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Sexual abuse within religious settings has been the focus of prior research for over fifty years. However, most research has focused on the Roman Catholic Church, not Protestant Christian churches. Yet, Protestant Christian Churches are the most prominent religious institutions, both in the physical number of churches and total participants, across the United States. By examining 326 alleged instances of sexual abuse at or through activities provided by U.S. Protestant Christian churches, this study sought to create the first typology of sexual abusers within this setting. This study found that three types of offenders exist within these settings, (1) on-site offenders, (2) off-site offenders, and (3) serial offenders. A discussion will follow on policy implications and future directions for research.
Sexual abuse within religious settings has been the focus of various media coverage for nearly fifty years (Bailey, 2013; Rezendes, 2002). However, this topic received renewed attention over the past two decades with the bombshell report of widespread sexual abuse and cover-up within the Roman Catholic Church, as detailed by the The Boston Globe (Rezendes, 2002). The story of this groundbreaking news report was later the focus of the 2016 Academy Award Best Picture-winning movie Spotlight (2015). An extensive investigation into the sexual abuses found an estimated 16,000 victims involving 3,700 Roman Catholic clergies (Bishop Accountability, 2011). It has also been reported that the Roman Catholic Church has paid over $3 billion to victim compensation and related expenditures (Abuse Lawsuit, 2021). As a result, individuals began questioning the extent of sexual abuse in other prominent religious settings, such as Protestant Christian churches.
Protestant Christianity refers to nearly every denomination of Christianity not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, such as the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and United Methodists. From a sheer numerical standpoint, American Protestant Christian congregations substantially outweigh the number of physical Catholic churches and even individual members within the United States. Specifically, the Roman Catholic Church has 17,000 parishes and 51 million members (Masci & Smith, 2018) compared to the estimated 314,000 Protestant Christian congregations and 60 million members (Grammich et al., 2012; Pew Research Center, 2007). Moreover, Protestant Christian congregations are not generally organized by a global or national structure. The Roman Catholic Church's hierarchical structure allowed for the cover-up and subsequent discovery of widespread sexual abuse. Consequently, instances of sexual abuse within Protestant Christianity might appear isolated when they could be part of a larger overall pattern of offender and offending behaviors.
Some estimates exist on the total instances of sexual abuse within Protestant Christian churches. One estimate comes from three of the largest faith-based insurance companies1 that insure nearly 160,000 churches. These three faith-based insurance companies reported 7,095 insurance claims of sexual abuse by clerical members, church employees, congregation members, or others involved within these settings from 1987 to 2007 (The Associated Press, 2007). These reports indicate an average of 260 claims of sexual abuse per year. In addition, Denney, Kerley, and Gross (2018) published one of the first empirical studies on sexual abuse in the U.S. within Protestant Christian settings that examined news articles reporting on arrests involving sexual abuse, finding 326 total cases reported from 1999 to 2014. Most recently, the Houston Chronicle published a series titled "Abuse of Faith," uncovering sexual abuse and cover-up within the largest Protestant Christian organization in the U.S. (i.e., the SBC). They identified 380 sexual abusers and 700 alleged victims over 20 years (Downen, Olsen, & Tedesco, 2019). Moreover, Downen et al. (2019) found that 35 Southern Baptist ministers were hired at churches, despite being accused of sexual misconduct or abuse, demonstrating a pattern of institutional issues in responding to alleged sexual abuse.
It is clear that sexual abuse occurs within these organizations, thus underscoring the importance of examining sexual victimization and related contextual characteristics, such as offender types, that arise within this setting. The need to further understand sexual abuse within this setting is imperative since the impacts of sexual victimization are so severe. Effects of sexual victimization include, but are not limited to, depression, suicide/suicidal thoughts, substance use/abuse, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorder(s), and more (Bensley, Van Eenwyk, & Simmons, 2000; Beitchman et al., 1992; Briere & Runtz, 1988; Dube et al., 2005; Gold, 1986; Kendall-Tackett, Williams, & Finkelhor, 1993; MacMillan & Munn, 2001; Najdowski & Ullman, 2009; Rossow & Lauritzen, 2001; Simpson & Miller, 2002).
