I am opening the door to a closet, one full of pain and well-hidden enough that most of us overlook its entrance. Some Pagans fear for their safety, their loved ones, and their livelihood simply because they are Pagan in a predominantly Judeo-Christian world, but I am more afraid of the beast in the closet: those Pagans who use our beliefs against us, who use us – physically, emotionally, or financially – for their own gain. Some of us had to learn the hard way that being Pagan does not ensure ethical behavior, and that many of our beliefs, if twisted, support predatory behavior.
Negative encounters with predator clergy, leaders, and magickal groups hurt us; we grow angry, vindictive, or bitter. Some of us have nervous breakdowns or suffer from panic attacks. Many choose to work only solitary, choosing to avoid any future pain by not working in groups at all.
I know of one woman who has dropped out of the Pagan community because her group experiences were so negative, each one involving a predator leader (sexual, domineering, and guru to be exact), both male and female. Although she found like-minded Pagans on the Internet, she still mourns the lack of physical companionship of other spiritual seekers and leaders.
Another woman’s sole Pagan work is with an informal network to ‘retrieve’ the victims of a nasty sexual predator. They have succeeded in raising awareness of him and his activities high enough that long-time Pagans shun him, but he keeps going, feeding on ignorant newcomers.
Why We Have Them
Paganism is not the only religion where predators take advantage; the Catholic Church is an example of that. However, the unique aspects of our religion, and our mindset, enable a predator to move easily among us.
In a religion where sex is not a sin, but a joyous celebration, a predator can twist the liturgy to support her getting as much sexual activity as she desires from chosen coven members, ignoring their personal preferences. I personally remember a couple of years ago when a person was traveling through the southern part of the United States ‘initiating’ young women. He would post an email to a local bulletin board for Pagan teens and if you were female, between the ages of 13 and 18, willing to have sex (as a required part of the ritual), and would never speak of the ‘sacred’ ritual to anyone else, he would make you a ‘real’ Witch. 1 More disturbingly, one of the earliest Craft books advocates the Initiation of a child into a coven within a year of the development of the physical attributes of reproduction. This initiation includes a ‘full sexual experience’ that may be preceded by the use of a ritual phallus to pierce the hymen. 2 The argument for this happening was so that the child’s first sexual experience would be within the warm, loving confines of the coven. It is too easy for a belief like this to support child abuse and sexual molestation. (Never mind the fact that most people feel that this doctrine is already molestation.) Further confusing matters, some Pagan practices are neither coercive nor predatory, but can seem that way to an outsider. For example, traditional Gardnerian covens worship skyclad, use a scourge in certain rituals, and have a very core ritual whose sexual implications are obvious, and intended. To the outside observer, it might be difficult to understand that nudity does not create sexual arousal, the scourge helps one achieve a drug-free altered state of consciousness, and that the ‘sexual’ rite does not necessarily involve physical copulation.
In these religions, where we espouse an attitude of ‘many paths, no one true way’ it is too easy for a predator to excuse himself and his harmful actions as his path and therefore no less valid than another’s. Who am I to say that how another person finds God/dess is wrong? I personally am uncomfortable with the idea of sharing and building energy through group sexual arousal, but I know of one group that does so and their leader is an amazing woman I learn from constantly; she is no predator. Pagans pride themselves on their tolerance and open minds, which is generally good, but we need to moderate these attitudes. A friend recently told me that when she makes a statement against some harmful activity promoted by other Pagans, she adds, “I keep my mind open, but not so open that my brain falls out on the floor and goes splat! The Goddess gave me a mind to do something other than keep my ears widely set – She intended for me to use it to think and to make judgments on what is good and bad, right and wrong. If that were not the case, She wouldn’t have given me a conscience!”3
Like many religions, many Pagan paths see service as an honorable path. Here, however, a predator can use secrecy and marginalization as excuses for her followers to support her through large ‘donations’ of money, food, or physical labor. This is very similar to the behavior found in cults. 4 Although acrimonious conversations about charging for services crop up fairly regularly within the Craft community, including ones about how much is fair to charge, let me be clear: Assisting your leader because you want to, or because it is your way of repaying her for her time and for training you is another matter entirely. In some culturally-derived traditions, for example, a long period of service is specifically required of newcomers (sort of an ‘if we train you, you OWE us’ belief). A new magickal group requiring long hours of service, or large donations, is a clear warning sign that a predator may be present. A key difference here is the longevity of the magickal group or tradition.
