Warning: This special report contains disturbing information about alleged ministerial abuse.
We interrupt our regularly scheduled publication plan to bring you a special report on sexual abuse within Protestant churches.
Why now? Last month Pope Francis addressed rampant sexual abuse among Catholic clergy: “With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives.” When Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò accused Francis of personal involvement in the cover-up, Francis on Aug. 26 did not immediately deny Viganò’s charge.
That flare-up came after a Pennsylvania grand jury report showed more than 300 “predator priests” in that state had raped and molested more than 1,000 victims during a 70-year period. Given the number of destroyed documents and silent victims, the total is probably understated, and the report does not cover one-fourth of Pennsylvania dioceses, including Philadelphia’s—but what it does cover is chilling enough.
For example, Pittsburgh priest George Zirwas for years was the subject of specific allegations by parents and victims. The grand jury report says he was one among a ring of priests who passed children from one priest to another, manufactured child pornography, and “used whips, violence, and sadism in raping their victims.” From 1987 to 1995 supervisors who allegedly knew of Zirwas’ perversions moved him from parish to parish. He finally moved to Havana and was murdered in his apartment in 2001.
Stories like that display a Roman Catholic problem, right? Look at centralized Catholicism’s opportunity to shuffle priests from one parish to another, few questions asked. Look at the Catholic ban on priestly marriage, and the pressures that creates. Look at homosexuality within the priesthood.
But evangelicals should recognize that clerical sex abuse is widespread, and some evangelical and fundamentalist churches do cover up problems and pass them on to others. Although the decentralized nature of Protestantism makes statistics very hard to find, we’ve particularly found opportunities for abuse and cover-ups in three kinds of situations.
(1) Some congregations have dominating pastors with unchecked authority.
(2) Evangelical culture has a conference and lecture circuit with celebrities and quasi-celebrities who come to cities for weekend workshops and one-night lectures that provide opportunities to sin and go, leaving behind casualties.
(3) Megachurch leaders face the ordinary temptations but also extraordinary pressure to cover up problems, knowing that a sniff of scandal will summon packs of critical reporters.
WORLD over the years has paid attention to such misconduct. For example, “Clergy Sexual Abuse: The Protestant Problem,” a March 2002 cover story, named names in several churches. We’ve also seen problems beyond the three problem areas noted above: The cover headline on a September 2010 issue of WORLD read, “Uncovering a Boarding School Sex Abuse Scandal.” But we’ve never in one issue looked at all three of these major opportunities for sin.
We’re also not saying these problems are new. A 1984 Fuller Seminary survey of 1,200 ministers showed 1 in 5 theologically conservative pastors admitted to some sexual contact with a church member outside of marriage. More than two-fifths of “moderate” pastors and half of “liberal” ones acknowledged the same. A 1993 survey showed 6 percent of Southern Baptist pastors acknowledging sexual contact outside of marriage with someone in the congregation.
The turn of the millennium did not bring improvement. In 2002 Roy Woodruff, executive director of the 3,000-member American Association of Pastoral Counselors, estimated 15 percent of pastors “either have [violated] or are violating sexual ethical boundaries.” Churches that financially protect themselves against lawsuits by taking out umbrella policies covering abuse accusations must let insurers know about charges, so here’s another statistic: In 2007, the three largest insurers of Protestant churches and nonprofits in the United States revealed they receive about 260 reports of child sex abuse each year.
So why this special report now? Enough is enough. We do not know how large the problem is in the Protestant world, nor how rates of abuse compare with those of Catholicism, but such comparisons in one sense are beside the point: Sin is crouching at all our doors, and is no respecter of denominational distinctions.
We do not know how large the problem is in the Protestant world, nor how rates of abuse compare with those of Catholicism, but such comparisons in one sense are beside the point: Sin is crouching at all our doors, and is no respecter of denominational distinctions.
Our special section presents well-documented examples of reported and alleged offenses by pastors with complete authority, conference speakers, and megachurch leaders. We are reporters, not judges and juries, so we take seriously the word “alleged”: Stories of suffering are not proof. But stories are helpful in showing how some sexual exploiters work—and knowledge can help us establish protocols and stick with them so opportunity for abuse decreases. We should understand that no system can shut out sin, but we can keep praying and protecting.
What James Madison, trained by evangelical pastor John Witherspoon, said about civil government also applies to church government: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Who shall govern our church governors?