Researchers at Baylor University have found that 1 in 33 women who attend worship services have been the victim of sexual advances by a religious leader — and of course, two-thirds of those leaders were married at the time.

Jacqueline L. Sammon at the Washington Post reports that "At least 36 denominations have policies that identify sexual relations between adult congregants and clergy as misconduct, subject to discipline," and "a growing number" are beginning to address the problem, but only two states — Minnesota and Texas — have specific laws against clergy sexual misconduct. And there's still plenty of wiggle room in those. "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.'" So presumably, one has to prove first that the emotional dependency existed, and second, that it was exploited. Contrast that with the language used by The Rabbinical Assembly, the worldwide association of conservative rabbis: "[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." Go, conservative rabbis!


Of course, there's an argument to be made that if both parties are single, and the denomination doesn't forbid its leaders to have relationships, any prohibitions against sexual misconduct should include an out for those who legitimately fall in love. The problem is, as the study's co-author Diana Garland told Sammon, "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." To say the least. Any serious imbalance of power can call consent into question — even if the less powerful person says yes, one has to consider how the potential consequences of saying no influenced that answer — and it's hard to imagine a more serious imbalance than that between a believer and someone who's ostensibly an expert in God's will.

Regardless of whether dirtbags like the married Evangelical Lutheran minister who told his victim "the relationship was ordained by God" are eligible for prosecution under clergy-specific laws — one assumes plain old sexual harassment and assault laws would work just fine, if they indeed worked — it seems more faith communities need to put policies in place for taking out the trash. "[C]learly the problem is more than simply a few charismatic leaders preying on vulnerable followers," says Garland — 1 in 10 regular worshippers reported knowing about clergy sexual misconduct going on at their congregations, even if they hadn't experienced it. If it's that much of an open secret, there's no excuse for not holding abusive clergy accountable. And if denominations aren't persuaded by the moral and legal reasons for addressing the problem, they should at least consider what it might be doing to their numbers. As a result of being manipulated into sleeping with the aforementioned dirtbag minister, Carolyn Waterstradt told Sammon, "It's very difficult for me to walk into a church."

Many Women Targeted By Faith Leaders, Survey Says [Washington Post]