Sex abuse spans spectrum of churches

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

At least 70 incidents a week

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.

What all the data show is a settling that followed "a large spike" in the frequency and severity of church sexual misconduct claims from the mid-1980s, White says.

"Church insurance carriers implemented educational programs and policies that have helped decrease and then stabilize the trend," agrees Jan Beckstrom, chief operating officer for the church insurer GuideOne Insurance in West Des Moines, Iowa.

CMR surveys also show many smaller churches have lagged in starting such programs, while larger churches with more resources and management controls have led the way. And for good reason: They have more to lose, and a larger abuse problem.

"I don't know of a church that isn't doing this," says Simeon May, of the Richardson, Tex.-based National Association of Church Business Administration, which gives training for large churches with administrators.

At Grace Community Church in Tempe, Ariz., the executive pastor, Gary Maitha, says his church has adopted a tougher sort of love since 2000. That's when criminal background checks, finger printing, detailed questionnaires, and careful policies – such as never having children and adults "one-on-one" – kicked into gear. It's a necessity with 700 to 800 children showing up for Sunday School and many more for other church activities during the week, he says.

"We have fingerprinting and a criminal background check for anyone over age 18 that works with children," says the Rev. Maitha. "If it comes back with a blemish, they're not working with kids. That's all there is to it."

Debby DeBernardi, director of Grace Community's children's ministry, says church policies require, for instance, that adults go in pairs when supervising bathroom breaks for children and that they check to ensure no adults are in the bathrooms, before children enter.

Fingerprints for Sunday school

Men who've been screened and fingerprinted may work in the nursery. But only female staff members – not volunteers – may change diapers. Only adults wearing an identity badge that indicates they've been cleared may work with children – and photo IDs are coming soon. Some long-time volunteers, offended by all the new policies, have bowed out of children's activities.

But the new procedures have already proven their worth, Ms. DeBernardi says. "We did have someone already apply who had a police file and had been accused of child molestation. Because of our new procedures, we caught it.... Sometimes you have to bring people in and say, 'Look, you're welcome to come to the church, we love you. But you may not minister in the children's area.' "

That sort of toughness is swiftly becoming a prerequisite for insurance coverage, and to protect against lawsuits and false allegations, which can be nearly as demoralizing to a church organization.

The problem, Cobble says, is that churches are the perfect environment for sexual predators, because they have large numbers of children's' programs, a shortage of workers to lead them, and a culture of trust that is the essence of the organization.

Churches have been active since the early 1990s in addressing the problem, Cobble reports. More than 100,000 copies of a book he co-authored, "Reducing the risk of Child Sexual Abuse in Your Church" were sold.

Since January, when Roman Catholic dioceses nationwide began drawing headlines over pedophile priests, some church organizations have focused anew on revamping sexual abuse policies.

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, for instance, is reportedly drafting a new sexual- abuse policy.

Ralph Colas, of the American Council of Christian Churches, a Bethlehem, Penn. organization representing fundamentalist denominations, reports fresh activity. "I've helped several churches this last week draw up some guideline policies," he says. "I've encouraged churches to secure legal advice, to make sure they are meeting the legal mandatory reporting requirements."

Fear of lawsuits sparked new rules

But the shift to "trust but verify" – impelled to a degree by current headlines – has been ongoing since a conference in Chicago in November 1992 when more than 100 denominational leaders met for the first time to discuss how to deal with child sex abuse. About that time, insurance companies were dropping coverage of churches without screening policies.

"What drove leaders to begin to respond to this issue was not the welfare of children," Cobble says. "It was fear of large, costly lawsuits."

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