Religious organizations increasingly are being rocked by sexual misconduct among clergy, leading to embarrassing public disclosures and costly lawsuits that have forced several churches into bankruptcy.
While the painful problem sometimes results in resignations or reassignments, churches are facing allegations that they ignore warnings or, worse, attempt cover-ups.
The latest scandal involves Roman Catholic Archbishop Eugene Marino. Church officials acknowledged Thursday that he had resigned last month as head of the Atlanta Archdiocese because of a two-year "intimate relationship" with Vicki R. Long, a 27-year-old woman who once charged that another priest had fathered her daughter.
As many as 2,000 cases of sexual abuse by clergy are pending in the courts, according to insurance agents who specialize in church matters, and a new specialty class of lawyers expert in suing, defending or counseling churches regarding sexual misconduct has sprung up. Most insurers have quit issuing coverage for such liabilities or have limited it.
"Today the number of credible sexual abuse and misconduct cases is astounding," said John F. Cleary, general counsel for the Church Mutual Insurance Co. of Merill, Wis., which insures 46,000 churches.
"It has been a hidden problem for generations," acknowledged Evangelical Lutheran Bishop Robert Keller of Spokane, Wash.
Sexual misconduct among clergy is less than within the population at large, experts say, but ministers are often held to a higher moral standard.
Some denominations are developing guidelines for reporting and handling sex offenses as well as helping the offenders in their ranks. Occasionally, guidelines call for the church to pay for professional help for the victims.
Ministerial sex offenders come in all ages and range from the unknown to the high profile.
The sex scandals of televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart shocked the Pentecostal and evangelical churches in the late 1980s. More recently, mainline church leaders expressed dismay when the Rev. Allan Boesak, an anti-apartheid leader who headed reformed churches worldwide, tearfully resigned his pastorate, confessing to an extramarital affair with the niece of a former South African Cabinet minister.
Elsewhere, from Bangor, Me., to Cleveland to Chicago to San Diego, well-publicized ministerial misdeeds have scandalized the faithful.
A former Orange County priest who pleaded guilty in 1986 to molesting four altar boys in his Huntington Beach parish recently violated a condition of his parole by being with a New Mexico boy without another adult present. Father Andrew Christian Andersen's parole was revoked and he is now in state prison serving a six-year sentence.
The Milwaukee Synod of the The Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America made headlines last year when four of its clergy were charged with sexual misbehavior. And in an unusual clergy vs. clergy case in Minneapolis, a woman Lutheran minister has filed suit against the male senior pastor, alleging that he fired her after she complained about his sexual advances.
A civil court judge in Dallas has ruled that a well-known United Methodist minister "brutally attempted to strangle his wife" while he was having a secret affair with another woman. The Rev. Walker Railey later tried to commit suicide and the case remains under criminal investigation.
In Ventura, an Episcopal priest was recently sentenced to six years in state prison for molesting a 7-year-old boy in his church office in 1985, and a Hermosa Beach Greek Orthodox priest was sentenced last spring to nine years in prison for molesting two teen-age boys belonging to the church youth group.
There are no national statistics on sexual misconduct by clergy. But based on his 19 years as a confidential clergy counselor, one Presbyterian minister estimates that about 10% of the nation's clergy have been or are engaged in sexual misconduct ranging from harassment and "inappropriate touching" to fornication, adultery and pedophilia. Surveys by United Methodists and Southern Baptists have come to similar conclusions.
"Many . . . clergy don't realize how vulnerable and close to disaster they are," said the Rev. G. Lloyd Rediger of Roseville, Minn., drawing on his 15,000 hours of experience counseling clergy for the Wisconsin Conference of Churches.
Psychologists who work with errant ministers say that the reasons for sexual temptations are many, including the intimate relationships clergy often develop with parishioners in counseling situations, a change in the nation's sexual attitudes, divorce among clergy, changes in the family structure and lax denominational disciplines.
Much of the publicity about clergy sexual misconduct has centered on the Roman Catholic Church. This is not only because it is the nation's largest religious organization, but also because it has the greatest number of institutions serving children and youth.
The spotlight has often focused on allegations that church leaders have tried--often unsuccessfully--to cover up the misdeeds.
"It's the Catholic Church's sexual Watergate," says Jason Berry of New Orleans, a free-lance investigator who is writing a book about clergy sexual abuse and who helped expose a sexual scandal involving priests in Louisiana six years ago.
Nationally, Berry said, there have been at least 100 settlements by Catholic authorities in the last six years amounting to somewhere between $100 million and $300 million.
All too often, Berry asserted, "the essential moral and pastoral positions of the church have been betrayed . . . by local bishops who have resorted to strategies of concealment, sheltering priests and bunkering in behind defense attorneys."
Sealed records and secret settlements only allow the offenders to continue their patterns of abuse, Barry said. But he added: "In many instances, attorneys bargain dollars for silence." However, Phillip Harris, a staff attorney for the U.S. Catholic Conference, vigorously denied that the church has engaged in cover-ups.
"To say there's a nationwide policy to pay for silence is not only unfair but is a simplistic approach," Harris said. In many cases settled privately, he added, a confidentiality order was imposed at the request of the victim or the victim's family.
