Clergy Malfeasance: It is Not Just Houston Who Has a Problem

In Judeo-Christian theology, The Almighty is attributed immense power. Like the moon He created; He moves oceans, He pulls at people’s hearts, we pray to Him, and stand in awe of His power (Universal Studios, 1994). In the 1960’s, America’s race to the moon itself was called Apollo, named after the Greek god who drove his chariot to the sun (Rayment, 2019). Apollo 13’s ill-fated attempt provides an opening illustration for the exploration, elucidation, and exposition of clergy malfeasance — specifically sexual abuse of children and adults — as a social problem.

A social problem is defined as  “a social condition that a segment of society views as harmful to members of society and in need of remedy” (Mooney, Knox, & Schacht, 2017, p. 5). Like any social problem, clerical malfeasance has both objective and subjective elements. The objective element infers that clergy malfeasance must be known, to exist as a social condition. In short – the public must be alerted to and aware of the problem — before it can be rightly defined as a social problem. The subjective element refers to societies interpretation of the problem itself “as harmful to members of society and in need of a remedy” (Mooney et al., 2017, p. 5).

The term clergy malfeasance, coined by the late American sociologist Anson D. Shupe, is a type of elite deviance where a religious leader commits evil actions (Shupe, 2008). Malfeasance in Latin is “I do evil” (Wicktionary, 2018). Shupe defines clergy malfeasance “as the exploitation and abuse of a religious group’s believers by the elites of that religion in whom the former trust” (Shupe, 1991). “It is,” says Shupe (2007, p. 5), “the unpleasant underbelly of organized religion.”

Mainstream news media is bringing clergy malfeasance into the spotlight (Shupe, 1998). On February 10th, 2019, the Houston Chronicle published an extensively researched and explosive article that outlines how the Southern Baptist Convention turned a blind eye to in excess of 700 sexual abuse victims, over twenty years (Downen, Olsen, Tedesco, & Shapley, 2019). Apollo 13’s now infamous words repeat, “Houston, we have a problem” (Universal Studios, 1994). Evidence suggests, however, that it is not just Houston – who has a problem.

Why is clerical sexual malfeasance a social problem?

Clergy malfeasance takes three abusive forms: sexual, financial, and spiritual. It is possible for a cleric to offend sexually without financially abusing. It is however not possible for clerics to offend sexually or financially without spiritually abusing (Shupe, 1995).

Clergy sexual misconduct (CSM) is defined as any sexual behavior (contact/non-contact) of a cleric towards any minor, or adult with whom the cleric has a fiduciary role (Mcgraw et al., 2019; Shupe, 1995, 2008; A. W. Sipe, 1995). CSM is not a “new note” in the holy writ that papers the hallowed, if not haunting halls of history (Shupe, 2007, preface). As far back as medieval times, clerics were recorded as having sexually abusive contact with people in their care (Shupe, 2007). The Didache, the first known commentary on the gospels writ around 65-80 A.D., specifically prohibits sexual contact between religious leaders and male children (Doyle, Sipe, & Wall, 2006; Milievec, 2003; A. W. Sipe, 1995). The need to have a written prohibition suggests the presence and awareness of CSM as a social problem (Mcgraw et al., 2019)

The phenomenon of CSM shows no sign of fading with the passage of time; the breadth and depth of which appears to be virtually unlimited. Indeed while some communities of faith have incurred more scandal – historically Catholic and more recently Baptist communities – all evidence suggests the crisis of clergy malfeasance is ubiquitous across faith platforms (Shupe, 2007). Despite emphatic assertions of action, numerous grand jury investigations, many media exposés, and assurances that CSM will be eradicated, all evidence suggests “this is clearly a delusion” (Doyle, 2012, p. 3).

The pervasive impact

            For the past two decades, CSM has received increasingly widespread media attention,  which has, in turn, alerted and outraged the public (Denney, Kerley, & Gross, 2018). The US Catholic church alone has an excess of 16,000 victims at the hands of over 3,700 clerical malfeasors (Böhm, Zollner, Fegert, & Liebhardt, 2014). The 40th Pennsylvania grand jury investigators said it well, “For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere” (Office of the Attorney General, 2017, p. 1).

With over 60 million members, CSM data is sparse regarding Protestant churches (Denney et al., 2018). In a massive general population study, Able & Harlow (2011) found that 2,429 convicted pedophiles had molested 28,419 victims — committing on average 70.8 acts. Sexual abuse of minors is ubiquitous.

