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.