While the media focuses on pedophile priests, what's being lost is the sad reality that sexual abuse of both children and adults is a serious problem among clergy of all faiths.

A quick survey of research on sexual misconduct reveals:

  • Almost 42 percent of respondents in a 1990 study on sexual harassment in the United Methodist Church reported unwanted sexual behavior by a colleague or pastor; 17 percent of laywomen said that their own pastor had harassed them.
  • A national survey of mainly Protestant pastors conducted the same year by a group at the Center for Ethics and Social Policy, Graduate Theological Union, in Berkeley, California discovered that about 10 percent of those surveyed had been sexually active with an adult parishioner.
  • A 1991 examination of the personnel files of 2,252 priests, who had served in the Chicago diocese between 1963 and 1991, found that 2.6 percent of the priests had been accused of sexual abuse. After reviewing the 59 cases, the commission studying the issue decided that the complaints were justified in a little more than half of the cases. This study contrasts with findings of A.W. Richard Sipe, a former Roman Catholic priest and a psychotherapist, who suggests that 6 percent of priests have inappropriate sexual contact with minors.
  • Research published in a 1993 pastoral care journal found that only 6.1 percent of Southern Baptist pastor respondents admitted to having sexual contact with a person either currently or formerly affiliated with their church--but 70 percent said they knew pastors who had had sexual contact with a congregant.
  • But beyond these few studies, the field is sorely lacking in research that would precisely measure the extent of the abuse or compare the number of abusers across denominations or religions. For this reason, many researchers and professionals in the field try to steer clear of citing statistics.

    According to Roman Paur, executive director of the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute in Collegeville, Minnesota, statistics regarding clergy sexual misconduct are "fundamentally guesses"; there is no hard research to back up the numbers, and traditions that might have such statistics are reluctant to disclose such information because it would draw too much attention to the problem within their denomination.

    Gary Schoener, a psychologist and executive director of the Walk-In Center in Minneapolis, says that illegal acts, rule violations, and shameful actions are not easily studied. They are by their very nature hidden. One could do a population survey, but these are extremely expensive, he says. No researchers or agencies are clamoring to do such a study.

    Alongside this lack of hard data are popular misconceptions that are unfair distortions of the sexual abuse situation. These myths include:

    Myth #1: Most sex-abuse cases involving priests are pedophilic.
    What data there is seems to show that there are more clergy and priests who are inappropriate sexually with adult parishioners, devotees, or congregants. Richard Sipe, for example, writes that "sexual abuse of minors is only part of the problem [in the Catholic Church]. Four times as many priests involve themselves sexually with adult women, and twice the number of priests involve themselves with adult men."

    Additionally, only about one-third of priests who sexually abuse youngsters are pedophiles (that is, they molest a prepubescent child). The rest sexually abuse adolescents, generally boys. The precise clinical term for their behavior is ephebophilia.

    Although few would dispute that sexual violations against youngsters are detestable, the distinction has important clinical implications related to prognosis and treatment. Ephebophiles are easier to treat and more likely to change their behavior. The term "pedophile priest" is an unfortunately memorable but often inaccurate appellation.

    Myth #2: Catholic priests become sexually involved with adolescent boys, whereas all other religious authorities become involved with adult women.
    Father Stephen J. Rossetti, president of St. Luke Institute, a residential treatment and education center for clergy and religious of all faiths in Silver Spring, Maryland, says he's seen enough cases of Protestant clergy abusing minors and Catholic clergy abusing women to believe that it happens both ways.

    He also says that based on his experience and a review of others' statistics he believes that 2 to 7 percent of Catholic priests molest minors--the same percentage as molesters in the general population.

    That fact carries no comfort for survivors such as David Clohessy, a St. Louis political and public-relations consultant and national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "It doesn't matter whether just as many priests [abuse] as plumbers do," he says. "You can't take solace in that."

    Myth #3: Clergy misconduct involves only men abusing women and children.
    According to social worker Melissa Steinmetz of the Holy Cross Counseling Group in South Bend, Indiana, sex abuse is not a males-only transgression. Because the feminist movement was largely responsible for awareness of sexual abuse, the original focus was solely on male perpetrators. But, says Steinmetz, experience has shown that women, too, are guilty of abuse, especially of preadolescent and adolescent boys.

    Myth #4: The Catholic Church is alone in covering up instances of sexual misconduct of its clergy.
    Institutions, with very few exceptions, tend to circle the wagons to protect its own. Take the case of Swami Rama, an Indian yogi who came to this country in 1969. In 1974, yoga students accused the swami of inappropriate sexual behavior, falsification of his background, and financial improprieties.

    But it wasn't until legal action was taken 20 years later--two civil lawsuits were filed against the swami, against the Himalayan Institute (an organization he founded), and against three institute officials--that his organization was forced to seriously deal with complaints of his sexual misconduct.

    Testimony from depositions indicates that one of the defendants, Rudolph Ballentine, M.D.--a member of the institute's board of directors in the 1970s and institute president from 1987 to 1993--received verbal reports and letters describing instances of sexual contact between the swami and female disciples for years. In case after case, he discounted the allegations based on the swami's denials and his own judgments about the character and motivations of those reporting the abuse.

