Church Culture That Fosters Clergy Sex Abuse

There are some interesting findings in Baylor’s study on the prevalence of clergy sex abuse, that can give insight into both the reasons for this abuse and how we can prevent it.

Our general ignorance of the existence of the problem is significant. While all of us have seen cases here and there of clergy sex abuse, we tend to think of it as first, a Catholic Church problem, and second, as something rare and unusual. The findings by Baylor’s study show that “In any given congregation with 400 adult members, seven women on average have been victims of clergy sexual misconduct since they turned 18…” If you think about that, in reference to your own church, that is not a rare or unusual event. (On a side note entirely, if we would take the same type of statistical information about child abuse and domestic abuse and apply it to our churches we should get another wake-up call. Abuse in the church is a wide-spread, common problem, not a rarity.)

In Baylor’s study, they found some interesting correlations about the particular culture of modern churches which make church members vulnerable to abuse by church leadership.

Lead researcher Diana Garland said, “Research showed 92 percent of those sexual advances were made in secret, and 67 percent of the offenders were married to someone else.”

“This is not simply an affair. It is an abuse of power,” Garland said.

According to the linked article, some of the ways church members are made susceptible to abuse include:

  • Warning signs ignored. In some instances, congregations “see it happening and don’t know how to name it,” she said. Religious leaders may be observed acting inappropriately in public as well as private settings, but the congregations lack the ability to categorize and process what they witness.
  • A culture of “niceness.” Particularly in the context of religious communities, people are expected to be nice to each other—be careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings, give others the benefit of the doubt, overlook incidents that might cause embarrassment and generally avoid confrontation. That culture can cause victims, family members and friends to remain silent about the abuse of authority by spiritual leaders.
  • Ease of private communication. In the past, family members knew when letters arrived in the mail addressed to other family members, and phone messages often were posted in public places. With e-mail and cell phones, religious authorities can conduct intimate conversations with members of their congregations without anyone knowing about it.
  • Lack of oversight. Religious leaders seldom have to report to anyone for their time, and they are able to move freely within a community without being suspected of any inappropriate activity.
  • Multiple roles. In addition to their appropriate role in providing comfort and spiritual direction in times of crisis, some religious leaders enter into longtime counseling relationships with individuals that can create vulnerability and dependency.
  • Trust in the sanctuary. “We call it a sanctuary because it’s supposed to be a safe place. We trust leaders to tell us the truth,” Garland noted. But some clergy abuse that trust, using their “positional power” as religious authorities to prey upon members of their congregations.

These are all issues the church and church members need to take note of and make adjustments in church policies accordingly. We have a moral and Scriptural obligation to take back the “sanctuary” of church and make it safe for all members to be free to worship God there.

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One Response

  1. ”Particularly in the context of religious communities, people are expected to be nice to each other—be careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings, give others the benefit of the doubt, overlook incidents that might cause embarrassment and generally avoid confrontation. That culture can cause victims, family members and friends to remain silent about the abuse of authority by spiritual leaders.”

    This is the part I never really understood. I don’t have a problem with people with manners okay? We all need to use them.

    I think benefit of the doubt helps so much with the denial that is in the church, and its not a good thing. Confrontation is needed in some circumstances, and when there is the fear of hurting feelings or them getting upset to stop them? I don’t understand how they feel they can accomplish anything.

    Its a good list, and makes alot of sense. How they will get past the ‘not in our church’? I hope they have ideas for that, because that is HUGE bottleneck they clearly refuse to see. Sadly, it can happen even in the best of circumstances.

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