An hysterical woman's guide to the clergy

Paul Handley, the editor of the Church Times, this week comes to the rescue of the women who fall in love with priests and tells what songs these sirens hear.
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The Independent Online
Hysterical women have been worrying the clergy in the diocese of Oxford. Clergy counsellors are warned to be on their guard against them in the new guidelines for pastoral care issued by the diocese last month: "This person is typically shallow, overly reactive, even vivacious, uninhibited in displaying sexuality, given to flirtations, coquetry and romantic fantasy . . . The pastor who falls prey to her seduction is bound to be destroyed." Just my sort of gal, I thought. I sought a few out this week, for research purposes, and they gave me their own version of counselling disasters. Even shallow, vivacious, flirtatious people can feel down sometimes, they said; so down, on occasions, that they start questioning whether uninhibited displays of sexuality are the right approach to life after all.

At such times, they said, they look for a friendly, helpful, safe person to put them back on the right track; and where better to look than mother Church? Many of the clergy now put themselves forward as counsellors, and my women had, between them, got through quite a few over the years. Their story is a bit different, however. Far from leaving a trail of innocent men "destroyed", they were themselves the victims, they said. Never good at judging men, they had failed to see the warning signs when fixing up with a clergy counsellor.

After a couple of sessions in the vicarage study, they found themselves . . . involved. From there it was straight down the slippery slope: assignations, discovery, betrayal, rows, broken marriages, lost jobs. All of this could have been avoided, they said, if they had read the signs and seen what the man was really like. What were these warning signs? I asked. How long have you got? they replied.

Here then, is the (innocent) woman's guide to dodgy counsellors. Leave quickly . . . If the counsellor wears glasses (he's put them on to appear vulnerable or scholarly). If the counsellor does not wear glasses (he's taken them off to appear attractive). If the counsellor smiles too openly (clearly an attempt to have you lower your guard). If the counsellor smokes (orally suggestive, and, hell, you're the one who is supposed to be stressed and nervous). If the counsellor doesn't charge (this is a profession where financial greed is one of the purer motives). If your counsellor's car is a shiny red number with those flappy little eyelids over the headlamps (I mean, come on). If the counselling room has a large counselling couch (this may not be the best of omens, but is by itself inconclusive). If the couch has a well-stocked drinks cabinet beside it (now, that is conclusive).

If the counselling books on the shelf are all paperbacks from the 1970s. If the counsellor asks you to "share your pain" (a swift kick is often the best way to do this). If the counsellor dresses in a prim, drab fashion (and is therefore repressed and in all probability seething within). If the counsellor dresses casually (and is therefore someone who has lost all restraint). If, when you're telling your life-story, the counsellor dips into the box of hankies more often than you do (you don't need a counsellor, you need an agent). If there are signs of Tippex around the name on the counsellor's accreditation certificate.

If, when you mention your sex life, the counsellor sits up in his chair. If, when you mention your sex life, he sits down . . . in yours. If the counsellor invites you to meet at his home and comes to the door wearing a silk dressing-gown (this may be a prelude to more than a chat). If the counsellor comes to the door wearing a woolly dressing gown (same as above, only more tacky).

If the counsellor suggests a meeting in a public place to put you at your ease, and it turns out to be a dark wine bar with suggestive music and sexy waiters. If the waiters seem to know the counsellor well. If the counsellor has a manly chest (how come you can see his chest?). If the counsellor makes a lot of eye contact and you notice a diploma in hypnosis on the wall. If the only place to sit is a small settee, because "the chairs are away being reupholstered". If there's a whip and harness on the counselling room wall. If there isn't a whip and a harness (the counsellor is obviously extremely devious and has hidden them). If there's a whip and harness in the counsellor's hand. If the counsellor keeps jiggling a foot nervously.

If it's your foot.