The Common Good
July-August 2002

Catholic Scandal, Ecumenical Solution

by Rose Marie Berger | July-August 2002

The whole church must combat sexual misconduct

While much recent media hype has focused on the Catholic Church's pedophilia scandal, relatively little attention has been given to the high rate of sexual misconduct in the rest of American Christendom. This truly is a crisis that crosses all borders.

For example, research by Richard Blackmon at Fuller Theological Seminary shows that 12 percent of the 300 Protestant clergy surveyed admitted to sexual intercourse with a parishioner; 38 percent acknowledged other inappropriate sexualized contact. In a 1990 study by the United Methodist Church, 41.8 percent of clergy women reported unwanted sexual behavior by a colleague or pastor; 17 percent of laywomen said that their own pastors had sexually harassed them.

Obviously, this is not just a Catholic problem. And solutions must be broader and deeper than those carried out by Catholic cardinals. The whole church has a responsibility to offer decisive leadership in the area of sexual misconduct—whether it is child abuse, sexual exploitation, or sexual harassment.

Recently, churches have shown unprecedented unity on issues of poverty and welfare reform. Now it is necessary to call for a broad-based ecumenical council addressing the issue of sexual misconduct in the church. Its goal would be transparency and openness in developing stringent, forward-looking guidelines, consistent with denominational distinctions, for preventing and addressing sexual misconduct within Christian churches and church-related institutions. Such a council could include not only denominational representatives but also a majority presence from external organizations such as child protection agencies, law enforcement, psychiatric services, victims' agencies, and legal and legislative representatives.

CRISIS IS OFTEN accompanied by an opportunity for extraordinary growth and leadership. American churches have a unique opening to develop and adopt a single set of policies, principles, practices, and common language on sexual misconduct in Christian institutions that is binding across denominations. A system of cross-denomination review boards could be established to help compliance and accountability. A centralized resource bank could be formed that provides church-wide updates on new legal, financial, psychological, and spiritual developments in the field. Guidelines, both moral and legal, could be established on how clergy, churches, and victims should best use civil and criminal actions in pursuit of justice and financial restitution for injury. A national database could be established with information on all applicants for ordination in any member denomination. Every diocese, conference, presbytery, and district could have a designated child-protection representative whose job is to ensure that the policies and procedures are understood and implemented, and that training is provided at every level of the local church, seminaries, and ministries.

Any religious institution or system that leaves power unexamined or smothers sexuality with silence—rather than promoting open conversation that can lead to moral and spiritual maturity—becomes implicated in creating an unhealthy and potentially abusive environment. An ecumenical Christian council authentically dedicated to strong moral leadership in the area of clergy sexual misconduct might move the church beyond the extremes of policing our own or abandoning our own.

For Christians, the true scandal is not about priests. It's about manipulation of power to abuse the weak. When Jesus said, "Whoever receives the child, receives me," he was rebuking his followers for putting stumbling blocks in front of the defenseless. Church is supposed to be a place where one can lay one's defenses down; where one is welcomed, embraced, and blessed. This can only be authentically expressed in a culture that requires absolute respect for each individual's freedom and self-hood. Until the whole church bows humbly under that requirement, the indictments by wounded women and children will stand.

Rose Marie Berger is an associate editor of Sojourners.

NOTE: An earlier version of this article contained incorrect statistics about Protestant ministers and pedophilia, misinterpreting information from the book Pedophiles and Priests by Dr. Philip Jenkins. The information has been corrected. Dr. Jenkins' comments are below.--The Editors

In an article in Sojourners, Rose Marie Berger wrote the following:

"Philip Jenkins concludes in his book Pedophiles and Priests that while 1.7 percent of Catholic clergy have been found guilty of pedophilia (specifically of boys), 10 percent of Protestant ministers have been found guilty of pedophilia."

I regret to say that the statement is baloney. I never said it, and it's not true!

In PEDOPHILES AND PRIESTS, I was attacking a statistic that claimed that a proportion of Catholic priests were pedophiles on the basis that the sample was worthless, since all the men involved were undergoing psychiatric treatment. Hence, you could not extrapolate that figure to the whole priestly population. In order to demonstrate the foolishness of the argument, I cited another study of protestant ministers UNDERGOING TREATMENT, which found that ten percent of them were also pedophiles. By this argument, I remarked - as a reductio ad absurdum - then ten percent of protestant clergy were also pedophiles.

(By the way, pedophilia is a psychiatric condition not a criminal offense, so nobody can be "found guilty of pedophilia")

Every time this ten percent statement appears attributed to me, I try to debunk it, but these things have a life of their own. I have no idea what the actual proportion of pedophile protestant clergy is, but I would be amazed if it was more than a fraction of one percent.

I hope that clarifies my position.

Ms Berger may well be making an excellent point - that there is no evidence that abuse rates are higher for protestant than for catholic clergy. But this particular figure is a kind of urban legend.

Philip Jenkins
Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies
Pennsylvania State University

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