Findings from a nationwide study reveal that clergy sexual misconduct is more prevalent than many people believe.
According to research by Baylor University, 3.1 percent of adult women who attend religious services at least once a month have been victims of clergy sexual misconduct since turning 18. In other words, seven women in every congregation of 400 adults have been victimized.
Ninety-two percent of the sexual advances were made in secret and 67 percent of the offenders were married to someone else at the time of the advance.
"Because many people are familiar with some of the high-profile cases of sexual misconduct, most people assume that it is just a matter of a few charismatic leaders preying on vulnerable followers," said Dr. Diana Garland, dean of the School of Social Work at Baylor University and lead researcher in the study, in a statement Wednesday. "What this research tells us, however, is that Clergy Sexual Misconduct with adults is a widespread problem in congregations of all sizes and occurs across denominations. Now that we have a better understanding of the problem, we can start looking at prevention strategies."
The study, which was conducted on more than 3,500 American adults, is the largest scientific study into clergy sexual misconduct and is being published later this year in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
It is part of an effort by Baylor to identify and prevent clergy sexual misconduct. With virtually no research or information available to inform prevention strategies, Baylor University's School of Social Work sought to provide data for that purpose. Along with spreading awareness and educating the public, the team at Baylor hopes the findings will be used to draft model legislation to make it illegal for clergy to make sexual advances just as it is with patients and doctors.
Sexual misconduct by clergy is only illegal in Texas and Minnesota.
Garland hopes the study will prompt congregations to consider adopting policies and procedures designed to protect their members from leaders who abuse their power.
"Many people – including the victims themselves – often label incidences of Clergy Sexual Misconduct with adults as 'affairs,'" said Garland. "In reality, they are an abuse of spiritual power by the religious leader."
The research study also includes a paper co-authored by Garland on first-hand accounts from men and women who are victims of clergy sexual misconduct, family members or spouses of victims, religious leaders who have committed CSM, and helping professionals who have provided care for offenders and survivors.
Data from the 2008 General Social Survey – an in-person survey conducted by National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago – was used to estimate the prevalence of clergy sexual misconduct. Questions developed specifically for this project were administered by the Baylor team.
Clergy sexual misconduct was defined as minister, priests, rabbis, or other clergypersons or religious leaders who make sexual advances or propositions to persons in the congregations they serve who are not their spouses or significant others.