New Study on Clergy Sexual Misconduct

SNAP issued a press statement today regarding a study from Baylor University on sexual abuse by faith leaders. I find many similarities between clergy/spiritual abuse and therapist abuse, particularly in my case, where there was a strong spiritual component in my therapy with Dr. T.

I have a great deal of appreciation for the efforts that SNAP is making to eradicate clergy abuse and provide support to the victims. I am also happy to see that this type of abuse is being studied and written about in the media. I hope that someday therapist abuse will also be granted the attention that it deserves.

SNAP Press Statement

For immediate release: Thursday, September 10, 2009

New study on clergy sexual misconduct; Sex abuse victims respond

For immediate release: Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009

Statement by Barbara Dorris of St. Louis, Outreach Director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (314 503 0003 cell)

We applaud more attention finally being focused on the apparently widespread and devastating problem of clergy sexually exploiting adult congregants. We have long known this harmful phenomenon is more commonplace than most anyone would imagine. We are deeply grateful to and impressed by the brave men and women who have found the courage to report having been manipulated, abused and exploited as adults by predatory ministers.

A cleric who holds the revered title and status of priest or minister or rabbi cannot ever have truly consensual sex (whether once or repeatedly) with a congregant. There is a dramatic and inherent power imbalance between clergy and church members. It is much like a doctor-patient or therapist-client relationship, where any sexual contact is expressly forbidden.

This is especially true regarding Catholicism. Catholics have been raised since birth to believe priests are God’s representatives on earth, can forgive our sins, can turn wafers and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Priests always hold an exalted position, and when they have any sexual involvement with parishioners, it is always wrong and hurtful.

It’s the duty of church officials to help congregants understand this. And it’s the duty of lawmakers to both help prevent this egregious and hurtful misconduct and to help those who suffer from it expose predators, get healing and achieve justice.

The clearest and easiest way to do this is to reform archaic, arbitrary an predator-friendly laws that don’t acknowledge this reality. That’s why we strongly support legislative efforts to safeguard congregants from exploitive clergy.

(SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is the nation’s oldest and largest support group for clergy abuse victims. We’ve been around for 21 years and have more than 9,000 members across the country. Despite the word “priest” in our title, we have members who were molested by religious figures of all denominations, including nuns, rabbis, bishops, and Protestant ministers. Our website is

Contact David Clohessy (314-566-9790 cell, 314-645-5915 home), Peter Isely (414-429-7259) Barbara Blaine (312-399-4747), Barbara Dorris (314-862-7688)

Many Women Targeted by Faith Leaders, Survey Says

By Jacqueline L. Salmon, Washington Post Staff Writer, Thursday, September 10, 2009

One in every 33 women who attend worship services regularly has been the target of sexual advances by a religious leader, a survey released Wednesday says.

The study, by Baylor University researchers, found that the problem is so pervasive that it almost certainly involves a wide range of denominations, religious traditions and leaders.

“It certainly is prevalent, and clearly the problem is more than simply a few charismatic leaders preying on vulnerable followers,” said Diana Garland, dean of Baylor’s School of Social Work, who co-authored the study.

It found that more than two-thirds of the offenders were married to someone else at the time of the advance.

Carolyn Waterstradt, 42, a graduate student who lives in the Midwest, said she was coerced into a sexual relationship with a married minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for 18 months. He had been her pastor for a decade, she said, and told her the relationship was ordained by God.

“I believed him because I was looking for direction and for help,” said Waterstradt, who ended the relationship years ago and entered therapy. The pastor was removed from the clergy.

Waterstradt said she has suffered lasting psychological and spiritual consequences from the relationship, including depression and a deep distrust of organized religion. “It’s very difficult for me to walk into a church,” she said.

A growing number of denominations are moving to do something about such problems, particularly since the Catholic Church’s highly publicized sex scandal involving its clergy.

