GUESTVIEW:When it comes to clergy misconduct, take off those stained-glass specs

By Guest Contributor
November 25, 2009

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(Photo: Protest against clergy sex abuse at the Catholic cathedral in Sydney, 18 July 2008/Tim Wimborne)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Elizabeth E. Evans is an American freelance journalist living in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania who writes about religion.

By Elizabeth E. Evans

Two large scale American studies of clergy gone off the rails raise a host of troubling and baffling questions, not solely about clergy sexual misconduct, but about how and why parishioners either tolerate or ignore signals that something is wrong. One sad but perhaps inescapable conclusion from them is that it may be time to start taking a more skeptical look at those who exercise power in our congregations.

garlandThis fall, Baylor University’s School of Social Work released the results of a national study of clergy sexual misconduct with adults. Roughly three percent of adult women who attend religious services at least once a month have been the target of inappropriate sexual behavior by pastors, researchers found . That’s a startling number. But even more eye-popping were the number of congregants — eight percent — who knew about clergy sexual misconduct in their faith community.

(Photo: Diana Garland/Baylor)

The respect Americans institutions give to the separation of church and state makes misconduct seem like a private matter, Baylor Social Work School Dean Diana Garland told me in a telephone interview. But the power faith communities give to their clergy makes it a public one.

Clergy sexual misconduct doesn’t solely damage its primary victims, she commented.  It also hurts spouses, children – and congregants. In such a situation, “congregations split“ she said. “Some congregants come to the defense of leaders, assuming that the woman caused leaders to fall.”

The reason parishioners may ignore signals that a clergyperson is misbehaving cut to the heart of that relationship. “We ignore the warning signs…because we haven’t had a cognitive category to deal with it,” said Garland. “It’s not just an affair; it’s an abuse of power.”

eee1Other factors? Parishioners tend to participate in a congregational culture of “niceness.” Communication used to be very public,but it is now a lot easier to correspond or talk in private, creating situations that can build intimacy until sexual boundaries are crossed.  Clergy don’t always have oversight from judicatory or congregational leaders.  And clergy often function in multiple roles as spiritual leader, counselor and friend.

(Photo: Protesters against Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal in Boston, 13 May 2002/Jim Bourg)

“Most pastors are not equipped to do counseling,” she said. “The role of a leader who exhorts and challenges people is very different from that of a psychotherapist who meets in a contractual way to resolve a life crisis.”

Lastly, and perhaps most tragically, congregants expect that their faith community is truly a sanctuary, a safe place in which they can let down their guard. That trust has been violated again and again. “Maybe we need to recognize the humanity of our religious leaders, taking it, as well as their calling, seriously,” said Garland.

Garland would like to see denominations adopt model ethical codes that lay leaders in congregations could adopt for their own use.  Giving parishioners language to identify misbehavior as “misconduct” rather than a consensual affair would be a step forward. Bible studies focused on the concept of power use and abuse in church and society might be helpful, the Baylor report suggests.  Researchers also suggest a way out of the church-state dilemma by proposing model legislation (which currently only exists in two states) defining sexual contact with congregants as illegal, not just immoral.

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Perhaps it’s time to put aside the assumption that our religious leaders can function as role models because they are, by definition, closer to God. It is possible that, under these circumstances, the best remedy may be a very secular on, increased oversight by higher-ups and vigilance on the part of congregants.

(Photo: Cardinal Bernard Law after resigning as Boston’s Catholic archbishop amid charges of  hushing up sexual abuse of children by his priests, 16 Dec 2002/Brian Snyder)

American Catholic bishops recently got an update on an ongoing study of decades of sexual abuse of children in the Roman Catholic Church. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice study has come up with some provocative findings.   Politicsdaily.com columnist David Gibson quoted researcher Margaret Smith: “We have not found that the problem [the sexual abuse of minors] is particular to the church,” Smith told the bishops. “We have found it to be similar to the problem in society.”

Researchers also suggested that eventually efforts to impose boundaries and deal with abusive clergy paid off, which is a sign of hope in a rather bleak landscape. Bishops became more enlightened on the subject and adopted a much tougher policy. Seminarians were screened more effectively.  And parishioners and society in general became more aware of the terrible effect of sexual abuse on children.

The John Jay research also suggests that most of the offenders were not clinical pedophiles, but also exhibited a variety of other unhealthy behaviors.

