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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Former Pastor Charles Carfrey Sentenced for Sex Abuse

Pastor Charles Carfrey, of the Lord’s House Church in Buckeye, AZ, was sentenced to two years in prison and lifetime probation under a plea agreement sentencing related to charges of sexual conduct with a minor.

It is my hope that if anyone affected by this case should find this blog, you can find some help and additional insight about dealing with the issue of clergy sex abuse in the articles in the right sidebar of this site and under the Church Abuse tab.

Clergy Sexual Misconduct More Prevalent Than Understood

Baylor University has concluded a study which is to be published soon, on the prevalence of clergy sexual misconduct. Below is a press release on the findings of the study.

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Baylor University Conducts Largest National Study of Clergy Sexual Misconduct with Adults

Misconduct with Adults More Common Than Previously Thought; Occurs Across Many Religions, Denominations

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(Baylor University press release)

Baylor University’s School of Social Work today announced that findings from the nationwide study of the prevalence of Clergy Sexual Misconduct (CSM) with Adults have been accepted for publication later this year in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. The findings come from questions included in the 2008 General Social Survey (GSS), a widely-used and highly-respected survey of a random sample of more than 3,500 American adults conducted by the National Opinion Research Center. Respondents were asked if, since turning 18, they had ever been the object of a sexual advance from a religious leader. The responses were used to establish a statistically reliable baseline for discussions about CSM with adults.

The findings suggest that the prevalence of Clergy Sexual Misconduct with Adults is higher than many people realize and that it occurs across denominations and religions.

“Because many people are familiar with some of the high-profile cases of sexual misconduct, most people assume that it is just a matter of a few charismatic leaders preying on vulnerable followers,” said Dr. Diana Garland, Dean of the School of Social Work at Baylor University and lead researcher in the study. “What this research tells us, however, is that clergy sexual misconduct with adults is a widespread problem in congregations of all sizes and occurs across denominations. Now that we have a better understanding of the problem, we can start looking at prevention strategies.”

The study found that 3.1 percent of adult women who attend religious services at least once a month have been the victims of clergy sexual misconduct since turning 18. To explain another way, in the average U.S. congregation of 400 adult members, seven women, on average, have been victimized at some point in their adult lives.

“This is the largest scientific study into clergy sexual misconduct with adults. We hope these findings will prompt congregations to consider adopting policies and procedures designed to protect their members from leaders who abuse their power,” said Garland. “Many people – including the victims themselves – often label incidences of clergy sexual misconduct with adults as ‘affairs’. In reality, they are an abuse of spiritual power by the religious leader.”

This study is part of a comprehensive effort by Baylor University to identify the prevalence of clergy sexual misconduct with adults and the details commonly associated with its occurrence across religions. Using this data as a foundation, the Baylor team has been working to outline possible initiatives designed to identify and prevent CSM, and draft model legislation to make CSM illegal in the same way that relationships with patients and clients are illegal for other “helping professionals” including doctors, lawyers and mental health practitioners. At present only two states – Texas and Minnesota – have legal statutes in place to guard against CSM.

“The religious community should be a place where people, especially those in crisis, find comfort and support,” said Dr. Randel Everett, the Executive Director and CEO of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. “When a religious leader abuses the power or trust vested in them through sexual misconduct, it results in multiple sufferers. First the victim herself, then her whole family system, and eventually the congregation and the community.”

Garland also studied clergy sexual misconduct with adults from first-hand accounts. She interviewed more than 80 women and men including victims of CSM, family members or spouses of victims, religious leaders who have committed CSM, and helping professionals who have provided care for offenders and survivors. With this information, Garland and her team have begun to identify characteristics of the social context of congregations in which misconduct occurs, as well as the behavioral identifiers of offenders and the situations of those they victimize.

Based on this qualitative research, Garland and Christen Argueta, a Master of Social Work alumna from Baylor’s School of Social Work, developed a second paper, “How Clergy Sexual Misconduct Happens: A Qualitative Study of First-Hand Accounts.” This article has been accepted for publication in the journal Social Work & Christianity later this year.

“I am extremely thankful for Dr. Garland’s work in identifying clergy sexual misconduct with adults as a common problem and putting a real name and real numbers behind this issue,” said Carolyn Waterstradt, a clergy sexual misconduct survivor who took part in the qualitative research. “When it was happening to me, I felt confused and isolated. Now I know that many others have struggled with this, and that there is hope for putting systems in place to help prevent it from happening. She has given me, and others like me, a voice.”