There can also be impacts on church attendance and membership. For example, a study conducted in Germany found that Roman Catholic sexual abuse scandals also led to increased numbers of individuals leaving Protestant Churches (Frick, Simmons, & Moster, 2021). There appears to be a relationship between sexual abuse issues and decreased membership in the U.S. as well. LifeWay Christian Resource -- a research arm of the SBC -- found in a 2019 survey that 10% of American Protestants (35 and under) have left the church at some point due to issues related to sexual misconduct and abuse not being addressed (Earls, 2019). Unaddressed sexual abuse issues within these settings have devastating consequences for victims and congregations alike. This study will provide a typology of offenders that commit sexual abuse at or through activities provided by U.S. Protestant Christian churches to assist in the discovery, investigation, and prevention of sexual abuses that occur within these settings.
Research related to sexual abuse that occurs at or through activities provided by Protestant Christian churches has been sparse, despite over 375 clergy and volunteers being arrested over the past approximate decade from the SBC alone (Wiliams, 2021). Moreover, 44% of U.S. Protestants who attend church have been victims of sexual misconduct2, though not always directly tied to the church (Earls, 2019). With some exceptions, most research has focused on sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church. Since the Protestant Christian church outweighs the size and scope of the Roman Catholic Church within the U.S., the sheer number of individuals involved in such practices increases the overall opportunities for sexual abuse. Therefore, it is imperative to understand an overview of sexual abuse within American Protestant Christian settings, clergy offender characteristics, clergy planning and grooming methods, child sexual abuse (CSA), and common sex offender characteristics and typologies.
Though there has not been a strong research focus on Protestant Christian sexual abuse, studies have focused on clergy sexual abuse and related issues. For general wrongdoing within the church, Shupe (1995) examined the power structures within religious settings that lead to, protect, and perpetuate wrongdoing -not solely sexual abuse- by clergy. Most other research related to the structure of religious organizations and sexual abuse has focused on the Roman Catholic Church. One example of this work is when White and Terry (2008) adapted Kappeler, Sluder, and Alpert's (1998) 'Rotten Apples Explanation' of police misconduct to CSA that occurs within the Roman Catholic Church. Specifically, White and Terry (2008) drew parallels between policing and the Catholic Church regarding the (1) use of excessive force (i.e., CSA), (2) opportunity structure (i.e., public trust inherent to their position), and the (3) organizational structure (e.g., restricted job movement, organizational consistency, etc.). They argued that through these three qualities, CSA has been allowed to exist and continue (White & Terry, 2008). Moreover, White and Terry (2008) spoke to the importance of examining the organizational structure of an institution when examining CSA, saying:
Analysis of child sexual abuse must go beyond examination of individual offenders and victims and view the phenomenon in the universe of the organization as a breakdown of the institution, disregarded or facilitated by the underlying organization structure in which the harm occurred (p. 674).”
Most prior research on sexual abuse within religious non-Catholic settings has focused on individual abuse cases, recovering from abuse, or preventing abuse altogether (Benson, 1994; Bradshaw, 1977; Fortune & Poling, 1994; Kennedy, 2003). Primarily, the bulk of prior literature on this topic has focused on sexual misconduct among clergy. However, it is essential to note that sexual misconduct is inherently different from abuse. Specifically, sexual misconduct refers to behaviors that may be deviant within these communities (e.g., adultery, pre-marital sex, etc.) yet are not illegal. Despite this important distinction, this prior literature could help understand the context in which sexual abuse arises and the construction of offender typologies.
One overwhelming offender characteristic that has been found is that almost all identified offenders of both clergy sexual misconduct and sexual abuse have been male (Francis & Baldo, 1998; Friberg & Laaser, 1998; Garland & Argueta, 2010; Thoburn & Whitman, 2004). This finding should come as no surprise since clergy are almost entirely male due to most Christian organizations' patriarchal structure. For example, a 2010 study found that 88% of Protestant congregations have males as their leaders (Cooperative Congregations Studies Partnership, 2010). Denney et al. (2018) found that 98.8% (n= 328) of their sample of sex abusers within U.S. Protestant Christian churches were male with only four females identified in samples news articles.
