Faith Leaders Take Advantage of Women, Survey Says

Here’s a depressing statistic:

One in every 33 women who attend worship services regularly has been the target of sexual advances by a religious leader, a survey released Wednesday says.

The study, by Baylor University researchers, found that the problem is so pervasive that it almost certainly involves a wide range of denominations, religious traditions and leaders.

It found that more than two-thirds of the offenders were married to someone else at the time of the advance.

Carolyn Waterstradt, 42, a graduate student who lives in the Midwest, said she was coerced into a sexual relationship with a married minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for 18 months. He had been her pastor for a decade, she said, and told her the relationship was ordained by God.

I’m shocked. Who knew sex scandals in the church involved women?! (*cue rim shot*)

But to take this more seriously…

I wonder how many of the women who are taken advantage of leave their churches after something like this happens.

How many pastors are seriously punished?

What constitutes a “sexual advance” here? Based on the comments in the article, the Baylor study never defines this and it is all subjective data… I wonder if there is anything included in the category that is just misinterpreted as an advance.

What goes through the pastors’ minds when they take advantage of these women? The article says they say the relationship is “ordained by God”… do they really believe that? Or do they just use that line to prey on the women? Either way, it’s disturbing as hell.

Is a clergy/congregation relationship any different from a boss/employee one?

The whole article makes me queasy.

(Thanks to Kriss for the link)

  • Valdyr

    Assuming both parties sincerely believe in their religion, I would say that the clergy/churchgoer relationship has a much greater disparity of power. Your boss might be able to fire you, but he’s not qualified to hear God’s private opinions, after all. I can see how it would be very easy for a corrupt cleric to persuade the target of an unwilling sexual advance that God either approves of it or would be angry if the target refused.

    Compounding this is the social consequence of being involved in some kerfuffle with the cleric. For many religious people, the church congregation becomes like an extended family. It makes me wonder how many people have accepted an unwanted sexual advance, or declined to report a failed one, just to avoid making waves and becoming outcasts in their communities.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I wonder what the statistics are of women being the target of sexual advances by other people in authority positions. Only then can we know if the pastors are better or worse behaved than other authority figures.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    How many women in a congregation? In a small church of say 200 people, half women, that’s 3 women. In a megachurch of 20,000 members it’s 303 women on average. If you assume that there is an uneven distribution then which churches are the pervy ones? Small churches or the mega churches? Which is statistically safer?

    Either way it seems that women have another valid reason to avoid going to church. The question is “WWJD?” Take advantage or not?

  • Luther

    I wonder if it includes various cults and communes. From what I’v heard of some of them, its likely only the women not married to the leader already would have experienced this.

  • Sandy

    Is a clergy/congregation relationship any different from a boss/employee one?

    In most cases there are no immediate devastating *financial* consequences to leaving a church (and therefore that religious leader’s influence), unlike leaving a job. There are exceptions and mitigating factors on both sides, of course. A religious leader holds different things over one’s head than a boss does.

  • Andrew Morgan

    The Baylor website says:

    Clergy Sexual Misconduct (CSM): refers to a religious leader’s sexual overture, proposition, or relationship with a congregant who was not his/her spouse or significant other.

    Between that definition, and the fact that the statistic — 1 in 33 — is not very high, I think this, frankly, is a total non-story.

    3%? Really? Isn’t that far, far, far lower than the number of women preyed upon on college campuses, and probably lower than society as a whole? I don’t really see what the story is here.

  • JulietEcho

    We’ve got a thread going in the forums right now about religious leaders and crime. The good thing this article brings up is the stricter screenings and increased training many churches are instituting.

    It’s frightening how little – in terms of background checks and references and training – many religious leaders are subjected to. Especially (counter-intuitively) Sunday School teachers, who are often just volunteers from the congregation, yet are completely trusted to be alone with small children.

  • JulietEcho

    Andrew Morgan said,

    3%? Really? Isn’t that far, far, far lower than the number of women preyed upon on college campuses, and probably lower than society as a whole? I don’t really see what the story is here.

