Methods: The study is the first random national survey of the U.S. population on this topic, based on questions we added to the 2008 General Social Survey (GSS). We cognitively pretested the items to refine the wording and maximize the likelihood that respondents interpreted the questions as we intended them. Although the GSS is an in-person interview, the questions were self-administered, making it easier for respondents to report potentially painful or embarrassing experiences. We calculated prevalence rates and sampling errors.
Concurrently, we analyzed phone interviews with 46 persons who as adults had experienced CSM. We also additionally interviewed 15 others who had experienced the effects of CSM secondarily(spouses, friends and other staff members in the congregation), as well as two offending leaders. We chose interviewees representing religious, ethnic and regional diversity. We used the software package Atlas-Ti to code the interview transcripts. The purpose of the analysis was to identify contextual patterns in experiences of clergy sexual misconduct.
Results: Overall, the survey found that 3.9 percent of women who attend religious services at least monthly reported being the object of a sexual advance by a clergyperson or religious leader in their own congregation; 2.4 percent of regularly attending women report such advances by someone who was at the time married to someone else and that did not lead to being in an openly acknowledged relationship. Of those victimized, 96% of those surveyed were women; all offenders were men. We did also identify female offenders and male victims, and both homosexual and heterosexual offenses, in the qualitative study. In the qualitative study, we identified four common characteristics of the social contexts in which CSM took place: (1) lack of response to situations that call for action; (2) culture of “niceness”; (3) isolation of communication; and (4) lack of accountability. We identified five key categories of behaviors of offenders, according to those we interviewed. They: (1) took on roles of counselor and/or close family friend; (2) redefined social norms; (3) communicated the right to put aside the religious leader role; (4) used the victim's vulnerabilities to limit her agency; and (5) gave inappropriate gifts to the victim.
Implications: The fact that 1 in 25 women who attend religious services regularly have had this experience implies that CSM is common. Taking a systemic rather than a psychological approach to this problem suggests the importance of public education and prevention strategies and policies, including: (2) developing a written code of ethics that prescribe and proscribe the role and behavioral expectations of religious leaders; and (3) developing structures of accountability concerning a religious leader's relationships with congregants and use of professional time.