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A Quick Question 

How common is clergy sexual misconduct?

The quick answer:  Not as common as other ways clergy get in trouble with their congregations.   

The longer answer:   In 1999, with funding from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., two researchers from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary, Professor Nancy Ammerman and the Rev. Dr. Terry Schmitt, gathered 11 focus groups in 4 cities to talk about a subject most people don’t like to talk about – the times when clergy abuse the trust that their parishioners place in them. The people in these focus groups were especially likely to know about those painful incidents since many of them are the "interim" ministers who pastor churches after one leader has left and before another has been chosen. Their unique role often invites congregations to be honest about things they might otherwise keep secret, encouraging members to face painful incidents openly as they work toward healing.

The eleven groups these researchers gathered were in 4 different regions of the country and included 76 ministers who had, over the last 40 years, served 532 different congregations in 14 different denominations. While most of the denominations represented were from liberal and moderate Protestant traditions, such as the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church, they also included conservative Protestants such as Southern Baptists, as well as a group of Roman Catholic priests. The churches they have served cover a large spectrum of American religion, but because they were not randomly chosen, we have no way to know if they are completely representative of all American congregations and parishes.

When asked if each of the congregations they had served had ever experienced a "breach of trust" with their minister, the answer in just over half the cases (271) was yes. Was the problem always sexual? No. In fact, non-sex-related incidents outnumbered sex-related ones 149 to 122. In 60 cases, they reported that clergy had been perceived as abusing their power. Sometimes they had arbitrarily made decisions about programs or staff. Sometimes they were unfair supervisors. For whatever reason, they had stepped beyond the bounds of what their members perceived as the proper limits of the ministerial office.

A variety of other issues also arose in these conversations. In 18 cases, the problem was the failure to handle money responsibly. In 25 cases, the minister was seen as untrustworthy because of the way he or she failed to protect the confidentiality of what parishioners told them. In 19 cases, the pastor was simply seen as incompetent, while in a few other cases the problem was alcoholism or mental illness.

But what about those 122 cases (23% of all the congregations these ministers had served) where some sort of sexual indiscretion caused a rupture between pastor and congregation? The vast majority involved affairs between consenting – but not married – adults. In most cases one or both of the offending parties was married to someone else. Sometimes it was a one-time affair, in some cases followed by divorce and re-marriage. In other cases, the pastor was known to have had improper sexual relationships with more than one partner (almost always male pastors with female parishioners), in many cases at more than one church.

Even when church authorities (whether official bishops or simply local lay leaders) knew about past indiscretions, new congregations were rarely told. Until very recently, the pattern across traditions has been to keep these matters secret. Even congregations themselves sometimes did not know why their pastor suddenly resigned or moved.

While almost all of the sex-related cases were between opposite-sex adults, in 3 cases, the relationship in question was a homosexual one, and the congregation in question was not prepared to accept a gay or lesbian pastor. In only 2 cases (both Roman Catholic) was the problem pedophilia. Because this sample is relatively small and was not randomly chosen, we have no way to know how often pedophilia also occurs among Protestants – there is every reason to believe, however, that it does. What these reports suggest, however, is that it is much more rare than are the many other things that can cause clergy to fall.

We also know from this study that the overall incidence rate in these 532 congregations does not vary significantly by denomination. Episcopalians and Southern Baptists are as likely to have had a sexual breach of trust as are Methodists and Catholics. Nor are there significant differences by region. Churches in Texas are as likely as those in New England or the Bay Area to suffer this type of problem. Nor are rural churches more immune than suburban or urban ones. The only significant social difference that emerged is that larger congregations seemed more vulnerable. Thirty-one percent of large churches, compared to 16% of small ones had had a sex-related incident.

A much larger, randomly selected sample of congregations would have to be surveyed to firmly establish prevalence and thoroughly explore all the factors involved in sexual misconduct. And even then, the instinct toward secrecy would make getting solid numbers nearly impossible. The numbers reported here provide only a fairly-well-informed suggestion of what may be going on in American congregations.

In the coming months, Schmitt and Ammerman hope to further explore their data, looking at the many stories these interim ministers told for the factors that enable congregations to recover from such painful episodes. 


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