Another essential characteristic is that clergy that have been found to engage in sexual misconduct have greater overall levels of narcissism when using the Raskin and Hall (1979) Narcissistic Personality Inventory (Brock & Lukens, 1989; Francis & Baldo, 1998; Hands, 1992; Muse, 1992; Muse & Chase, 1993; Rediger, 1990; Steinke, 1989). One's feeling of importance could lead to higher overall propensity levels to commit sexual abuse. This relationship could also exist because they are in positions of power within the church and exploit that power for sexual purposes.
Individuals within this setting who commit sexual misconduct are generally between 51 and 60 (Francis & Baldo, 1998). Moreover, those in ministry for at least 25 years were more commonly associated with sexual misconduct (Friberg & Laaser, 1998). Therefore, one might become increasingly comfortable committing sexual misconduct and perhaps even abuse with greater positional experience and age. Terry (2008a) found that the average age of priests at the onset of their sexual abuse was 39, though the age differed by subgroups. Specifically, the average ages were as follows: 43 for pedophiles (focus on prepubescent children), 36 for ephebophiles (focus on adolescent children), 37 for unusual acts (paraphilic acts), 31 for those with more than ten victims, and 28 for those with more than 20 victims (Terry, 2008a).
For the position in the church, Thoburn and Whitman (2004) found that the role of an associate pastor was the most represented to engage in sexual misconduct. As such, clergy who engage in sexual misconduct are primarily middle-aged and in mid-level positions within their church. This finding is similar to what is reported by John Jay College (2004), where they found that 42% of those who sexually abused children occupied the role of associate pastor. Head priests consisted of 25% of those that sexually abused children (John Jay College, 2004). In Mercado, Tallon, and Terry (2008), 56.24% of clergy accused of CSA were either working as pastors or associate pastors, and 8.93% were teachers, with the remainder serving in another role. However, it is important to note that 75.91% of priests with ten or more victims were diocesan priests in the role of pastor. It is also crucial to understand known clergy offenders' planning and grooming methods for a deeper context.
There is built-in power and control within any leadership position in an organization or a church. With power and control being identified as two critical characteristics of sexual abuse (Brownmiller, 1975), it has been argued that any power position within the church could be a primer for sexual abuse (Stermac & Segal, 1989). Moreover, child sexual abusers have been known to perform institutional grooming to gain access to specific organizations to choose future victims (McAlinden, 2006). Not only does an individual within a religious setting have the power that comes with their position, but the purported backing of a higher power (i.e., God) that makes their grooming unique to other abusers.
Capps (1993) provided three primary reasons why religious environments might be conducive to sexual abuse. First, the position within the church gives the offender access to victims across the church. For example, pastors potentially have access to every church member, whether children or elderly, simply by their position. Second, those in positions of power generally have little oversight. This lack of oversight allows them to move (and potentially abuse) freely with little chance of discovery. Third, these individuals might be privy to knowledge (e.g., marriage difficulties, sexual activity among teens, etc.) due to their positions that can then be used to exploit a situation.
In an expansion of Capps (1993), Garland and Argueta (2010) listed six primary reasons why the church environment could be conducive to sexual offending after examining the experiences of 46 identified victims and victim family members of clergy sexual misconduct. The six themes that appeared are as follows: (1) family members, friends, and victims ignored warnings signs; (2) the niceness culture; (3) the ease of private communication; (4) no oversight; (5) multiple roles; and (6) an inherent trust in the sanctuary. It is critical to expand on several points. For the niceness culture, Garland and Argueta (2010) reference that the expectation of being friendly while attending church services could mask sexual flirtation that occurs, thus opening the door for mixed signals or direct sexual abuse. For the multiple roles point, it is common for many clergies to be both a youth pastor and provide counseling to their congregation members. As a result, they might become privy to certain information that they otherwise might not be aware of and use it to their advantage to abuse sexually. For example, a teenager might disclose that they are sexually active. The person in a position of power might threaten to disclose that information to their parents if they do not give in to their sexual advances. These various occupational qualities allow clergy opportunities to sexually abuse within this setting.
