Home > Christianity Today
Christianity Today, October 6, 1997
Sexual Abuse in Churches Not
Limited to Clergy
by Mary Cagney
Although sexual abuse cases involving clergy often provoke
national media attention, new research points toward church
volunteers and other staff as being more likely to sexually
abuse church members.
Volunteer workers are the most frequent abusers,
constituting half of all sexual misconduct offenses in
churches, according to a profile last year by Church Law
and Tax Report. Paid staff members represent 30 percent of
the perpetrators, and 20 percent are committed by another
Churches typically are caught off guard. For example,
former youth minister Bryan Buckley of Christ Community Church
in Saint Charles, Illinois, was sentenced in February to a
seven-year prison term after being convicted of sexually
abusing a 14-year-old girl in the congregation.
Kane County judge Philip L. DiMarzio declared that Buckley
"preached abstinence and practiced indulgence." Larry Breeden,
staff coordinator at Christ Community Church, says Buckley had
excellent references, including having once been named youth
minister of the year at Liberty University.
Buckley's references had been checked by staff members, and
a criminal record check also had been conducted. "There was no
indication that Buckley had any problems," Breeden says.
Breeden says Buckley managed to sidestep a church policy
that forbids staff members from being alone with members of
the opposite sex. "You can always find a way to circumvent
church policies if you're determined," Breeden says. "We can
only pray that God will protect his church."
SCREENING RECOMMENDED: James Cobble, publisher of
Church Law and Tax Report, told CT that churches are not going to be able
to screen out every pedophile. "But a screening program in the
church is like putting a spotlight on the church and saying to
anybody who's predatory, 'You're going to be exposed to
screening, and people will find out.' "
Cobble, who also is director of Christian Ministry
Resources, which has published a "Reducing the Risk of Child
Sexual Abuse in Your Church" kit, says a screening program
demonstrates that the church has taken preventative steps and
is a safeguard in court cases. Background checks on a church
employee's criminal record and employment history are the most
effective forms of screening, Cobble says.
The number of allegations of sexual molestation against
children is rising among 1,700 congregations surveyed by
Church Law and Tax Report. In 1995, 0.8 percent of
those churches reported allegations of sexual molestation. The
rate rose to 2 percent last year.
Litigation is also becoming more commonplace. By 1993,
approximately 1 percent of churches in the publication's
survey had been involved in sexual misconduct suits, compared
to none a decade earlier.
NO NEW SIN: The problem of inappropriate sexual
behavior among clergy is not new. A 1984 Fuller Seminary
survey of ministers in four denominations—Presbyterian,
Methodist, Episcopal, and Assemblies of God—showed that 12.7
percent had engaged in sexual intercourse with a church
member. The study reported that 38.6 percent had made "sexual
contact" with a church member.
And in a 1993 survey of Southern Baptist pastors, 14.1
percent confessed to "sexual behavior inappropriate to a
Despite a steady track record of allegations and lawsuits,
only 27 percent of the 1,700 churches surveyed by Cobble in
1996 conducted criminal-record or employment-history
background checks on prospective workers. About 36 percent of
the churches surveyed reported doing some form of screening.
Some insurance companies, such as Brotherhood Mutual and
Church Mutual, began to require screening of church employees
in the early 1990s.
Dealing with lawsuits can also be expensive for churches.
According to Cobble, more than 60 percent of lawsuits are
resolved for between $100,000 and $150,000. However, the
average total cost, when legal expenses and other costs are
taken into account, is $1 million. "Most churches have either
no insurance or minimal insurance coverage to cope with these
Cobble strongly recommends that churches screen both
volunteer workers and paid employees. He suggests that an
employment verification agency carry out background checks.
Pinkerton Services Group, the largest provider of
background screening, has organized a department to deal with
churches. Philip Langford told CT that
churches often contact local police before hiring employees,
but officers can only provide information in their
jurisdiction. Pinkerton checks the areas where a person has
lived and worked for the past seven years. "Almost 75 percent
of the churches we have talked to have not done any checks."
COUNSELING RISKS: While screening programs help in
dealing with abuse of children by adults, the growth of peer
counseling among adults in churches presents another
In small-group settings, intimate personal matters may be
under discussion among group members who rarely have the
training to cope with their own feelings in sensitive
"Counseling is an incredibly intense experience, and people
need to learn how to deal with the issues of sexual attraction
in counseling," says Mark McMinn, chair of the Wheaton College
psychology department. McMinn supervised the surveying of 900
Christian counselors last year and found that only 41 percent
of these counselors reported never experiencing sexual
attraction toward a client.
The high standards of sexual purity that Christians strive
to achieve make it more likely that they will deny feelings of
sexual attraction, McMinn says. "Our assumption is that if the
issue of sexual attraction is not discussed or is a closed
topic, then it makes people vulnerable," he says.
Copyright © 1997 Christianity Today. Click for
October 6, 1997 Vol. 41, No.
11, Page 90
News You Can't Get
Christianity Today provides
trustworthy news, in-depth
interviews with respected
Christian leaders, intriguing
articles on current events,
columns you can't find anywhere else.
risk-FREE trial issues.
Today as a gift
1 gift subscription, get 1 FREE!