WASHINGTON – One in every 33 women who attends worship services regularly has been the target of sexual advances by a religious leader, according to a survey released Wednesday.
The study by researchers at Baylor University found that the problem is so pervasive that it almost certainly involves a wide range of denominations and religious traditions and a wide range of spiritual leaders.
“Clearly the problem is more than simply a few charismatic leaders preying on vulnerable followers,” said Diana Garland, dean of the School of Social Work at Baylor, co-author of the study.
A growing number of denominations have become aware of the problem, particularly since the Catholic Church’s sex scandal involving its clergy. At least 36 denominations now have official policies that identify sexual relations between adult congregants and clergy as misconduct, subject to discipline.
In Minnesota and Texas, it’s also illegal. The Texas law, for example, defines clergy sexual behavior as nonconsensual 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.”
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 whether they had ever received “sexual advances or propositions” from a religious leader.
Said Garland: “When you put (misconduct) 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.”