    Standards are (I think fairly) set higher for leaders than for the general population. Religious leaders often make claims to superior moral guidance, which is also part of the reason this is noteworthy. Yes, they’re human, and they fail, but 3% when it comes to sexual misconduct is a pretty high number for a group of supposed moral leaders.

  • Sackbut

    Hemant wrote:

    I’m shocked. Who knew sex scandals in the church involved women?! (*cue rim shot*)

    Yes, women and girls get abused by clergy. It is an unfortunate misconception on the part of both religious authorities and the general public that these acts of abuse are only perpetrated against boys. Two examples:

    – The Catholic Church’s reaction to the scandal was to screen potential priests for homosexual tendencies;
    – A parody video posted on Pharyngula recently had a Catholic official saying that the purpose of the church was “boy fucking”.

    It isn’t about homosexuality, it’s about sexual abuse, whether the victim is male or female, child or adult. And it’s about abuse of authority.

    Andrew Morgan wrote:

    3%? Really? Isn’t that far, far, far lower than the number of women preyed upon on college campuses, and probably lower than society as a whole? I don’t really see what the story is here.

    Women preyed upon on college campuses could be compared to women preyed upon by members of the congregation. This particular case is about sexual advances from clergy, which I think would be compared to sexual advances from college professors, not simply all unwanted sexual advances against female college students. What Jeff asked regarding sexual advances by other authority figures is the most pertinent question, I think.

  • Sackbut

    Oh, one other point. I agree that a comparison could be made with other authority figures, but we should recognize that church leaders often serve in a personal counseling role for the members of their congregation, and it’s the abuse of that role that is in question. I know that some people, particularly children, do go to other authority figures, such as their soccer coach or their favorite teacher, for personal guidance, but I don’t know how prevalent that is, and I doubt adults go to such figures for advice with much frequency. Any comparison would, I think, have to focus on those who serve in a personal counseling role, not just any authority figure.

  • llewelly

    I’m shocked. Who knew sex scandals in the church involved women?! (*cue rim shot*)

    A statistic for your ignorance: 80% of the victims in the catholic clergy abuse scandals were female.

  • TXatheist

    Any subscriber to Freethought Today is aware of the black collar crimes section which lists about 100 violations per month by religious folks.

  • Shannon

    “One in every 33 women who attend worship services regularly has been the target of sexual advances by a religious leader”

    You know, I wonder what the stats are for women in general? Is it really a religious thing, or just being a woman in general?

    I’ve been physically sexually harassed three times in my life. And yes, one was in a church (a UU church – and no, that has nothing to do with me being an atheist) but the other two were not. I never thought the fact that it was in a church had anything to do with it. Some people are just assholes.

    I want to know if the stats for this in general are really much higher for those who go to religious services? Or are people just upset because they think religious people should be perfect and it seems more awful when they aren’t?

    Ah, this line from the article

    “Nor do they know whether sexual wrongdoing by clergy is more, or less, frequent than in other well-respected professions.”.

    That’s what I want to know (and really, I don’t understand why they don’t know – I’m sure someone has looked into this). Not to downplay the problem but given what I’ve heard over the years, and the experience of people I personally know, I would be surprised if you couldn’t say that 1 in 33 women – PERIOD – had been sexually harassed by someone (let alone outright rape or attempted rape, which is something like 1 in 6). We like to pretend it doesn’t happen as often as it does or that it’s only “those Catholic priests” or whatever.

    Sad that some of these jerks are religious leaders but not surprising. Some humans just aren’t worth the oxygen they breathe.

  • Shannon

    Oops sorry, I should have read the comments first since I’m just repeating what others have said.

  • http://anti-mattr.blogspot.com/ mathyoo

    While I think that clergy who target women in their congregation are sexual predators, unless they actually rape a woman, the women have to bear some of the responsibility for giving in. Yes, they could face serious consequences such as getting kicked out of their church, but by giving in, they’re not only being complicit in the illicit relationship, but they’re perpetuating the problem by keeping it hidden, thereby allowing the clergyman to continue his sexual predation. Not just on them, but likely on other women in the congregation as well.