Research Background

Research was conducted using the 2008 General Social Survey (GSS) to collect data from a nationally representative sample of 3,559 non-institutionalized English- or Spanish-speaking adults. It is conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
The GSS is conducted through in-person interviews, but questions targeting clergy sexual misconduct with adults were self-administered to alleviate respondents’ possible pain and embarrassment associated with reporting such an experience. The goals of the questions were to identify the prevalence of CSM and also to learn about the contexts in which clergy sexual advances occurred.

The clergy sexual misconduct with adults study has been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication by the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, a quarterly journal published on behalf of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. It is scheduled to appear later this year.

Funding for this research project was provided by the Ford Foundation, the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the JES Edwards Foundation of Fort Worth, Texas.
For more information on the full research project, visit the study web site, which includes a project overview, case studies of clergy sexual misconduct survivors, and other information.

About the Baylor University School of Social Work

The Baylor University School of Social Work is emerging nationally as a leader in social work education that merges Baylor’s distinctive Christian heritage with professional skills and knowledge. Its mission and concepts incorporate a Christian worldview with professional standards. The school impacts the social work profession through undergraduate and graduate education of its students, original research by its faculty, publication in top-rated peer journals, leadership roles in national social work organizations, collaborative efforts with denominational entities and social justice initiatives. The mission of the school is to prepare students in a Christian context for worldwide service and leadership.

Pastors Scott Webb and David Webb Sued in Sex Abuse Case

Sr. pastor Scott Webb, and his son, former youth minister David Webb, have been sued by the girl David Webb pleaded guilty of sexually abusing, and by her father. David Webb was sentenced in July to serve five years in prison.

According to the linked article, “the lawsuit alleges sexual assault, battery, harassment and seduction of an underage woman against David Webb, and accuses his employer, Word of Life Christian Center, of negligent hiring, training, supervision, retention and entrustment.”

This situation is another example of why churches must begin to self-regulate. This will become more and more common and end up putting individual churches and even entire denominations out of existence — the natural consequences of failure to stand for righteousness in the first place.

Former Music Minister David Pierce Convicted of Child Sex Abuse

Former music minister David Pierce was convicted of child sex abuse on Aug. 27. Pierce, minister of music for 29 years at First Baptist Church in Benton, AR, was originally charged with 54 counts. He accepted a plea agreement to four counts of sexual indecency with a child and will serve 10 years in prison. After his release he will have to register as a sex offender and will be listed as a habitual offender.

In the linked article I found it interesting that a statement made by Pierce includes his minimization of his crimes. It is very important for the body of Christ to understand that there are no “shades” to sexual sin or violation. What Pierce did was not somehow “not so bad” because he never “had sex” with any of the many boys he victimized over the years. Pierce is a convicted serial predator and pedophile. There is no way to soften that reality with delicate words.

If we start grading sin and crime in the church we have gone seriously amiss of the truth. The violation to the body of Christ, in having such an individual in a position of leadership, and to the specific victims who have been harmed beyond words, is astronomical. The minimization of these facts by Pierce and by the senior pastor of Benton’s First Baptist Church, Dr. Rick Grant (who called serial sexual predation and pedophelia against his church members a “circumstance”) is both telling and alarming. Pierce expressed greater concern for his family than for his victims and promptly started talking about the need of others to forgive him, in a prepared statement read by his attorney after his conviction. He also said it was never his intention to harm anyone. Really? Does that make it OK? Over at least a 20-year period he systematically sexually abused children but didn’t mean to hurt anyone? There are a small host of revelations in such a statement – and none of them are good.

An additional sad commentary is that Greg Kirksey, the former pastor of the church and previous president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention wrote a letter asking the judge for leniency, specifically requesting that Pierce be given no jail time. Kirksey expressed concern for Pierce’s life in prison due to health issues. I find it difficult to grasp why a denominational leader would ask a judge to bypass the reasonable (even minimized under the plea agreement) legal and natural consequences of Pierce’s actions. The Word plainly teaches the law of sowing and reaping. Why is it appropriate to beg for crop failure, especially in light of Pierce’s continued minimization of his actions and his responsibility for them?

It is my hope that if anyone affected by this case should find this blog, you can find some help and additional insight about the issue in the articles in the right sidebar of this site and under the Church Abuse tab. God has hope and help, but it will never be found through denial and minimization.

