Despite headlines focusing on the priest pedophile
problem in the Roman Catholic Church, most American churches being
hit with child sexual-abuse allegations are Protestant, and most of
the alleged abusers are not clergy or staff, but church volunteers.
These are findings from national surveys by Christian Ministry
Resources (CMR), a tax and legal-advice publisher serving more than
75,000 congregations and 1,000 denominational agencies
CMR's annual surveys of about 1,000 churches nationwide have
asked about sexual abuse since 1993. They're a remarkable window on
a problem that lurked largely in the shadows of public awareness
until the Catholic scandals arose.
The surveys suggest that over the past decade, the pace of
child-abuse allegations against American churches has averaged 70 a
week. The surveys registered a slight downward trend in reported
abuse starting in 1997, possibly a result of the introduction of
preventive measures by churches.
"I think the CMR numbers are striking, yet quite reasonable,"
says Anson Shupe, anIndiana University professor who's written books
about church abuse. "To me it says Protestants are less reluctant to
come forward because they don't put their clergy on as high a
pedestal as Catholics do with their priests."
At least 70 incidents a week
Dr. Shupe suggests the 70 allegations-per-week figure actually
could be higher, because underreporting is common. He discovered
this in 1998 while going door to door in Dallas-Ft. Worth
communities where he asked 1,607 families if they'd experienced
abuse from those within their church. Nearly 4 percent said they had
been victims of sexual abuse by clergy. Child sexual abuse was part
of that, but not broken out, he says.
James Cobble, executive director of CMR, who oversees the survey,
says the data show that child sex-abuse happens broadly across all
denominations– and that clergy aren't the major offenders.
"The Catholics have gotten all the attention from the media, but
this problem is even greater with the Protestant churches simply
because of their far larger numbers," he says.
Of the 350,000 churches in the US, 19,500 – 5 percent – are Roman
Catholic. Catholic churches represent a slightly smaller minority of
churches in the CMR surveys which aren't scientifically random, but
"representative" demographic samples of churches, Dr. Cobble
Since 1993, on average about 1 percent of the surveyed churches
reported abuse allegations annually. That means on average, about
3,500 allegations annually, or nearly 70 per among the predominantly
Protestant group, Cobble says.
The CMR findings also reveal:
• Most church child-sexual-abuse cases involve a single
• Law suits or out-of-court settlements were a result in 21
percent of the allegations reported in the 2000 survey.
• Volunteers are more likely than clergy or paid staff to be
abusers. Perhaps more startling, children at churches are accused of
sexual abuse as often as are clergy and staff. In 1999, for example,
42 percent of alleged child abusers were volunteers – about 25
percent were paid staff members (including clergy) and 25 percent
were other children.
Still, it is the reduction of reported allegations over nine
years that seems to indicate that some churches are learning how to
slow abuse allegations with tough new prevention measures, say
insurance company officials and church officials themselves.
The peak year for allegations was 1994, with 3 percent of
churches reporting an allegation of sexual misconduct compared with
just 0.1 percent in 2000. But 2001 data, indicates a swing back to
the 1 percent level, still significantly less than the 1993 figures,
Child sexual-abuse insurance claims have slowed, too, industry
Hugh White, vice president of marketing for Brotherhood Mutual
Insurance, in Ft. Wayne, Ind., suggests that the amount of abuse
reported in the CMR 2001 data is reasonable though "at the higher
end" of the scale.
Mr. White's company insures 30,000 churches – about 0.2 percent
to 0.3 percent of which annually report an "incident" of child
sexual abuse. But he says that his churches are more highly educated
on child abuse prevention procedures than most, which may account
for a lower rate of reported abuse than the CMR surveys.
What all the data show is a settling that followed "a large
spike" in the frequency and severity of church sexual misconduct
claims from the mid-1980s, White says.
"Church insurance carriers implemented educational programs and
policies that have helped decrease and then stabilize the trend,"
agrees Jan Beckstrom, chief operating officer for the church insurer
GuideOne Insurance in West Des Moines, Iowa.
CMR surveys also show many smaller churches have lagged in
starting such programs, while larger churches with more resources
and management controls have led the way. And for good reason: They
have more to lose, and a larger abuse problem.
"I don't know of a church that isn't doing this," says Simeon
May, of the Richardson, Tex.-based National Association of Church
Business Administration, which gives training for large churches
At Grace Community Church in Tempe, Ariz., the executive pastor,
Gary Maitha, says his church has adopted a tougher sort of love
since 2000. That's when criminal background checks, finger printing,
detailed questionnaires, and careful policies – such as never having
children and adults "one-on-one" – kicked into gear. It's a
necessity with 700 to 800 children showing up for Sunday School and
many more for other church activities during the week, he says.
"We have fingerprinting and a criminal background check for
anyone over age 18 that works with children," says the Rev. Maitha.
"If it comes back with a blemish, they're not working with kids.
That's all there is to it."
Debby DeBernardi, director of Grace Community's children's
ministry, says church policies require, for instance, that adults go
in pairs when supervising bathroom breaks for children and that they
check to ensure no adults are in the bathrooms, before children
Fingerprints for Sunday school
Men who've been screened and fingerprinted may work in the
nursery. But only female staff members – not volunteers – may change
diapers. Only adults wearing an identity badge that indicates
they've been cleared may work with children – and photo IDs are
coming soon. Some long-time volunteers, offended by all the new
policies, have bowed out of children's activities.
But the new procedures have already proven their worth, Ms.
DeBernardi says. "We did have someone already apply who had a police
file and had been accused of child molestation. Because of our new
procedures, we caught it.... Sometimes you have to bring people in
and say, 'Look, you're welcome to come to the church, we love you.
But you may not minister in the children's area.' "
That sort of toughness is swiftly becoming a prerequisite for
insurance coverage, and to protect against lawsuits and false
allegations, which can be nearly as demoralizing to a church
The problem, Cobble says, is that churches are the perfect
environment for sexual predators, because they have large numbers of
children's' programs, a shortage of workers to lead them, and a
culture of trust that is the essence of the organization.
Churches have been active since the early 1990s in addressing the
problem, Cobble reports. More than 100,000 copies of a book he
co-authored, "Reducing the risk of Child Sexual Abuse in Your
Church" were sold.
Since January, when Roman Catholic dioceses nationwide began
drawing headlines over pedophile priests, some church organizations
have focused anew on revamping sexual abuse policies.
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, for instance, is
reportedly drafting a new sexual- abuse policy.
Ralph Colas, of the American Council of Christian Churches, a
Bethlehem, Penn. organization representing fundamentalist
denominations, reports fresh activity. "I've helped several churches
this last week draw up some guideline policies," he says. "I've
encouraged churches to secure legal advice, to make sure they are
meeting the legal mandatory reporting requirements."
Fear of lawsuits sparked new rules
But the shift to "trust but verify" – impelled to a degree by
current headlines – has been ongoing since a conference in Chicago
in November 1992 when more than 100 denominational leaders met for
the first time to discuss how to deal with child sex abuse. About
that time, insurance companies were dropping coverage of churches
without screening policies.
"What drove leaders to begin to respond to this issue was not the
welfare of children," Cobble says. "It was fear of large, costly