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This is a long report of 13 pages. I am going to take some sections of it to post, but if you wish to read the whole report? Please download it.
Abstract: Utilizing data from 326 cases of alleged child sexual abuse that occurred at or through activities provided by Protestant Christian congregations, this study examines demographic and contextual characteristics of alleged child sexual abuse that took place within the most prevalent religious environment in the United States. Research questions are addressed in this study. First, what type of child sexual abuse most commonly occurs at or through activities provided by Protestant Christian congregations? Second, where do such offenses physically take place? Third, who are the offenders and what role(s) do they assume in the congregations? We find that the overwhelming majority of offenses were contact offenses that occurred on church premises or at the offender’s home, and that most offenders were white male pastors or youth ministers who were approximately 40 years in age. We conclude with policy implications and recommendations for future research.
Specifically, three faith-based insurance companies that provide coverage for 165,500 churches—mostly Protestant Christian churches and 5500 other religious-oriented organizations—reported 7095 claims of alleged sexual abuse by clergy, church staff, congregation members, or volunteers between 1987 and 2007 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer 2007). This is an average of 260 claims of alleged sexual abuse per year, which resulted in $87.8 million in total claims being paid (Seattle Post-Intelligencer 2007). Although information on the extent and context of abuse is preliminary and limited, these previous statistics suggest to us the need for systematic research on child sexual abuse within US Protestant congregations. This study will provide a more comprehensive understanding of alleged child sexual abuse that occurs with Protestant Christian congregations, while also serving as a strong foundation for future research on this understudied topic.
The overwhelming majority of studies that have been published on this topic have focused on either individual cases of abuse, how to stop abuse from occurring, how to recover from such instances of sexual abuse, or some combination of those (see Capps 1993; Flynn 2003; Horst 2000;Muse 1992; Poling 1999).
Even though the above issues are crucial for study, there is even less information about what offenses occur at a national level, where they physically take place, and who offends. This information is especially crucial when considering Capps’ (1993) three key reasons why religious leaders have the strong potential to engage in sexual abuse. These reasons are the (1) power of access throughout the church and victim accessibility; (2) power from not being under the surveillance of others; and (3) power over congregants by being privy to personal knowledge (e.g., marital issues and addictions).
Garland and Argueta (2010) later identified factors that may be related to sexual abuse committed by religious leaders. These factors are (1) family members, friends, and victims ignored warning signs; (2) the niceness culture (i.e., discounting sexual flirting for being friendly); (3) ease of private communication; (4) no oversight; (5) multiple roles (e.g., pastor, marital counselor, etc.); and (6) inherent trust in the sanctuary.
With the lack of specific research on sexual abuse within these environments, it is pertinent to briefly examine the sexual misconduct literature within these environments for contextual purposes.
1.1.1. Clergy Offender Characteristics
One universal trait that has been found in prior studies pertaining to both sexual misconduct and abuse is that the overwhelming majority of known offenders are male (Francis and Baldo 1998; Friberg and Laaser 1998; Garland and Argueta 2010; Thoburn and Whitman 2004). This characteristic should not come as a surprise since most Christian denominations (88%) only allow males to assume leadership positions within the church (Cooperative Congregations Studies Partnership 2010).
A second key characteristic found regarding clergy that do engage in sexual abuse is that only a small percentage are believed to have some form of paraphilia, which is an extreme fixation on a certain individual, object, or situation that results in intense sexual arousal (American Psychiatric Association 2013). Specifically, 2% are believed to be potentially diagnosable as a pedophile (i.e., sexual focus on prepubescent children), while 4% could be diagnosable as an ephebophile (i.e., sexual fixation on those between the ages of 15 and 19 years of age) (Sipe 1990, 1995).
Other psychological issues that have been attributed to priests that have been known to engage in child sexual abuse include addiction, depression, and even cognitive dysfunction (Blanchard 1991; Plante and Aldridge 2005).
A third key characteristic found regarding clergy who have reported to have engaged in sexual misconduct have had higher-than-normal levels of narcissism when using Raskin and Hall’s (1979) Narcissistic Personality Inventory (see Brock and Lukens 1989; Francis and Baldo 1998; Hands 1992; Muse 1992; Muse and Chase 1993; Seat et al. 1993). Narcissism is seen as a key trait that can amplify instances of sexual abuse for individuals in positions of power.
