What Can Be Done to Prevent Sexual Abuse by Clergy?

Eight specific recommendations for faith communities

Posted Mar 10, 2019

This morning the Episcopal Church I attend welcomed our Bishop with a special liturgy which included beautiful music prepared by our Organist and Choirmaster. Our choir sang, the handbell ringers played, and a talented musician played her cello.  It was all quite lovely, and we were in the parish hall, which has large windows behind the altar enabling the beauty of our liturgy to be enhanced by Mother Nature’s beauty.  But despite all this beauty on behalf of our Bishop, I was aware that the sight of miter and staff has become for me, a sight that is tainted by a failure to protect, failure to heal, failure to prevent, failure to understand.  I've often written about the importance of the community in protecting children from harm and in supporting their healing process when they have been abused. Over the last 20 years I've witnessed through news reports and in listening to the experiences of victims who have confided in me, how inadequately churches have responded to reports of sexual abuse, assault and harassment, and how slow members of the hierarchy have been to attend to these wounds appropriately and to change the factors that correlate with sexual violations. I grew up Catholic, and of course the Catholic Church has been the center-stage top-of-the-newshour big-time offender, but it’s true in many other denominations also. The Baptist Church is one that was in the news just recently, but there are plenty more.

Yesterday I found a handout from a conference I’d attended 10 years ago: The Southern Regional American Academy of Pastoral Counselors Conference. The Plenary presentation that weekend was by Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, Ph.D., a dedicated and wise psychotherapist and author of Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church. Here are her practical, important recommendations, as relevant now as they were 10 years ago. I include my comments in parenthesis:

1.) Enhance seminary training.

2.) Annual quality child protection training for clergy, including role plays and case presentations (*There are quality training programs available. Two are mentioned below)

3.) Preach every quarter on every aspect of the responsibility each adult in the congregation has for protecting the children from abuse. (I’m 70 years old and have been a church-goer most of my life, and have never heard a priest preach on this subject.)

4.) Develop congregational lay committees whose mission is to develop guidelines and events for the congregation, which address all aspects of protecting children at various stages of development. (Again, there are programs available; 2 are listed below.)

5.) Preach about the importance of reporting suspected child abuse, and how to do it (I have never heard a preacher preach on this subject.)

6.) Inform the congregation about any past, present, or future complaints or reporting, and then develop healing rituals for the congregation (A good example of this occurred at the beginning of the 2018 Episcopal Church's Annual Convention described in my previous blog entitled How Public Events Aid or Abet Healing Wounds of Sexual Abuse.)

7.) If any clergy has sexually abused a child, ensure that he or she receives appropriate mental health care, and apologize to the violated child, family, and church community. (The number of perpetrators who are enabled to avoid any of this is astonishing and thus so is the number of those abused because of that avoidance. Also, it is important to require that the perpetrator is denied any future access to children for any reason.)

8.) Incorporate term limits for Bishops and other policies that inhibit hierarchical rigidity


*Safeguarding God's Children (Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta).

* Stewards of Children/ Darkness to Light  is another excellent one (www.d2l.org)


Frawley-O'Dea, M.G.(2007). Perversion of Power. Nashville, Tenn.:Vanderbilt University Press