Public Comment

Sexual Abuse Is A Crime Of Violence

Harry Brill
Saturday September 15, 2018 - 01:59:00 PM

The Catholic Church has been justifiably criticized both for the sexually abusive conduct of many priests and the failure of the church to adequately address this issue. However, Philip Jenkins, a leading scholar on religious institutions, claims that the Roman Catholic Church has been unfairly singled out by the secular media for failing to highlight similar sexual accusations in other religious organizations. He is absolutely right. Whether the media is biased or not, Jenkins is correct to point out that the problem is prevalent in Protestant churches as well as in Judaic and Muslim religious institutions.  

It is very difficult to accurately gauge the extent of the problem because most victims, an estimated two thirds, remain silent. Also, unlike the Catholic Church, which is a hierarchical organization that oversees all of its parishes, each of the Protestant churches are for the most part autonomous. The churches that are members of the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, are independent. So any figures on sexual abuse by the different Baptist churches are not totaled and therefore seem relatively small. 

According to one study that included a wide range of Christian churches, the extent of sexual misconduct in the various churches ranged from 1% to 38.5% percent of the clergy. The overall average is about 15 percent. But the number of youngsters that have been abused is much higher. That's because many pastors over time have abused several and in some instances a substantial number of youngsters. 

How do we explain the considerable moral misconduct in institutions that pride themselves on their religious and moral commitments? With regard to priests in the Catholic Church many scholars have attributed sex abuse to the requirement of celibacy. The priests must remain unmarried and abstain from sexuality. This commitment seems to attract many who are homosexualy inclined, which is estimated at on third of clergy. At least some of these clergy members are unable to resist temptation. So they tend to sexually prey on mostly male adolescents, which make up over 80 percent of the victims. 

But since celibacy is not required of pastors and staff in the protestant churches, there must be other factors that explain the temptation and effort to take advantage of sexual opportunities. Particularly important is the unequal status of priests and the young members of the congregations. The considerable power, influence, and status of clergy provide the opportunity and the incentive to exploit the young in one way or another. Many young people respect and admire their pastors , and some are even flattered by the intimacy of sexuality. Some are actually coerced. But even when the overtures are made with consenting youngsters, it is certainly no justification for making sexual advances. 

It is not just religious institutions that are guilty of sex abuse. Over the years there have been a substantial number of sex abuse instances in various secular institutions, including the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). According to one of BSA's executives, thousands of scouts have been sexually victimized in all 50 states. Apparently, wherever male leadership has contact with young people in a private setting, which is in most instances, their offices, the risk that some youngsters will be abused is high. 

Sexual abuse is a widespread problem that must be vigorously challenged. A major impediment has been the disinterest of public officials. Perpetrators of sexual violence are less likely to wind up behind bars than other criminals. Public pressure must be exerted to persuade government to take serious action. Sexual abuse is not just morally wrong. It is a criminal offense, which merits a jail sentence. For engaging in Inappropriate sexual contact with young, vulnerable people is a sexually violent act. 

In California, if the sexual abuse is considered a misdemeanor, the abuser can be jailed for up to six months. If it is a felony, the sentence can be much longer. Every state and the federal government have laws on sexual abuse. But too often they are not enforced. Most often, the penalty is imposing fines, which are often paid by the associated organization. That is tantamount to treating sexual abuse as a fringe benefit. 

So it is imperative that religious and secular leaders play an aggressive role to to successfully combat sexual abuse. It is imperative that the public sector be subjected to considerable pressure. Also, It is also necessary to demand that the media address this issue honestly and accurately.  

Also, both religious and secular institutions should adopt procedures that BSA has developed. Most important, one- on-one contact between only one adult and young person is not permitted. If a scout leader needs to meet with a youngster, another adult must be present. Also, the message must come from the very top that sexually abusive conduct is never justified and will not be tolerated.  

Finally, there is a very important psychological issue that deserves attention. Of course, both males and females have sexual urges. However, there is a major difference between the genders. Too many men are power oriented who need to dominate and control. So sexuality is important not only for the biological gratification that it offers. It is a way of reinforcing their masculine identity. 

But no matter what tempts anyone to sexually abuse others, keep in mind that it is a criminal act not only by those who have committed the crime. Also, they are often protected from retaliation by their superiors. That's a crime of complicity, which is at the expense of sexually abused victims -- past, present and future. 

Take for example a worrisome event at the highest levels of the Catholic Church. In a recent article about Pope Francis in the San Francisco Chronicle (Sept. 9th), the caption in bold and large letters reads: Pope urges bishops to confront sex abuse, cove-ups. Sounds good. But it is misleading. Those who read the article will have a very different impression of the Pope's message. Pope Francis was accused by a high level priest of covering up for an ex-cardinal in the U.S. who has been accused of sexually molesting children as well as adults who are being trained to become religious leaders. The Pope has ignored calls from clergy and church members to respond to these claims. Instead he advised "there are times when silence and prayer are the best response". About praying, that's fine. But silence on this issue, absolutely not!