Although sexual abuse cases involving clergy often provoke national media attention, new research points toward church volunteers and other staff as being more likely to sexually abuse church members.
Volunteer workers are the most frequent abusers, constituting half of all sexual misconduct offenses in churches, according to a profile last year by Church Law and Tax Report. Paid staff members represent 30 percent of the perpetrators, and 20 percent are committed by another child.
Churches typically are caught off guard. For example, former youth minister Bryan Buckley of Christ Community Church in Saint Charles, Illinois, was sentenced in February to a seven-year prison term after being convicted of sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl in the congregation.
Kane County judge Philip L. DiMarzio declared that Buckley "preached abstinence and practiced indulgence." Larry Breeden, staff coordinator at Christ Community Church, says Buckley had excellent references, including having once been named youth minister of the year at Liberty University.
Buckley's references had been checked by staff members, and a criminal record check also had been conducted. "There was no indication that Buckley had any problems," Breeden says.
Breeden says Buckley managed to sidestep a church policy that forbids staff members from being alone with members of the opposite sex. "You can always find a way to circumvent church policies if you're determined," Breeden says. "We can only pray that God will protect his church."
SCREENING RECOMMENDED: James Cobble, publisher of Church Law and Tax Report, told CT that churches are not going to be able to screen out every pedophile. "But a screening program in the church is like putting a spotlight on the church and saying to anybody who's predatory, 'You're going to be exposed to screening, and people will find out.' "
Cobble, who also is director of Christian Ministry Resources, which has published a "Reducing the Risk of Child Sexual Abuse in Your Church" kit, says a screening program demonstrates that the church has taken preventative steps and is a safeguard in court cases. Background checks on a church employee's criminal record and employment history are the most effective forms of screening, Cobble says.
The number of allegations of sexual molestation against children is rising among 1,700 congregations surveyed by Church Law and Tax Report. In 1995, 0.8 percent of those churches reported allegations of sexual molestation. The rate rose to 2 percent last year.
Litigation is also becoming more commonplace. By 1993, approximately 1 percent of churches in the publication's survey had been involved in sexual misconduct suits, compared to none a decade earlier.
NO NEW SIN: The problem of inappropriate sexual behavior among clergy is not new. A 1984 Fuller Seminary survey of ministers in four denominations—Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, and Assemblies of God—showed that 12.7 percent had engaged in sexual intercourse with a church member. The study reported that 38.6 percent had made "sexual contact" with a church member.
And in a 1993 survey of Southern Baptist pastors, 14.1 percent confessed to "sexual behavior inappropriate to a minister."
Despite a steady track record of allegations and lawsuits, only 27 percent of the 1,700 churches surveyed by Cobble in 1996 conducted criminal-record or employment-history background checks on prospective workers. About 36 percent of the churches surveyed reported doing some form of screening. Some insurance companies, such as Brotherhood Mutual and Church Mutual, began to require screening of church employees in the early 1990s.
Dealing with lawsuits can also be expensive for churches. According to Cobble, more than 60 percent of lawsuits are resolved for between $100,000 and $150,000. However, the average total cost, when legal expenses and other costs are taken into account, is $1 million. "Most churches have either no insurance or minimal insurance coverage to cope with these costs."
Cobble strongly recommends that churches screen both volunteer workers and paid employees. He suggests that an employment verification agency carry out background checks.
Pinkerton Services Group, the largest provider of background screening, has organized a department to deal with churches. Philip Langford told CT that churches often contact local police before hiring employees, but officers can only provide information in their jurisdiction. Pinkerton checks the areas where a person has lived and worked for the past seven years. "Almost 75 percent of the churches we have talked to have not done any checks."
COUNSELING RISKS: While screening programs help in dealing with abuse of children by adults, the growth of peer counseling among adults in churches presents another difficulty.
In small-group settings, intimate personal matters may be under discussion among group members who rarely have the training to cope with their own feelings in sensitive situations.
"Counseling is an incredibly intense experience, and people need to learn how to deal with the issues of sexual attraction in counseling," says Mark McMinn, chair of the Wheaton College psychology department. McMinn supervised the surveying of 900 Christian counselors last year and found that only 41 percent of these counselors reported never experiencing sexual attraction toward a client.
The high standards of sexual purity that Christians strive to achieve make it more likely that they will deny feelings of sexual attraction, McMinn says. "Our assumption is that if the issue of sexual attraction is not discussed or is a closed topic, then it makes people vulnerable," he says.
Copyright © 1997 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.