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When Churches Become Scenes of Sexual Abuse

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

This week a grand jury reported on documents from six Catholic Church dioceses in Pennsylvania that revealed 300 “predator priests” have been accused of sexually abusing over 1,000 children.

The grand jury report states: “We believe that the real number – of children whose records were lost, or who were afraid ever to come forward – is in the thousands. Most of the victims were boys; but there were girls too. Some were teens; many were prepubescent… But all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all.”

This report has sent shock waves through the world, akin to the 2002 Boston Globe report on a priest accused of molesting more than 80 boys who was shielded by the Catholic Church.

The grand jury rightly stated: “There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. But never on this scale.”

The Catholic Church is not alone. Many churches and religious institutions have been accused of perpetuating sexual abuse, to various degrees.

In Evangelical Christian church circles, amidst the #MeToo movement, high-profile leaders have been accused of sexual assault. Leaders like Paige Patterson, the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, was forced to retire after it was reported that he told a rape victim to forgive her attacker instead of calling the police.

Further, in 2017 an assistant pastor at Agape Bible Church in Thornton, Colo., got 13 years in prison for sexually assaulting a young girl repeatedly for 2 years. The police discovered that church leaders and the girl’s father decided to not contact the police and to simply handle the matter “internally.”

In the Mormon church, there have also been scandals, such as the recent case of Joseph L. Bishop, a retired president of the Provo Missionary Training Center, who admitted to molesting at least one female missionary. News reports state that the victim reported the incident to her local bishop, but that the local bishop ignored it because he “wasn’t going to risk sullying the reputation of someone based on that kind of a report.”

In 2017, six Mormon families tried to sue the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for allegedly covering up child sexual abuse by a church member of children as young as 4 and 6 years old. And another suit against the Mormon church claims “Native American children were sexually abused while enrolled in the church’s Indian Student Placement Program.”

There have been accusations of sexual abuse amongst Orthodox Jewish Rabbis, international Buddhist leaders, Muslim pilgrimages, and more.

The list could go on and on. 

Tragically, we find sexual abuse in every sector of society: including religion.

The hierarchical structures, theology, and policies vary wildly between these different institutions, and so likely will their collective responses and solutions. Each institution will handle allegations of abuse differently – but there can be no doubt that heightened media attention surrounding these issues is socially beneficial for putting churches of all faiths in the hot seat to update and enforce vigorous measures for effective, correct justice in light of abuse.

Many people are asking: why does sexual abuse happen in churches? The heartbreaking reality is wherever there are people – especially when some have greater power or authority than others or where an institution desires self-preservation – there is the possibility of sexual abuse. Sometimes the power differential is in the boardroom at work. Sometimes the institution seeking self-preservation is a Hollywood production company.

And sometimes, the scene of sexual abuse is the church.

If you are a member of a faith community, inquire with your church about the policies and procedures for reporting sexual harassment or abuse. Clarify if leaders are ever left alone with children, at what point after receiving a report the church would call the police, and talk to both fellow members and leadership about ways these policies and more could be improved. Consider asking them to adopt Keeping Children Safe’s international child protection standard, which has been adopted in more than 4,000 organizations worldwide. Ask the church to post this information publicly as well.

Let’s strive for churches to become places of reform, healing, and justice.

Haley Halverson (@HaleyCHalverson) is Vice President of Advocacy and Outreach at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. 

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