Thursday, September 10, 2009

It's more than 3 percent

According to a new study, “one in 33 women who attend worship services regularly has been the target of sexual advances by a religious leader.” That’s about 3 percent of the women sitting in pews, and the study showed that the conduct crosses all denominational lines.

I’m glad to see a study that gives actual numbers to what anyone who pays attention has long known is a widespread and devastating problem -- clergy who sexually exploit adult congregants. But my concern about the study is that it may inadvertently give a misimpression as to the number of women being abused.

I think the number is really much bigger than that 3 percent.

The actual executive summary of the study says that the 3 percent figure is based on “women who had attended a congregation in the past month.” Thus, the study merely shows that 3 percent of churchgoing women had experienced “clergy sexual misconduct.” (I’ve also got a longstanding problem with that minimizing word “misconduct,” but I’ve blogged about that in the past and so I’ll let that one slide for now.)

Here’s the thing: The study doesn’t reflect the women who were sexually abused by a religious leader and who completely stopped going to church. Nor does it reflect the women who were sexually abused by a religious leader and who now go to church only sporadically.

Based on the people I hear from, I expect there are probably at least as many clergy-abused women who don’t go to church as those who do.

Gee whiz. . . it’s not hard to imagine why they might stop going to church, is it?

Particularly among those who went through the painful and usually futile effort of trying to report the minister, many simply gave up on the whole notion of a faith community. After that, it wasn’t about the betrayal of one religious leader, but with the stonewalling and victim-blaming that almost invariably occurs in churches, it wound up being a betrayal by the entirety of the woman’s faith community.

Lots of those women simply don’t go back. They don’t go to any church. Ever.

For example, imagine all those young women who were sexually abused by former Baptist pastor Darrell Gilyard -- at least 44 of them that we know about. (I say “former” because Gilyard was recently convicted of child molestation.)

Many of those women were essentially kicked in the teeth by former Southern Baptist president Paige Patterson when they tried to report Gilyard’s abuse. And what many of them were reporting was actually characterized as assaults and rape. All of it was abusive.

But Patterson, a high-level Southern Baptist leader, turned his back on those young women.

What sort of message do you imagine that sent? Was it a message of care and concern from the Baptist faith community? No, certainly not.

Is it any wonder that some of those women may have come around to believing that a faith community is a charade?

Would you be surprised to learn that some of those women had not "attended a congregation in the past month?"

The number of women who have been sexually abused by clergy is a whole lot bigger than that 3 percent.


Big Daddy Weave said...

As someone in the social sciences, I too had questions about methodology when reading the article over at Baptist Standard - methodological questions that the article did not answer. I guess we'll have to wait until the full findings are published really figure out what's what.

Christa Brown said...

Welcome to the blog, BDW.

In Baptistland, I wonder whether we'll ever be able to "really figure out what's what" since no one keeps systematic records of victim's abuse reports. In the Catholic context, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice was able to get at least the beginning of a grasp on the extent of the clergy molestation problem by using diocesan records. Catholic canon law requires record-keeping on priests, and so it wound up being their own records that allowed for some insight into the extent of the problem. (Perhaps flawed insight, by virtue of the data-source, but at least some measure of insight.) Meanwhile, Baptists effectively avoid even the possibility of any insight into the extent of the clergy molestation problem by simply failing to keep records.

George Frink said...

The attempt at a methodologically sound study of clerical sexual abuse of adults seems to me to have a subtext of legislative action. If I read the Reuters PRNewsWire account correctly, they believe enactment of something like the Texas law will be useful. After using Google and other free-access searches, I was left with the tentative conclusion that the Texas statute is little-applied, and has little effect when it is applied. Is that your impression too, Christa? Aaron? Others?

Christa Brown said...

gwfrink3: Like you, I think the existing Texas statute is very rarely enforced. However, I think it is at least a start in the slow process of shifting human understanding, and so I would like to see other states adopt similarly-aimed legislation. (I think Minnesota and a few other states have similar statutes, but most states don't.) And even if it is seldom enforced, there is at least a statute on the books in Texas, and that statute gives people something they can point to and say "It's not called an affair - it's called a felony." That shift in thinking is often an important part of the victim's own process of understanding.

But as always, the shift in human understanding is slow. I think it's pretty sad that, even in one of the very few states that makes the conduct a "felony," in brochures and public statements, the Baptist General Convention of Texas persists in calling it "sexual misconduct" instead of sexual abuse or sexual exploitation. Calling it "misconduct" serves to minimize it.

Incidentally, BDW, I appreciated your 9/14 9:09 comment on the BaptistLife forum, rephrasing the question of whether someone who has "sinned" can stay in ministry to whether someone who has sodomized a kid can stay in ministry. Words matter, and even when those words conjure ugly things, I think we still need those words because they come closer to expressing the truth about a reality that is very ugly. People may feel more comfortable talking about clergy child molestation with a fuzzy euphemistic gloss of "sexual sin," but the gloss sure as heck isn't what's real for the kids who experience it.