California weighs law to protect adults from clergy abuse

Orange County Register [Anaheim, CA]

January 9, 2024

By Kaitlyn Schallhorn

Church once was everything to Dorothy Small.

Raised and baptized a Catholic, she viewed Holy Rosary parish in Woodland as a haven. Though her work schedule as a home health nurse was demanding, Small was an active church volunteer, singing as a soloist in the choir, participating in Bible study and immersing herself in ministry.

But in 2014 a new priest joined the church, and he immediately sought her out. He sent her inappropriate text messages, frequently spent time with her and tried to come over to her house alone, she said. Eventually, Small reported him to the church, and he was suspended for a week but allowed to keep his job.

Small agreed to meet with him, an attempt to smooth things over after his suspension — after all, he’s a priest; he’s supposed to be safe. It was a turning point of sorts. She began to open up to him about her life, a cancer diagnosis and childhood trauma she was still working through. The priest, she said later, took advantage of those intimate details and began to groom her. Small says in 2015, a week before Ash Wednesday, he sexually assaulted her.

Small initially kept quiet, saying she felt a need to protect the church and the priest. But her life began to unravel; she started drinking too much, got a DUI, and felt she could not attend Mass.

Eventually, she reported the assault to the diocese and the priest was fired. But she said the firing was explained to parishioners as “an inappropriate relationship with an adult woman,” not as an assault.

By speaking up, Small lost her church and the support of a community she considered her family. She wasn’t forbidden from attending services, she says, but she was ostracized and banned from participating in ministry, including the choir.

“Once I reported the priest, they, of course, were disappointed and held me in the same level of accountability, if not more: ‘You should have known better.’ ‘You’re older than him.’ ‘It’s your fault that Father fell,’” Small, now 69, recalled.

“I did the right thing, and I reported that priest,” she added. “Why would the institution want that in the first place? If I had knowledge of this behavior, and didn’t report it, I’d be complicit.”

Amid continued scrutiny about how churches of all denominations and faiths handle child sexual abuse, a growing number of states have enacted protections for adults, as well. The idea is to prevent clergy members in positions of authority from preying on often vulnerable congregants who are turning to faith leaders for emotional, mental or even physical guidance.

California could be the next to add such protections.

Sen. Dave Min’s proposed legislation, one of the first bills filed in 2024 in the California Senate, notes that existing state law already prohibits physicians, psychotherapists and certain counselors from engaging in sexual acts with a patient or client. His proposal would expand that law to include clergy members from engaging in sexual acts with parishioners.

Consent is not a defense for clergy members accused of sexual battery, the legislation says, and it establishes misdemeanor and felony charges for adult sexual abuse by clergy.

“Religious leaders are given an incredible amount of authority — moral authority and actual authority — in temples or churches or mosques over their congregation,” said Min. “You see religious leaders as a conduit to God, giving confession to them, sharing your deepest secrets to them.

“If you have someone who is acting as a voice of God, and is representing themselves in a place of power in a church or temple as being a conduit or vessel through which God’s voice speaks, that’s not really consent,” he continued. “You can’t consent to an intimate relationship under those circumstances.”

Min’s bill is not confined to one religion. It defines clergy as “a person ordained or recognized by a religious organization to perform religious duties and who exercises influence, guidance or counseling within the religious community.”

It explicitly exempts a clergy member and their spouse or other equivalent domestic relationship.

2009 study by researchers at Baylor University found that 3.1% of adult women who attended a religious institution at least once a month said they were victims of clergy sexual misconduct as adults. Contextualized, that would mean an average of seven women in a congregation of 400 adults were victims of clergy abuse as adults, the study said.

More than a dozen states, from all points on the political spectrum, have criminalized adult sexual abuse by religious clergy: Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin, as well as Washington, D.C. And efforts are underway in more, including California.

Defining consent

“Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm.”

That passage is found twice in the Bible’s Old Testament (1 Chronicles 16:22 and Psalm 105:15), and in some Christian faiths, it’s interpreted to mean pastors, God’s “anointed ones,” should not be criticized.