Christian Men with Abusive Wives

This conversation took place in one of the comment threads and I know there are many other men who are walking in the same shoes. My answer to this man is by no means comprehensive. But it’s a good place to start.

Scott said:.

I am a man and my spouse has been horribly abusive to me verbally. Sometimes I want to leave the marriage. I’ve gotten as far as to fill out the paperwork but I keep reminding myself that “God Hates Divorce”. I know a few good christian men that believe in mutual submission out of respect for God and are in a similar situation. i.e. the Woman is horribly abusive, mean, disrespectful and hateful. What is your experience with the reverse like my situation?

Danni said:.

First thing off the bat, I would recommend you read Barbara Roberts’ book, Not Under Bondage which I recommend in the left sidebar of this site. She digs into the Word in great detail.

As for my experience, I have definitely seen women who are abusive to their husbands! This is just as much of a problem for those men as it is for women who have abusive husbands. It is no less wrong for a woman to be abusive than for a man.

And here’s something important. God is no respecter of persons. He does not hold men in greater bondage to abusers than He holds women! That is impossible because it would violate God’s nature.

In the Word it says that a man must leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife and then they will be one flesh. But what if that wife will not allow the husband to cleave to her? In that case, she is putting asunder their one-flesh relationship.

And what does the Word say about that? The one who puts asunder is the one on whom Jesus places blame — not on the party who may get a legal document attesting to the existing reality of the relationship. That marriage was put asunder by the one who refused to remain in the one-flesh relationship, not by the one who gets a legal document entitling them to live in safety.

And the Word says death and life are in the power of the tongue. It is just as deadly to live with someone who is verbally abusive as it is to live with someone who is physically abusive. That is not metaphorical; it is literal.

Look at Malachi 2 in the King James Version. I love the way it says this — it says God hates putting away. It doesn’t say God hates divorce. Yes, God does hate divorce. So do I. So do you (I would certainly hope). But God does here what He frequently does in the Word, and points all the way to the root of the problem. What God hates is putting away — the acts that separate the one flesh bond of marriage as He intended it. That putting away happens prior to the issuance of a divorce decree. It includes divorce, but it precedes divorce.

I would encourage you to go with God on this – and it may be necessary to stop looking at what other people in the church are teaching or doing in the name of righteousness in marriage. There is a LOT of mistaken teaching in the church on this subject. We have created a whole doctrinal system out of a partial understanding of the Word and a misunderstanding of God’s heart and nature.

All that said, you don’t say what steps you have tried as far as counseling and accountability. The Word also includes a process of accountability and church discipline in Mt. 18 which I recommend strongly, if at all possible. Most churches won’t follow it through to the conclusion, but you can follow it as thoroughly as possible. This will help assure your heart that you are indeed making every possible effort and not throwing in the towel too soon. Both in Barbara’s book and in the articles on this site we talk about what the Word says about judging a spouse to be an unbeliever (Biblically) and what the Bible says about when to stay and when you are free from an unbelieving spouse. And a person can look just like a Christian and not be a believer by Biblical standards — in fact, it happens all the time.

Dealing With the Aftermath of Abuse

By Danni Moss
Copyright protected, all rights reserved

[This article was originally written in early 2008. At that point it had been a little over two years since my marriage ended.

Now, in August, 2009, I am reading back over what I wrote and would like to add some further insight provided by time and the leading of God on my journey. I will add these comments at the end of the original piece.]

It’s 12:15 a.m. I’m awake again and can’t sleep. This happens to me alot. It’s light-years better than it used to be, but it’s still a common occurrence. I wake up in the night disturbed by my dreams. While I can filter my thought processes during the day, at night the gates are open and “unmanned.” That’s when all the emotions overwhelm me.

When I was in my late 20s I realized I had nightmares most nights and had for as long as I could remember. These nightmares were the product of the church terror motivation campaign – the world is out to get Christians and will torture and kill us all if they get a chance (including showing graphically violent movies depicting this to teens and adults – talk about abuse!); the government is controlled by evil gremlins who hate Christians and will tear apart Christian families if they get a chance; etc.

On the other side of the coin was the church’s constant drill that I was inherently evil and unacceptable. In real life I was regularly held up for public reprimand and ridicule in youth group and at Christian school and that phenomenon appeared in my dreams frequently as well – though I followed the rules religiously. Fortunately, I knew my parents loved me, but in my dreams they turned on me just like the church did. Those dreams were a reflection of what was happening in real life, just magnified and concentrated.

