The Role of Theology and Organizational Structure in Addressing Clergy Sexual Abuse

September 25, 2019

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In June 2019 the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission released a report indicating there are approximately 260 annual reports of children being sexually abused by ministers or other church workers in SBC churches. Disturbingly, perpetrators most committed to their church (“stayers”) accumulated the most number of and the youngest victims. The report makes practical recommendations to deal with sexual abuse in the church—notably absent, however, are any suggestions to reform the structure or theology of the convention. It has been argued that complementarianism, a theological stance among some Baptists that posits women’s subordinate role in both church and society, makes women vulnerable to sexual abuse. Furthermore, Southern Baptists value congregational autonomy, which shuns not only civil oversight but also the interference of the convention in personnel matters.

Data released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops show that 6,115 priests in the United States (5.6 percent of those active between 1950 and 2011) were accused of molestation, with over 16,000 victims of sexual abuse identified during this period. The report alleges that the actual number of priests and victims is higher. In June 2019 U.S. bishops enacted new policies to combat sexual abuse in the Church which include the creation of a new national abuse hotline for Catholics and strong encouragement (but not requirement) of lay involvement in abuse investigations. This latter policy is a compromise between Pope Francis’ decree requiring that all investigations of accused bishops are supervised by a leading local bishop and advocates for more accountability who seek direct lay oversight. Some theologians argue, however, that practical solutions do not get at the heart of the problem. They contend that current Catholic theology facilitates clericalism, in which priests and bishops see themselves as special or superior to those outside the clerical guild. Others posit that priestly celibacy, a key characteristic of Catholic theology and hierarchy, might be somehow related to priests sexually abusing children and adolescents.

Internationally, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in the United Kingdom and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia have examined the factors in religious institutions – including the Roman Catholic Church and Anglican Church – that have contributed to the occurrence of abuse and to inadequate responses to it.

This week the Berkley Forum asks: How have the distinct theologies and organizational models of the Southern Baptist Convention and Catholic Church impacted the way that these religious bodies have dealt with sexual abuse? Do religious authorities in positions of power have the duty to address tenets of their theology that may contribute to sexual abuse? How might the perspectives of lay Christians on these issues differ from those in clergy roles? When theological stances have implications for the well-being of the wider society, what role do those outside faith communities play in evaluating the benefit or harm of particular beliefs? Does national context impact the way religious institutions respond to allegations of abuse?

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