Grooming has been identified as a central component of CSA generally (Groth & Birnbaum, 1978; Lanning & Dietz, 2004), and CSA that occurs in religious settings (Raine & Kent, 2019). In essence, grooming is the process of an offender using gifts, power, or some other enticement to initially sexually abuse and to continue their abuse. Though there is no universal definition for grooming (see Winters Jeglic, & Kaylor, 2020), each definition has central components. These principal components are that the abusers (1) gain initial cooperation of the victim, (2) decrease likelihood of discovery, and (3) increase likelihood of future sexual contact (Lanning & Dietz, 2014; Winters et al., 2020).
Winters and Jeglic (2017) developed the Sexual Grooming Model of Child Sexual Abusers, which helps provide further context to grooming strategies within this setting. This model was later validated by Winters et al. (2020). In this model, there are five steps to CSA grooming (1) selecting a victim (e.g., physical/mental traits, family dynamics, etc.); (2) gaining access and isolating the victim (e.g., volunteering at an organization, gaining employment at a specific place, etc.); (3) developing trust with the child and others; (4) desensitizing the child to sexual content and physical touch; and (5) maintenance behaviors following the commission of the abuse (e.g., ensuring that a child does not report the abuse) (Winters & Jeglic, 2017; Winters et al., 2020).
The role that religion can play in the grooming process for CSA cannot be understated. Raine and Kent (2019) summarize the role that religion can play in the grooming process when they state:
The perceived unquestionable authority of religious figures and their claimed unique and vital relationships to the divine realm is a feature of religious authority- one that plays an important role in the grooming of children in religious settings (p.184).
Spraitz and Bowen (2019) identified eight individual behaviors that Catholic priests often use to carry out CSA. These eight behaviors are as follows: (1) alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs; (2) gift-giving; (3) overnight outings and trips; (4) physical contact; (5) guise of mentorship and friendship; (6) playing favorites; (7) relationship with family; and (8) abuse of respect and reverence. The abuse of respect and reverence was the most represented among all behaviors at 83% (Spraitz & Bowen, 2019).
Winters, Jeglic, and Terry (2022) found three primary grooming tactics in their examination of CSA among clergy. The first grooming tactic was gaining access and isolation. This strategy refers to a clergy using their organizational role to meet victims and their family members. The second grooming tactic found was trust development. Similar to the findings of Spraitz and Bowen (2019), victims were given either physical gifts or some other incentive to facilitate the CSA. The third and final grooming tactic present was desensitization. Specifically, this tactic refers to gradually increasing either sexualized touch or topics to conversations over time in an attempt to normalize the behavior with the victim (Winters et al., 2022).
The location where the CSA occurs is also vital as it can be related to grooming strategies and techniques. In Mercado et al. (2008), they found priests with one victim were more likely to abuse at their place of work (28.7%) when compared to those with two to three victims (27.1%). Moreover, they found that those with two to three victims seemingly preferred to commit the abuse at the priest's residence (33.6%) compared to the other offender categories (i.e., those with one victim, four to nine victims, and ten or more victims). Those with four to nine victims were more likely to abuse at the victim's home (Mercado et al., 2008). Information related to victim selection is also crucial to understanding CSA within religious contexts as grooming tactics appear to be related to the number of victims. Terry (2008b) discussed this relationship between victim number and grooming methods in her study, saying, "There is an indication that many priests engaged in some form of grooming behavior, and the more victims a priest had the more types of grooming tactic they employed," (p. 38).
Some research has been conducted related to victim selection among Roman Catholic Clergy. Perillo, Mercado, and Terry (2008) found that among the 4,170 Roman Catholic priests accused of CSA examined, 55.2% had one known victim with 44.8% having multiple known victims. Moreover, Perillo et al. (2008) found that those with sexual abuse histories were more likely than those without such histories to have entirely male victims. In another study on CSA within the Roman Catholic Church, Terry (2008b) found that 81% of the known victims were boys while 19% were girls. For victim-age, Terry (2008b) found the following representation: victims under 7 (6%); 8-10 (16%); 11 to 14 (51%); and 15-17 (27%). There is additional relevant information to CSA for contextual purposes for this study.
