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Cleaning Up Our Churches from Sexual Abuse
The exposure of sexual abuse in many faith communities is making churches more cautious.

Twenty years ago, most of us would have naively assumed that sexual abuse could never take place in church. And it would never be committed by clergy. That assumption has long since died. Most recently, we have been confronted with the American scandal over the abuse of as many as 10,000 youth by 1,500 Catholic priests.

Canada has had its own problems in Anglican, Catholic, United Church and Presbyterian residential schools, and in schools operated by the Christian Brothers at Mount Cashel and in Alfred, east of Ottawa. Jehovah's Witnesses, Hare Krishnas, Buddhists, Jews, Baptists, Pentecostals and leaders of virtually every religious group have also been accused of sexual abuse. However, there is still an assumption in Protestant circles, and particularly in evangelical churches, that the problem is mainly a Catholic one and that it could never happen in our church.

That assumption also deserves to die. The Catholic cases always get more publicity, but in the last decade, I and others in the media have reported charges against Anglican, United, Eastern Orthodox and other non-Catholic clergy, including evangelicals. Most of the offences have involved sexual abuse of women by male clergy.

… more than 25 percent of the female students reported some form of sexual abuse within the Church …

A decade ago, a study in Winnipeg of students at a Mennonite Bible college also found that more than 25 percent of the female students reported some form of sexual abuse within the Church in the previous year. There are no good Canadian statistics on the problem, but the few well-publicized examples have forced most of Canada's major church bodies to develop policies on how to deal with sexual abuse and sexual harassment. One reason we are hearing more about the problem is that it is no longer taboo to speak of sexual abuse. Victims are speaking out instead of staying silent out of fear or shame.

Churches are a natural target for sexual predators. They have large numbers of children, a shortage of willing workers, and a culture of trust that assumes no Christian could be suspect of such exploitation. James Cobble, executive director of Christian Ministry Resources (CMR), an American tax and legal-advice publisher, recently reported that over the past decade, there have been an average of 70 allegations a week of child abuse committed in churches. He said the survey shows that volunteers, not clergy or church staff, are the major offenders. There is other evidence that contradicts this conclusion, including a study by Freethought Today, an American publication that found two-thirds of 106 cases reported in the media involved clergy.

The CMR surveys of sexual abuse charges suggest there has been a slight decrease over the past decade, probably because more and more churches are taking tough preventive measures. The peak year in the United States was 1994, when three percent of churches reported allegations of sexual misconduct. By the year 2000, only 0.1 percent reported allegations. Among the measures that appear to prevent such crimes are criminal background checks, fingerprinting, detailed questionnaires and policies that prohibit an adult from spending prolonged time one-on-one with children.

The Canadian Catholic experience also shows that preventive measures work. In 1992 the Canadian bishops were the first in the Catholic world to adopt a policy of zero tolerance of sexual abuse. In the six years before that, they had been confronted with sexual charges against 70 priests and members of religious orders.

The bishops ensured that all future seminarians would undergo psychological testing, and adopted a policy of complete openness with judicial authorities, the public and the media on all incidents of sexual abuse. Since then, there have been relatively few new charges of sexual abuse against Canadian priests. Now the American bishops are considering a similar policy.

What is really needed is a healthy suspicion of human frailty, our own as well as in others.

Billy Graham and his associates decided more than 50 years ago that it was too risky to spend time alone with women in an office or anywhere else. Today both men and women must take the same responsibility. Preventive measures do work; Graham and his associates have never been accused of sexual immorality.

Bob Harvey is the religion editor of the Ottawa Citizen.

Faith Today, Jul/Aug 2002,




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