CSM of minors

Across denominations and faith platforms clergy offenders overwhelmingly are male, with a mean age of around forty at first offense (Denney et al., 2018). The youngest faith-based sexual offender in a recent literature review was 15 years old – the oldest was ninety (Dressing et al., 2017). Clergy sexual malfeasors have no age limit. Prevalence rate for deviant sexually offending clerics in the Catholic faith tradition is estimated at 6-9% (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2004; A. W. Sipe, 1995) — only 3% of cases were reported to police (Tallon & Terry, 2004)

A small percentage of clerics who engage in sexual offending are thought to have a paraphilia (abnormal sexual desires). Approximately 2% are thought to be pedophilic (sexually attracted to prepubescent children), whereas 4% are thought to be ephebophilic (sexually attracted to youth ages 15-19) (Dressing et al., 2017; Sipe, 1995). Evidence suggests that narcissism is a factor in offending clerics (Denney et al., 2018). One study found the mean diagnosable narcissism levels in Protestant clergy at 29.5% (Ball & Puls, 2015) “Narcissism is seen as a key trait that can amplify instances of sexual abuse for individuals in positions of power” (Denney et al., 2018, p.3).

A literature review conducted by Dressing et al. (2017) reported that child victims vary considerably by gender and denomination. Evidence suggests that the majority of minor victims by Catholic clergy are boys — 78.6% of victims were male, compared to 45.1% in other denominations (Dressing et al., 2017).

Most of the victims were boys, but there were girls too. Some were teens; many were pre-pubescent. Some were manipulated with alcohol or pornography. Some were made to masturbate their assailants or were groped by them. Some were raped orally, some vaginally, some anally. But all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state [Pennsylvania], by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all (Office of the Attorney General, 2017, p. 1).

Evidence of the sexual abuse of minors in Protestant faith communities has been limited to reports of insurance company statistics, and a few studies scattered studies.

CSM of adults

“Sexual abuse of minors is only part of the problem,” said the late Richard Sipe, “Four times as many priests involve themselves sexually with adult women, and twice the number of priests involve themselves with adult men (Sipe, 2008).” If we follow Sipe’s minimal estimate of 6% minor offending clerics, a stunning 24% of clerics sexually abuse adult women in the Catholic tradition, and 12% abuse adult males. That number increases to 36% for adult women and 18% adult males if we use the John Jay Report (2004) data 9% of minor offending clerics as the baseline multiplier.

Meanwhile, in the Protestant faith tradition, after a rash of clergy malfeasors were featured in the media, Muck (1988) completed what appears to be the first unofficial survey of Protestant pastors. Data revealed that 12% of pastors report having sexual intercourse with someone other than their spouses; 18% report having had sexual contact (mutual masturbation, fondling, or kissing with someone other than their spouse (Muck, 1988). Only 30% of reported victims were outside the church – the remaining 70% were counselee’s (17%), clerical staff members (5%), church staff members (8%), church members in leadership (9%), and congregants (30%) (Muck, 1988). Only 4% of clerics reported that their respective church employers found out about their malfeasant actions (Muck, 1988).

A 1990 United Methodist study, 42% of female clergy received unwanted sexual approach by a staff member/pastor (Somerville, 1990). Three years later in 1993, a study of Southern Baptist Convention found that only 6.1% of pastors in this denomination self-report sexual contact with a congregant, however, 70% knew of a colleague who had (Seat, James, & Jwa, 1993). One cannot help but observe the incongruence of the data. Clerical sexual malfeasance is, it seems, an unknown known.

The late Diana Garland from Baylor University found a prevalence rate of one in thirty (3.3%) women who self-reported sexual abuse by a cleric (Chaves & Garland, 2009). Other evidence reports a prevalence rate of 10-14%, which is higher than other helping professions (Thoburn & Baker, 2011). Available evidence suggests that 3.3-42% of clerics engage in CSM with adults. 70% of the victims are associated with their church (Muck, 1988; Somerville, 1990; Thoburn & Baker, 2011). There is every reason to believe that these statistics, based on self-report, are understated (Shupe, 2008).

Religiosity and criminality

The Able and Harlow Stop Child Molestation Study states that 93% of incarcerated sexual offenders self-report as being religious or very religious (Able & Harlow, 2001). Those who identified as very religious had the highest number of victims per offender, committing the most violent assaults (Able & Harlow, 2001). Denny et al. (2018) found evidence to suggest that 80% of offenses committed by clergy are contact (touching) offenses, two-thirds of whom were perpetrated by the pastor or youth pastor. Convicted sexual offenders who reported regular church attendance from childhood through to adulthood, were found to have more and younger victims with more sexual offenses on record (Eshuys & Smallbone, 2006).

Systems, society, and structure

Shupe (2007) took a sociological approach in his book, Spoils of the Kingdom: Clergy Misconduct and Religious Communities. He invites the reader to dissect the systemic anatomy of clergy malfeasance in religious organizations – the ‘how’ and the ‘why.’

Clerical elites, not only in the Catholic Church, consistently try to reduce problems to the psychological motives of a few greedy, weak, or sick personalities. But clergy malfeasance occurs in a systematic, or structured, context and is not merely the result of a few bad apples in the barrel, however discomforting that thought is to any religious believers or apologist (Shupe, 2007, preface).

“The church,” says Sipe “maintains a social construct that obviates external and civil oversight as much as possible” (Shupe, 2007). “Power, authority, and public reputation, balanced by, obedience, faith and trust, are the sociological archetypes of clergy sexual malfeasance” (Shupe, 2007, preface).