That’s how Liz Evan, a Tennessee attorney, was taught to interpret the text. But when she found out her former Southern Baptist church was considering hiring a pastor accused of having inappropriate relationships with two 18-year-old girls under his care as their youth leader, she worked with state lawmakers to protect the congregation.   

In 2021, Tennessee adopted a law making it a class E felony for clergy to engage in sexual contact with anyone they treat for emotional, physical or mental care, thanks to Evan’s efforts of crafting an initial draft and finding legislators to sponsor it.

“We define consent in a lot of ways, based on age, based on physical and mental capacity,” said Evan, who considers herself to be a faithful, evangelical Christian. “Why not define consent based on this power differential where these pastors and priests are sometimes viewed as God’s representatives on earth?”

“We put these men up on a pedestal and tell women they have to submit to spiritual authority, and then we’re shocked when they do,” she added.

While Evan was able to get the new law adopted in Tennessee fairly quickly, it took advocates in Maine several tries before the state moved to criminalize sexual contact involving clergy and someone under their care or authority.

Maine’s law focuses on the counseling aspect of a religious leader’s relationship with someone, said Dana Ward, a survivor advocate who helped lead the effort.

But that leaves a loophole, he says, for clergy who may know the law and say, “Well, I wasn’t counseling her.”

Addressing accountability

It’s been only three years since Tennessee adopted its clergy abuse statute, so it’s still pretty early to measure its effects, Evan says.

But in Minnesota, where a law barring clergy members from having sexual relationships with those whom they counsel has been in place for more than a decade, priests have been convicted and sent to prison. Christopher Wenthe was convicted in 2011 of third-degree criminal sexual misconduct for having sex with a woman who sought counseling; Anthony Oelrich pleaded guilty in 2019 to third-degree criminal sexual conduct for ongoing sexual contact with a woman he had spiritually counseled.

Despite challenges, the Minnesota Supreme Court has upheld the adult clergy abuse law multiple times.

Still, advocates say solidifying that level of accountability is paramount and could prevent abuse from occurring in the first place.

“Clergy abuse of adults is more pervasive than people realize, and the lack of consequences enable perpetrators to continue abusing,” said Lucy Huh, an Orange County native who brought the issue to Min, the state senator whose district includes Irvine and Costa Mesa.

“This legislation will not only protect those who seek spiritual guidance and counseling from clergy but also uphold the integrity of these positions,” said Huh, a Ph.D. candidate researching abuse in religious contexts.

“By establishing criminal consequences for clergy members who sexually exploit those they are entrusted to spiritually care for, this bill sends a strong message that such egregious violations of trust are not acceptable within religious institutions, just as in any other profession.”

Social workers, for example, have multiple layers of accountability to ensure they are not harming or sexually abusing their clients, including a state board and legislation that criminalizes sexual contact, said Dr. David Pooler, a Baylor University professor who has spent more than a dozen years researching adult sexual abuse by clergy.

But Pooler said a minister, in many states, could engage in sexual activity with someone under their care and call it a “consensual affair.”

“Both the public and religious people would buy that narrative,” he said.

“But by calling it ‘consensual,’ it really gaslights, minimizes and overlooks the egregious behavior that’s actually occurred.”

‘The heart of women’s autonomy’

Min acknowledges that this bill will be an uphill battle in a state legislature that is wary of adding or extending criminal penalties. (Just last year, there was a kerfuffle in Sacramento over a bill that made child trafficking a serious felony; it ultimately passed after continued pressure from Republicans and the governor.)

“We know it’s going to be a tough road, and we expect a lot of the religious institutions will oppose this, and I know a lot of folks are uncomfortable with expanding criminal penalties right now,” Min said. “But this is an important issue that gets at the heart of women’s autonomy and consent.”

Min and survivor advocates say the proposed legislation isn’t about targeting church or religion. In fact, Min said, the “vast, vast, vast majority of religious leaders are exempt from this, but unfortunately, you see sometimes that a religious leader take gross advantages of their authority and effectively commits assault on their congregation.”