Due to the severe nature and consequences of sexual victimization, there has been no shortage of studies on CSA. Some studies have estimated that as many as 25% of all children in the U.S. will experience a sexual assault before turning 18 years of age (Spinazzola, Ford, & Zucker, 2005). However, the overall likelihood of sexual victimization does vary across sexes. Overall, girls are generally reported as being significantly more likely to become victims of sexual abuse during their childhood when compared to boys (Bolen & Scannapieco, 1999; Finkelhor, Hotaling, Lewis, & Smith, 1990; Levenson & D'Amora, 2007). Most estimates place the percentage of girls being sexually abused at 20% to 30% (Levenson & D'Amora, 2007; Finkelhor et al., 1990), though some estimates have been as high as 40% (Bolen & Scannapieco, 1999).
Generally, boys are expected to experience a lower overall likelihood of sexual victimization during their childhood. One example is when MacMillan et al. (1997) found that 12.8% of girls in their sample were sexually abused compared to only 4.3% of boys. A second example is when Bolen and Scannapieco (1999) found that 13% of boys had been sexually abused compared to 40% of girls. However, this considerable difference may be due to disclosure issues, as girls are more likely to reveal their sexual abuse for a myriad of reasons when compared to boys (Brochman, 1991; Walwrath, Ybarra, & Holden, 2003). One common reason for not disclosing or delaying disclosure can be their relationship with the abuser, as most sexually abused children know their offender in some capacity (Arata, 1998; Smith, Letourneau, & Saunders, 2000). For example, as high as 74% of child victims of sexual abuse know their abuser (Snyder, 2000). Therefore, this increased likelihood of familiarity between offender and victim further highlights the need to examine sexual abuse within religious settings. The child's age also has significant ramifications for sexual abuse in how often and to what extent it may appear.
The three age ranges with the highest rate of sexual victimization are all on the younger end of the age spectrum. The highest overall known rate of sexual victimization is for those between 16 and 19 at 5.5 per 1,000 (Rennison & Rand, 2003). Those between 20 and 24 are the second-highest known sexual victimization rate at 2.9 assaults per 1,000 (Rennison & Rand, 2003). The third highest sexual victimization age range is between 12 and 15, at 2.1 assaults per 1,000 people (Rennison & Rand, 2003). The most common age of victims is crucial for understanding sexual abuse within this environment.
A total of 23% (9.6 million) of U.S. adolescents (10 to 19 years of age) identify as being of the Protestant Christian faith, with approximately half participating in Church youth groups (Smith et al., 2002). In addition, about 38% of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders report attending a Protestant Christian church function weekly, with 16% doing so one or two times per month (Smith et al., 2002). Considering this, it makes sense that those under 18 at Protestant churches would be the most likely victims of sexual assault, especially when one considers the general societal trends of abuse among these age groups and the relationship dynamics between offender and victim, as was confirmed in Denney et al. (2018).
Perhaps the most widely agreed-upon characteristic of sex offenders is that the overwhelming majority are adult males (Rennison, 2001; Rennison & Rand, 2003). Another essential attribute of offenders and victims is that most sexual assault victims know their offenders, with Snyder (2000) reporting this percentage as high as 74%. However, there are some slight differences between female and male victims on whether they know their offender or not. For example, Rennison and Rand (2003) found that nearly 70% of female victims know their offender compared to 52% of male victims in their sample. It is also important to note that most offenders are not blood-related but are generally friends, family friends, or some sort of acquaintance of the victim (Rennison & Rand, 2003). Adding the dynamics of the age of the victim and the context of the offender/victim relationship within the Protestant Christian setting, it is no surprise that sexual victimizations might occur in the context of minors in the church and those in positions of power, such as a pastor or youth minister.
Despite the wide variation in characteristics among sex offenders, typologies have emerged as an excellent way to classify offender types. A typology is a scientific classification of a group of shared attributes. Though there are many similarities among sex offenders, they are not standardized with uniform characteristics (Gordon & Porporino, 1990). For example, there are essential differences in why offenders might target an adult female versus a prepubescent male. Unfortunately, only one prior study was located that created typologies for clergy that engaged in sexual abuse.
