Church Tackles Sex Abuse By Clergy

Tell Me More's weekly feature Faith Matters takes up the issue of sexual abuse of boys and young men by clergy of diverse faith traditions after recent allegations of sexual misconduct by the leader of a megachurch in suburban Atlanta rocked the faith community. Studies show that theological seminaries fail to prepare clergy to address sexuality issues, perhaps creating an opening for sexual misconduct. Host Michel Martin speaks with Baylor University Prof. Diana Garland, co-author of "How Sexual Misconduct Happens," and Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, clinical associate professor of Pastoral Studies at Catholic University.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a moment, we'll hear comments from you about what we had to say this week. It's Backtalk, and that's in just a few minutes.

But first, it's time for our Faith Matters conversation, where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. And today we return to the difficult subject of alleged sexual abuse by a member of the clergy.

This time the allegations involve the leader of a large congregation in suburban Atlanta, Bishop Eddie Long, a pastor who's been nationally recognized both for the success of his church-building efforts and for his strong stance against same-sex marriage, which of course makes the allegations that over a period of years he manipulated at least four young men into sexual relationships with him all the more striking.

I should note that the bishop, in addressing his congregation last week, says he will fight the complaint, and no criminal charges have been filed. But leaving aside the specifics of this case, there have been, unfortunately, all too many confirmed and proven cases of clergy sexually abusing boys and young men and women in their congregations.

So we wanted to talk more about this. We've called on Diana Garland, dean of the School of Social Work at Baylor University. She co-authored the study "How Clergy Sexual Misconduct Happens." Also with us is Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, Clinical Associate Professor of Pastoral Studies at the Catholic University of America. He's also the former president of the St. Luke Institute. That's a treatment center for Catholic clergy. And I thank you both so much for joining us.

Professor DIANA GARLAND (Baylor University): It's good to be with you.

Monsignor STEPHEN ROSSETTI (Catholic University): It's great to be with you.

MARTIN: Now Professor Garland, your study about sexual wrongdoing among clergy surveyed both men and women. And I just wanted to ask: What were some of the patterns that you found about how this occurred? What were some of the through-lines?

Prof. GARLAND: Well, in the interviews that I did, I found very similar patterns in which clergy have access to the private lives of persons in their congregation, with very little oversight about their relationships.

That coupled with our expectation that clergy are above reproach, that they're the most ethical, that they are to be trustworthy, means that we let down our guard with them in ways that we may not with other persons in our lives.

Sometimes the first what we call boundary-crossings are hard to really pinpoint. He, or she, may hold the hand of a parishioner in prayer but hold it a little too long and a little too caressing, and that's very hard to call.

MARTIN: One of the points you make in the study is that this behavior often escalates. I mean, I think people sometimes sort of have an image of this kind of behavior as being kind of a forcing of oneself upon someone else.

But the point that you make is that there's a very kind of gradual sort of grooming behavior, kind of an escalating behavior.

And the other point that you make in the study that I think it's important to point is that among people whom you interviewed, there were people from a very wide array of religious organizations and faith groups, of Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Seventh Day Adventist, Disciples of Christ, Mormon, Apostolic, Calvary Chapel, Christian Science, Church of Christ, Episcopal Friends, Mennonite, Evangelical, non-denomination and Reformed Judaism. I mean, it just, I think the point being made that this did not seem to be the particular bane of any particular group.

Prof. GARLAND: I didn't see any pattern it cuts across, and that's just in the interviews I did. In the national study we did, we found again a high prevalence, that one out of 33 women or men in congregations have experienced themselves misconduct by a religious leader.

MARTIN: Monsignor, let's turn to you, because the Catholic Church has been very much in the news in this country and also around the world, related to this question of sexual abuse by clergy of young men.

And have you seen, over the course of time that you've been studying this, have you seen any pattern?

Monsignor ROSSETTI: Michel, it's all very different from one to the other. Some perpetrators are very disturbed men psychologically, very at-risk for future relapses, some less so, depending on their sort of clinical pathology.

And so some with a modest amount of therapy and some education can sort of straighten up and not be involved with adults again or children. But some are very pathological and will always be at risk.

So I think from a clinical perspective, it's important to find out what is the root of the problem. Why did they do it? It's terrible behavior, but in order to stop it you have to sort of diagnose and assess it.

MARTIN: And what have you come up with? I mean, what have you seen? Obviously there are different things that we're talking about here. In some cases, we're talking about people who sexually victimize children.

Monsignor ROSSETTI: Yes.

MARTIN: And so that's a particular thing. In the case that is now in the news at the moment, these young men were not children, but it seems like the grooming behavior started when they were teenagers.

But according to the allegation - and of course we always have to say that the bishop denies this - the actual sexual involvement did not occur until they were young adults. So we're talking about different things. But have you observed, like, why?

Monsignor ROSSETTI: Again, it's been very different. Some are abusers of people. Some are very narcissistic. Some use people in very exploitive - by their personality structure. And they are, again, very dangerous men and women.

Some are misguided, depressed. Maybe they lost a parent or a mid-life crisis or that sort of thing. And so you see a different pattern.

And I would say this, though. I think it's important to say that we - the abuse of minors, of course, is especially abhorrent and awful, but there are more cases of sexual exploitation of adults in all the churches, and that gets less air time, if you will.

And one of the things that we're trying to do is to bring some education, to first just tell people that this is not consensual. There is a gross imbalance of power, and it is unethical, some states illegal, and certainly immoral.