    I suspect that part of the problem is inherent in Christianity itself as well as traditional church hierarchies, where not only will the woman lose her “connection with God”, but her social standing, her friends and more. On top of that, religion teaches people not to question authority or rock the boat, so the women are intimidated into giving in by their own beliefs.

    It’s sort a strange combination of being a victim yet being responsible for their own choices.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    WWJD? What about WWYD? (What would Yahweh do?). You might want to ask the Virgin Mary that one. Knocked her up while she was sleeping. I wonder if any religious leaders have done that one?

  • medussa

    Somewhat OT: How is it that religions across the board discriminate against girls and women, abuse girls and women (see above), offer less posthumous reward to women, and yet, according to comments made in this forum before, there are so few women involved in atheist groups?

    I don’t know what those comments were based on, but assuming they are correct, there seems to be a disconnect here. I can account for some of it with cultural upbringing, making it less likely for women to dare to stand up for themselves, or take a stand, but surely that doesn’t account for this big discrepancy?

    Any ideas?

  • aproustian

    mathyoo,
    You’re blaming the victims? Seriously? Even after recognizing that in many situations it would be impossible to not “give in”? These women are being placed in horrible situations with no good solution from their perspective by the men who have authority. The men have all the power to end the sexual harassment (by not doing it anymore!) while the women are stuck with a terrible bargain. No one asks to be sexually harassed.

  • Tsugradstudent

    Please check out Joe My God’s website… He lists all the crimes (many of which are sexual in nature) that have been alleged over the week, complete with area and description.

    http://joemygod.blogspot.com/search/label/This%20Week%20In%20Holy%20Crimes

  • Ron in Houston

    Frankly what’s the big deal if a adult male sexually advances an adult female?

    Sure the male should not take advantage of their position, but it’s actually pretty naive to assume that this never takes place. (Hmmm California politicians anyone?)

    I don’t care about two adults. It’s the adults using their position with children that bothers me.

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    Let’s think about some math here for a moment. We know that 3% of women who attend worship services have been the target of advances by the leaders, but I think the more important statistic is what percentage of these leaders have made these advances. All we can really say about that is that it’s going to be much higher than 3%, given the number disparities between clergy and attendees, but that doesn’t tell us much. It could be 100% of clergy harassing 3% of the women they see, or 50% of clergy harassing 6% of women, etc.

    Most likely, it’s going to be a smaller amount of the clergy – probably less than 10% – who’ve harassed a lot of women, with the rest of the statistic made up of individual propositions from a large chunk of the clergy, some of which might have been misinterpreted or misremembered at the time of the poll. On top of that, we have to watch out for simply mistaken answers to poll, where perhaps the pollee didn’t understand the question properly (this effect would drive actually small numbers up).

    In the end, what can we say? Well, not much. Clergy are human, and human males have a long history of doing whatever they can to get sex, including abusing their power. We just don’t know how common it is here. All we can really say is that obviously the clergy aren’t significantly better than the lay population when it comes to this. Being religious, even being a priest, doesn’t make you a more moral person.

  • Miko

    This is an old problem:

    The Buddhist Monastic Code Chap. 8.1 (P?cittiya) has the following rule:

    Should any bhikkhu [male monk] teach more than five or six sentences of Dhamma [Buddhist teachings/sayings] to a woman, unless a knowledgeable man is present, it is to be confessed.

    The exact motivations for its adoption aren’t entirely clear, but based on the accompanying material in the suttas (see link) it’s normally interpreted as

    a) not applying in cases where the bhikkhu is answering a question directly asked by the woman, and
    b) existing to ensure that bhikkhus wouldn’t use Dhamma as a seduction technique.

  • Shannon

    (um, my math sucked up there, but I hope I got my point across – sorry).

