5. Conclusions and Discussion
The purpose of this study was to uncover common offense, offender, and victim characteristics of child sexual abuse that occurs at or through activities provided by Protestant Christian churches. Through examination of news articles that covered arrests pertaining to this issue, this study found that there are common offense, offender, and victim characteristics of child sexual abuse that occurs within these settings. The results of this study shed light on an important topic, while simultaneously laying the foundation for future examination into this vital issue.
We found that the overwhelming majority (80%) of offenses included contact offenses. This means that most offenses involved direct and physical contact between the offender and their victim(s) (e.g., sexual assault, groping, or a degree of rape) in comparison to non-contact offenses (e.g., child pornography on a church computer) at 7.4%. Therefore, the overwhelming majority of sexual abuse within this environment appears to be what is generally considered as the more severe types of sexual offenses. As with 41 states included in the study, individual differences between specific offense-types at the state-level were not examined. Future research should explore individual crimes using cases at the state-level to assess the specific types of crime present, not solely general categories of contact or non-contact sexual offenses.
Five specific location-types of at the church
, the offender’s home
, off-site church-sponsored activity
, and the victim’s home
emerged. This finding of sexual abuse likely occurring at the offender’s home
was echoed by Calkins-Mercado et al.
) where they found that 41% of all instances of Catholic sexual abuse perpetrated by priests occurred inside the offender’s home. Whereas many Catholic Priests live in a Rectory directly located on church grounds, Protestant clergy do not. As such, the present study’s findings of offenses occurring at the offender’s home
suggests substantial contextual differences that surround how and in what manner the offender was able to isolate the victim to their residence.
Findings in the present study support the notion of the church office as a location for sexual abuse, as other studies have suggested as high as 92% of all instances of sexual misconduct occurred primarily in a church office (Chaves and Garland 2009
; Garland and Argueta 2010
). Thus, when considering only the offense location(s), findings generally support Fegert et al.’s
) notion that sexual abuse that occurs at the church seems opportunistic in nature (e.g., during a counseling session). Future research needs to examine the specific context in which sexual abuse arises, how the individual location for instances of sexual abuse is selected by the offender, and what role opportunity may or may not play.
With the average offender age at 40.4 years, these findings are considerably younger in comparison to a prior study on clergy sexual misconduct by Francis and Baldo
), where they found the age range of clergy who have engaged in sexual misconduct to be between 51 and 60 years of age. However, when examining the average age of registered sex offenders found by Ackerman et al.
), the findings in the present study are close to the wider population of registered sex offenders. Simply put, this could mean that younger offenders are more likely to be reported to law enforcement. It is important to note that Francis and Baldo
) defined sexual misconduct
as, “any activity in which a clergyperson, single or married, engaged in sexual behavior (sexual intercourse, kissing, touching or hugging with sexual intent, or use of sexually explicit language) with a parishioner, client, or employee of the church” (p. 82).
It is also important to note that the aforementioned study did not include respondents disclosing their commission of child sexual abuse, but only instances of sexual misconduct with adult parishioners in Lutheran churches. As such, this may result in a comparison of a wholly different offender. There are two possible reasons for this. First, it is possible that there is an inherent difference between men who engage in any sexual misconduct compared to those that engage in sexual abuse within these faith settings. Regarding sexual misconduct, the setting in which sexual misconduct occurs is crucial as it changes the power dynamics of relationships that exist, such as educational environments (Knoll 2010
), counseling settings (Simon 1995
), and faith congregations (Francis and Baldo 1998
; Horst 2000
). In the context of congregations, clergy who commit sexual misconduct have been found to suffer from high levels of narcissism, need for affirmation of their sexual identity, and sexual compulsion (Friberg and Laaser 1998
). However, men who commit child sexual abuse are likely to suffer a range of issues from being less likely to pursue romantic relationships with individuals their own age to suffering from severe mental disorders and related issues (Miller 2013
). Second, Youth Ministers
were the second most commonly represented offender role (31.4%) in the present study. Generally, individuals who occupy the role of youth minister are younger because of their perceived ability to reach child and adolescent church members, recently graduated seminary school, or a combination of these and related factors.
