My first experience with Pagans happened, as it did for many, when I was just emerging from childhood and learning to be a person. Desperate for approval and simultaneously blown away by the idea that there was an actual alternative to the religion of my childhood, I fell in with the only priestess who would have the socially awkward and rather irritating young man I was at the time. Mind you, it took a lot of convincing and groveling to get in with that group of cool kids, and I took great pride in succeeding despite the fact that a lot of other people I knew considered her and her priest to be cult leaders.
Some rejected the oaths required to be accepted as a student, for in them she took on karmic responsibility for everything I did. Others had a problem with him occasionally taking a gun into circle as a weapon for spiritual combat. I was just glad to belong, even if there was a lot of stacking firewood and cleaning house that was part of the education I was receiving.
I had two romantic partners during that period of my life, and the priestess told my second one that the first — a somewhat devout Catholic — had “booked” when she was confronted with too much Paganism. In fact, we were handfasted in a lovely ceremony, and when the time came to go our separate ways she participating in a handparting, as well. Only years later did I learn how she’d been fondled multiple times by that 350-plus-pound priest, sometimes when I was within feet of it happening, and how her feeling of powerlessness led her to cut herself off from our entire circle of friends. (I note his size not to shame him, but because he was very good at using it to intimidate; she was intimidated enough that she was completely silenced.)
There were other students who engaged in sexual acts in sacred space with the priestess, without consulting with spouses first. That didn’t happen to me. My experience was one of having my fragile self-esteem shredded and trampled. I recall being refused entry into the circle one night because I was not appropriately dressed; despite a dress code never having been discussed in my presence, I was told there was one and I indeed was aware of is parameters. I was praised in private, scolded in public. At times, that public went well beyond the small number in our religious group, leading to strong feelings of humiliation above and beyond doubting my own memory of events.
When the time came when I made my break, I left that town never to return. Nevertheless, the priest and priestess attempted to have me banned from the SCA kingdom in which be all lived, apparently just to be douchey.
I know what it’s like to be shat upon by bullying priests and priestesses who wish to have absolute control over members of their group. I know what it’s like to be desperate for approval and how it feels when that approval is yanked away. I know what it’s like to live in a house that’s 30 miles from even a tiny population center, without a car by which to escape even to secure a job, taken in by those controlling me when I was grieving the loss of my unborn child and unable to think through the alternatives.
Paganism has its share of “leaders” who take advantage of vulnerability. I know what it’s like to be the vulnerable one. When I speak with others who feel victimized, I daresay I have an inkling what it might have been like for them.