Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Responses to sex abuse vary by denomination

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 past 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 institutional structure.

Mainline 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.

The 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 this year 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 priests and 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 abuse.

"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 interreligious Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle.

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.

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 Angeles.

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.

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 involved.

National 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 of 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.

"The 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 years.

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 is required to be reported in the conference newsletter and offenders are barred from using the rabbinical placement service to look for a new job.

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, while 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 policies.

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 said.

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."

Similar charges have been leveled against the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest of the Baptist bodies in the United States. Dee Ann Miller, a victims' advocate and author on 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.

When she first told church officials about her own sexual assault by a Southern Baptist missionary in Africa several years ago, she 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 percent of Southern Baptist ministers surveyed said they had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior, 70 percent said they knew a minister who had and 80 percent said they lacked written guidelines.