    Mathyoo, it’s more complicated than that. So many women who *do* come forward with charges end up being dragged through the mud and for nothing. The guy gets away (go to that site I linked to above to find how many *rape* cases end in jail time – and that’s outright rape, not harassment or misusing authority, etc). And look at the people who have stood up to the Catholic church. Most of them have not gotten anything except excommunication and scorn from their families. Blaming the victim is a lot easier than stopping the crime in the first place.

  • Miko

    @medussa: How is it that religions across the board discriminate against girls and women, abuse girls and women (see above), offer less posthumous reward to women, and yet, according to comments made in this forum before, there are so few women involved in atheist groups?

    Typically, it’s (on the surface) women themselves who enforce this form of discrimination. FGM is typically done by the mother, “woman’s work” and “roles” are taught from mother to daughter, (some) women in the Middle East riot whenever an attempt is made to get rid of mandatory burka laws, etc. Naturally, when one digs beneath the surface, it becomes apparent that in a society that denies equality to women (especially in areas of property ownership and employment, necessary for independent survival), mothers see it as more important to instill values causing daughters to fit into the society (e.g., “without FGM, people will think she’s a harlot and she won’t be able to find a husband”) rather than values emphasizing human dignity and natural rights.

    Similarly, if you look back at the narratives of runaway slaves, you’ll find that most of them escaped from the (comparatively speaking) not-as-bad plantations, as they had a spark of hope. Those in the worst conditions tended to cling to them out of fear of something worse. (Frederick Douglass’s being motivated to escape after learning to read is an excellent example of the importance of developing some degree of self-reliance.)

    It’s precisely because religion offers fewer options to women that they find it difficult to break away. Society is so structured that a man who suddenly loses his support network can still get by on his own. To an extreme extent historically and a moderate extent presently (depending on socioeconomic level), that’s not always the case for women.

  • anonymouse

    “While I think that clergy who target women in their congregation are sexual predators, unless they actually rape a woman, the women have to bear some of the responsibility for giving in. Yes, they could face serious consequences such as getting kicked out of their church, but by giving in, they’re not only being complicit in the illicit relationship, but they’re perpetuating the problem by keeping it hidden, thereby allowing the clergyman to continue his sexual predation. Not just on them, but likely on other women in the congregation as well….
    It’s sort a strange combination of being a victim yet being responsible for their own choices.”

    This is called victim-blaming and it is very common among people who hear stories like this, especially if the victim is a woman. While you did give an explanation, it’s a tired argument, and in other circumstances usually involves asking what the woman was wearing, where she was, if she was drinking, etc. instead of asking why people are raping or otherwise sexually abusing others.

    Religious sexual abuse is especially “easy” if the woman was raised in the church. I am currently reading “Under the Banner of Heaven” and it was explaining 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart’s case, where the self-proclaimed prophet came into her room and threatened her and held her as his “wife” (and raped her) for some months.
    This wouldn’t have been as easy had she not been raised in the church (this one was the LDS church, but the rapist was Fundamentalist LDS with whom the LDS church claims no affiliation). Women are completely subservient in most Bible-as-literal-truth Christian sects, and if someone has been raised to never question their doctrine, and especially an adult man over an adolescent girl then it’s doubly bad. I am just saying the sexual abusers are ALWAYS the ones to blame if they sexually abuse someone.

    With believers, there is a special trust and loyalty to their church leaders and to take advantage of that, to me, makes them worse than the run of the mill scumbag sexual abuser. And don’t even get me started on the kids. I saw a documentary on a Catholic Irish priest that made my blood boil. (this last part is not related to the quote, for clarification)

  • Tizzle

    I agree with the non-story idea. I don’t downplay violence against women, but this ‘story’ claims sexual advances, not sexual assault. And, seriously, 3%? Many churches have pastors that can marry, so it could be a prelude to dating.

    Perhaps it’s a poorly written article about the study, but this didn’t trigger any of my moral outrage.

  • BrettH

    It really confused me that they even included advances made by unmarried members of the clergy. It might not be professional for a pastor to date within his own congregation (I honestly don’t know if that’s the case, my pastor growing up was married already), but without distinguishing between “God wants you to get naked in my office” and “Would you like to have coffee some time?” I thought this report was too vague to be helpful.

