Monday August 27, 2007
By William Moyer
Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin
Allegations and confirmed cases of sex abuse by priests against children in the Catholic Church have been well documented since widespread reports of abuse first surfaced in the Boston area in the early 2000s.
But tracking allegations and confirmed cases of misconduct by Protestant clergy is an elusive task because Christianity's other ecclesiastical division is wildly diverse, congregational and sometimes staunchly independent compared to Catholicism's centralized hierarchy.
Ed Hart of the Central New York Baptist Association said all 42 churches in his jurisdiction outlined by Broome, Tioga, Delaware, Herkimer, Steuben and Oswego counties are autonomous. Local church leaders would handle complaints against pastors at the congregational level but would not be required to report anything to Hart or any other denominational officials.
In the Southern Tier's largest Protestant denomination, all allegations are investigated by the bishop and four district superintendents, said Donald Perry, communications director for the Wyoming Conference of the United Methodist Church, headquartered in Endicott. But denominational polity does not require either the regional or national church to track allegations and confirmed cases.
Still, some statistics can be gleaned from three insurance companies that provide liability coverage for 165,500 Protestant churches in the United States:
* The largest company, Church Mutual of Merrill, Wis., with 96,000 clients including the Wyoming Conference, reported an annual average of 100 child sex abuse cases during the past decade.
* GuideOne, headquartered in West Des Moines, Iowa, reported an average of 160 reports every year for the past two decades among its 45,000 clients.
* About 75 claims have been investigated by Brotherhood Mutual in Fort Wayne, Ind., each year for the past 15 years, but the company did not specify if all complaints involved minors.
Officials from all three insurance companies said the number of cases has remained steady during the past two decades. The data released to The Associated Press did not include information about whether the accused was found guilty by church or legal jurisdictions.
FEW LOCAL CASES
Hart said he knew of no credible child sex abuse allegations against Central NY Baptist clergy in the past decade. "It's their business; it's a totally voluntary affiliation," said Hart, who's headquartered in Lacona. "If it were a big issue and the church didn't do anything about it, the association might disassociate itself from the church."
No pastor among local clergy in the United Methodist Church is currently under investigation, said Binghamton District Superintendent the Rev. David Masland. He said he knew of no credible child sex abuse complaints against the conference's roughly 180-200 active clergy in the past 15 years.
Among the 50 churches in the Central New York District of the Wesleyan Church, no allegations are currently under investigation, Superintendent Wayne G. Wager said.
Episcopal Church officials in Central New York have handled several allegations of alleged clergy sex abuse cases in recent years.
In late July, a retired priest was suspended for 20 years after a church investigation and four affidavits showed that Edward Putnam engaged in sexual activities with minors while rector at a church in Skaneateles from 1986 to 1993. Putnam, 66, was chaplain to the New York State Assembly in the 1990s.
In May 2006, Ralph E. Johnson voluntarily resigned without admitting guilt amid a diocesan investigation into sexual allegations involving a boy while Johnson was rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Owego in the 1970s.
Elsewhere, a salacious case that drew national attention involved Lewis Lee, pastor of the Christian Baptist Church in Sherburne, who abducted the teenage daughter of parishioners in March 2006 before being arrested in Maryland and eventually sentenced to 11 years in federal prison for crossing state lines to engage in sex with a minor, as well as a maximum of 28 years for felony rape.
The Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies estimates at least 224,000 churches across the country could be listed as Protestant.
Many are aligned into similarly governed denominations, including United Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians and Presbyterians. Others carry a national name, such as Baptists, but govern themselves at the local level without regard to stringent national policies. Countless others are independent, with no affiliation with any unit beyond their local church.
All those different organizational structures, which may or may not include a centralized hierarchy, make it impossible to accumulate all-inclusive data about sex abuse allegations. No single organization or executive has oversight over all Protestant denominations.
By contract, Catholic bishops commissioned the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University to track and publish an annual report on credible allegations of sexual misconduct among priests and deacons. For 2006, CARA showed 635 new and "credible allegations" were lodged against 394 priests or deacons from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31. That compares to 695 in 2005 and 898 in 2004.
During the past two years, no "credible allegations" have been filed against priests or deacons in the Syracuse Diocese, which includes Broome and Chenango counties. In the Rochester Diocese, which covers Tioga County, two allegations were lodged in 2006; four had been reported in 2005.
Since child sex abuse by Catholic clergy began making headlines, both Catholics and Protestants have taken steps to protect children from predators.
The Syracuse and Rochester dioceses have victim-assistance coordinators who handle complaints of suspected abuse involving a minor and clergy, church employee or volunteer. Syracuse has a Safe Environment Program that requires all priests, paid employees, child-care providers, cheerleading coaches and other volunteers to complete a training session, as well as be screened and sign a code of conduct.
At its annual June meeting, Wyoming Conference established a Safe Sanctuary program that requires clergy and an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 local church volunteers who related to children to complete training by December 2008.
In reply to a reporter's inquiry, United Methodist Bishop Susan W. Hassinger of the Wyoming Conference issued a statement saying allegations are taken "very seriously" and credible complaints would likely result in temporarily or permanently removing a pastor from a church assignment and possibly asking the clergy to surrender ministerial credentials. At that point, the accused would be identified through an announcement to the church, and the complaint would be inserted into the pastor's personnel file and likely available for review by potential church or private-sector employers, Hassinger added.
In the Wesleyan Church, allegations would be investigated by the local church and reported to the district, Wager said. "The Wesleyan Church has zero tolerance for clergy abusing children, and if a pastor was determined to be guilty, the person would be immediately dismissed as a pastor and be forbidden from ever pastoring again," he said.
Episcopalians in Central New York who work with children must participate in safe-church training and undergo background checks.
"We may ask why this happened in our church and in our community," said Adams about the recent Putnam case. "I have faith that we will see the effect of God's reconciling grace in and through one another."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.