"I think that's appropriate," Harris declared. "You're talking about a problem where it's very hard to get proof. In that kind of situation you don't want to ruin the lives or reputations of anyone . . . . "
An attempt Thursday to reach officers of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops for comment was unsuccessful.
The largest scandal of its kind in North American church history reverberated throughout Canada last month when a church commission sternly rebuked Archbishop Alphonsus Penney of Newfoundland for turning a blind eye toward the illicit behavior of church workers. More than 30 priests, former priests and religious brothers have been charged or convicted of molesting altar boys, orphans and other children. Penney abruptly resigned, confessing the failure.
Other cases of pedophilia involving Catholic priests have come to light in recent years in virtually every major U.S. city, including Los Angeles.
Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., lawyer who specializes in prosecuting child abuse cases, said he's aware of more than 300 claims of sexual misconduct against Catholic priests--he has handled 80 cases himself--in 43 states. Several well-known priests have been named in the charges.
In New York, Father Bruce Ritter, founder of Covenant House, the refuge for runaways, was forced to resign after reports that he sexually abused some of the organization's troubled youths. And in Washington, Father George A. Stallings, the breakaway Catholic priest who a year ago formed the Afro-American Imani Temple, has been accused of sexual relationships with teen-agers.
Stallings has declined to answer when asked whether he had sex with boys, and Ritter has denied enticing youths into sexual relations.
The case that first set the U.S. Catholic Church reeling surfaced in Louisiana in 1984. Father Gilbert Gauthe was convicted a year later on 11 counts of sexually abusing children. But his was only the most publicized of the cases in the diocese that, in all, involved 21 church workers. Berry said the Lafayette Diocese paid close to $20 million in compensation to victims and their families.
A 100-page report sent in 1985 to every American bishop warned that if other bishops and diocesan attorneys engaged in cover-ups similar to the one in Lafayette, the church could face $1 billion in claims over the next decade. The report recommended immediate counseling with afflicted families and removing the priest to a competent medical facility. The paper was never formally endorsed, although parts of it have been incorporated into diocesan guidelines.
Although many of the major Protestant bodies have adopted accountability rules for clergy misconduct, the Catholic Church has yet to develop a national policy on the subject. However, in the last several years many individual Catholic dioceses--including the Archdiocese of Los Angeles--have adopted guidelines that mandate the reporting of sex abuse incidents to both church and law enforcement authorities.
Harris, the lawyer representing the U.S. Catholic bishops, said he thinks there is now a "greater willingness within the church and society in general" to talk about clergy sexual misconduct.
Part of that new openness is due to changes that make such conduct harder to conceal.
Child abuse cases dating back as far as the 1950s are only recently coming to light in litigation, according to Anderson, the St. Paul prosecutor.
"The public is increasingly feeling empowered and realizes these wrongs are actionable," he explained.
Added Father Andrew Greeley, the well-known sociologist and author: "Parents are no longer willing to hush up abuse of their children 'for the good of the church.' "
Changes in the law make it easier for children to testify and state laws now require child abuse to be reported.
Often, said Cleary, the church insurance lawyer, attorneys are able to persuade courts to throw out the statute of limitations when considering child abuse cases because the victims may repress the memory of the abuse for years.
While the number of reported cases of clergy misconduct has risen dramatically in the last several years, many wonder if such abuse is actually greater now, or if there is simply greater awareness of the problem and a stronger determination to take action.
Experts differ. Dr. Fred S. Berlin, a psychiatrist who heads the Sexual Disorders Clinic at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital, thinks it's partly an increased recognition of a problem "that's always been there." But he also points to the increased number of children in day care facilities operated by religious organizations, which he believes increases their exposure to potential molesters.
Some critics say the Catholic Church's insistence on celibacy for priests increases sexual tensions. And Berry charges that a "promiscuous, gay subculture rampant within clerical life is eroding the cornerstone of celibacy."
But there seems to be no proven link between celibacy and pedophilia. Berlin and other authorities say that sexual orientation directed toward children apparently develops during childhood.
The Catholic Church operates several treatment centers with special programs for pedophiles. Among the most prominent are St. Luke Institute outside Washington and Villa Louis Martin in Jemez Springs, N. M.
Psychological screening of applicants is routinely done at Catholic seminaries. But Msgr. Thomas Curry, vicar for priests in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, pointed out that no test is able to screen out pedophiles.
New guidelines adopted last year by the Los Angeles Archdiocese call for accusations against a priest to be investigated as "quickly and thoroughly as possible." But no action will be taken "on the basis of anonymous, uncorroborated accusations." If there does appear to be a problem, the priest is to be moved away until a full investigation is completed. At present, no child molestation suits are pending against priests in the archdiocese, Curry said.
At least four mainline Protestant denominations have adopted or are developing national guidelines regarding clergy sexual misconduct. The Presbyterian Church, for example, requires that whenever a pastor relocates, background checks must be made on previous employment for at least the last five years. Regional Presbyterian courts also have the power to investigate allegations and, if necessary, discipline offenders.
Officials of most denominations agree that, at the very least, the offender's next congregation should be fully informed of his or her misdeeds.
"I'd like these things not to be public," said Michael Schwartz, a layman who heads the Washington-based Catholics for an Open Church. "But systematic suppression of information protects the guilty--not the innocent . . . . There's a balance that has to be struck between protecting the image of the church and protecting the integrity of the church."