1.1.3. Offense Locations
For instances of sexual misconduct and abuse that occurred within Protestant Christian churches, Chaves and Garland (2009) found that most (92%) sexual misconduct occurred in a private setting. Garland and Argueta (2010) found that most sexual misconduct/abuse occurred inside the offender’s church office while conducting a counselling session. Since Protestant Christian clergy generally live off the church campus, this may restrict their attempts to commit sexual abuse due to less absolute privacy (Bohm et al. 2014; Fegert et al. 2011).
Despite research that has examined sexual misconduct and abuse within religious settings, there still exists a need for research pertaining to offenses that occur at or through activities provided by Protestant Christian churches. Such information is crucial with an estimated 314,000 churches in the US, with a substantial portion of that population being occupied by the ages with the highest known sexual victimization rates (Grammich et al. 2012; Pew Research Center 2007). Any environment that may be conducive for instances of sexual abuse is essential to study because of long-lasting side effects, such as depression, increased substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts/attempts/completions (see Beitchman et al. 1992; Dube et al. 2005; Najdowski and Ullman 2009; Rossow and Lauritzen 2001; Simpson and Miller 2002). As such, the expansion of research into specific and contextual information regarding child sexual abuse that occur at or through activities provided by Protestant Christian churches is imperative.
1.2. Clergy Sexual Misconduct
Sexual misconduct refers to clergy that have engaged in legal, sexual relations, adultery, or some other related sexual action with a congregant that is deemed unethical or improper within these environments. Several studies have attempted to understand the prevalence of clergy sexual misconduct among Protestant Christian clergy (see Cooper 2002; Francis and Stacks 2003; Meek et al. 2004; Seat et al. 1993; Thoburn and Whitman 2004). Studies 1% to as many as 38.5% of all clergy, across a wide range of Christian denominations, have engaged in sexual misconduct of some form (Francis and Stacks 2003; Meek et al. 2004; Seat et al. 1993; Thoburn and Whitman 2004).
The Present Study
There are three foci for the present study. First, we examine the types of child sexual abuse alleged to occur within Protestant Christian congregations. Second, we provide information on where these offenses are alleged to occur. Third, we examine who commits alleged offenses within these environments and which role(s) they assume within their congregations. It is important to understand these core contextual characteristics, to provide a framework for additional research on this topic, and to provide law enforcement officers and faith leaders with information that could be useful in preventing and controlling child sexual abuse in faith environments.
4.1. Offense Type
Across all 326 cases that resulted in an arrest, a total of 454 individual offenses were alleged to have occurred. Since the 326 cases occurred in 41 total states, numerous local and state jurisdictions were crossed. As such, the name for a particular offense in one jurisdiction may be entirely different in the legal definition, severity, and overall scope than an offense with the same/similar name in another jurisdiction. As such, sexual offenses were organized into the two categories of (1) contact offenses and (2) non-contact offenses.
A similar categorization strategy has been employed in prior studies examining sexual offenses (see Babchishin et al. 2015; MacPherson 2010). Contact offenses are criminal actions that involved the offender making some form of direct physical contact with the victim’s body, whereas non-contact offenses are still sexual in nature, yet do not involve the offender making direct physical contact with the victim.
A third category of property offenses was also developed to include the property offenses (e.g., possession of criminal tools, and burglary) that were alleged to have occurred during the commission of the alleged sexual abuse.
4.1.1. Contact Offenses
Contact offenses refer to alleged offenses that involved some direct physical sexual contact between the offender and the victim(s) (Mair and Stevens 1994). Notable examples of contact offenses include, but are not limited to, sexual assault, rape, and groping. In total, contact offenses represented fully 80% (n = 363) of the 454 total offenses. Therefore, the overwhelming majority of all offenses included direct physical sexual contact between the offender and the victim(s). The total number of
victims per case ranged from one to as many as 20 individuals. However, the vast majority of cases involved only one known victim at 61.7%. We must note here that cases involving child pornography were not included in this part of the analysis. Therefore, the number of cases is 321.