In a religion where secrets are expected, where a lot of training is one-on-one, happening behind closed doors and frequently oath-bound, it is easy for a predator to convince a victim that what is happening is part of the Tradition, or oath-bound, or required to truly understand the Mysteries. Not all uncomfortable or secret practices are warning signs of a predator. (A good teacher, for example will work with a student to identify and work through negative issues. That cycle of identification and work will frequently make the student uncomfortable, but the result is a healthier human.)
Who They Are
Pagan predators tend to be smart, manipulative, and very charismatic. They enjoy the power and the privileges that come with leadership, and little else. They dominate those who trust them, penalize those who get out of line, and neglect the true spiritual needs of their followers. They are preoccupied with hierarchical power, money, numbers and control. They are of little or no help when it comes to meeting the needs of group members. They see their magickal group as their personal fief – members are either resources or burdens.
It can be hard for a newcomer to recognize the difference between the healthy amount of control and discipline found in a good administrator and leader, and that of a power-hungry control freak. There are several warning signs that indicate you should take a closer look into, or leave, a magickal group. Examples include: requesting more time or money to finish a class; canceling the class with a promise to reschedule, but failing to do so; or being unable or unwilling to provide references, including personal history of training.
Conscientious Pagans may recognize the predators for what they are yet feel powerless to remove their authority. The predators are frequently firmly entrenched in seemingly impregnable positions of authority, either because they are well known and well loved outside their magickal group, or because they have succeeded in convincing their followers of their perfection. More frighteningly, they are usually completely oblivious to the harm they have done. In their eyes, everyone acts the way they do, or they deserve their special treatment.
How They Operate
Pagan predators are adept at collecting (and using) damaging information, emotional manipulation, and the politics of dominance. They use rumor and innuendo to diminish or drive away those who speak against them. They may even be the ones who cry loudest when wounded by criticisms of being unfair or unethical, twisting arguments against them around to wound those attempting to speak the truth.
Predators can come very close to crossing the line between legal and illegal, making it difficult to bring legal authorities into the matter. Remember that being a manipulative, emotionally abusive, bitchy, control-freak, is not illegal. Sexual coercion between adults is not illegal, nor is sowing dissent within a community. Being sleazy is not against the law. Being unethical does not equal being illegal. A predator’s followers will often be the ones aggressively attempting to shut the honest speaker up – either by threats or psychic attacks. Many a formerly assertive opponent will give up, unable to muster the energy or resources to maintain a constant, active, defense against these attacks.
Predators often look and sound very good, with beliefs and customs that are similar to those found in public documents. They may look and sound like ‘just’ what the untutored think a ‘real’ Witch should. The best way to spot the difference is that a good Pagan teacher or mentor is one whose goal is to have the student become their equal, or superior. The good ones can point to former students with pride at their ability to be great teachers.
Predators may only work within a special circle of people. The prestige associated with gaining entrance into that circle can place the unwary directly into the predator’s hands, diminishing the victim’s ability to see the negative aspects of the situation. The predator may be a great person in many respects, but have a hidden, dangerous side that only manifests in specific situations. Those who witness the predatory behavior are then in the difficult position of ‘tell or not tell.’ A position that becomes increasingly uncomfortable if legal action was attempted, but unsuccessful. Speaking ill of someone, even when true, can lead to charges of libel or slander. (Although, in America it is only slander if it untrue. It may get nasty, but if you have proof, counter-charges won’t succeed.) How can the ethical Witch respond when a newcomer talks about how she is so happy in a group lead by a (known-within-a-small-group) predator? As one acquaintance of mine said, “Speaking up can be viewed as violating Craft laws of secrecy and can also be seen as sour grapes.”
Predators, like many con artists, tend to have good reasons and background for their needs. For example, even if service is a part of the training process, the amount of labor or money donated increases steadily as you move closer to the inner core – until you end up in bankruptcy (at which point the victim can find themselves out of a coven as well as a home). The predators may pressure a group member to sell their home to the leader at a fraction of the market value ‘for the good of the coven.’ Maybe the High Priestess is evicted (by an evil landlord, of course!). Your offer of a temporary place to stay then turns into months of a housemate who contributes nothing, but costs a lot to maintain, and treats you like a personal slave.