  • medussa

    @ Miko:
    Thanks for the response. I wasn’t raised in a religious environment, in fact I was raised by one of those “bra-burners”, so I only know about this phenomenon in theory, didn’t feel it.
    This does make more sense, as sad as it is…

    But, to be sure I fully understand, what is FGM?

  • ChameleonDave

    This article is pointless without better statistics.

  • Aj

    There’s plenty of different kinds of relationships a religious leader can have, so perhaps some of these advances are innocent. I’m sure there’s plenty of people who want sexual advances from their religious leader.

    These people regularly tell others that they get messages from God to get money, power, and respect, so sex is a logical next step for them. It’s not unheard of for people to seek positions of authority so as to exploit their power and gain contact with vulnerable people.

    But, to be sure I fully understand, what is FGM?

    Female Genital Mutilation.

  • Erp

    Actually reading the report can be interesting. It does a summary of other research. Including the little item that though 3.1% of women reported having experienced “Clergy Sexual Misconduct” (CSM) as adults, 50% of the reporters of CSM (male and female) were African-American (this can either mean they are more likely to report it or they are more often victims of it or both but it is a startling difference). The report also gives some anonymized case studies on how some victims were ‘groomed’. report

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Beth

    Someone upthread asked about sexual assault in the general population. Don’t quote me on this, but it’s something like 1 in 8 women who will *report* some sort of sexual assault in her lifetime, but estimates as to actual occurrences of assault are higher. College women moves up to about 1 in 4 (I’m one of the 1′s). Sorority girls moves up to 1 in 3, I’ve been told, and I can believe it; I’ve heard a lot of really scary hazing stories.

    At any rate, 3% is still a significant number, at least to me. It’s still 3 in 100 women who are experiencing unwanted sexual attention from religious leaders.

    I couldn’t say for sure one way or the other to what extent the actual religion influenced the leaders to assault the congregants, but I would say that Christianity’s traditionally negative view of women in general IS an influence.

    To the person who is blaming the victims–you’re wrong, and that’s all there is to it. I don’t care if she could have done something to prevent it, it was the religious leader’s responsibility to not abuse his power. The same logic applies in all cases of sexual assault–people say the victim was wearing a short skirt/was drunk/etc., but it is ALWAYS the perpetrator’s fault.

  • Old Beezle

    Old news to exmormons: Joe Smith who founded Mormonism told married men’s wives that God commanded them to marry him ‘spiritually.’ Sex and power. That’s what loser religious leaders always go for.

  • J

    While going through a long divorce process I met a man who was an ordained minister. (won’t name the church).
    At first he was all loving and understanding, praised me all the time.

    After about six months he began to be emotionally abusive. He would go have coffee with women and say they needed counsel on their personal life. I suggested maybe coffee sounded more like a date than professional.

    I keep my eyes and ears sharp and found evidence that he was at the very least talking to another woman and had made a crude sexual comment. (No, proof but I feel strongly they were sleeping together).
    Strangely the messages were the same date he brought me flowers and took me to dinner. The card said you are the woman for me now and forever, I love you. This was his way of trying to lure me back after I was tired of the emotional abuse.

    (He had already told me in the first months that he wanted to marry me).

    Now, I am an adult and should never have fallen for him, but, given that he was a minister I let my guard down thinking surely A minister would not be decietful and betraying!

    In the end when I reported what I had found to his fellow clergy, she told him what I said. Instead of asking a higher authority to look into this they conspired to make me look like the bad guy.

    I don’t know if I can ever go to church again without wondering what the minister is hiding. My faith has been damaged.

    Since, I have spoken to two people who know more about him than I did. They have confirmed all my doubts and fears even more.

    After fifteen months of this brain washing emotional abuse, I am a wreck.

    In the end I feel raped that he will not only get away with this behavior, but will continue to make the women his victimizes look like they are just crazy.


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