4.1.2. Non-Contact Offenses
Non-contact sex offenses refer to those where the offender did not have physical sexual contact with any victim(s) (Mair and Stevens 1994). Some examples of non-contact sex offenses include stalking, sexual harassment, and possession of child pornography. Across all 326 cases, non-contact offenses represented 18.9% (n = 89) of the 454 separate offenses. Although this is a sizeable minority, it is important to consider that 79.1% (n = 258) of cases involved the offender being charged with both contact and non-contact sex offenses when arrested, and only 7.4% (n = 24) were charged with solely a non-contact sexual offense.
4.1.3. Property Offenses
Some individuals within the present study were also charged with a property offense at the point of arrest in conjunction with a sex offense (i.e., contact and/or non-contact). In total, a mere 1.1% (n = 5) of all offenses at the point of arrest were for a property crime (e.g., burglary and theft of a victim’s clothing).
4.2. Offense Locations
A total of 41 states were represented in the present study. The top five states that had the most reported instances of alleged sexual abuse were as follows: Florida (9.6%; n = 32), Texas (8.4%; n = 28), California (7.5%; n = 25), Illinois (5.1%; n = 17), and Tennessee and Alabama, respectively, at 4.2% (n = 14). Across the 326 cases, the specific offense location was available in 70.9% (n = 231) of the cases. Fully 29.1% (n = 95) cases did not have a specific location reported. Findings were divided into two
primary subsections, being (1) general offense locations and (2) specific offense locations.
4.2.1. General Offense Locations
General offense location was divided into three distinct categories. These three categories were if the offense(s) occurred either exclusively (1) on church grounds; (2) off church grounds; or (3) both on and off church grounds. Among cases with a reported location (n = 231), 45.5% (n = 105) occurred exclusively off-site. Specifically, most cases with a reported offense location occurred within the offender’s home, victim’s home, or some other off-site location (e.g., hotel/motel room). In contrast, fully 35.5% (n = 82) of cases with a known location occurred exclusively on church grounds. Examples of such locations on
church grounds included church offices, the parking lot, and the sanctuary. A sizeable minority of all offenses with a reported offense location took place both on and off the church grounds at 19.0% (n = 44).
4.2.2. Specific Offense Locations
Across all 326 cases, there were a total of 311 reported offense locations. Five unique offense locations were reported across the 311 offense locations. Table 1 presents the findings for the specific offense locations, percentages, and the total numbers.
Table 1. Offense locations.
at the church 38.9% (n = 121)
offender’s home 31.2% (n = 97)
off-site 12.9% (n = 40)
off-site church-sponsored activity 10.6% (n = 33)
victim’s home 6.4% (n = 20) n = 311.
The most frequent specific offense location reported was that it occurred someplace at the church (e.g., office, basement, bathroom, etc.). Altogether, 38.9% (n = 121) of all offenses allegedly took place on the church premises, with 15.4% (n = 48) occurring within the personal office of the alleged offender.
The second most frequent specific offense location was at the offender’s home (31.2%; n = 97), thus suggesting some degree of planning and/or grooming by the offender to isolate the victim inside a relatively controlled environment. The third most frequent offense location was at a sponsored off-site church-sponsored activity (e.g., mission trips, camping trips, etc.), accounting for 10.6% (n = 33) of all cases with a known location. The fourth most frequent offense location was at an off-site (e.g., offender’s car) location at 12.9% (n = 40). The fifth and final specific offense location was alleged to have occurred within the victim’s home at 6.4% (n = 20).
4.3. Offender Characteristics
To meet the third goal of this study, the offender characteristics are presented. Altogether, 332 offenders across the 326 identified cases were identified. The remainder of this section is divided into the four subsections of (1) offender sex; (2) offender race/ethnicity; (3) offender age; and (4) offender role.
4.3.1. Offender Gender
The overwhelming majority of identified offenders were male. Specifically, male offenders were represented by 98.8% (n = 328) with female offenders at only 1.2% (n = 4) of the offender sample.
4.3.2. Offender Race/Ethnicity
There were five total races/ethnicities represented among the offender sample being White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American. A total of 18.3% (n = 61) of the race/ethnicity of the offender was missing. The overwhelming majority of offenders were identified as White (73.1%; n = 198) with Black representing 18.8% (n = 51) of all offenders. The remaining three races/ethnicities of Hispanic, Asian, and Native American accounted for less-than 10% of all offenders.