    When Swami Rama died before the case came to trial, the prosecution dropped charges against him and the officials, but won a judgement against the Institute, which was forced to pay almost $2 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

    The problem of clergy sexual misconduct itself is not new, but in the not-too-distant past a kind of embargo existed against publicizing what might at the time have been called the "sexual shenanigans" of those in positions of leadership.

    Sex scandals were seen as reflecting poorly on hallowed institutions--the presidency, in the case of John F. Kennedy's affairs, or the Catholic Church, in the case of priests who might have been caught in flagrante delicto. Incidents were winked at or dealt with quietly.

    Recalls Philip Jenkins, professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University and author of "Pedophiles and Priests": "I had a police friend in New York who would--pardon the expression--talk about all the times he had 'cut loose a faggot brother,' by which he meant he had arrested a priest or brother for a homosexual act and had let him go with a warning."

    "Think what that must have done to people in the priesthood and in the seminaries," says Jenkins. "For a tiny minority who did have tendencies to any kind of sexual misconduct, it must have given them a sense of invulnerability."

    That shield of immunity was shattered in the mid-1980s with the Gilbert Gauthe case. Gauthe was the pastor of St. John's Parish in Henry, Louisiana. According to journalist Jason Berry, who broke the story in a local weekly newspaper and who detailed Catholic priests' abuse of children in articles and a book, "Lead Us Not into Temptation," church officials were aware of Gauthe's sexual propensities as early as 1974.

    Almost 10 years passed, however, before he was finally relieved of his priestly duties. Soon after, in October 1984, Gauthe was indicted on charges relating to sexual abuse of minors and child pornography; a year later the judge in his case agreed to a plea bargain. Gauthe pleaded guilty to 33 charges and was sentenced to 20 years without parole. He also lost a subsequent civil suit, which awarded $1.25 million to a boy who claimed to have been molested and to the boy's parents. Twenty years and probably a billion dollars later, the Catholic Church is still embroiled in scandals--as are a variety of synagogues, ashrams, Protestant parishes, and congregations.

    Why are spiritual authorities--rabbis and roshis, priests and pastoral counselors, ministers and swamis--able to take advantage so often? For one, they hold a special position in their spiritual communities.

    Catholics are taught that a priest is "called" by God to his vocation. One Catholic missal has a section that reads: "My child: Someone has said it is a sign of salvation to have a great love for Priests. Why is this so? Because the Priest takes the place of our Blessed Lord on earth."

    While Catholics are taught that priests are representatives of Jesus, Hindu devotees are often led to believe that their guru is a god, a Realized Self. In his 1971 book, "Guru," Swami Muktananda declares: "The Guru is an actual embodiment of the Absolute. Truly speaking, he is himself the Supreme Being."

    The charisma of the pastor or spiritual teacher--what often attracts parishioners and disciples--can be dangerous too. Charisma is evident in the popular pastor whose dynamic sermons and impeccable people skills fill the pews and church coffers every week, as well as in the guru whose presence induces altered states of consciousness. The problem comes in mistaking a spiritual leader's persona and talents for holiness. The leader of a thriving church community or a guru with siddhis (psychic powers) should not be mistaken for a saint.


    Because of the innocence and vulnerability of the victims, perhaps the most heinous crime perpetrated by sexual predators is the abuse of children. David Clohessy of SNAP, himself a survivor of abuse by a priest, describes the abrupt shift in perception this way: "It's like getting up one morning, walking outside, and all of a sudden the law of gravity isn't in effect anymore. It is just a horrible, horrible betrayal."

    Of course, the degree of damage to individual youngsters varies, but a survey described in the Journal of Social Issues (volume 51, number 2) reported that, of their sample, almost 20 percent of children abused by religious authorities considered suicide.

    Not only is the pain inflicted on each individual child heartbreaking, but the scope of the problem is immense because each perpetrator generally has multiple victims. A 1988 National Institute of Mental Health survey estimated that the typical child sex offender molests an average of 117 children, most of whom do not report the offence.

    Father Rossetti in his book "Slayer of the Soul" cites a 1987 study that found that 377 child molesters--whose relations with victims were neither incestuous nor religion-related--victimized 4,435 girls and 22,981 boys. Pentecostal preacher Tony Leyva, for example, pleaded guilty to having abused upwards of 100 boys, although law-enforcement officials placed the number closer to 800. By way of comparison, John Geoghan is said to have molested 130 children.

    Although youngsters who have been molested by clergy exhibit the same symptoms as those violated by other trusted adults, there is an added dimension if the abuse is perpetrated by a trusted spiritual authority. Because church is often thought of as a refuge, and God as someone to turn to in troubled times, a child who is molested may turn away altogether from spiritual pursuits even into adulthood.

    Clohessy, for instance, says he no longer considers himself a Catholic. Still, he says, "there are times when I am very envious of those people who have been able to separate out what one man with a Roman collar did to them as kids from the rest of the institution and the rest of religion. I am envious of people who still have their faith."

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