And so when people say, well, it was consensual, you know, we're both adults, and so what's wrong with this. But we say, well, it's not consensual. There's a massive imbalance of power, and it's not okay.

MARTIN: And to that point, Professor Garland, you know, the monsignor is pointing out there actually is a large degree of inappropriate sexual involvement with adults, and that's one of the things that gets the headlines.

In this case, obviously, the politics of the situation gets the headlines, in part because, you know, Bishop Long and because of his strong public stance against same-sex relationships, same-sex marriage, and then the irony of the allegation being with young men.

I wanted to ask you: In your experience, what's the distribution from a gender perspective? Is it more women who are, in fact, the targets, or is it more men? Is there any pattern there?

Prof. GARLAND: Well, the interviews I did, I mean, I think we can certainly speak to the fact that most men are heterosexual, and most religious leaders in this country are men. So you're going to see more prevalence of heterosexual relationships between men and women congregants.

However, I did do interviews with survivors who are men, who were in a same-sex relationship with a religious leader, and I interviewed women who were in same-sex relationship with clergywomen.

So it's really not about the sex. It's about the abuse of the power and the use of another for gratification rather than recognizing that this other is entrusted to your care.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about sexual misconduct by clergy. And we're speaking with Diana Garland of Baylor University, co-author of the study "How Clergy Sexual Misconduct Happens." We're also speaking with Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, Associate Professor of Pastoral Studies at the Catholic University of America.

Does either of you have a sense of whether or not some of the clergy who engage in this conduct, did they seek out religious life in part as a way of acting on these impulses, as a way of coming into contact with people with whom they could engage in this conduct under the cover of these other relationships? Monsignor?

Monsignor ROSSETTI: I don't think it's that intentional, frankly. I think if you look at the percentage, which is hard to gather data, but still, I don't think that clergy of any denomination are more likely to abuse, if you will. But they have their percentage.

And the problem, I think, is not only do we have our share, if you will, sadly, but it carries a particular valence and trauma to it, because a person is not only a leader, the person's a religious leader.

And so there's a real trauma there because, I mean if I could say (unintelligible), God abused me, you know. My first parish, I had a wonderful pastor, and he was a terrific guy - old, stately monsignor.

And he drives in the driveway one Sunday afternoon, and the little child looks out the window and says: Mom, she says, I don't know that God knew how to drive.

So there is this way in which we imbue our religious leaders with this divine mantle, which unfortunately is not true, they're human beings. But they have the same human problems everybody else does.

Prof. GARLAND: I think that's an excellent point, and points to the fact because there's such a broad swath of diagnoses we could put on religious leaders who fall, the issue really is not about the leaders. It is about the communities that give them such total power, not taking into account what we know about humans.

MARTIN: But to that point, Professor Garland, you know, the - I'm also curious about how you think the role - how race plays into this, because as we know, I mean, in this country and in many others, among African-Americans and Latinos in particular, there is no institution more trusted than the church.

And I take your point earlier that part of the way this happens is that the boundaries that many people would put up with other people, they don't put up in relations with their clergy. And I wonder if you feel that that plays a role in it with certain communities.

Prof. GARLAND: I absolutely do. And one of the most troubling findings in our study was that clergy sexual misconduct is three times more likely to take place in the life of an African-American woman than a white woman. And we've not talked a lot about that because it's such an inflammatory statistic, but the fact is there. And the African-American clergy with whom I've talked recognize that this is a serious problem.

MARTIN: Why do you think that we don't know that?

Prof. GARLAND: I think because we've defined this as a sexual falling. That makes it a private matter. It makes it - we talk about the pastor having an affair, and that's something we don't talk about. Abuse of power, that's about the community. And as we change our language and recognize that this is not just the pastor committing a moral sin with another, but in fact, the abuse of the power to the whole congregation is given. That helps us wrap our minds around how we need to be responding to this, to prevent it from happening for the sake of leaders, as well as for the congregation.

MARTIN: And finally, why don't we conclude on that point. And Professor Garland, why don't you just give us some thoughts about what steps you think congregations and individuals should be taking to prevent this kind of thing from continuing.

Prof. GARLAND: Well, one of the first things is what we've just been doing, which is changing our language and talking about the abuse of power, recognizing it and taking responsibility for our leaders, educating about the role of sexuality and power in relationships that we really have not understood, and then I think very clear expectations for our leaders of what they should be doing and what they shouldn't be doing. And we've actually said that religious leaders in a congregation should not be providing counseling. That's a different relationship that needs to be - need to take place in a protected, therapeutic environment.

MARTIN: Monsignor, what about you?

Monsignor ROSSETTI: Well, what the Catholic Church has been doing in the wake of the child abuse crisis is changing the culture, as Dr. Garland said, you know to bring about a whole educational effort, learning that this is not simply a sexual thing, but it's an abuse of power. It's exploitation. It's harmful. It's traumatic - changing the whole ambiance of the congregation in the church. And it's having an effect, by the way.

The amount of abuse that's happening is dropping like a rock. I mean, it's still - it'll always be there some, but the amount is dropping. So I think education and changing the culture can have a positive effect, and is.

MARTIN: Monsignor Stephen Rossetti is clinical associate professor of Pastoral Studies at the Catholic University of America. He's also past president of the Saint Luke Institute, a treatment center for clergy. And he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Diana Garland is dean of the School of Social Work at Baylor University and co-author of the study "How Clergy Sexual Misconduct Happens," and she was kind enough to join us on the phone from Allenspark, Colorado. And I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Prof. GARLAND: Thank you.

Monsignor ROSSETTI: My pleasure.

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