Realizing I was being plagued by nightmares allowed me to address those fears on a conscious level. But they reappear from time to time still. In more recent years, the dreams that haunt me are of my marriage and rejection by the church.

By the time I left my husband the last time (Oct. 2005) I was having nightly terroristic nightmares. These dreams were direct products of the reality of our daytime relationship; somewhat magnified, but definitely reflections of reality on some level. I woke from these dreams sometimes sobbing out loud, sometimes shaking with terror so hard the whole bed shook, and three or four days a week I woke with a full-blown migraine in progress.

The church couldn’t – or wouldn’t — help with this. It took a psychologist to help me get free of these nightmares and the resultant migraines – though there was no reason I had to go outside the church for this help. It just needed someone with understanding and a willingness to dig into and address things, not someone with a doctoral degree in psychology. It really wasn’t complicated or technical.

Though my days are now peaceful for the first time in many years, I still relive the nightmare at night to a lesser degree. I wake up in the middle of the night, sometimes literally hurting so bad it feels like I’m having a heart attack. WHY??? Why does it have to hurt so bad?

What hurts the most is that the church both allowed and encouraged me to stay in an abusive marriage for 20 years. In fact, it did more than just encourage me to stay in that marriage. The church held additional rejection and judgment over my head if I dared to get out. I knew if I defied the church and got a divorce I would be branded forever. But staying and “working on” my marriage year after year after year was literally killing me. Ultimately it came down to obeying the direction of God and choosing the rejection of the church to stay alive. That’s a simplistic bottom-line view of a complex issue, but it is true.

In the nights when I wake up crying and can’t sleep I wonder how the church can justify its attitude toward marriage and family. The sanctity of marriage is not paramount over the sanctity of life. I wonder how the church can justify a gospel of fear, judgment and rejection. This has to be opposite of God’s desires and yet it goes on and on and on, with vested (or perhaps “encrusted” would be more appropriate) church leaders holding staunchly to tradition to the detriment of people’s real lives.
It is wrong, it matters, real people are being hurt by the church, and knowing this, I cannot sit by and do nothing. And I have to live with my nightmares and sleepless nights in the meantime.

Update: August, 2009

God is so faithful to hear the cries of our hearts. While, in the moment, things may seem insurmountable and endless, He sees a different picture. The nightmares have almost entirely ceased – so it does get better.

As I have sought God about all of this, He has worked to heal my heart – both toward my ex-husband and toward the church. He has continued to affirm that, indeed, abuse in the church and the home is not His plan.

Most importantly, as I have continued to seek Him and reject bitterness (which has been a terrific battle, in complete honesty!) He has taught me truth from His Word that has transformed my life on more levels than just healing from my abusive marriage. He has taught me so much as I’ve been willing to humble myself before Him and receive from Him – allowing Him full access to all my preconceptions of truth.

I know this is a work that will never be complete in this life as I’m transformed into the image of Christ. But it is a huge example of how God will redeem what Satan meant for evil. God is faithful, faithful, faithful and can be fully trusted.

If I look at the church through the eyes of my experience, and the continued experiences of others, I can easily become overwhelmed by discouragement and slide back into bitterness. But one thing God is teaching me is to see it through His eyes.

Jesus died for this church! He died to sanctify a bride for Himself. The church is misunderstanding the truth of who He is and what all He died to accomplish. That is a cause for grief, not anger.

I cannot single-handedly fix the problem. But what I can do is what He has given me to do – teach the gospel. Jesus defined the gospel in Luke 4:18-19 – it is about more than just handing out free tickets to heaven. It is for the hurts of our todays! Jesus provided an amazing gift in His death and resurrection for our present days, not just our eternal destiny – and the church has virtually lost that truth in the bondage of our traditions.

If I am in bondage to bitterness and hurt, I cannot share the liberating truth of what Jesus came to offer to all of the body of Christ. And that “all” includes the very ones who have twisted the Word into a weapon – mostly in ignorance. God loves these people. In fact, these ones who hurt others are frequently themselves walking wounded, even if they will not ever admit to it publically or even to themselves in private. Wounded people wound people, as I’ve heard said many times.

I can’t free myself from the hurt of the past – but God is a faithful and sure healer. As I have sought Him, and continue to do so, He faithfully brings the balm of His comfort and healing to me. And He will do the same for every one of us who have been wounded inside the walls of buildings and institutions called “church.”