Grenz and Bell (2001) identified three primary categories of clergy sexual offenders (1) predator, (2) wanderer, and (3) lover. The predator classification comprised individuals who actively seek opportunities to sexually offend within their congregation. Wanderers were identified as those who only sexually offend when they experience life struggles, such as marital difficulties. Consequently, wanderers committed these sexual offenses to relieve feelings of guilt. Finally, lovers were individuals who genuinely believed they had fallen in love with a congregation member. Since this was the only prior typology identified that pertained to the individuals that are the focus of this study, it is crucial to focus on the more commonly cited typologies for sex offenders and how they are constructed.
Most sex offenders are generalists, not specialists (Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2004; Smallbone & Wortley, 2004). That is, most sex offenders tend to victimize when a perceived opportunity presents itself instead of actively seeking out someone who might fit their victim preferences, such as a specific height or hair color. Generally, sex offenders who target children are more likely to specialize in victim selection when compared to those who target adults (Miethe, Olson, & Mitchell, 2006; Simon, 2000). Because of the vast differences among sex offenders, most typologies have been developed around their primary victim preference (i.e., adult or child) or various offender characteristics (Robertiello & Terry, 2007).
Robertiello and Terry (2007) reviewed sex offender typologies and found that offenders typically fall into one of four main categories. The first category, compensatory offenders, will usually use the minimum physical force possible to restrain the victim to achieve sexual gratification. The second category, opportunistic offenders, are highly impulsive and will offend when they perceive an opportunity. The third category, power/control offenders, receives sexual gratification from the control of their victims. The fourth and final category is the sadistic offender. These offenders have the primary goal of causing as much fear and pain for the victims as possible. Through fear and physical pain, they derive their sexual gratification. Like adult sex offenders, typologies have also been created for those who target children (Groth, Hobson, & Gary, 1982; Knight & Prentky, 1990).
Typologies for those who target children often focus on the familial connection (i.e., whether the offender is blood-related to the victim) (Gould, 1994). However, since this study does not include those who sexually abused family members, non-familial offender typologies will be the focus. A relatively recent work by Miller (2013) provides a summary of child sex abuser typologies that is similar to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) typology of child molesters (Robertiello & Terry, 2007; Terry & Tallon, 2004). These typologies are broken into two categories, each with four subsections.
The first category is the situational child molester (Miller, 2013). These individuals will sexually abuse a child merely because they perceive an opportunity to do so. However, it is also possible these individuals will prey upon other individuals deemed as helpless (e.g., disabled adults) when an opportunity is presented.
The first subsection of the situational child molester is the regressed pedophile. These individuals will be sexually involved with adults from time to time; however, they will primarily target female children. Often, these individuals have poor coping skills and will sexually offend when various life stressors present themselves (Terry & Tallon, 2004). Generally, they will select child victims deemed as easily accessible to relieve these life stressors (Robertiello & Terry, 2007: Terry & Tallon, 2004). The second subsection is the morally indiscriminate pedophile. Individuals occupying this subsection will generally sexually abuse by using force. Moreover, they will typically fantasize about similar actions using deviant pornography (e.g., bondage) to assist in creating and reinforcing their fantasy. Like the previous typology, these individuals may target children and occasional adults (Terry & Tallon, 2004).
The third subsection of situational child molesters is the sexually indiscriminate. These individuals will often victimize their children or children within their families. These offenders will commonly report victimizing out of boredom and doing so as an extension of their deviant fantasies (Terry & Tallon, 2004).
The fourth and final subsection of the situational child molester is the naïve/inadequate molester. Offenders occupying this category have difficulties forming and maintaining relationships with adult peers. Moreover, these offenders typically have a cognitive disorder. The totality of this issue is that they will sexually abuse children without understanding or demonstrating remorse for their actions.
The second category of child sex offenders found by Miller (2013) and Terry and Tallon (2004) is the preferential child molester. Unlike situational child molesters, these offenders will typically do so because they have a sexual preference for children, not a mere opportunity to abuse. The first subtype is the seductive molester. This subtype refers to an individual who engages in grooming behaviors to lure and earn a victim's trust to engage in and continue their sexual abuse. Typically, offenders within this category will refrain from violence but emphasize what they perceive as affection to earn children's trust. They often will abuse several children at the same time.
The second form of a preferential child molester is the fixated molester. This subgroup is an individual who will also use grooming strategies to target and carry out their abuse. However, what separates these individuals from the former subgroup is that they generally have a child's mental intelligence and emotional equivalent. Consequently, they view children as equals. Often, these individuals will be sexually abusing multiple children simultaneously and use the Internet to recruit and communicate with a victim (Miller, 2013).
