and he said tell me your story. So I told him my story, and right in the middle of the story - this is kind of a weird story - but right in the middle of me telling him the story, I remembered a dream that I'd had about me and him riding in a truck, and I started to tell him the dream. And he said stop, and he was a prophet. And he started to tell me the rest of the dream. And then he told me other things about myself that I had told no one. So I believed that he was from God, and he had my trust from that point.

He said, well, we're going to have a couple of meetings like this so that I can get to know you better so that I can really heal you. So the next session, I went to him, and I started talking about my experience again, and he told me that God could help me and God could really heal me, and then he molested me.

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness.

Ms. BEY: And I was ashamed, and I was afraid of him because what he told me was if you tell anybody that this happened to you, I'm going to kill you.

MARTIN: Oh, dear.

Ms. BEY: And then after that, he stalked me. So I would be with a friend in a car around the college campus or in the city, and I would look behind me, and I would see him in the rearview mirror, and he would just kind of star at me, and I was terrified.

So that was about 90 percent of the reason why I left that place, because I just couldn't - the minister who trusted me to his care was someone who I really trusted, and she did not mean any harm, and I knew that she didn't mean any harm. I just could not bring myself to tell her that had happened to me, and I didn't tell anyone that that had happened to me, actually, until a few years later.

MARTIN: Years later. What effect do you think this experience had on you? And can I just say: I am so sorry this happened to you.

Ms. BEY: Thank you.

MARTIN: It's just sickening. And may I ask: What effect do you think this had on you?

Ms. BEY: It taught me to separate my relationship with God from my relationship to the church and the people in the church, because whether or not I stepped foot in a church again, I will still have my relationship with God. It didn't stop me from going to church, but it did change the way that I viewed church. In the church where I grew up, the pastor was the authority, and we were taught to respect his authority. And in many cases, we were told that the pastor could do no wrong because he heard directly from God. I never really believed that, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BEY: …I did trust the minister based on what I had been taught. And after that experience, I don't trust ministers and clergy 100 percent. Although I'm still active in a church - my children are there. I'm very protective of my children. I don't allow them to talk to a lot of people in church. If they have a problem or an issue, I encourage them to talk to me first, and I have to know the person that they're talking to about whatever issue they feel like they need to address with someone else.

MARTIN: Joretta, what affect do you think it has on a person to be A, in a pastoral relationship with someone and then in a counseling relationship and have one's trust violated in that way - to be the target of a sexual advance by somebody with whom you're both in a counseling relationship, and there's also the pastoral dimension?

Ms. MARSHALL: Yeah, Valencia's story is so tragic and also painful that lots of persons who experience this kind of abuse find themselves deeply troubled about who God is, about whether you should trust church, whether you should trust pastors in general. And it really has, I think, a dramatic and traumatic affect on the soul because one has to - and Valencia said it really well. One has to begin to figure out what's the difference between God, the church and the human beings who represent, and it is incredibly devastating.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about religious leaders who make sexual advances to women in their congregations. A new study says that this practice is far more widespread than many people had believed.

Our guests are Diana Garland, dean of School of Social Work at Baylor University and a coauthor of the study, Valencia Bey, a survivor of sexual abuse by a pastor, and Joretta Marshall of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors.

Dean Garland, did the survey determine any patterns of individuals who were likely to engage in this kind of conduct?

Prof. GARLAND: We look instead at what was going on in the community that seemed to be the setup for this kind of abuse, such as religious leaders having overlapping and multiple roles, being both the religious leader and a counselor, or perhaps a close family friend. And those are conflicting roles.

MARTIN: Hmm.

Prof. GARLAND: A second factor we found was that we call our places of worship sanctuaries. We expect them to be safe places. So we share, we confess personal thoughts and our struggles to religious leaders and they know those things about us. And we believe that they will hold those sacred, that they are there to protect us, not to harm us.

MARTIN: But forgive me, though, but that by definition, religious people have always gone to their clergypersons for counsel. So what would be -you see what I'm saying? What would be the distinguishing factor that would allow people to think this was acceptable behavior?

Prof. GARLAND: Certainly, our religious leaders need to be there for us in times of crisis, times of death, illness, the birth of babies, the joyous times in our lives. And to be that first line of care is very important. That's different than providing ongoing, weekly individual psychotherapy, which is a very different role and one that should not be confused with that of religious leader. They're simply different roles.