At least 36 denominations have policies that identify sexual relations between adult congregants and clergy as misconduct, subject to discipline.

The Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, uses investigating panels to look into complaints against rabbis. It notes that the “power imbalance between clergy and those to whom they minister makes it clear that sexual contacts in these situations are by definition non-consensual.”

In the United Church of Christ, ministers must attend a workshop on clergy sexual abuse every three years, and those seeking jobs in the ministry must have their names checked against government sex offender lists, said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, spokesman for the 1.2 million-member denomination.

Locally, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia requires clergy members, other employees and volunteers to receive training in prevention of adult sexual misconduct and prevention of child abuse, spokesman Henry Burt said.

The diocese “takes very seriously its obligation to make its churches and institutions safe places for children and adults to grow in their faith in the church,” Burt said.

Lawmakers are also taking note. Clergy sexual misconduct is illegal in Minnesota and Texas. Texas law, for example, defines clergy sexual behavior as sexual assault if the religious leader “causes the other person to submit or participate by exploiting the other person’s emotional dependency on the clergyman in the clergyman’s professional character as spiritual adviser.”

For its study, Baylor used the 2008 General Social Survey, a nationally representative sample of 3,559 respondents, to estimate the prevalence of clergy sexual misconduct. Women older than 18 who attended worship services at least once a month were asked in the survey whether they had received “sexual advances or propositions” from a religious leader.

The study found that close to one in 10 respondents — male and female — reported having known about clergy sexual misconduct occurring in a congregation they had attended.

Researchers say they don’t know whether the incidence of clergy sexual misconduct had changed over the years. Nor do they know whether sexual wrongdoing by clergy is more, or less, frequent than in other well-respected professions.

But, Garland said, “when you put it with a spiritual leader or moral leader, you’ve really added a power that we typically don’t think about in secular society — which is that this person speaks for God and interprets God for people. And that really adds a power.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. When church leaders manipulate people by misusing their authority, it can be brutal. Sexual abuse is one of the worst manifestations of spiritual abuse. Rarely is any kind of spiritual abuse mentioned, and too often the victims are blamed because no one wants to think a church leader would use their position in such a way. Though painful to think about, it’s good that issues of spiritual abuse are brought into public view. Only then will the “don’t talk” rules be exposed for what they are.

  2. Here is a true story of how a clergyman and his adult offendee were treated in the 1920s because if their elicit affair:

    “Eleanor Mills was dressed in a red polka-dotted blue dress and black stockings. Her blue velvet hat lay beside her body. Around her throat she wore a blood soaked, brown silk scarf. She lay stretched out at her lover’s side, her left hand resting on his right knee. Rev. Hall’s Panama hat covered his face and his right arm was under Eleanor’s shoulder.

    “She was 34 years old and he was 41 in September 1922. Leaning against the sole of his left shoe was his own business card. Scattered between them were torn up letters and cards. One of them, from her to him, said, “Oh, honey, I am fiery today. Burning, flaming love.”

    “He was the Reverend Edward W. Hall, the pastor of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in New Brunswick, New Jersey; his wife was Frances Noel Stevens, heiress to some Johnson & Johnson money. Eleanor Mills was a singer in the church choir, her husband the sexton at St. John’s.

    “Dr. Hall and his choir girl had met on a Thursday evening for a romantic tryst beneath a crab apple tree on abandoned farmland on the outskirts of New Brunswick. The bodies weren’t found until Saturday morning and by then her neck was crawling with maggots. He had been shot once over the right ear. She was shot three times in the right temple, under the right eye, and also over the right ear. Her tongue had been cut out after she was shot and her choir singer’s larynx removed.”

    This was the famous Halls-Mills Murder case, the rage of country in the 1920s. It was never solved.

  3. Good article. I think it’s important that anyone in a position of power or authority not use this to take advantage of someone sexually. They need to hold themselves to a higher standard. There is too much of this going on in the world today. The more we talk about it and expose it, the better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *