A byproduct of the child sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church may be that a keen eye is now being increasingly focused on Protestant churches.

Make no mistake about it: The sexual abuse of children is a sin, unequivocally and indefensibly. And it is a social, sexual and religious problem affecting the larger society and the religious communities and institutions that are embedded in it.

It is a social problem. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “the sexual victimization of children is overwhelming in magnitude yet largely unrecognized and underreported.” The center quantifies this magnitude by pointing out that one out of every five girls and one out of every 10 boys will be sexually abused before they are adults. If you know any adolescent or pre-adolescent children, chances are high that one of them has been or will be sexually victimized.

The number of instances of child sexual abuse reported by the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests that a child is sexually abused in this country every four minutes. That figure is actually down from 1993 when it was every two and a half minutes.

It is a sexual problem. While there may be legitimate debate among psychologists on what types of sexual activity may be considered “normal” and what types are “deviant” among adults, there is no basis on which an adult’s sexual activity with a minor can be defended. Whether it is exploitation in the form of abuse, assault or abduction; or child prostitution or pornography; or an attempt to gain sexual gratification or exercise dominating power over a child, sexually oriented expressiveness with a child is sexual deviance and thus morally reprehensible.

It is a religious problem. There should be no surprise that a social problem of this magnitude is present in the churches – Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox. The near-universal repudiation of sexual child exploitation in church and society, to say nothing of its illegality in civil and criminal law, makes the burden of its detection and removal all the more onerous in faith communities where adults and children mix freely in a variety of church-related activities and locations.

Relations between and within families in religious communities as well as the presumption of trust and respect for their leaders portends higher levels of social intimacy, and thus greater opportunities for sexual deviance and vulnerability.

Back in 2002, just as the wave of disclosures about clergy sexual abuse in the U.S. Catholic Church rose higher and higher, Mark Clayton at the Christian Science Monitor wrote an article reporting on the results of a longitudinal survey conducted by the Christian Ministry Resources (CMR), a research and publishing house focusing on tax, legal and risk management issues for churches and religious organizations.

Among other findings, CMR reports that the rate of sexual abuse instances across all denominations is virtually the same, and that the perpetrators are more likely to be volunteers than clergy. According to the 1999 survey data, 42 percent of those accused of child sexual abuse were volunteers and 25 percent were paid staff (some of whom were not necessarily clergy).

A 2007 article in the New York Times indicated that the Roman Catholic Church had recorded 13,000 “credible accusations against Catholic clergymen” over the last 57 years, an average of 228 accusations a year.

In contrast, three companies – Church Mutual, GuideOne and Brotherhood Mutual – insuring churches, religious schools, camps and other religious organizations reported in 2007 that among them, they had been receiving on average more than 330 reported sexual abuse cases a year involving a child for the last 10 to 15 years.

While the insurance companies did not provide supporting documentation for their summaries, and they insure less than half the number of Protestant churches in the United States, two things are suggested by their release of figures.

First, there is some reason to believe that the magnitude of the problem of child sexual abuse includes the non-Catholic churches in our society. And second, there is clearly no efficient way to gather reliable statistics on the pervasiveness of the problem in faith communities, given the range of differences in church polity.

So it is all the more important to note that since the late 1990s, denominational judicatories in the mainline Protestant traditions have taken formal structural, educational, ethical and policy steps to prevent and report all forms of sexual abuse in their churches. Whether the words are used, these efforts are indicative of attempts to cultivate “safe” and “hospitable” churches for all, but especially for children. (See for example, American Baptist Churches, USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church, USA, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church and Episcopal Church.)

What remains to be seen, however, is whether these programmatic initiatives will bring their desired result. But make no mistake about it: The sexual abuse of children is going on in Protestant churches, and it is social, sexual and religious irresponsibility to ignore it, camouflage it, minimize it or think one’s faith community is immune from it.

Douglas Sharp is dean of the Academy for the Common Good, an initiative of Protestants for the Common Good, a progressive voice that brings a biblical and theological perspective to critical public issues. Sharp is an ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches-USA.

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