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Protestant response to own abuse cases varies

Los Angeles Times

The wave of clergy sex scandals now engulfing the Roman Catholic Church has battered other denominations as well, producing an uneven record of response that ranges from the Episcopal Church's aggressive and detailed policies to the Southern Baptist Convention's widespread lack of written standards.

In the last decade, clergy sexual misconduct has been exposed in virtually every faith tradition.

Mainline Protestant denominations generally have taken the earliest and most aggressive measures against clergy abuse and fundamentalist churches have taken the least, according to Gary Schoener, a Minneapolis psychotherapist who has handled more than 2,000 cases of clergy sexual abuse over the past 10 years. Rabbis began working on their policies more recently.

The Roman Catholic response has varied dramatically, in part because each of the 195 American dioceses operates independently. One of the first to take action was the Seattle Archdiocese, which in the early 1980s began exposing the problems and commissioning training materials. By contrast, as recently as January, church officials in Boston were accused of having routinely assigned to different churches as many as 80 priests suspected of molesting minors. It was the Boston cases that sparked the current national furor over priestly sex abuse.

In faith after faith the problem of clergy misconduct was exposed during the past 10 to 15 years because victims began stepping forward, plaintiffs began winning large awards and insurers began demanding policies to prevent abuse.

"Victims found their voices, and when they couldn't find justice in the church, they looked for alternatives in the legal system and started to sue," said Elizabeth Stellas, an expert on clergy misconduct who helped pioneer programs on it with the interreligious Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle.

Among Protestants, the landmark case involved a woman who accused the Episcopal diocese and the presiding bishop in Colorado of covering up the sexual misconduct of her priest. When the jury found the church liable and ordered church leaders to pay her $1.2 million in 1991, "that changed the Protestant game completely," Schoener said, "because it opened the door for higher-ups to be responsible."

Until then, he said, it had been thought nearly impossible to win awards against Protestant regional and national bodies. That's because, unlike the Catholic Church hierarchy, in which priests are assigned by diocesan officials, most Protestant congregations, with the exception of Methodists, hire their own pastors.

The Episcopal Church, which requires training for all priests on such topics as who are abusers and how to maintain boundaries, has what many experts regard as some of the finest policies and aggressive enforcement of them among religious institutions. One striking characteristic is openness. Diocesan officials inform the affected congregation of a priest's misconduct and list the names of priests suspended or deposed in their annual yearbook.

National policies have also been adopted by most other mainline Protestant denominations, including the Methodists, Presbyterians and Lutherans.

Some argue that traditions that ordain women and place them in positions of leadership have been more aggressive in confronting the problems.

"The movement of women into positions of leadership, and the general change of culture that brought, has reshaped our thinking," agreed Rabbi Sanford Ragins of Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, who served as chairman of the Reform rabbinate's ethics and appeals committee for five years.

Ragins said the Central Conference of American Rabbis began addressing the issue in the last five years, in part as a reaction to media reports of six-figure legal judgments against the Episcopal and Catholic churches for clergy misconduct cases. In 1998, the conference issued detailed guidelines on how to report, respond to, investigate and adjudicate allegations of sexual misconduct. Suspension or expulsion of rabbis are required to be reported in the conference newsletter, and offenders are barred from using the rabbinical placement service to look for a new job.

The Conservative movement is working on policies, while the Orthodox movement has been recently rocked by a case involving Baruch Lanner, a nationally known youth official who was indicted last year in New Jersey on charges of sexually abusing teens. The case has forced the resignation of the Orthodox Union's top official and led to the development of new policies.

At least one Jewish researcher says that sexual misconduct is still routinely covered up by rabbis. Charlotte Rolnick Schwab, a New York psychotherapist and author of a forthcoming book on rabbis and sex abuse, said she has received hundreds of complaints from women across all movements and still sees rabbis denying them publicly.

Congregations themselves sometimes exacerbate the problems, she said. In one recent case involving a Florida rabbi convicted of using the Internet to find boys and sexually abuse them, congregant support prompted the judge to sentence him to six years in prison instead of the maximum 60 years, Schwab said. "It's outrageous."

Similar charges have been leveled against the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest of the Baptist bodies in the United States. Dee Ann Miller, a victims' advocate and author on books about the topic, said she had received complaints from victims in 30 states, half of them involving minors. She said church officials have not been responsive. In a 1993 survey by the Journal of Pastoral Care, 14 percent of Southern Baptist ministers surveyed said they had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior, 70 percent said they knew a minister who had and 80 percent said they lacked written guidelines.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptists' ethics committee, said the convention's churches are fully autonomous and probably did not adopt written policies because it was obvious that sexual misconduct was wrong. He said training about sexual misconduct is conducted at Southern Baptist seminaries, which produce about half of the convention's clergy. He said that the cases he knows about led to swift removal or resignation of the guilty party.