Southern Religion

Why predatory clergy flourish

Clerical sexual abuse of adults is commonplace in considerable part because churches create social and working environments in which predatory adults flourish as clergy. Churches are as a result inadvertently attractive to appropriately skilled predators, who are known to invest as much effort in grooming their social environments as in grooming their victims.

Consider those four of the five “common themes” identified in a study of sexual predation of adults by clergy [.pdf] are also well-known characteristics of church communities.

Those four of the five named by Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland and Christen Argueta are:

  • Church as sanctuary: Church is typically regarded as a place where both the congregation and its leaders can be trusted. This is a highly valued and carefully cultivated characteristic of religious groups. Trust created by this sense and expectation of safe sanctuary makes church members especially vulnerable to self-serving manipulation by predatory clergy.
  • Culture of niceness: Church members are often tolerant, understanding and forgiving of fellow church members. Members tend to overlook or ignore behavior by other members “that we know to be socially inappropriate, rather than naming the behavior and risking embarrassing, angering, or hurting them.” As a result, victims refrain from reacting critically to the inappropriate grooming behavior as predatory clergy desensitize them for what is by the legal standards of many states, statutory rape.
  • Lack of accountability: Not only do religious leaders “often have unparalleled lack of accountability for where they spend their time and with whom,” they may rarely be held to close account for their use of church resources and facilities. Targeted congregants are often also not be held to account for much of their behavior. The combination helps permit predatory clergy to groom (seduce) their targets undetected.
  • Multiple clerical roles: Clergy are often involved in parishioners’ lives not only as religious leaders but also as professional counselors. The dual role gives predators extraordinary power. They are invested with power by a church community virtue of having been ordained as ministers. They add to this the power of counselor or therapist. The result is enormous, dangerous influence they thus have over the perceptions and lives of their victims.

The fifth common theme is personal and community failure to reject abnormal or inappropriate behavior. Although that is not in our view a widely-recognized characteristic of church communities, it is the most frequently identified precondition for sexual abuse of adults by clergy and does underline the predator’s exploitation of his clerical role.

Garland and Arguenta write:

Most (n=23) of the offended said that they had felt uncertain of what was happening in their relationships with their religious leaders. Spouses and friends and other congregational leaders also were uncertain about the meaning of what they observed, and so they did nothing. Their trust of the leader was stronger than their
trust of their own perceptions of the situation. In fact, it altered how they interpreted what they were experiencing.

All five help make it relatively unlikely that a clerical predator will be punished for any given offense. Small likelihood of punishment may be as important to predators as the ease with which the church environment is turned to their purposes. Once a rogue cleric has developed skill in a religious profession and established himself in a church and/or denomination, his expectation of punishment is so low that sociologists Anson D. Shupe, David G. Bromley and others describe it as “elite deviance.” Garland and Arguenta define elite deviance as:

…illegal and/or unethical acts committed by persons in the highest corporate and political strata of society who run little risk of exposure or serious punishment, even though their deviance poses danger to the well-being of many others.

Examples of elite clerical deviance (which eventually resulted in some punishment) in the wild are seen here, here, here and here.

More generally, Shupe writes in his book In the Name of All That’s Holy: A theory of clerical malfeasance:

Almost everything written on the subject of clergy malfeasance … fundamentally identifies the power inequity issue as being at the heart of the problem. It encompasses a fairly regular sequence: perpetration, victim denial and fear, recidivism of perpetration, organization coverup, later disbelief among some believers, anger and disillusionment of others, and the entire chain of victimization and anguish.

Neither churches nor denominations are helpless to deal with predatory exploitation of the environments of trust they labor to create.

Sound, denomination-wide policies are most effective in helping churches separate the clerical wolves from the real shepherds [.pdf].

For example, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) will circulate minister career information for hiring by churches only with a complete criminal background check attached.

At almost the opposite extreme, the Southern Baptist Conventions (SBC) maintains a MinisterSearch database while disavowing responsibility for the contents of that database. The SBC, via LifeWay, does offer a discount background-check program. And free advice. The background-check program was in its first year used by one percent (450) of SBC member churches.

In 2008 the SBC rejected a workable, effective approach — creation and maintenance of a “central database of staff and clergy who have been either convicted of or indicted on charges of molesting minors.” That action won for the SBC sixth place on Time Magazine’s list of the Top Ten Underreported News Stories.

The pervasive nature of clerical abuse of adults established by the Baylor School of Social Work study offers the SBC an opportunity to redeem itself by establishing a database of all identified clerical predators, as well as following the lead of the Disciples of Christ by requiring all clergy to attach an approved criminal background check to their profiles in the public but strangely disavowed minister search database.

September 17, 2009 - Posted by | Churches, Religion, SBC | , , ,


  1. This article identifies some of the reasons why clergy who are guilty of misconduct get away with it, and some practices denominations should follow to help minimize the chances of a sexual predator becoming (or being allowed to continue as) a pastor.

    However, it does not address the much more pervasive problem of clergy who would pass a background check and are not predators who deliberately set out to groom victims, yet still end up having a sexual relationship with a parishioner. If this misconduct is discovered, the victim is often blamed for seducing the pastor, or if both of them are single and over the age of 18 it is viewed as two consenting adults who gave into temptation. Neither of these interpretations is accurate; the fact is that the minister is in a position of authority over parishioners and it is essential for healthy boundaries to be maintained. Even the appearance of impropriety, such as a minister spending an inordinate amount of time with one particular member, or regularly meeting with that member at their home or at the church when no one else is present, can do irreparable harm (and also make it possible for an angry member to make false accusations that cannot be disproved).

    As a pastor and spouse of a pastor who provides life coaching and workshops for other clergy, I am continually amazed at how few ministers understand, let alone practice, the concept of healthy boundaries. Sexual misconduct is one of the most extreme and devastating ways in which boundaries are violated, but there are many others. I hope and pray that more pastors, congregations, and denominations will realize how serious this problem is and do more to address it.

    Comment by Wendi Gordon | September 17, 2009

    • Gary Schoener, a clinical psychologist in Minneapolis who specializes in sexual abuse committed by therapists, doctors and the clergy, argues that cases such as you describe are all a form of rape because “The victim can’t possibly consent because the power relationship so clouds the issue.”Even if the clergy involved are not a conscience-free predators on a path of serial predation, as you say the process of victimization which follows can be the same.It is also destructive when the offending clergy precipitates a divorce by his victim, divorces his own wife and marries his victim. The consequences often include and are certainly not limited to grief and bitterness by those abandoned, angry children, liability suits and divided church congregations.

      Comment by baptistplanet | September 17, 2009

  2. […] Patterson turned a blind eye to Gilyard’s reported abuses and a deaf ear to the young women who tried to get some help. […]

    Pingback by Refried Paige « BaptistPlanet | September 28, 2009

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