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  Home :: 2006 December :: Sex abuse by clergy affects all religions

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 theholiday season and serve as a traditional reminder of the real meaningof Christmas.

They will listen, but the question is how many will be thinking moreabout last week's revelations of how the Fort Worth Roman CatholicDiocese 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 diocesedocuments released by a district court judge Tuesday has saddened andangered people of all faiths, locally and across the nation. There isalso a strong sense of betrayal by spiritual leaders, which isdevastating to worshippers, religious authorities say.

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

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

And a majority of all worshippers -- "perhaps to a fault" -- willquickly and clearly distinguish between their faith -- and its leaders-- and the Catholic priests, says David Clohessy, national director ofSNAP, 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 andactivist has a Web site,

Brown says she was sexually molested by a Southern Baptist ministerwhen she was 16. Sexual abuse of teenage girls and adult women byministers and other religious leaders is more common and unreportedthan 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 problemand gay problem," Brown said. "The fact that Catholics are muddlingalong trying to do something about this enables the focus to land there.

"Southern Baptists' doing nothing allows them to land under theradar. 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 Conventionof Texas to open its confidential files and name the Baptist ministerswho have been accused of sexual misconduct.

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

In an article posted on the Baptist Standard Web site lastMarch, Jan Daehnert, then an interim director with the Baptistconvention, said the convention takes acts of sexual misconductseriously and tries to prevent them. He said that the list remainsconfidential in large part to protect the identity of victims.

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

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

In March, Larry Nuell Neathery, who had been pastor of WestsideVictory Baptist Church near River Oaks, was convicted of 25 felonycharges involving sexual assault or molestation of five boys in hisFort Worth home and church.

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

In November, the Web site reported that a lawsuitfiled against pastor Larry Reynolds of the Southmont Baptist Church inDenton for having sexual relations with a teenage girl was settled outof court.

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

Systemic issues

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

The church hierarchy -- Unlike Protestant denominations thatare autonomous and have no defined central authority or supreme leader,there is a clear structure in the Catholic Church, where all roads leadto 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 theway it's dealt with appears systemic, rather than a series of isolatedincidents.

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

"Frankly, stories of male-on-male sex are seen as more salacious inpeople's minds," Christa Brown said. "Protestants are seen as not sobad 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 inthe 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 aboutsex," she said. "But from my own experience and that of others, it'sabout power, pure and simple."

Practice what you preach -- The "glove fits perfectly,"Richard Sipe says of the analogy of Catholic cover-ups of sexual abuseto Watergate. While the original crime or act of immorality is notcondoned in either case, the efforts to conceal it are perceived by thepublic 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 sexualmisconduct of priests as a sickness. But bishops who cover up sexualabuse and routinely move troubled priests from parish to parish toavoid detection are seen not just as sinning, but also committing acrime. "Those who struggle with their faith in this crisis do so morebecause of the complicity of the church hierarchy than priests," hesaid.

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

Celibacy and sexual orientation -- Some try to draw aconnection between sexual abuse and the vow of celibacy required ofpriests, saying it is unreasonable to suppress biological needs. Butdoes that contribute to sexual abuse?

Sipe doesn't think so and points out cases, including heterosexualrelationships, that demonstrate that celibacy "is not well-observed bypriests and bishops."

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

"The power of the priesthood is connected with their celibacy," Sipesaid. "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 inresponse to the Protestant Reformation) also states that "Christ andthe 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 becomea sanctuary for gay men. According to research by Sipe and hiscolleagues, an estimated 30 percent of the nearly 50,000 priests in theUnited States are homosexual.

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

"The scientific distinction you make is that homosexuality andpedophilia are no more connected than heterosexuality and rape. One isan orientation; the other behavior. Most gays are not attracted toboys," 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 painany less for his victims, many of whom may harbor their secret foryears.

For those not directly affected by the abuse, the question remainswhether sexual abuse by members of the clergy will threaten fundamentalreligious beliefs or whether people of faith will find a rationale tohold 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 ifparticipation in church is just one part of their spiritual life, ifthey have God and not just the priest, then it's possible toreconstruct 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 homosexualitywith pedophilia. Most homosexuals are not attracted to children, saidSipe, who is also a psychotherapist.

Extensive research by the three authors, which includes documents inchurch archives, indicates that about 30 percent of the 50,000 priestsand 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, hesaid. He estimates that 64 percent of the abusers are homosexual, 27percent are heterosexual and 9 percent are bisexual.

Unlocking the secrets of the Fort Worth diocese

These stories were published in the Star-Telegram last week.

Wednesday: Files detail accusations against priests, reveal deception by leaders.

Thursday: Bishop wants priests ousted. Two accused of abuse may be defrocked.

Friday: New claim of abuse is reported.

Saturday: Bishop says abuse cases were mishandled. A new Roman Catholic leader criticizes the old guard.

To read these stories and see some of the documents that were released, go to


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Pedophilia and sexual abuse of children in Australia