4.3.3. Offender Age
In total, 56 distinct offender ages were represented in the sample. Specifically, offender ages at the time of the alleged sexual abuse ranged from 18 to 88 years of age. Altogether, only 2.7% (n = 7) of all offender ages were missing, yielding 325 total cases. The mean age was 40.4 years of age with a standard deviation of 13.7 years. For male offenders (n = 315; 7 missing), the mean age was 40.5 with a standard deviation of
13.7 years. For female offenders (n = 4), the mean age was considerably younger at 23.5 with a standard deviation of 12.8 years. One’s age is oftentimes associated with one’s role within a church, with many positions relying upon a seniority system. Thus, the offender’s role held within the church is an important characteristic for understanding who occupies the role and how such a role can potentially influence one’s opportunities for victim access.
4.3.4. Offender Role
The specific role that the offender held within the church was available in 92.2% (n = 306) of the cases with 7.8% (n = 26) having no reported role. Across all cases, 12 distinct offender roles were represented within the sample. The overwhelming majority (80.1%) of offenders were employed in an official capacity within their respective churches with a substantial minority (19.9%) being volunteers.
Table 2 presents the findings for both male and female offender roles.
Table 2. Offender Role within the Church.
Offender Role Percentage
Male Offender Roles
Pastor 34.9% (n = 110)
Youth Minister 31.4% (n = 99)
Youth Volunteer 8.3% (n = 26)
Associate Pastor 5.4% (n = 17)
Music Minister 4.8% (n = 15)
Volunteer 3.2% (n = 10)
Sunday School Teacher 2.9% (n = 9)
Deacon 2.2% (n = 7)
Church Member 2.2% (n = 7)
Church CampWorker 0.6% (n = 2)
n = 315
Female Offender Roles
Youth Volunteer 50% (n = 2)
Youth Minister 25% (n = 1)
Pastor’s Wife 25% (n = 1)
n = 4
Male Offender Roles
Of the 328 male offenders in the present sample, 94.7% (n = 305) of their roles were known with 4.0% (n = 13) missing. The most frequent male offender role was a Pastor at 34.9% (n = 110) of the sample, followed by Youth Ministers at 31.4% (n = 99). The third most frequent offender role of Youth Volunteers was a sharp contrast in frequency compared to the first two roles consisting of 8.3% (n = 26) of the sample. Youth Volunteers can range from someone that is an unpaid church member to a young adult who assists with the youth ministry. Combined, those who occupy roles that require the direct supervision and/or interaction with youth (generally under 18 years of age), comprised 38.8% of the total offender sample. The fourth most frequent offender role was that of Associate Pastor, followed by Music Ministers. Specifically, Associate Pastors represented 5.4% (n = 17) of the sample, whereas Music Ministers held 4.8% (n = 15) of the total sample. Even though all but one of the male offender roles at this point have
been employees of the church, the remainder of offenders held some volunteer role. Volunteers, the sixth most represented male offender role, made up 3.2% (n = 10) of the total sample. Volunteers is a general category that includes a wide-range of individuals serving in various
capacities, such as a sports coach or bus driver. Yet another form of volunteer that was also represented were Sunday School Teachers at 2.9% (n = 9). Typically, Sunday School Teachers are tasked with preparing
and instructing individuals with religious materials on a weekly or more basis. The eighth most represented offender role, Deacons (2.2%), are also individuals that provide a wide-range of services to the church, such as collecting tithes and visiting church members in the hospital. The ninth most represented male offender role was a general Church Member at 2.2% (n = 7) of the offenders. Somewhat unique when compared to the other offender roles present, Church Members do not occupy a specific role within the church, nor do they hold an official title.
The final two male offender roles were Church Camp Workers (0.6%; n = 2) and Choir Volunteers (0.6%; n = 2). Church Camp Workers are individuals that worked for a short-term summer camp or other camp operated by the respective church. Choir Volunteers are those that sing within the respective church’s choir. Although male offenders held 10 distinct roles, the female offenders occupied only three individual roles.
Female Offender Roles
Even though there were only four female offenders represented, these offenders also warrant discussion. The three female offender roles were a Youth Volunteer, Youth Minister, and the Pastor’s Wife. Youth Volunteers represented 50% (n = 2) of the female offender sample while Youth Minister and the Pastor’s Wife had one case (i.e., 25%), respectively.