MARTIN: Joretta, what's your view of this?

Ms. MARSHALL: Yeah. It's a really nice question, because historically, the person who has been the faith leader of communities over time has had this role of care for the persons. And as the culture in our last generations has figured out the difference between care and counseling, we now have a better understanding of how the dynamics of counseling and the intimacy of counseling really shifts the way in which people perceive the counselor, the way in which people perceive their own lives, and that part of what's happening is that people in the congregations and in the communities of faith - including clergy, but not only clergy - need to continue to differentiate between the care, as Diana has said, that kind of basic understanding of how do we sit with people in times of crisis and counseling, which is a much more structured, formal kind of way of moving through people's lives and experiences.

MARTIN: Dean, there are - you know throughout history and in the Bible there are stories of people abusing their power to extract sexual favors from people. I mean, we think about the story of King David, for example.

Prof. GARLAND: Yes.

MARTIN: But is there something about the clergy role that - did you find any through line or any pattern to clergy members who, for whatever reason, thought this was okay to do or felt - do you see what I'm saying? I'm just looking for some clues…

Prof. GARLAND: Yes.

MARTIN: …as to why people would - somebody would think that was acceptable conduct.

Prof. GARLAND: What we found is that this problem is so pervasive. It's not a matter of what's going on psychologically with a few charismatic leaders that abuse their power. We're talking about a problem, if the average American goes to a congregation of 400 persons or larger in this country, that means if this were spread evenly across congregations, there would be seven women in every congregation who've experienced clergy sexual misconduct at some time since they turned 18.

Now, of course, this isn't spread that widely across the country, but that speaks to the fact that there's something going on here besides the psychological makeup of our leaders. One of those is we hold our religious leaders in such awe, we put them on pedestals, and pedestals are very lonely places. There's very little accountability for how religious leaders spend their time or where they are.

Frequently, they are alone in an office, perhaps with a secretary outside who he supervises or she, but most religious leaders in this country are men. So we set up that lack of accountability in ways and then these multiple roles, and then there's an isolation of communication that I found amongst many of the women and men with whom I talked that's taken place just in the past several years.

You can form an intimate relationship with someone now through email, through phone calls to cell phones that would not have been possible a generation ago. Many of these folks found that their religious leaders were establishing this relationship with them over time, frequently around the work of the church - so, very difficult to identify that this is not appropriate.

MARTIN: What do you think would stop this? And Valencia, I'm going to start with you. Did you have some thoughts about how, perhaps, parishioners could be better inoculated against these kinds of advances?

Ms. BEY: I think we need to see the clergy as real people who are also broken because there was - following my experience, was another minister who approached me whose wife and child had died. And he approached me, but I was strong enough to resist him. So he was a broken person and I was also a broken person, and had I remained in the state that I was in, I may have fallen into a relationship with him. So I think we have to recognize that we're all broken people looking for the healer, and we need to look to the healer instead of looking to the clergy to solve so many of our problems and to heal our pain.

MARTIN: Joretta, what about you? What do you think would be helpful here?

Ms. MARSHALL: Valencia said it really well in terms of the vulnerability levels, that both parishioners and clergy need to be held accountable, but education is a piece of that, finding ways to resource parishioners and clergy in times of their own vulnerabilities, in times of their own struggles. Crossing the line oftentimes happens when vulnerabilities are met, and that's an incredibly difficult time to figure out how to move and how to respond.

MARTIN: And finally, Dean Garland, what are your thoughts about what would address these issues? What would stop this?

Prof. GARLAND: Education is the way, and I think this begins with of us, to start using language that describes what's happened. When a religious leader has a sexual relationship with a congregant, it's not an affair. It's abuse of power, power that we have all given of a leader as a community. So changing our language would be an important way for us to begin to have these conversations, then, about how we can protect both our leaders and our congregants.

MARTIN: Diana Garland is a licensed social worker and the dean of social work at Baylor University. She was kind enough to join us from KWBU in Waco, Texas. Joretta Marshall is the president of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. She joined us from WBNI in Fort Wayne, Indiana. And Valencia Bey is a survivor of abuse by a pastor, and was kind enough to tell us her story from Chicago.

Ladies, thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Ms. BEY: Thank you.

Prof. GARLAND: Thank you for having us.

Ms. MARSHALL: Thank you for having us.

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