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Background of the Problem
Sexual misconducts in churches, temples, mosques, kingdom halls, and other religious congregations have become a common occurrence, yet society expects various religions to be the custodians of morality in society. Cases of sexual abuse and misconduct in various religions elicit many questions concerning the integrity and moral position of the church, temple, or mosque.
Although many people perceive the church as a holy entity whereby sexual abuses and misconducts should never happen, recent studies reveal otherwise. According to Liautaud (2008), the studies indicate that, among Christian women, who are victims of sexual abuse, more than a quarter confess to have experienced sexual abuse within the church (p.2).
This means that, significant incidences of sexual abuse and misconduct occur within the church setting. Hence, for the church to set and uphold morality in society, it must ensure that sexual abuse and misconduct do not derail its moral responsibility.
Sexual abuse or sexual misconduct is a serious problem, which different religions are grappling with since it does not only threaten the essence of worship, but also morality and lives of victims and perpetrators. Victims of sexual abuse and misconduct normally encounter experiences such as suggestive glances, sexual jokes, touching or fondling, sexual advances and even rape.
These experiences are quite demeaning because they do not regard religious values and principles of morality, societal ethics, and individuals’ rights. According to Terry (2008), study conducted on catholic priests indicates that, 27.8% of priests have encountered sexual relationships with women, while 4% of priests have engaged in sexual misconduct with boys and girls (p.550).
Therefore, it implies that sexual abuse and misconduct occur in the church. As custodians of morality, many religions such as protestant, Catholic, Islam and Buddhism amongst other religions, have been struggling to curb occurrence of sexual abuse and misconduct among their congregations.
Although sexual abuse and misconduct seem to be an emerging issue in religious circles, different religions have been grappling with it for centuries. In the past, incidences of sexual abuse and misconduct have been latent since victims did not know their rights and religions were too conservatives to tolerate or accept their occurrences.
Religious leaders attribute occurrence and increasing incidences of sexual abuse and misconduct to influence from the secular world, degradation of religious values and tolerance of the behavior among members of society.
According to Clowes (2010), in the past, it was an abomination for religious leaders to condone offensive behaviors of sexual abuse and misconduct, but currently, the church is more tolerant to these behaviors (p.7). For instance, homosexuals such as gays and lesbians are now advocating for the society and the church to accept them together with their unbecoming behaviors.
Religious leaders and ethicists agree that, the increasing incidences of sexual abuse and misconduct among different congregations is an indication that, the church is progressively losing its moral authority in matters of sexuality and marriage. For many years, leaders of the churches have focused their attention on helping the victims while condemning perpetrators by ousting them out of their churches and congregations, as well.
However, modern church is facing a challenge of helping both perpetrators and victims of sexual misconduct since they are members of the same congregation and thus direly need spiritual guidance to overcome their problems.
The United Church of Canada holds that sexual abuse and misconduct are destructive behaviors that are not only against religious teachings, but also violate fundamental rights of a person to free and safe society (p.5). Other religious leaders and ethicists hold the same, and they condemn occurrences of sexual abuse and misconduct among congregations and in society.
Due to the increasing incidences of sexual abuse and misconduct in churches, religious leaders and other stakeholders who champion for the rights of sexual abuse victims advocate for stringent laws and policies to curb the vice.
Various legal jurisdictions outlaw sexual abuse and misconduct, and are compelling church leaders to help in preventing their occurrence by adopting and effectively implementing critical policies. In this view, many churches currently have formulated and implemented the essential policies to reduce incidences of sexual abuse and misconduct in their churches.
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According to Garland and Argueta (2009), more than 36 religious denominations have adopted official policies regarding sexual abuse and misconduct to enable the church to identify and discipline perpetrators of sexual abuse and misconduct (p.1). Thus, national laws and policies of churches have helped religious leaders to manage the problem of sexual abuse and misconduct.
Given that both clergy and congregations are perpetrators and victims of sexual abuse and misconduct, churches have developed educational programs that would guide people to conduct themselves in a decent manner. For instance, church leaders have informed congregation to be wary of sexual abuse and misconduct that emanate from family members, congregation, and even clergy.
Since many cases of sexual abuse and misconduct have gone unreported, increased awareness among church members has led to increased cases reported. Earlier, there were low cases of reports because perpetrators usually threatened the victims, hence making sexual abuse to be a secret affair.
Garland and Argueta (2009) argue that, many victims suffer in silence because the abuse happens secretly making them not to seek help openly (p.5). Therefore, although cases of sexual abuse seem to be increasing in many churches, it is due to increasing reports from church members and victims.