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Is it possible that there is something in the culture of congregations that allows such abuse to begin and to continue?  Garland and her team have provided a way to begin asking that and other questions.

(Photo: Defrocked Catholic priest Paul Shanley in Boston court, 15 Feb 2005/Charles Krupa)

In the meantime, maybe parishioners need to take off their stained-glass lenses when they step into a place of worship, holding their leaders accountable to the same standards applied in secular organizations.

There will be times, hopefully rare, when they don’t like what they see and have to figure out what they are going to do about it. But their place of worship will be a much healthier and safer place, if laypeople stop operating with blind faith that Father (or Mother, Rabbi or Imam) always knows best.

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5 comments

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It’s good to read the message that people just looked the other way at our church’s when we were being sexually abused. It’s also good to hear why! Category as an issue to understanding that these abusers are ruining not only our lives but all around us. People need to understand and place predator people in the right place. Take off that pair of stained glasses. It’s real and it happened to me and another 1500 hundred people I’ve worked with including ex-NFL players and Senators in Denver and Maryland. This is a sickness and people need to understand. Don’t fight the victims when we come forward. As of yet I’ve not been assisted by any clergy member at getting the message out that we have to keep an eye on the clergy. I’m on a rant and going no were now.Stained Glass windows keep the cold outside wile the hypocrit’s hide inside.

Posted by San Diego Jerry | Report as abusive

Elizabeth, you have done a great service by throwing off the glasses themselves and telling it like it is. As a victim of clergy abuse, I know first hand how the victim is labeled as the perpetrator and the real perpetrator–the priest– is labeled as the victim. The priest that abused and harassed me had done the same thing to two married women before me; I was the one brave enough to file a formal complaint with my diocese, and though the appointed Diocesan Investigator found my story to be true, and that of the other women, I was dismissed from my job as administrator and denied benefits that were rightly mine. I was the one put on administrative leave, not the priest who violated my life and trust. You are right, we trust these people in spiritual and “moral” authority way too much. Congregations tend to believe the perpetrator more than the victim. It is sad but true. Your article hopefully will open the eyes of the blind so that priests no longer get away with illegal and immoral behavior.

Posted by Catherine | Report as abusive

My former husband was removed from his parish for committing clergy mis-conduct with a parishoner. He has since married her and is pastor in another denomination. He went into that church representing himself as a legitimate clergy person. When that church body found out what he did and said he could not be there the church left their denomination for him. Many of the men who do this are narsissists. The continue to do this in parish after parish. Lay people are not trained to recognize pastors with charactor disorders. They are master manipulators. So many churches have been very damaged by people who are so damaged they should never be in any pulpit. Seminaries should also become bettor at screening those who will be in that kind of leadership position.

It is always good to see the issue of clergy sexual misconduct (CSM) in the news. This is an issue that causes so much tragedy but no one really wants to talk about it. Religious denominations and houses of worship cannot police their own and have proven to be worthless in handling cases of CSM. The victim is usually blamed and shunned, while the perpetrator is either “forgiven” and allowed to stay or is quietly moved to another congregation where no one knows about the other victim or victims (usually if there has been one victim there is almost always others). The time has come for Congress to enact a federal law that holds members of the clergy to the same eithical standards that physicians and mental health practitioners must adhere to: no sexual behavior with patients and/or clients and/or congregants – whether or not the clergyperson has ever counseled the congregant. Clergy hold tremendous power in the lives of those they minister to – they have access to every part of a congregants lives – therefore they have a sacred duty to protect their congregants. This means hands off! Clergy sexual misconduct (ABUSE is a better word here) needs to be against the law – my only question is: why isn’t it against the law NOW???

Posted by Lori | Report as abusive

This is a huge issue. Clergy Sexual Abuse (CSA) and Clergy Sexual Misconduct (CSM) are rampant in the church. Congregations must be educated right along with clergy. A paradigm shift is needed: Priests/Pastors do not have “affairs” with members of their congregations — they ABUSE them. That power differential between pastors and parishioners renders relationships nonconsensual. The priest/pastor is always the one fully responsible for establishing and maintaining appropriate boundaries. Some helpful sites to visit are http://www.faithtrustinstitute.org, http://www.tamarsvoice.org and http://www.thehopeofsurvivors.com.

Posted by SurvivorGirl007 | Report as abusive