Clergy Misconduct: Not Only a Catholic Problem

by Jeff the Ubergeek

In recent years there has been a tremendous rise in public awareness of clergy misconduct, primarily sexual. The scandals involving the Catholic clergy are perhaps the best known because of the media exposure. Indeed, with the media focusing almost exclusively the aforementioned scandals to the point of nausea, an obvious question comes to mind; does this problem affect any Protestant denominations?

To many readers the answer is fairly obvious. Since the webmaster focuses almost exclusively on Protestant faiths when posting news items, we might conclude that problems involving clergy misconduct occur quite as often among Protestants – perhaps more so – than among Catholics. But apparently, some True Christian™ readers object believing the problem as solely belonging to “those Catholic fruitcakes,” while others question whether posting these news items serves any purpose.

In order to better inform readers and address these objections, this article is submitted for review and discussion. Due to the number of possible cases and a lack of information in some areas this article will be limited to a very general survey of sexual misconduct by Protestant clergy.

It is important to note that there is no evidence that believers, including clergy, are any more likely to engage in this type of behavior than non-believers. As with last year's controversial study discussing religion and society by Gregory S. Paul, correlation does not imply causation. Therefore, no attempt is made to link religiosity to sexual behavior.

Objection #1: This is a Catholic problem.

Very little actual research exists concerning clergy sexual misconduct. While there have been studies conducted, much work remains to be done. Partly this is because much of the so-called research is relatively informal and non-scientific. Internal surveys, unpublished doctoral theses, polls, and anecdotal evidence is common.

Further complicating matters is that the existing research suffers from several problems. Among the problems research in this area suffers from is the difficulty inherent in studying sexual misconduct in general. Acts of this kind are by their very nature hidden, and the fact that victims don’t always report it complicates matters. This is true whether studying the clergy or the general populace. Other problems include potential underreporting, self-reporting, lack of coherent (or even faulty) methodology, and not surprisingly bias among other issues.

Some relevant research and findings include:

1. The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States, conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. This study found that roughly 4% of Catholic priests from 1950 – 2002 were sexual abusers.

2. Pedophiles and Priests : Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis by Dr. Philip Jenkins. Dr. Jenkins estimates that approximately 2% of priests are sexually abusive. Also addresses the problem in other denominations.

3. Sex, Priests, and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis by A.W. Richard Sipe. Mr. Sipes focuses on the controversy from the aspect of the Catholic doctrine of celibacy and how it affects men in the priesthood. He estimates that up to 50% of allegedly celibate priests are sexually active, and 8% to 10% of priests may well be an accurate count of those who are sexually abusive.

4. Clergy Misconduct: Sexual Abuse in the Ministerial Relationship, 1991 by a group from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. Only available offline as part of a collection located in the Flora Lamson Hewlett Library. This survey of primarily Protestant ministers found that 10% of them had been sexually active with a parishioner (as cited here).

5. How Common is Pastoral Indiscretion? In 1988, the research department of Christianity Today, Inc. conducted a poll of nearly 1000 pastors, 30% of whom responded. In response to the question, ‘Since you've been in local church ministry, have you ever done anything with someone (not your spouse) that you feel was sexually inappropriate’ 23% of pastors answered affirmatively. In response to the question, ‘Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone other than your spouse since you've been in local church ministry’ 12% of pastors answered affirmatively.

6. Research published in a winter 1993 edition of the Journal of Pastoral Care found that 6.1% of Southern Baptist pastors admitted to having sexual contact with current or former congregants. In addition, 70% of respondents claimed to know other pastors who had engaged in similar activities with congregants (as cited here).

7. Nearly 42% of respondents to a 1990 study conducted by the United Methodist Church reported unwanted sexual behavior by a colleague or pastor, while 17% reported having been harassed by their own pastor (as cited here).

8. In 1999, researchers Professor Nancy Ammerman and the Rev. Dr. Terry Schmitt from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc. gathered information from 11 focus groups in 4 cities on the topic of clergy abuse of trust. They found that the majority of incidents were non-sexual (149 non-sex-related vs. 122 sex related). However, with regard to sex-related incidents ‘Episcopalians and Southern Baptists are as likely to have had a sexual breach of trust as are Methodists and Catholics.’ Citing sample size and non-randomness as inhibitors, they indicated that there is ‘…no way to know how often pedophilia also occurs among Protestants – there is every reason to believe, however, that it does.’

