A Concern for All Faiths
Sexual Abuse by Clergy Extends beyond Catholicism
By Stewart Warren
The Herald News
May 4, 2002
Sexual abuse in the church isn't just a Catholic problem.
It's found in all denominations, says James Cobble, executive director of Christian Ministry Resources, an organization that provides legal, tax and risk management services to American churches. The group also tracks church-related issues in a yearly questionnaire sent to a large group of members.
Although the Catholic church lately has been in the spotlight, other religious groups also have had cases of sexual abuse involving the clergy, church volunteers or employees, he said. And the information gathered by Christian Ministry Resources suggests that other religious groups experience a greater number of abuse-related incidents than the Catholic church.
Other experts say the incidence of sexual abuse cases involving the clergy is about the same as in other areas of society. But there isn't a lot of hard data on the issue.
Christian Ministry Resources' yearly survey goes to a large group — at last count, about 43,000 people involved with churches, synagogues and other religious organizations, Cobble said. It seeks information on growth trends, finances, rates of compensation and cases of sexual misconduct, among other matters, he said. About 3,500 members return the questionnaire each year, he said. Across the country, there are about 330,000 Protestant churches and about 19,500 Catholic churches, Cobble said.
"I know that of the 3,500 (organizations that answer the survey, the ones) dealing with allegations are almost all Protestant churches," Cobble said.
The cases involving priests simply get more publicity, he said. "Why does the Catholic church dominate the news? Why do they have the large jury verdicts and cases with large numbers of victims?" Cobble asked. "One of the reasons has to do with church finances."
A typical Protestant church in America is small and doesn't have much money, assets or insurance, he said. "Beginning in the 1990s, insurance limits were lowered so the typical church has only $100,000 worth of coverage ... and so most of the cases that involve that kind of a congregation are going to be settled out of court and will not become public."
Additionally, Catholic churches are not organized around individual congregations the way Protestant churches generally are, he said. They are part of a larger group, a diocese.
"The diocese owns all the assets. They have substantial financial holdings ... If you have an insurance policy, a local (Protestant) congregation may have a $500 deductible or a $1,000 deductible or $5,000 ... But if you have a diocese with 100 parishes and 10 schools and a hospital and a college, you have a different way of organizing insurance. They don't buy a simple policy; they have complex insurance arrangements," Cobble said.
Simply put, Catholic churches often are hit with bigger, attention-grabbing lawsuits because they have more money, Cobble said.
In the Will County area, there has been at least one major and fairly recent case of sexual abuse involving a Protestant church. Representatives from other local churches seem to be well-versed in the sexual abuse issue.
In December 1986, the Rev. Curtis Williams of St. John's Episcopal Church, 312 E. 11th St., Lockport, was charged with sexually abusing two boys in Lockport and pleaded guilty. He was removed from the Episcopal church, said the Rev. Randall Warren, director of the office of pastoral care of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago.
The case still seems to be a sensitive issue at St. John's church. A man who identified himself only as a priest of that church refused on Thursday to talk at all about Curtis or the subject of sexual misconduct. Any information should come from the Chicago diocese, he said.
Two Episcopalian priests from the Chicago diocese recently have been part of court cases involving sexual abuse, Warren said.
Former priest Kenneth Kirk Behrel was sentenced to two consecutive 12-year terms on April 11 for sexually abusing two students of St. James School, Maryland, while he was chaplain there in the early 1980s. At the time of his arrest, he was rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, Grayslake, Ill. The Rev. Richard Pervo, a former professor at the University of Minnesota, pleaded guilty May 30, 2001, to six felony counts of possessing and distributing child pornography. Although licensed by the Diocese of Minnesota, Pervo was under the authority of the Chicago diocese.
In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, there's a zero tolerance policy for sexual misconduct, said John Brooks, a Chicago-based spokesman. The Catholic church recently hinted that a similar stance might be adopted. "The ELCA has had very few of these cases," Brooks said. "When we are aware of a member of the clergy that has behaved in a way that is sexually abusive with another adult or a child, that pastor is usually removed ... from the clergy roster of this church."
The Evangelical Lutheran Church dates to 1987, Brooks said. "Since then, there has been less than one case on average per year involving adults and children. In abuse involving other adults, the figure is three to five cases per year," Brooks said. The church always reports the cases to local law enforcement authorities, he said.
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has the same strict policy, said Pastor Mark Hein of St. Paul's Lutheran Church, 1500 Briggs St., Lockport. "Our church, to my knowledge, does not pass on situations so one person can go from one place to another place, to move through the system." While St. Paul's hadn't been involved in a case of sexual misconduct, Hein said he has counseled victims who were abused elsewhere.
At the Joliet Jewish Congregation, 250 N. Midland Ave., Joliet, Rabbi Richard Newman has an "open door" policy. When counseling a member of the congregation, he always makes sure that someone else is nearby. And he literally keeps his door open in many cases. "I am very aware of the potential dangers even in our own congregation."
Reporter Stewart Warren can be reached at (815) 729-6068 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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