Abuse of Power

After conducting the largest national study of clergy sexual misconduct, Baylor researchers find the problem is far more common than previously thought.

November 30, 2009

One in 33 American adult women who go to church regularly has been the victim of a sexual advance by her religious leader. That startling statistic comes from the largest national study conducted thus far of the prevalence of clergy sexual misconduct with adults (CSM)--a study conducted by Baylor University's School of Social Work and lead researcher Dr. Diana Garland, dean of the school.
The findings suggest that the prevalence of clergy sexual misconduct with adults is higher than many people realize and that it occurs across denominations and religions.
The research was conducted using questions included in the 2008 General Social Survey, a widely used and highly respected survey of a random sample of more than 3,500 American adults conducted by the National Opinion Research Center. Respondents were asked if, since turning 18, they had ever been the object of a sexual advance from a religious leader. The responses were used to establish a statistically reliable baseline for discussions about CSM. 
More than 3 percent of adult women who attend religious services at least once a month have been the victims of clergy sexual misconduct since turning age 18. To explain another way, in the average U.S. congregation of 400 adult members, seven women have been victimized at some point in their adult lives. 
"Because many people are familiar with some of the high-profile cases of sexual misconduct, most people assume that it is just a matter of a few charismatic leaders preying on vulnerable followers," Garland says. "What the research tells us, however, is that clergy sexual misconduct with adults is a widespread problem in congregations of all sizes and occurs across denominations. Now that we have a better understanding of the problem, we can start looking at prevention strategies.
"We examined this problem to help the church take leadership in responding; the church needs to be the church," Garland says. "Clergy sexual misconduct tears a church apart, and we must address it."
This study is part of a comprehensive effort by Baylor to identify the prevalence of clergy sexual misconduct with adults and the factors commonly associated with its occurrence across religions. Using the study's findings as a foundation, the Baylor team has been working to outline possible initiatives designed to identify and prevent CSM. The School of Social Work has launched a Web site, www.baylor.edu/clergysexualmisconduct, that has resources for congregations and pastors to use in developing policies and practices designed to prevent CSM. The site also has case studies of survivors with video of the survivors themselves telling their stories.
hose stories are heartbreaking. Carolyn--each survivor is identified by first name only--was a seminary student and a member of a Lutheran congregation. During a period when she had doubts about her faith, her husband suggested she seek out her pastor for counseling and guidance. With full trust in her pastor, she met him several times--and ignored his escalating physical advances. 
"If this was any other man, I would have known it was not right," she says. "But church is supposed to be a sanctuary. I couldn't make sense of what was happening. He broke my connection to all that is holy." 
Carolyn said all she had ever wanted was to serve the church and teach her children to love God, but all that has been taken away from her. She and her family left the church where the abuse occurred and have tried since to join other congregations, but without success. Her children want nothing to do with organized religion and have doubts about God. "What hurts me the most is that this wasn't just physical rape," she says. "It was spiritual rape." 
Kimberly is another survivor. She joined a Baptist congregation soon after enduring several personal tragedies in quick succession. Her husband noticed she seemed depressed and called their pastor so she could receive counseling. During the six months he counseled her, the pastor began to befriend Kimberly and her husband. He showered them with gifts, including a car. On one occasion, Kimberly and her husband went to check out of a hotel after a family vacation only to find out the pastor had paid the hotel bill in full. The pastor gave Kimberly a surprise birthday party without telling her husband. After she became his personal assistant, he gave Kimberly $1,000 bonuses, telling her that they were coming from his own funds.
As the pastor took on multiple roles as her boss, family friend, religious leader and counselor, she found herself immersed in his life. He began providing Kimberly with counseling again, and during counseling, he hugged her and kissed her on the forehead. In following counseling sessions, the relationship became sexualized, with the pastor using scripture to justify and spiritualize the relationship. "The guilt I was feeling was so overwhelming. Nothing I had been through before compared to this guilt and pain," Kimberly says. 
