The wave of clergy sex scandals now engulfing the Roman Catholic Church has battered other denominations as well, producing an uneven record of response that ranges from the Episcopal Church's aggressive and detailed policies to the Southern Baptist Convention's widespread lack of written standards.
In the last decade, clergy sexual misconduct has been
exposed in virtually every faith tradition. National studies have shown no
differences in its frequency by denomination, region, theology or
Protestant denominations have generally taken the earliest and most
aggressive measures against clergy abuse and fundamentalist churches the
least, according to Gary Schoener, a Minneapolis psychotherapist who has
handled more than 2,000 cases of clergy sexual abuse over the past 10
years. Rabbis began working on their policies more recently.
Roman Catholic response has varied dramatically, in part because each of
the 195 American dioceses operates independently. One of the first to take
action was the Seattle Archdiocese, which in the early 1980s began
exposing the problems and commissioning training materials. By contrast,
as recently as January, church officials in Boston were accused of having
routinely assigned as many as 80 priests suspected of molesting minors to
different churches. It was the Boston cases that sparked the current
national furor over priestly sexual abuse.
In faith after faith,
the problem of clergy misconduct was exposed during the past 10 to 15
years because victims began stepping forward, plaintiffs began winning
large awards and insurers began demanding policies to prevent
"Victims found their voices, and when they couldn't find
justice in the church, they looked for alternatives in the legal system
and started to sue," said Elizabeth Stellas, an expert on clergy
misconduct who helped pioneer programs on it with the inter-religious
Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence in
Among Protestants, the landmark case involved a woman who
accused the Episcopal Diocese and the presiding bishop in Colorado of
covering up the sexual misconduct of her priest. When the jury found the
church liable and ordered church leaders to pay her $1.2 million in 1991,
"that changed the Protestant game completely," Schoener said, "because it
opened the door for higher-ups to be responsible."
Until then, he
said, it had been thought nearly impossible to win awards against
Protestant regional and national bodies. That's because, unlike the
Catholic Church hierarchy, in which priests are assigned by diocesan
officials, most Protestant congregations, with the exception of
Methodists, hire their own pastors. Higher officials had been able to
argue that they were not liable for bad hiring decisions, and individual
congregations that were responsible often lacked the deep pockets to
warrant major judgments.
Influence Episcopal Response
After the Colorado case, however,
national Episcopal Church officials were told by their insurers to develop
policies on misconduct by 1993--and to complete initial training
throughout the dioceses in a year, according to the Rev. Beverly Factor,
sexual misconduct officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Los
The training, which includes guidelines, videos and
discussion on such topics as who are abusers and how to maintain
boundaries, is required for all priests, along with staff and laity who
work with youth.
"Church insurance gave us that extra nudge and
said we had to do something because they wouldn't be able to sustain
[these awards]," Factor said.
The Episcopal Church has what many
experts regard as some of the finest policies--and aggressive enforcement
of them--among religious institutions. One striking characteristic is
openness. Diocesan officials both inform the affected congregation of a
priest's misconduct and list the names of priests suspended or deposed in
their annual yearbook. By contrast, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los
Angeles has acknowledged the dismissals of several priests for sexual
abuse, but declines to identify them or even say how many were
Bishop's Reaction Was Swift,
In the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, recently
retired Bishop Frederick H. Borsch said he recalled two cases of clergy
abuse involving minors during his tenure, which began in 1988 and ended in
In one 1994 case involving a Palmdale priest and two
teenage victims, Borsch wrote a letter to the affected congregants
informing them of the problems within days of the priest's arrest, and
eventually revoked his ordination in orders known as deposition. Diocesan
officials made both documents available to reporters.
policies have also been adopted by most other mainline Protestant
denominations, including the Methodists, Presbyterians and Lutherans. In
Northern California, the United Methodist Church has asked one its
experts, Karen McClintock, to offer workshops on sexual misconduct for
clergy and laity this summer. The sessions are to be given at 14 locations
and delivered in 17 languages.
McClintock and others argue that
traditions that ordain women and place them in positions of leadership
have been more aggressive in confronting the problems.
movement of women into positions of leadership, and the general change of
culture that brought, has reshaped our thinking," agreed Rabbi Sanford
Ragins of Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, who served as chairman of the
Reform rabbinate's ethics and appeals committee for five
Ragins said the Central Conference of American Rabbis began
addressing the issue in the last five years, in part as a reaction to
media reports of six-figure legal judgments against the Episcopal and
Catholic churches for clergy misconduct cases. In 1998, the conference
issued detailed new guidelines on how to report, respond to, investigate
and adjudicate allegations of sexual misconduct. Suspension or expulsion
of rabbis must be reported in the conference newsletter, and offenders are
barred from using the rabbinical placement service to look for new
Ragins, who headed the committee when Hebrew Union College
president Sheldon Zimmerman was ousted for sexual misconduct in 2000, said
one or two allegations surface a year. He said he never handled a case
involving misconduct with minors.
The Conservative movement is
currently working on policies, and the Orthodox movement has been recently
rocked by a case involving Baruch Lanner, a nationally known youth
official who was indicted last year in New Jersey on charges of sexually
abusing teens. The case was first reported by the New York-based Jewish
Week newspaper in stories that detailed allegations by scores of teens of
sexual, physical and psychological torment. It has forced the resignation
of the Orthodox Union's top official and led to the development of new
At least one Jewish researcher says that sexual
misconduct is still routinely covered up by rabbis. Charlotte Rolnick
Schwab, a New York psychotherapist and author of a forthcoming book on
rabbis and sex abuse, said she has received hundreds of complaints from
women across all movements and still sees rabbis denying them publicly.
Congregations themselves sometimes exacerbate the problems, she
In one recent case involving a Florida rabbi convicted of
using the Internet to find boys and sexually abuse them, congregant
support prompted the judge to sentence him to six years in prison instead
of the maximum 60 years, Schwab said. "It's outrageous."
charges have been leveled against the Southern Baptist Convention, the
largest of the Baptist bodies in the United States. Dee Ann Miller, a
victim's advocate and author of books about the topic, said she had
received complaints from victims in 30 states, half of them involving
minors. She said church officials have not been responsive.
she first told church officials about her own sexual assault by a Southern
Baptist missionary in Africa several years ago, Miller said, she was told
by two leaders that it was at least partly her fault.
In a 1993
survey by the Journal of Pastoral Care, 14% of Southern Baptist ministers
surveyed said they had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior, 70% said
they knew a minister who had and 80% said they lacked written
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist ethics
committee, said the convention's churches are fully autonomous and
probably did not adopt written policies because it was obvious that sexual
misconduct was wrong. He said training about sexual misconduct is
conducted at Southern Baptist seminaries, which produce about half of the
convention's clergy, and that the cases he knows about led to swift
removal or resignation of the guilty party.
"Most Baptist ministers
know sexual misconduct is a career-ending move," he said.