Sunday, February 3, 2008

Sexual abuse: It's not just in the Catholic church

It's easy to bang up on the Roman Catholic Church in the United States over decades of indifference to the sexual abuse of children. As the late Pope John Paul II aptly said, such conduct is "criminal" and an "appalling sin."

Sexual abuse isn’t a crime exclusive to the Catholic Church. Based on reported cases, statistics reveal that one in every four girls and one in every six boys will be sexually abused before the age of eighteen. Thousands of children and adults suffer silently, never reporting the crime due to fear, shame and/or unfounded guilt. The silence of the church, as well as the abused, encourages abusers to become habitual rather than single incident predators.

Despite headlines focusing on the priest pedophile problem in the Roman Catholic Church, most American churches being hit with child sexual-abuse allegations are Protestant, and most of the alleged abusers are not clergy or staff, but church volunteers.

These are findings from national surveys by Christian Ministry Resources (CMR), a tax and legal-advice publisher serving more than 75,000 congregations and 1,000 denominational agencies nationwide.

CMR's annual surveys of about 1,000 churches nationwide have asked about sexual abuse since 1993. They're a remarkable window on a problem that lurked largely in the shadows of public awareness until the Catholic scandals arose.

The surveys suggest that over the past decade, the pace of child-abuse allegations against American churches has averaged 70 a week. The surveys registered a slight downward trend in reported abuse starting in 1997, possibly a result of the introduction of preventive measures by churches.

One reason why the Catholic scandal stands out may well be the fact that a centralized chuch means a centralized collection of statistics. In other words, the organizational structure of the Catholic church is such that complaints and lawsuits are centralized in one place, the diocese. In other churches the liability is more likely borne by individual congregations.

This doesn't mean the Catholic church should be let off the hook. The fact that there is centralized authority in place should have meant a quicker and more proactive response. On the flip side, what is it about "criminal" and an "appalling sin" that all churches can't understand?

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