For the final offender characteristic measured in the present study of offender-role, there were 10 individual roles represented. However, nearly two-thirds of all offenders held the roles of Pastor
or Youth Minister
. This finding is echoed in the John Jay College
) report, where 25% of offenders held the position of Head Priest, the equivalent of Pastor in most Protestant Christian churches. However, this finding is in contrast to a sexual misconduct finding by Thoburn and Whitman
) that individuals most likely to engage in sexual misconduct were Associate Pastors
It may be that those in the primary position of power and control in the church are those that are the most likely to offend in this environment. It is also possible that those in the primary position of power within their church view sexual offending as a mere extension of their power and control over their environment and their congregants. This is especially probable since power and control have been identified as key traits for male rapists with female victims (Brownmiller 1975
; Stermac and Segal 1989
). Future research needs to explore the specific mechanisms of how power and control inherent in one’s role within the church are utilized, if at all, by the offenders in order to sexually abuse child congregants.
The third most frequent offender role was that of Youth Volunteer
at 8.3% (n
= 26) of offenders. Similar to Youth Ministers
, Youth Volunteers
may also have considerable power and control over youth group activities and members. However, the volunteer nature of the role may severely restrict the amount of total control one could exert. One important consideration in regards to Youth Volunteers
is that these individuals may be more likely to have originally sought such a position in order to sexually offend, as unguarded access to a child has been identified as a key characteristic in child sexual abuse (see Colton et al. 2010
; Sullivan and Beech 2004
; Wortley and Smallbone 2006
). The role of unguarded access to children may also prove useful for explaining four of the remaining seven offender roles (25.7%) that consisted of a volunteer position within the church, similar to offenders known to target other youth-centric organizations (e.g., daycares and youth athletic organizations) (see Brackenridge 1997
; Bringer et al. 2001
; Finkelhor and Williams 1988
; Stirling and Kerr 2009
). Future research needs to explore the motivations for individuals to take on these volunteer roles. The original purpose for seeking-out such a role could be non-sexual in nature, yet the sexual offending develops over time. It may also be that individuals who are actively seeking volunteer roles within these organizations are for the sole purpose of sexually offending and seeking specific victim characteristics.
Although the present study has contributed to the lack of research pertaining to child sexual abuse in Protestant Christian settings, this was not achieved without limitations. The first limitation is in regards to the websites where the news articles were located. The possibility exists that each entity and/or individual that owned/operated each website that contained the news articles worked under their own bias or agenda. As such, an individual website administrator’s agenda could potentially have influenced the nature and overall type of offenses that were included. The second limitation is that news articles only reported on those who had been arrested for the alleged offense(s). Consequently, not all individuals included as offenders in the present study have been or were convicted of their offense(s). The third limitation is that, due to the use of news articles as the primary source of information regarding each case, some useful contextual information may not have been present. Thus, the lack of some contextual information, such as the use of partners (e.g., administrative assistance or other staff members) to assist in the sexual abuse of children as was found to have happened among Catholic clergy offenders, was not present in examined news articles (Boston Globe 2004
; Calkins-Mercado et al. 2008
There is one primary policy implication of the present study. Findings provide information on major Protestant Christian organizations (i.e., Southern Baptist Convention, United Methodist Church, etc.), in the US and abroad, pertaining to the types of child sexual abuses that occur in Protestant Christian settings and offense characteristics. Therefore, major Protestant Christian organizations can potentially use this information to craft actual and model policies to be adopted by member churches to assist in prevention, intervention, and response efforts. For example, policies prohibiting adults being alone with minor congregants on-site or off-site could potentially curtail a significant number of offenses that become known to law enforcement as has been suggested previously (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2007
Continued examination of sex offenses that occur at or through activities provided by Protestant Christian churches is crucial, with millions of youth estimated to participate in church-sponsored activities on a weekly or more basis in the US, with thousands of males in key power positions. Thus, the potential for continued sexual victimization remains high. Unless future research continues to examine this important topic, effective prevention, investigation, and intervention methods cannot be fully developed to counter such issues of sexual victimization within the estimated 314,000 Protestant Christian churches currently in the United States.