Predators in church a minority of sex offenders

By on October 1, 1999

Can ordained sex offenders be treated successfully enough so they can be trusted back in the church community? That depends on the kind of offender, say experts who have worked with such clergy.

The most common type of offender acts under stress, says Mary Wells, a Toronto-based social worker and consultant. She helps develop misconduct policies for churches and assists with investigations.

“By far the majority involved in misconduct lack the skills to identify dynamics in relationships,” Mrs. Wells said. “Things get away from them. They are under some life stress; they rationalize that their behaviour is okay. Very few involved in misconduct are predators.”

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Predators have many victims and are immune to the feelings of the people they have exploited, she said.

Schools of theology are partly to blame for the deficiencies of the first group, she said. Clergy are seldom given the tools to identify the dynamics of what’s going on.

“Most clergy I see can be rehabilitated,” she said. “That doesn’t mean the impact on the exploited person is less.”

Dr. Richard Gilmartin, a Toronto-based psychologist who has treated clergy sex offenders, uses similar categories but adds a third.

Predators are usually resistant to treatment and represent a continual threat, he said. They must be removed from any possible contact with potential victims. Their numbers are relatively small.

A second group of offenders he calls “naive.”

“They feel they can express their affection physically,” Dr. Gilmartin said. “They have very little understanding of boundaries. They are naive about relationships and get into situations.”

Because they are clergy, however, they are responsible for those “situations” even if parishioners seduce them, for example. These people need to be educated to understand the concepts of power and transference and to become psychologically sophisticated, he said.

Seminaries tend to address sexuality only from a moral standpoint, he said. They must also focus on relationships and intimacy.

“When they offend, these people are relatively easy to treat,” he said. “Treatment is mainly about helping them to understand the impact on others and the effects of their offence.”

The biggest category of offender is that of the psychologically needy, he said. Many of these clergy are emotionally immature and may enter relationships with teenagers without understanding the inappropriateness. Many clergy have difficulty forming and sustaining intimate relationships, he noted.

“They tend to use sex as a way of achieving intimacy.”

Even more common than immature clergy, however, may be those who are fighting depression. “Many people jump into a highly stimulating behaviour as a way of avoiding depression. Clergy aren’t supposed to be depressed, especially not males.”

People looking to avoid depression may turn to alcohol or drug abuse, gambling or sexual acting out. They may visit prostitutes or use pornography to get that quick fix. Or they may get involved sexually with a parishioner. Depression can be treated quite easily with medication, he said.

The key to treating offenders is to figure out what’s at the root of their offending.

Clergy sex offenders tend to use different terminology than other offenders, says Chris Thomson, co-ordinator and instructor of sex offender awareness programs of the Justice Institute of B.C. Clergy tend to speak about their behaviour as offending God, he said. They admit to it as a personal sin rather than an offence against another person.

So how does one spot a sex offender?

Mr. Thomson said a typical church-based offender is a single male who lives alone and is over 30. He shows a clear interest in pre- or post-pubescent children under 15. When he gets into the church, he tends to get involved very deeply and quickly. He targets young people who appear vulnerable: those who are shy, withdrawn and appear to have many needs.

“You can only pick them out by observing their behaviour,” he said.

If they are very involved with young children and have no outside life to speak of, that should raise a red flag. Churches ought to do a very rigorous screening of new and current employees and volunteers, especially if they will be working with children. If questions arise, reject the candidate, Mr. Thomson said, noting that working with children is a privilege, not a right.

Dr. Gilmartin disagrees offenders have a specific demographic profile. “St. Francis of Assisi would fit that profile,” he said. “I don’t know of any effective profiles. I’ve seen married men with 10 kids abuse. The best predictor of future behaviour is always past behaviour.”

Like Mr. Thomson, though, he says vigorous screening is the best way to prevent wrongdoing.

Pedophiles – people who are sexually attracted to physically immature children – should never be allowed back into the church community, he said, since their rate of successful treatment is so low and their likelihood of reoffending great. They may reoffend after 10 or 12 clean years.

Clergy who are not pedophiles can be very slowly and with much supervision eased back into church work if they have been successfully treated and their therapist is confident they won’t reoffend, Dr. Gilmartin said.

In the old days, when a cleric offended, the church saw its responsibilities in this order, he said: first to the church, which generally meant covering up the incident; second to the cleric, which typically meant sending him away; lastly to the victim if there was any energy left.

That has to be reversed, he said. The church’s first obligation must be to the victim; the second must be to help the church and the affected local parish out; the third must be to assist the cleric.

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