Critical Incidents and Barriers
Religious system is a barrier to resolution of cases that involve sexual and abuse and misconduct. Since the perpetrators could be religious leaders with immense influence in the church leadership, churches normally avoid dwelling on the issue, for it would cause serious consequences. Ousting or naming a church leader to be a perpetrator has grave repercussions on integrity and moral standing of the church.
Gray and Perl (2006) argue that, church leaders within the catholic system of leadership normally suppress cases of child abuse that priests commit (p.12). Thus, even if local leadership takes necessary precautions to discipline errant priests, top leadership still tolerate them by transferring them from one place to another.
Secretiveness of sexual abuse and misconduct is another barrier that prevents identification of perpetrators and victims. According to Miles and Stephenson (2009), adults sexually abuse children and tell them not to reveal any information regarding the abuse by use of threats or gifts (p.58).
Hence, as churches struggle to adopt state laws and formulate policies of disciplining perpetrators, they are facing the challenge of unearthing occurrence of sexual abuses and misconduct. Specifically, sexual abuses and misconduct that affect children are hard to discover because they are too young to understand their rights and decline advances of perpetrators. Thus, in many of unreported cases of sexual abuses and misconduct, children are the majority.
Everybody has an obligation to uphold ethics and values in a professional manner. Given that the church is part of family, society, and government, it has a noble responsibility of protecting its members from sexual abuse and misconduct. Since the church consists of congregations who have different authorities, it is imperative that there is leadership hierarchy in dealing with the issue of sexual abuse and misconduct.
According to Bayles (1981), reporting of cases involving sexual abuse is a serious problem, since a junior member may think s/he has no obligation in reporting misconduct of senior members (p.3). Therefore, the church needs to empower everybody to uphold ethics and values and participate effectively in preventing sexual abuse and misconduct.
The church is a social system that consists of persons, families, communities, cultures and societies, which effectively interact and bring changes in human behavior. From a holistic point of view, the church can influence how persons, families, communities, cultures and societies behave basing on ethics and values it imparts on them. Likewise, since persons, families, communities, cultures and societies are integral parts of the church; they have significance influence on ethics and values that the church upholds.
Anderson, Carter, and Lowe (1999) argue that, examination of human behaviors requires understanding of subsystems and suprasystems (p.5). Therefore, the church needs to consider examining sexual abuse and misconduct from church’s point of view as well as from point of views of individuals, families, communities, cultures and societies.
Ethical values and principles vary from one church to another depending on their teachings on sexual abuse and misconduct. Moreover, individuals, families, communities, and cultures have different ethical values and principles regarding sexual abuse and misconduct. In this perspective, counselors need to understand diversity of ethical values and principles that varied churches uphold to address the issue of sexual abuse and misconduct among victims and perpetrators.
Cormier, Nurius, and Osborn (2009) assert that, as society is so diverse, counselors must consider approaching social issues using strategies that are appropriate and sensitive to diversity (p.3). Thus, consideration of cultural, religious, social, and societal backgrounds is imperative in addressing the issue of sexual abuse and misconduct in churches.
Anderson, E., Carter, I., & Lowe, R. (1999). Human Behavior in the Social Environment A Social Systems Approach (5th Ed.). New York: Aldine De Gruyter.
Bayles, M. (1981). Professional Ethics. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Press Inc.
Clowes, B. (2010). Homosexuality and the Church Crisis. Life, Family, and Culture News, 1-20. PDF File. Retrieved from https://www.lifesitenews.com/
Cormier, L., Nurius, P., & Osborn, C. (2009). Interviewing and Change Strategies for Helpers (6th Ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole, Cengage Learning.
Garland, D., & Argueta, C. (2009). How Clergy Sexual Misconduct Happens: A Qualitative Study of First-Hand Accounts. Social Work & Christianity, 1-27. Retrieved from https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/96038.pdf
Gray, M., & Perl, P. (2006). Catholic Reactions to the News of Sexual Abuse Cases Involving Catholic Clergy. Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 1-41. Retrieved from https://cara.georgetown.edu/CARAServices/FRStats/CARA%20WorkingPaper8.pdf
Liautaud, M. (2008). Sexual Misconduct at Church. Christianity Today International, 6(3), 1-9.
Miles, G., & Stephenson, P. (2009). Children and Sexual Abuse and Exploitation. Children at Risk Guidelines, 4, 1-88.
Terry, K. (2008). Stained Glass: The Nature and Scope of Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35(5), 549-569.
The United Church of Canada. (2011). Sexual Abuse Prevention and Response Policy and Procedures. General Executive Council, 1-40. PDF File. Retrieved from https://www.united-church.ca/