Sex abuse spans spectrum of churches
Despite headlines focusing on the priest pedophile problem in the Roman Catholic Church, most American churches being hit with child sexual-abuse allegations are Protestant, and most of the alleged abusers are not clergy or staff, but church volunteers.Skip to next paragraph
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These are findings from national surveys by Christian Ministry Resources (CMR), a tax and legal-advice publisher serving more than 75,000 congregations and 1,000 denominational agencies nationwide.
CMR's annual surveys of about 1,000 churches nationwide have asked about sexual abuse since 1993. They're a remarkable window on a problem that lurked largely in the shadows of public awareness until the Catholic scandals arose.
The surveys suggest that over the past decade, the pace of child-abuse allegations against American churches has averaged 70 a week. The surveys registered a slight downward trend in reported abuse starting in 1997, possibly a result of the introduction of preventive measures by churches.
"I think the CMR numbers are striking, yet quite reasonable," says Anson Shupe, anIndiana University professor who's written books about church abuse. "To me it says Protestants are less reluctant to come forward because they don't put their clergy on as high a pedestal as Catholics do with their priests."
Dr. Shupe suggests the 70 allegations-per-week figure actually could be higher, because underreporting is common. He discovered this in 1998 while going door to door in Dallas-Ft. Worth communities where he asked 1,607 families if they'd experienced abuse from those within their church. Nearly 4 percent said they had been victims of sexual abuse by clergy. Child sexual abuse was part of that, but not broken out, he says.
James Cobble, executive director of CMR, who oversees the survey, says the data show that child sex-abuse happens broadly across all denominations and that clergy aren't the major offenders.
"The Catholics have gotten all the attention from the media, but this problem is even greater with the Protestant churches simply because of their far larger numbers," he says.
Of the 350,000 churches in the US, 19,500 5 percent are Roman Catholic. Catholic churches represent a slightly smaller minority of churches in the CMR surveys which aren't scientifically random, but "representative" demographic samples of churches, Dr. Cobble explains.
Since 1993, on average about 1 percent of the surveyed churches reported abuse allegations annually. That means on average, about 3,500 allegations annually, or nearly 70 per among the predominantly Protestant group, Cobble says.
The CMR findings also reveal:
Most church child-sexual-abuse cases involve a single victim.
Law suits or out-of-court settlements were a result in 21 percent of the allegations reported in the 2000 survey.
Volunteers are more likely than clergy or paid staff to be abusers. Perhaps more startling, children at churches are accused of sexual abuse as often as are clergy and staff. In 1999, for example, 42 percent of alleged child abusers were volunteers about 25 percent were paid staff members (including clergy) and 25 percent were other children.
Still, it is the reduction of reported allegations over nine years that seems to indicate that some churches are learning how to slow abuse allegations with tough new prevention measures, say insurance company officials and church officials themselves.
The peak year for allegations was 1994, with 3 percent of churches reporting an allegation of sexual misconduct compared with just 0.1 percent in 2000. But 2001 data, indicates a swing back to the 1 percent level, still significantly less than the 1993 figures, Cobble says.
Child sexual-abuse insurance claims have slowed, too, industry sources say.
Hugh White, vice president of marketing for Brotherhood Mutual Insurance, in Ft. Wayne, Ind., suggests that the amount of abuse reported in the CMR 2001 data is reasonable though "at the higher end" of the scale.
Mr. White's company insures 30,000 churches about 0.2 percent to 0.3 percent of which annually report an "incident" of child sexual abuse. But he says that his churches are more highly educated on child abuse prevention procedures than most, which may account for a lower rate of reported abuse than the CMR surveys.