Sexual misconduct and child sexual abuse are issues that impact all religious communities.
Headlines seem to zero in on child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. Most recently, Pope Francis spoke at the Vatican Summit on Child Protection, a speech that resulted in significant backlash. Washington Post columnist Marc A. Thiessen called the pope’s address “a disgraceful display of excuses and evasions.”
However, there is growing evidence the same charges could be leveled at how other religious leaders respond to reports of sexual abuse or misconduct. It’s still incredibly difficult to accurately assess how many people are involved and affected within communities like Protestant Christian congregations, according to a recent Religions article.
That’s not meant to excuse anything; my hope is to stress the importance of this issue for all people of faith.
Media reports help in beginning to track down data. For example, the Houston Chronicle reported in early February about widespread allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct perpetrated by Southern Baptist clergy and lay ministers and subsequent cover-ups.
Such stories help researchers trace information sources and assemble statistics.
Child sexual abuse occurs when an adult or older adolescent uses a child for sexual stimulation. Clergy sexual misconduct (CSM) occurs when ministers, priests, rabbis or other clergy and lay leaders make sexual advances or proposition a congregation member who is not a spouse or significant other, according to “Clergy Sexual Misconduct,” a study done by Baylor University Department of Social Work.
Both can be difficult to identify.
“Family members, friends and victims ignored warning signs,” writes study investigator Diana R. Garland. “Religious leaders acted inappropriately in public as well as private settings.”
Contributing to the issue is that congregational cultures often pressure members to overlook social indiscretions to avoid embarrassment and other non-confrontational behavior, according to the study.
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“In a culture that has no cognitive categories for understanding or explaining clergy misconduct as anything other than an affair, observers mistrusted their own judgment, perhaps considering themselves hypersensitive, particularly since the behavior was committed by a trusted leaders. First indicators of (clergy sexual misconduct) were thus ignored.”
Perhaps this is why less than 10 percent of respondents in the study reported having known about clergy sexual misconduct that occurred in congregations they attended.
The Baylor study notes that in the typical American congregation with women representing roughly 60 percent of the congregation, seven women have experienced clergy sexual misconduct.
In addition, 67 percent of offenders were married to someone else at the time they made an advance toward a member of their congregation.
The Baylor study advises congregations to decrease risk of clergy sexual misconduct by adopting mitigation strategies. This includes adopting and enforcing a clear code of ethics and guidelines outlining rules for sexual contact with congregants. The authors also believe its important to frame CSM as misconduct and abuse of power, not consensual affairs between persons of equal power. The study also lifts up religious education on topics related to power.
It also is important to evaluate information carefully, which reinforces the need for accurate data gathering.
The Religions article outlined known, common characteristics of CSM and abuse offenders.
One is the “overwhelming majority” of known offenders are male. (The authors note many religions still block women from clergy positions.)
Study of priests known to have engaged in child sexual abuse suggests a link to diagnoses of addiction, depression and cognitive dysfunction. In addition, many CSM and abuse aggressors were found to have higher than normal levels of narcissism, a key trait the authors say amplifies instances of sexual abuse for individuals in positions of power.