ST. PAUL, Minn. — Is it OK for ministers to hug their parishioners?
It depends on the kind of hugs, a counselor told some 170 clergy who attended a sexual-abuse awareness workshop here recently. It was sponsored by the St. Paul Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
"The reality is that the ministerial-parishioner relationship is inherently seductive even without doing anything wrong," said Gary Schoener, a licensed psychologist who is executive director of the Walk-In Counseling Center in Minneapolis.
That explains why if ministers and other counselors are careless, "trouble happens so quickly," he said.
"I have interviewed dozens of pastors and therapists who shouldn't hug in any kind of close fashion because they can't handle it," he said. "They begin to get sexually turned on two seconds into the hug. That is the problem.
"The parishioners vary. Some find a hug sexually stimulating, some don't. The real issue is that the minister can't handle it. So one of the first things you have to ask yourself with regard to any behavior is: How does it impact on you? Why are you doing it?"
He said "appearances do count" and "there is no question if someone is hugging a tremendous amount in church, people get uneasy."
Schoener said he evaluates cases for a Catholic diocese and told about "a big battle" that had taken place between a bishop and a priest over the priest's hugging. "The bishop said some parishioners love it and some are uneasy about it. They wonder what is going on in the church with all the headlines about sex in the church and say this doesn't look good. The pastor says 'the bishop is uptight, doesn't know what he is talking about. I am the Leo Buscaglia pastor.' " (Buscaglia is a widely known author and pop psychologist who writes and speaks extensively about caring, feeling and loving).
Schoener said he evaluated the priest and found "nothing wrong with him psychologically, but he does have this belief about hugging. He loves to do it. He thinks it's great for people. I send a report back which the church doesn't like because I say the priest doesn't need treatment. It's a question of whether this behavior is OK in a disciplinary sense.
"Eventually I tell the priest I think the problem is that there isn't a position open for a Leo Buscaglia pastor right now. There is an opening for a regular pastor."
Schoener cautioned clergy and workers with youth to be "very careful" in touching adolescents, who are "entering into sexual feelings and experiences much earlier than they used to."
He said there have been some situations where a fifth- or sixth-grade girl has "sworn on a stack of Bibles" that a teacher touched her breast even though there were competent witnesses present who knew this had not happened.
Hugging, he said, can be a type of communion and a touch can have a healing effect in some situations. But he questioned the wisdom of a minister hugging someone for the purpose of reconciliation after there has been some kind of blowup.
Schoener discussed a 1986 Minnesota law, known as Statute 148A, which deals with action for sexual exploitation by pscyhotherapists, including clergy. The law permits a patient or a former patient who has been injured by consensual or non-consensual sexual contact with a psychotherapist to sue that psychotherapist and, in some circumstances, his or her employer.
"The only thing the law has changed," Schoener said, "is it says you can't cover up any of this stuff any more and you can't agree with somebody that if they will simply leave their job, that you are not going to tell anyone."
The Minnesota statute, the only one of its kind in the United States, also was discussed by a Minneapolis attorney for the denomination, Patrick Schiltz, whose law firm is handling or has handled more than 100 cases against clergy.
Consent is not a defense under the law even if the act is welcomed and invited, Schiltz said. It doesn't matter that sexual abuse happened outside a therapy session or off the premises. Neither is passage of time a strong factor.