Let us prey (on women)

BibleWeddingRingsThe Washington Post ran a story the other day that was quite scary, if you care about the institutional church. The only problem I had with the story is that it wasn’t scary enough and, in particular, it wasn’t hard enough on one of the fastest growing forms of Protestantism in the nation (and the world, for that matter).

Yes, you read that right. I honestly think that reporter Jacqueline L. Salmon and her editors needed to be much harder on many evangelicals and the nondenominational megachurches that they seem to be building everywhere these days.

What’s this all about? Here’s the top of the report, which center on the fact that one in every 33 women who regularly attend worship services report that they have been, well, hit on by clergy:

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 certainly is prevalent, and clearly the problem is more than simply a few charismatic leaders preying on vulnerable followers,” said Diana Garland, dean of Baylor’s School of Social Work, who co-authored the study.

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

As the story says, this is not a left or right thing. Sin is sin and temptation is temptation and, in the wake of the waves of headlines about the Catholic clergy sex-abuse scandals (plural, over multiple decades), some people are starting to get their anti-abuse act together in other folds. And there’s the key to the story.

About half-way into the story we find out:

At least 36 denominations have policies that identify sexual relations between adult congregants and clergy as misconduct, subject to discipline. …

Lawmakers are also taking note. Clergy sexual misconduct is illegal in Minnesota and Texas. Texas law, for example, defines clergy sexual behavior as sexual assault if the religious leader “causes the other person to submit or participate by exploiting the other person’s emotional dependency on the clergyman in the clergyman’s professional character as spiritual adviser.”

The story cites examples of abuse policies in Episcopal, Jewish and United Church of Christ settings. That all sounds very mainline, if not liberal.

But the second layer of this scandal is hidden in the word “denomination.” Abuse happens everywhere, but the abused — in a denominational setting — at least have a hierarchy of some kind to which they can appeal. And then there is the issue of the bottom line: Their lawyers have larger institution to sue that, to one degree or another, is supposed to be monitoring the careers of its clergy.

Meanwhile, the nation is filling up with totally independent, nondenominational churches with few if any ties — especially legal ties — to anyone or anything. Is anyone keeping track of the clergy who serve these churches? Is anyone accountable for them? We are dealing with a form of church government and tradition called the “free church” and, truth is, the clergy in these churches are very, very free indeed.

I do not want to pick on the Southern Baptist Convention, especially in light of my great love and respect for many in that body. My father, I should mention, spend much of the 1960s serving as an associational leader in North Texas, which means that he helped start new churches and was a pastor to the pastors.

Still, I need to stress that the SBC is literally and legally a convention, not a “Church” with a big C or a legal denomination. The last time I checked, there are few ties that bind in SBC life. The clergy are ordained by local congregations and, while they are registered for pensions and the like, there is not an official system that governs the movement or monitoring of clergy. If I am wrong, and something has changed, please correct me.

On this issue, that has caused major problems — in some parts of the country more than others. Again, even in a Baptist context, this is not a left vs. right thing. Here is one site that gives some idea of what is going on, viewed from the perspective of the abused.

The SBC, however, resembles the Roman Catholic Church in contrast with the totally disorganized, non-structured reality that is the post-denominational world. Trust me: There is another story here. Is that buried somewhere in the Baylor research?

Note: For a very early, way ahead of its time book that is linked to this issue, check out “The Snare,” by Lois Mowday Rabey. Yes, that last name should sound familiar.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Ed

    Thanks for the links.
    The main story cites the case of a woman in the ELCA. But it doesn’t follow up with an indication of whether the ELCA has a formal policy against sexual mis-conduct, or training programs/seminary courses dealing with same. That leads, perhaps, to the reader’s perception, that the ELCA is bad news for women!
    Absent that followup, we are left with the question of whether this was just one “bad apple” or an institution-wide characteristic. Followup would have been fairer.
    As far as I know, the ELCA does have a written policy, as does the the LCMS and most other Lutheran bodies.

  • KKairos


    I’m not entirely certain, but I’m about 95% certain, that a “free” church can still be denominational. I say this because I’m fairly certain the Free Methodist and Free Lutheran churches are denominations.

    Or are these churches distinct from the “free church” movement?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    The word FREE can occur in denominational names.

    I am referring to a system of “free church,” congregational government where the power is totally at the local level of the individual church.

  • jsh

    A denomination can mean accountability, or it can mean a bureaucracy in which to bury bad news about leadership while ‘process’ is followed.

    A (mainline) church I went to had a minister divorce his wife for someone he met during his official duties. The denomination managed to bury the issue for a long enough stretch of time for said minister to find a pulpit elsewhere and excuse his leaving the denomination w/o reprimand as because of the new job, instead of a result of any misbehavior on his part. The denomination considered him active and available during the time between his resignation and his new job, which is a vote of confidence an independent church that fired a minister couldn’t give.

    I’m sure the denomination rationalized their behavior with the usual (to protect an institution that Does Good, to keep people submissive to leadership so they don’t wind up believing the wrong things and thus burning in Hell, etc). …

  • Ed

    I think that many, perhaps most, of the “non-denominational” congregations which name themselves simply “Christian” or “Community” would fall under the category, alhough msny also follow their name with “affiliated with…..”, which throws everything into suspense!

