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Monday, December 11, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Clergy sex abuse widespread across every denomination

Catholic and Protestant worshippers will dutifully file into churches across North Texas today as they do every Sunday.

They will listen to sermons, some of which will be tailored for the holiday season and serve as a traditional reminder of the real meaning of Christmas.

They will listen, but the question is how many will be thinking more about last week's revelations of how the Fort Worth Roman Catholic Diocese covered up allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

Will there be more empty seats as a result? Will some look up from pews with a wary eye at the man behind the pulpit?

The Watergate-type cover-up of sexual abuse detailed in diocese documents released by a district court judge Tuesday has saddened and angered people of all faiths, locally and across the nation. There is also a strong sense of betrayal by spiritual leaders, which is devastating to worshippers, religious authorities say.

"No religious community is untouched by this," said Nadia Lahutsky, associate professor of religion at Texas Christian University. "If there isn't some prayer in churches [today] for the victims, it may be where some people bail out or jump ship."

But there are those of other faiths -- Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and other Christian denominations, as well as Jews and Muslims -- who might disagree with Lahutsky and conclude that sexual abuse is a "Catholic problem."

And a majority of all worshippers -- "perhaps to a fault" -- will quickly and clearly distinguish between their faith -- and its leaders -- and the Catholic priests, says David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

But he says this would only excuse inaction on the part of their church and chalk up abuse by clergy to human frailty.

And it would be misguided, the experts say.

Religious authorities interviewed say that sexual abuse is not an aberration, but widespread.

"We're hearing more and more from non-Catholics," Clohessy said.

Lahutsky says that all faiths have some scarring from sexual abuse. Christa Brown has more than anecdotal evidence. The Austin attorney and activist has a Web site,

Brown says she was sexually molested by a Southern Baptist minister when she was 16. Sexual abuse of teenage girls and adult women by ministers and other religious leaders is more common and unreported than we suspect, she says.

And other faiths also have secret files with information on abusers.

"There is a dreadful notion that this is a Catholic priest problem and gay problem," Brown said. "The fact that Catholics are muddling along trying to do something about this enables the focus to land there.

"Southern Baptists' doing nothing allows them to land under the radar. By not admitting they have a problem, by turning a blind eye, they're leaving kids at risk for terrible harm."

Brown has campaigned to no avail for the Baptist General Convention of Texas to open its confidential files and name the Baptist ministers who have been accused of sexual misconduct.

The regional SNAP office in Texas has made a similar request. Brown says that confidentiality allows ministers who have molested children or had extramarital affairs to move undetected from one church to another and prey on unsuspecting congregations.

In an article posted on the Baptist Standard Web site last March, Jan Daehnert, then an interim director with the Baptist convention, said the convention takes acts of sexual misconduct seriously and tries to prevent them. He said that the list remains confidential in large part to protect the identity of victims.

The public has learned of only a handful of cases involving non-Catholic leaders. Those sex abuse cases typically have come to light because of legal actions. Among them:

Terry Hornbuckle, founder of the Agape Christian Fellowship Church in Arlington, was convicted in August of sexually assaulting three women and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

In March, Larry Nuell Neathery, who had been pastor of Westside Victory Baptist Church near River Oaks, was convicted of 25 felony charges involving sexual assault or molestation of five boys in his Fort Worth home and church.

John Warnshuis, former pastor of the Oak Hills Community Evangelical Free Church near Argyle, was sentenced to 40 years in prison in December 2001 for molesting five boys. In his case, leaders of the Dallas seminary he attended knew that he had been accused of molesting a boy but allowed him to graduate and enter the ministry.

In November, the Web site reported that a lawsuit filed against pastor Larry Reynolds of the Southmont Baptist Church in Denton for having sexual relations with a teenage girl was settled out of court.

"The problem of clergy sexual abuse is not just a Catholic issue -- the problem extends to Protestant denominations as well," Joe Trull wrote in his book Ministerial Ethics. Trull, a retired ethics professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote, "Decentralized denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention have no national policies. Sexual misconduct is routinely covered up in these settings."

Systemic issues

So why does the Catholic Church remain in the crosshairs? Those interviewed identified several reasons:

The church hierarchy -- Unlike Protestant denominations that are autonomous and have no defined central authority or supreme leader, there is a clear structure in the Catholic Church, where all roads lead to Rome and the Vatican.

"The heart of the problem is that there are no checks and balances in a monarchy," Clohessy said.

Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and a psychotherapist who recently co-wrote a book, Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church's 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse, added that "All priests are male, take a vow of celibacy and are trained to say the same thing."

As a result, any controversial issue affecting the Church and the way it's dealt with appears systemic, rather than a series of isolated incidents.

The nature of the abuse -- Publicized allegations of sexual misconduct committed by Catholic priests usually involve boys. Revelations of sexual misconduct by Protestant ministers, on the other hand, often seem to involve female victims -- and generally adult women.

"Frankly, stories of male-on-male sex are seen as more salacious in people's minds," Christa Brown said. "Protestants are seen as not so bad because the abuse is with adult women."

All interviewed agree, though, that sexual misconduct is as much about power and control as it is about satisfying latent urges.

"Predators have and will always gravitate toward positions of power over people and access to children," Clohessy said.

Brown says that religious leaders, especially in Baptist churches in the South, tend to be charismatic men, not unlike political figures, but even more influential.

"There is a mistaken notion that the clergy sex offender is about sex," she said. "But from my own experience and that of others, it's about power, pure and simple."

Practice what you preach -- The "glove fits perfectly," Richard Sipe says of the analogy of Catholic cover-ups of sexual abuse to Watergate. While the original crime or act of immorality is not condoned in either case, the efforts to conceal it are perceived by the public as more nefarious. "In the Gospel, Jesus condemns hypocrisy," Sipe said. "And it is applicable here too."

Clohessy of SNAP says that those he has talked to view the sexual misconduct of priests as a sickness. But bishops who cover up sexual abuse and routinely move troubled priests from parish to parish to avoid detection are seen not just as sinning, but also committing a crime. "Those who struggle with their faith in this crisis do so more because of the complicity of the church hierarchy than priests," he said.

Lahutsky, the TCU professor, said: "When someone in position of trust betrays your trust, it's your heart that breaks. These people have the gift of the Holy Spirit; it's why they are elevated in the minds of parishioners."

Celibacy and sexual orientation -- Some try to draw a connection between sexual abuse and the vow of celibacy required of priests, saying it is unreasonable to suppress biological needs. But does that contribute to sexual abuse?

Sipe doesn't think so and points out cases, including heterosexual relationships, that demonstrate that celibacy "is not well-observed by priests and bishops."

And don't expect the Church to change the rules.

"The power of the priesthood is connected with their celibacy," Sipe said. "Few people get that. In fact, the Council of Trent [1545-63] defines priests as higher than angels. It's what makes them unique."

The Council of Trent (a reaffirmation of Catholic doctrine in response to the Protestant Reformation) also states that "Christ and the priests are one priest."

This is why many Catholics believe priests are godlier than other clergy.

Sipe says that, because priests cannot marry, the calling has become a sanctuary for gay men. According to research by Sipe and his colleagues, an estimated 30 percent of the nearly 50,000 priests in the United States are homosexual.

But, he cautions not to make the leap that gay priests are pedophiles.

"The scientific distinction you make is that homosexuality and pedophilia are no more connected than heterosexuality and rape. One is an orientation; the other behavior. Most gays are not attracted to boys," Sipe said.

Clohessy added that "an extraordinary tiny percentage of pedophiles go into the priesthood."

But the sexual orientation of the predator will not make the pain any less for his victims, many of whom may harbor their secret for years.

For those not directly affected by the abuse, the question remains whether sexual abuse by members of the clergy will threaten fundamental religious beliefs or whether people of faith will find a rationale to hold on to their beliefs.

"We're in the Christmas season, and a glow will probably spill over," said Lahutsky of TCU.

"People will go to church for a connection and to pray. And if participation in church is just one part of their spiritual life, if they have God and not just the priest, then it's possible to reconstruct that spiritual life."

Following the paper trail

Former Catholic priests Richard Sipe, Thomas Doyle and Patrick Wall have collaborated on a book called Sex, Priests and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church's 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse.

Sipe and other authorities say it is wrong to equate homosexuality with pedophilia. Most homosexuals are not attracted to children, said Sipe, who is also a psychotherapist.

Extensive research by the three authors, which includes documents in church archives, indicates that about 30 percent of the 50,000 priests and bishops in the U.S. are homosexual, Sipe says.

About 9 percent of priests in the U.S. over the past 50 years have sexually abused a minor at least once, he says.

The abusers include homosexuals, bisexuals and heterosexuals, he said. He estimates that 64 percent of the abusers are homosexual, 27 percent are heterosexual and 9 percent are bisexual.