Predators may engage in unethical behavior that seems to be happening between consenting adults. Even when the victim breaks away we cannot interfere and remain ethical ourselves. We cannot make the victim speak; we cannot tell their stories for them – that would be keeping them from creating and maintaining their own power. Until they do, the sphere of silence is kept, protecting the predator.
What Can We Do?
One solution is to do better to warn newcomers to Paganism. We can post information on websites, talk about predators in lectures, and mention them in discussions. Since much of the predator’s ‘easy’ prey comes from those who simply don’t know enough yet about their new Path, reaching out to them can save a lot of future grief. Unfortunately, since we are such wide-open religions, what seems manipulative to one tradition may seem perfectly sensible to another. It’s enormously difficult to reach out in any kind of concerted manner. We don’t have a single source of information, and this topic is not one you find in the Craft’s literature – popular, scholarly, or fantastical. Nor do we WANT a single source of information, because we recognize that it simply is not possible given the diversity of beliefs, viewpoints, and attitudes found under the Pagan ‘umbrella’ of religions.
We can do better amongst ourselves in talking about the predators. If a Pagan leader is engaging in illegal activity, we can take it upon ourselves as ethical beings to bring the Law into the matter. Child abuse, rape, sexual harassment, threats, stalking, and physical abuse are all things that the Law should deal with.
We can monitor our own backyard, and share information over the fence with others. This is an incredibly difficult task. It may require us to be more public than we are now (if I go to the police with a story about a Pagan’s abuse, I must be prepared to state that I am also Pagan). We can find the accusations turned against us, and perhaps we too have a few skeletons we’d prefer were never visible again, a threat that can keep us silent. One acquaintance of mine said that, in her opinion, the best way to deal with Pagan predators was to drag it out into the clear light of day where everyone can see it for what it is. Another acquaintance responded that, in her experience, shedding light only starts a divisive Witch War leaving everyone burned. It is possible that this can vary greatly by community with large numbers of public Pagans supporting a healthy discussion and dialogue of ethical violations versus misunderstandings. This can be especially true if the offense happened between adults, and is something (like harassment) that is difficult to prove.
We can view charges of predatory behavior with discerning eyes and work to uncover the truth before taking a side.
We can face the predators ourselves, knowing that we may be in for a rough time. We can speak the truth, then stand by it, and hold to that in the face of adversity, knowing – as only one who works magick can know – that we are right, and eventually their power will turn on them. We can presume that the predator’s followers are intelligent and will eventually begin to ask questions. Questions are a predator’s bane: prey are sheep, with no thoughts in their heads. A questioning sheep transforms into an equal, with power and authority; the prey disappears.
We can be tolerant, but discriminating of other Pagans. It is valuable to be accepting and understanding of idiosyncrasies and different points of view, but we need to be selective about the company we keep. It does me no good at all to live an ethical, honorable life if I am making excuses for the outrageous behaviors of those around me.
One thing we can’t do is come up with a set of one-size-fits-all Pagan religions guidelines. What I see as trespassing on personal safety may be a core element of another’s ritual system. Some of us think that working magick at the dark of the moon is valuable, others wonder why we are working at a ‘null energy’ time, and still others see it as working with negative energy, and therefore a Bad Idea.
We are not the only religions to suffer from predatory depredations: they are present in every religion, from Buddhists to Sikhs to Taoists. The solution is not simply ‘find the predators and send them away;’ they are too hidden, supported, or popular. What I know is this: Unless we recognize and restrain these predators, they will continue to bring pain into our communities and harm our people. As long as we keep them hidden in the closet, we tacitly give permission for the abuse to occur.
1. To my knowledge, he was never caught; then again, I do not think he is still operating, either.
2. Frost, Gavin and Yvonne. The Good Witch’s Bible. Godolphin House, Hinton, WV. 1972, pgs. 65-71.
3. Fisher, Barbara. Private conversation, September 2004.
4. From Bonewits, “[the] Amount of money and/or property desired or obtained by group; emphasis on members’ donations;” where a higher score equals higher likelihood of being dangerous to members.
(Grateful thanks to Barbara Fisher, Sunfell, and Erica Frank for their assistance in writing this article.)
Copyright Lisa Mc Sherry 2005. This article may be freely distributed as long as author name and contact information is included.
This article first appeared on Witchvox.com, May 1st, 2005.