  • http://www.prettygoodlutherans.com Susan Hogan

    Many denominations have sexual misconduct policies and training programs. That is no guarantee those policies are enforced. As someone who has been an advocate for victims in congregations of various mainline denominations, I can tell you that more often than not, adult female victims who report the clergy are discounted and demonized when they come forward. Liberal and conservative denominations alike handle this issue poorly, including the ELCA. I would not encourage adult female victims to contact survivor groups like the one mentioned, because those are geared to adults abused as children. Instead, I would contact the Faith Trust Institute in Seattle which, under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune, has developed numerous resources to address the issue of adult victims. She has been a pioneer on this issue for decades and works people of all traditions.

  • http://acupotea.blogspot.com/ LexLaura

    In the study, what was the criteria for being hit on? A few years ago, my former youth leader asked me out, does that count as me being hit on? I tend to think no.
    If a pastor marries someone they met in their church, that is a different situation entirely. I wonder if the study accounted for that.

  • http://www.StopBaptistPredators.org Christa Brown

    The story isn’t “scary enough” for another reason. The study reported that “one in 33″ women who regularly attend church have been targeted by a religious leader. But what about all the women who were sexually targeted by a religious leader and who subsequently quit going to church? Particularly among those who try to report their clergy-perpetrators, and encounter the stonewalling and victim-blaming that almost invariably occurs, many wind up viewing the whole notion of a faith community as a charade, and they stop going to church. So, since the study doesn’t reflect non-churchgoing women, the prevalence of this problem is almost certainly much greater than what a superficial consideration of the study might lead one to believe.

  • Dave

    Of equal interest to the 3% of women to whom advances have been made, would be the percentage of clergy who engage in such advances.

    The Unitarian Universalist Association woke up to a clergy sexual misconduct problem in the 1980s. The UUA now has two sets of guidelines, to one of which Dr Fortune contributed.

  • lina

    From: Wikipedia regarding the Free Methodist Church

    The name “Methodist” was retained for the newly organized church because the founders felt that their misfortunes (expulsion from the Methodist Episcopal Church) had come to them because of their adherence to doctrines and standards of Methodism. The word “Free” was suggested and adopted because the new church was to be an anti-slavery church (slavery was an issue in those days); because seats in the churches were to be free to all rather than sold or rented (as was common); and because the new church hoped for the freedom of the Spirit in the services rather than a stifling formality.[5]

  • http://www.muchmorethanwords.com gfe

    When I hear the term “free church” I think of those denominations (the Evangelical Covenant Church is one of them) that don’t require members to adhere to any specific creed. It’s probably a term best used without providing a definition.

  • Glorybe1929

    I find that whether a denominational or a free church person has sexually abused you in any way, you go to the authorities immediately! The church will always try to defend their clergy. Please remember we are all innocent until PROVEN GUILTY.

    This can only be handled by a non -involved person or persons, such as Police personel. If they are of the same church , they should recuse themselves. Impartiality is what is needed..Plus a good investigative [impartial] reporter can bring light to the subject.

    These sexual crimes upon children need to be brought into the light, so people can make proper discernments for themselves about the churches that cover them up. The children do not have the maturity to make these decisions when clergy are the perpetrators. The children are injured throughout their whole lives, by these hideous crimes committed against them, in the name of the lord. Many committ sucicide, become alcoholics,drug adicts , prostitute temselves or just hover in an area of the unknown.

    Please God, I ask You to help us get this evil eliminated in a way that is of Your Will. Not my will, but Your Will oh Lord. Amen?

  • Pingback: Nondemoninational sex predators « BaptistPlanet

  • Dave

    The church will always try to defend their clergy.

    That is not what happened in Unitarian Universalism. When the scope of the problem was realized the Association took steps to establish protective structures. More than it needed to, in one sense, because two different protective milieus emerged, one from the Association proper and one from its Religious Education affiliate. This is probably the reason that there is no UU organization comparable to SNAP.

  • blestou

    I, too, would like to know some of the questions and typical responses. Was a standard of “sexual misconduct” used to evaluate responses or did they simply record the opinions of those surveyed?

    The case studies on the Baylor website all involve long-term relationships involving unwanted physical contact. Does this describe the whole 3%, or was there a range from stupid verbal gaffes to rape?

    How justified is the Washington Post to use the terminology “targeted” – does this describe all the cases? Where are the citations to back this language up? Certainly, it would apply in some (many) of the cases, but the Baylor report does not use that language, so why does the Post?

    And what’s up with Baylor not releasing the report? The website only has an Executive Summary, with lots of other documents to help you do something about their conclusions. Why not provide more details?

  • http://pokrov.org Melanie Jula Sakoda

    I think that the same applies to the plethora of Eastern Orthodox churches in this country, some legitimate, some vagante. It’s far too easy for an Orthodox priest disciplined for sexual misconduct in one jurisdiction to move on to another, or to even strike out on his own.

    Melanie Jula Sakoda
    Co-Founder, Pokrov.org