The third and final form of preferential child molesters is the sadistic pedophile. Like adult sadistic offenders, these individuals often commit physical and sexual torture. A potential exists for this physical and sexual torture to result in death. These are the most likely offender types to use (frequently extreme) violence.
As one can see, typologies can be extremely useful for understanding offenders in how and why they target the victims. This issue, combined with the relatively new research environment of U.S. Protestant Christian churches as a potential conducive environment for sexual abuse, is imperative that examination into the types of offenders who operate within this arena be continued. The importance of the sustained study is evident when one considers the inherent positions of power and control, the niceness culture promoted within religious settings, and the sheer number of interactions among millions of youths on a daily and weekly basis in the U.S. (e.g., church service, mission trips, choir practice, youth group trips, etc.). Consequently, the positions of power within these organizations and their mere interactions with congregants could lead to many opportunities for sexual abuse within these settings. Therefore, the construction of offender typologies is crucial to aid in the prevention, investigation, and prosecution of individuals that engage in CSA within this setting.
The present study has one primary goal. This goal is to create a typology of individuals alleged to have sexually abused at or within activities connected to U.S. Protestant Christian churches (e.g., church services, mission trips, etc.). In addition, this study aims to provide more empirical information related to the offenders within these settings to aid in the investigation, prevention, and prosecution of sexual offenders in or at activities provided by U.S. Protestant Christian churches.
The sample for the present study consists of a collection of online news articles from local news agencies that reported on alleged instances of sexual victimization that occurred physically at or through activities involving U.S. Protestant Christian churches. Here, local news refers to any non-national news agency reporting on an alleged instance of CSA (e.g., city/town newspaper, broadcast news channels for local and regional news, etc.). In addition, three individual websites that functioned as a news depository for information on this topic were located.4 These same websites were used in a prior study analyzing the characteristics of offenses and offenders at U.S. Protestant Christian churches (Denney et al., 2018).Each website operated within a unique timeframe covering 32 years (1982-2014).
Each news article contained varied information about a sexual crime that occurred at or during activities surrounding a U.S. Protestant Christian church. Examples of included information were the offense type, the context of the offense(s), offender information (e.g., age, sex, role within the church), and some victim information (e.g., age-range and position within the church). There was a total of 2,240 individual cases across all three websites. Cases before 1999 were removed from inclusion since this project was originally part of a more extensive study that involved the examination of the U.S. Census and American Community Survey, which was not readily available in a digital format before 1999. Once duplicate, international, and cases involving civil lawsuits, non-Protestant churches, or misconduct were removed, 326 unique instances remained.
A content analysis was performed on news articles involving 326 individual cases of CSA that allegedly took place at activities surrounding Protestant Christian churches. Since some of the news links available did not contain all relevant information for the study, search terms that included the alleged offender's name, church, or a combination was used in Google and Google News to identify related articles. This method has been utilized in other studies that performed a content analysis on online news articles (Denton, 2013; Stinson et al., 2013). Individual articles were typically from local news stations or newspapers, with a single case yielding an average of three news articles per search. In total, approximately 969 news articles of the 326 unique cases were analyzed.
Once relevant articles were identified, each was read multiple times to record any necessary data pertinent to the study's goal. Examples of the information recorded are the sex offense(s) charged (e.g., CSA, rape), the physical location of the offense (e.g., offender's home, at the church, on a church-sponsored trip), alleged offender demographic information (e.g., age, sex, race/ethnicity), victim information (when available), offender's role within the church (e.g., pastor, volunteer), and other contextual information. Finally, all data were entered into an Excel spreadsheet for organization and analysis.
Once data was organized, a content analysis was performed utilizing a grounded theory approach and principles of analytic induction to identify key themes and concepts (Charmaz, 1983, 2006). A grounded theory approach was best for studying this topic as there is not enough prior research to apply a pre-existing theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Glaser, 1978). A grounded theory approach has been utilized to examine understudied sex offenses, offenders, and related issues (Gannon, Rose, & Ward, 2010; Gee, Devilly, & Ward, 2004; Meloy, 2006; Webster & Beech, 2000). Moreover, grounded theory allows a researcher to seek and conceptualize latent social patterns and structures of one's interest via simultaneous comparison. Applying any other theoretical lens to the formation of offender and victim typologies may limit the data in this understudied area, potentially stunting the development of theoretical explanations that could arise (Glaser & Strauss, 1967).