Theoretical perspectives.

Theoretical perspectives provide the reader with a variety of sociological glasses with which to view the pervasive problem of CSM. “Structural functionalist focus on the interconnectedness of society by focusing on how each part influences other parts” (Mooney et al., 2017, p. 10). Through the structural-functionalist lens, CSM is a social problem that is a result of a sick society and societal disorganization. (Mooney et al., 2017). According to this perspective, any societal element (religion) would be functional or dysfunction in nature – contributing to or disrupting social stability (Mooney et al., 2017). The manifest function (intended consequence) of Christendom is to care for the spiritual and physical needs of members. One of the latent functions (unintended consequences) of organized religion is the phenomenon of CSM (Doyle, 2012; Mooney et al., 2017).

The conflict perspective lens looks at societal life as groups competing for power. This perspective borrows from Marxist theories, ascribing that “religion is the opiate of the masses,” soothing the victimized with words of recompense in the life to come. Power is a heavy influence in this perspective, wherein the powerful use their position and power to alter outcomes. “Clerical malfeasance,” says Sipe, “has always centered on three issues: power, money, and sex” (Shupe, 2007, p. preface).

Symbolic interactionist perspective offers both a macro and micro view of the CSM as a social problem affecting the institutional and the individual (Mooney et al., 2017). Proponents of this perspective ascribe to the idea that in order for CSM to be a social problem, society must recognize it is a problem (Mooney et al., 2017).

Blumer suggests that social problems develop through a series of stages. Societal recognition of CSM is the first of a series of steps in its maturation as a social problem (Mooney et al., 2017). “Identifying a mode of behavior by giving it a name with negative connotations is one of the earliest signs that some members of society are beginning to challenge the acceptability of that behavior… It is impossible to pass a law against something that you cannot name” (Rutter, 1989).

Social legitimation occurs when society at large recognizes that CSM is a pervasive social problem (Mooney et al., 2017). The subsequent stage is mobilization for action – which occurs when groups and individuals actually do something (Mooney et al., 2017). Even though evidence suggests that CSM is pervasive across platforms, CSM as a recognized social problem is denomination dependent. Faith communities mobilized for action – remain a minority.

Agencies as agents of action

Given the omnipresence of CSM, measures to counter are dismally minimal. A lack of trauma-informed mental health service providers remains a significant barrier to services for survivors (Gould, Beals-Erickson, & Roberts, 2012) Three community organizations stand out as specifically seeking to meet the needs of survivors, while advocating for social change: The Hope of Survivors (THOS), Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), and Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment (GRACE).

THOS is a faith-based organization whose mission is to support adult victims of clergy sexual malfeasance (THOS, 2019). They provide information, education, and peer support programs (THOS, 2019). SNAP, established in 1988, it is the most longstanding survivor support agency, in the US, working to change laws, expose offenders, and restore victims (SNAP, 2019).

Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment (GRACE) is an organization that was established by Boz Tchividjian with a selected board of professionals that represented the Protestant faith community, justice system, trauma-informed care, social work, and the academy. This organization offers a robust continuum of services including institutional investigation, safeguarding certification, and organizational assessments. GRACE also provides evidence-based resources for mental health professionals, survivors, and faith-based communities (GRACE, 2019).

Service gaps in a sick system

Service gaps abound despite the efforts of the aforementioned grassroots organizations. Faith-based organizations remain largely unaccountable to survivors and their families for CSM committed “in the name of all that is holy” (Shupe, 1995, title). Child sexual abuse is a crime across the continental US. Clergy are mandated reporters of sexual abuse — 4-42% of whom are also offenders (Denney et al., 2018; Somerville, 1990).

The culture of clerical elitism and secrecy remains robust. Churches must choose to engage safeguarding certificates and trauma-informed care for their congregants. Current safeguards, with the exception of the judicial system, have no executive enforcement capacity. It will take a combination of awareness and outrage by the public; amendments to laws with a view to holding clerics accountable for their conduct; clerical education, training, and screening; and institutional transparency to remedy this widespread institutional ill.


            We end where we began – pondering the profound power and pull of the Almighty. When religious power is used as a mode of sexual offending — of individual and institutional betrayal — “the damage is irreparable” (Shupe, 2007, preface). The bombshell Houston Chronicle (2019) contained within it a letter from Tom Doyle, lawyer, Catholic priest, and well known CSM advocate. The letter was written from Father. Doyle, now residing in Virginia. The letter warns of a storm surge of clergy sexual abuse survivors (Downen et al., 2019). Doyle further urges the Southern Baptist Convention leaders to adapt a model to increase accountability and safety (Downen et al., 2019). It strikes the author with a low moan of grief and irony. Doyle, a long-time advocate within the Catholic church — whose catastrophic pandemic of sexual abuse has caused untold human cost — warns of the coming collision within Protestant Southern Baptist circles. The now infamous quote from the ill-fated Apollo 13 spaceship returns again — it is NOT just “Houston” who has a problem.



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