The scandals of a couple years ago prompted a large number of articles to be written and research unearthed (much of it suffers similar problems as above) to determine the extent of the problem in the Protestant church. For more information, see the additional references below.

Just with the material above, we can conclude that the problem of clergy sexual misconduct is not confined to the Catholic faith. Abuse of trust by ministers is a problem that knows no denominational boundaries. The majority of resources consulted for this article agree with this idea. Furthermore, based on items #4 - #7 alone, we find that an average of just over 20% of Protestant pastors may be involved in some sort of sexually inappropriate behavior.

Could it be that Protestants are actually more likely to engage in this type of activity?

The reality is that we really don't know. Is it reasonable to assume that Protestant clergy are just as likely to engage in sexually inappropriate behavior as Catholics? The information we have, even with its weaknesses, seems to answer that question - yes.

But this is not the end of the questioning. In reading about this subject, I came across several articles that also raised several questions. For example, how does sexual misconduct by clergy compare with that of the laity or even the general population? This wasn't explored since it seemed beyond the necessary scope of this article. Another missing component is, how does the clergy stack up against other professions? Unfortunately, no relevant data exists to do the comparison. Finally, I did not explore the power dynamic between priest and parishioner and how that might influence sexual relationships within the church.

In the end the latter factor is possibly most important. As Rose Marie Berger astutely observed in her article (link below), "...the true scandal is not about priests. It's about manipulation of power to abuse the weak."

Objection #2: Posting articles about misconduct serves no purpose.

Many of our True Christian™ visitors affirm the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. While there are many ways to respond, these articles serve to illustrate that this alleged transformation does not happen to all believers, or if it does it is not proof against temptation. A Christian may respond to this by saying that this transformation does not subvert free will; this argument does not address the weakness of the transformation itself. If the alleged transformation results in no substantial change in behavior, it has no value.

The Christian doctrine of the atonement and salvation by faith not by works may also influence the clergy in a way that enables their misconduct. It seems there are always Christians willing to stand up and defend these fallen ministers. Comments such as "who are we to judge," or "he did so many good things" are quite common in the threads. Christians seem to be quite willing to overlook these crimes or even blame the victim for leading him or her astray. Such moral lassitude cannot go unanswered.

A related argument sometimes put forth is that ‘Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.’ By that logic, each of those pastors featured in the posted news items have no accountability before their God. Jesus has paid the price for their sin. It is doubtful that even our True Christian™ visitors would find this prospect very palatable. It is an inherently unjust proposition and flies in the face of the notion of a just God.

Some worry about the possibility of stigmatizing or stereotyping ministers. It’s true that the majority of clergy do not abuse their congregants. However, most Christians look to their ministers as righteous servants of God. Furthermore, clergy are in the Top 10 professions rated for honesty and ethics (see here). If there is a stereotype, it is that the clergy is trustworthy.

The mainstream media seems content with sticking to the ongoing Catholic scandals. Exposing this problem here as it relates to Protestants is not likely to create a new stereotype or stigmatize the profession. People will continue to trust those in ministry, and we will continue to see articles posted here detailing how some were deceived or injured by a clergy member.

In summary, I feel that posting these items helps promote critical discussion of the problems of organized Christianity and the church in general. It also promotes the notion that faith changes nothing, or perhaps even enables misconduct. Finally, it destroys the stereotype of the righteous servant of God. To me, this is an important public service.

Additional References (apologies if some were already linked):

1. Sexual Abuse by Protestant Ministers

2. Soul Betrayal (1996) by Anne A. Simpkinson.

3. A Quick Question: How Common is Clergy Sexual Misconduct? (2002) from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

4. A Wider Circle of Clergy Abuse (2002) by Jane Lampman.

5. Commentary: Catholic Scandal, Ecumenical Solution (2002) by Rose Marie Berger.

6. Clergy Sexual Abuse (1996) by Frances Park.

7. Misconduct of Spiritual Leaders (2003) by Google Answers

8. How the Clergy Sexual Abuse Scandal Affects Evangelical Churches (2002) by Ted Olsen and Todd Hertz

9. Sexual Abuse in Social Context: Catholic Clergy and Other Professionals (2004) by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. (NOTE: Contains some info on other denominations.)

10. Clergy Abuse Problem Plaguing Many Denominations (2002) by Kelley Quinn

11. The Forbidden Zone: The Nature and Prevalence of Clergy Sexual Abuse (2000) Unknown Author.

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