She ultimately explained to church elders what had happened, with the pastor denying everything. The elders decided to tell the church that Kimberly had lied. Kimberly and her family resigned from the church and later received a letter chastising them for their "defiance" in speaking publicly on the issue. Today, they are now members of another Baptist congregation. "They welcomed us with open arms," Kimberly says of her new church home. "They previously had to put a pastor out of their church for the same thing."
Lori's story is another included on the Web site. Lori was born to a Jewish mother and married a Gentile who was not affiliated with any particular religion. When their daughter was born, they wanted her to receive religious instruction, so Lori's husband encouraged her to join a temple and enroll their daughter in Hebrew school. Lori and her husband started having communication problems in their marriage. Lori assumed their issues stemmed from not sharing the same religious faith because her husband began to object to the time she spent at temple. Lori spoke to the rabbi about her marital issues, and he instructed her to come to his office for counseling without her husband. The rabbi also encouraged her to conceal the counseling from her husband and began to escalate physical contact with Lori--hugs, touching, embracing, kissing. 
Lori recalls that the rabbi left no doubt about what he wanted, saying to her "that which is most masculine in me wants that which is most feminine in you." She refused, and the rabbi began treating her differently. "I went from being someone special, someone who belonged at temple, to being a problem--something that required damage control." 
At the same time, even after she told him to stop, the rabbi continued to sexually harass Lori, kissing and touching her when his wife wasn't around. "It was incredible what he was doing to me, the manipulation, the intimidation; it got to the point where I couldn't even pray anymore," Lori recounts. "The guilt, shame and pain I felt was overwhelming." Lori started attending services at other temples, trying to find a place where she felt safe, but she felt violated no matter where she went. Betrayed by former friends in her first congregation who chose to support the abusive rabbi, she was unable to form new friendships in the Jewish community. Lori enrolled her daughter in an Orthodox Hebrew school and attended services there because of their rules that dictate men and women sit on different sides of the sanctuary; the rabbis weren't allowed to touch female congregants. 
Carolyn's, Kimberly's and Lori's experiences all mirror one another and the other survivors interviewed by Garland for a second study of firsthand accounts of clergy sexual misconduct with adults. The common thread running through the research is that these are not simple sexual affairs, as many people believe; what occurs in cases of clergy sexual misconduct is abuse of power. "When a religious leader has a sexual relationship with a congregant, it's not an affair," Garland says. "It's abuse of power--the power that we give to our religious leader as a community. It must be addressed in that context."
As might be expected, the research has generated significant media attention. Stories have appeared in about 100 media outlets in the U.S. and Canada, including the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and Chicago Tribune. Garland also was interviewed for a segment of National Public Radio's "Tell Me More" program, and Garland and Carolyn were both interviewed on "The Drew Marshall Show," Canada's most-listened-to spiritual radio show. A story in FIRST magazine is also in the works.
With the attention generated by the research, the School of Social Work has begun addressing the concept of power within congregations. An outgrowth of the clergy sexual misconduct research is an online curriculum on "Power and the Christian," co-authored by Garland and graduate student Vicki Marsh Kabat. "As Christians, we are richly steeped in lessons about servanthood. We understand that we are called to serve others," Garland says. "What we have less instruction in is how to live as persons with power and how that informs servanthood. How are we to wield power in appropriate, gospel-directed ways? The curriculum helps congregations and religious leaders learn about how to manage authority responsibly and in a way that pleases God."
The curriculum is free for downloading on the Baylor clergy sexual misconduct web site. The studies also are scheduled for publication in upcoming issues of scholarly journals--the nationwide study of the prevalence of clergy sexual misconduct in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and the review of firsthand accounts of clergy sexual misconduct in Social Work & Christianity.
Funding for the research project was provided by the Ford Foundation, the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the JES Edwards Foundation of Fort Worth.