The Associated Press reported recently that three insurance companies receive upward of 260 reports each year of young people under 18 being sexually abused by Protestant clergy, challenging the assumption that clergy sexual abuse is an exclusively Catholic problem that does not take place in other churches.
That is a higher number than the annual average of 228 “credible accusations” brought against Catholic clerics in records reported by the Catholic Church in response to media scrutiny, a priest observed in a Fox News commentary questioning why the story isn’t garnering more attention.
While the report about abuse in Protestant churches doesn’t absolve guilty Catholic priests or those who enabled them, said Father Jonathan Morris, it offers a more complete picture. “The problem of sexual abuse has no denominational boundaries,” he wrote.
The AP obtained figures on sex-abuse claims from three companies that insure the majority of Protestant churches in America–Church Mutual Insurance Company, GuideOne Insurance and Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company.
The largest company, Church Mutual, reported an average of about 100 sex-abuse cases a year involving minors over the last decade. GuideOne, with about half the clients of Church Mutual, said it has received an average of 160 reports of sex abuse against minors every year for the past two decades. Brotherhood Mutual said it received an average of 73 reports of child sex abuse and other sexual misconduct every year for the last 15 years but did not specify how many victims are younger than 18.
That compares to at least 10,667 people who reported plausible claims of childhood sexual abuse by 4,392 priests or deacons between 1950 and 2002 in a study commissioned by the Catholic Church with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York as part of its response to its clergy abuse scandal. That represents 4 percent of the approximately 110,000 diocesan and religious priests who served in the United States in those years.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offers an extensive annual report monitoring sexual-abuse claims. There were 635 new allegations reported in 2006, 9 percent fewer than in 2005. A total of 14 allegations (2 percent) involved children under the age of 18 in 2006. The remaining 621 allegations were by adults alleging abuse as minors in previous years.
Protestant numbers are harder to come by, the AP reported, because the denominations are less centralized than the Catholic Church. Many churches are independent, making reporting even harder.
“This bad news for Protestant Churches is sad news for all of us,” Father Morris wrote. “I would prefer the problem be limited to any one church–even if that church were my own–because it would mean more kids would be safe. But as I have said repeatedly over the last few years, the problem of sexual abuse of minors is not an issue of religious affiliation because there is nothing religious about abusing children. The phenomenon of sexual abuse of minors in church settings is the story of sick human beings taking advantage of their position of moral authority to prey on the weak and vulnerable. If Catholic clergy were to be faithful to their church’s teaching, there would be no abuse in the Catholic Church. The same goes for Protestant clergy. The problem, then, is not one of corrupt doctrine, but of individuals being unfaithful to the most basic precepts of their own religious belief.”
Insurance officials told the AP the numbers of sex-abuse cases has remained steady over the past two decades, but churches are doing more to prevent child-sexual abuse by conducting background checks, installing windows in nurseries and play areas and requiring at least two adults in a room with a child.
Still, said Patrick Moreland of Church Mutual, churches are particularly vulnerable to abusers.
“By their nature, congregations are the most trusting of organizations, so that makes them attractive targets for predators,” he said. “If you’re a predator, where do you go? You go to a congregation that will welcome you.”
America’s largest Protestant group, the Southern Baptist Convention, voted last month to refer a motion to study the feasibility of establishing a database of Southern Baptist clergy and church staff who are credibly accused of, have confessed to or were convicted of sexual abuse or harassment to the SBC Executive Committee.
This year’s convention also adopted a non-binding resolution expressing “moral outrage” against the victimization of children.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.