Sex offenders often have diverse offense histories. As such, prior research has generally organized offenders by the offender/offense characteristics or even primary victim preference (e.g., children or adults) (Robertiello & Terry, 2007). Locations have been frequently identified as a critical factor for understanding the context of a sexual offense (Beauregard, Rossmo, & Proulx, 2007; Colombino et al., 2011). Offense location(s) were used as a key proxy for offense characteristics when developing offender typologies. Before discussing the typologies, it is imperative to briefly provide the sample characteristics published in Denney et al. (2018) for contextual purposes. The analysis only located four female offenders with the remaining offenders all being male. As such, all females were removed from analysis consideration as four cases is not adequate to form a typology (see Denney et al., 2018).
The reported sex offense can be divided into contact and non-contact offenses. Contact offenses are an alleged instance of direct physical or sexual contact between an offender and victim (s) (Mair & Stevens, 1994). Non-contact offenses are an alleged instance where an offender does not have direct physical contact with a victim (Mair & Stevens, 1994). For example, this could include sexual harassment and child pornography. The overwhelming majority of alleged offenses were contact (80%; n= 363), while non-contact offenses consisted of 18.9% (n= 89).5
It is also essential to mention the victims per case and the reported location of offenses for contextual purposes. Each case ranged from as low as one known victim to as many as 20 victims.6 Despite the wide range, most cases included only one known victim at 61.7% (n= 205).7 A substantial minority had two reported victims per case (19%; n= 63). The remainder of the cases were three or more known victims.
For the construction of typologies, the known offense location(s) proved imperative as the physical location is key to understanding the context surrounding a sex offense. As stated by Terry and Ackerman (2008) in their study on situational crime prevention strategies of priest sexual abuse, the physical location of the abuse is the key to understanding the context of the sexual abuse. For example, it would suggest that these victimizations are on-site if they occur on church grounds. Conversely, victimization that occurs off church grounds suggests a higher level of planning and grooming to isolate the individual away from the church campus or related activity. Moreover, if one is victimized both on and off-campus, it would suggest an ongoing relationship with varied victimization opportunities. When considering all 326 cases, the offense location was reported in 70.9% (n= 231) of cases, leaving roughly 30% (n= 95) unknown. Within the reported locations, 62.3% (n= 144) had one known location with nearly 40% (n= 87) having multiple locations. Most (45.5%; n= 105) cases occurred off church grounds, such as the offender's home, a hotel/motel room, or the offender's car. A substantial minority of offenses occurred solely on the church grounds (35.5%; n=82), such as in the offender's office or the church parking lot. Fully 19% (n= 44) of offenses occurred on and off the church grounds.
Three typologies emerged from the data. As stated above, offenders were organized via offender, offense, and victim characteristics. The separation of offenders followed three steps. First, since there were only four female offenders, they were removed from the sample. Second, individual cases were categorized on whether they involved one or multiple victims at the arrest time. Third, cases were separated by the reported offense location. In total, 254 offenders were available to create the typologies once the criteria of offense location(s), approximate victim count, and other vital information needed. The three typologies that emerged were (1) on-site offenders, (2) off-site offenders, and (3) serial offenders. The following will provide a detailed description of each typology, their representation within the data (e.g., race/ethnicity, role, and victim preference), and specific examples from the data used to create these typologies.
Offenders who met the typology of an on-site had only one known victim at the time of their arrest. Additionally, these individuals did not specialize in committing offenses at a particular location, as a later typology, off-site offenders, did. Specifically, these individuals were charged with a sexual crime that occurred explicitly at the church campus or during a church-sponsored activity (e.g., camping trip, mission trip, etc.). Overwhelmingly, on-site offenders committed their offenses while fulfilling their designated role within the church, such as a Youth Minister or a Sunday School Teacher. Moreover, these individuals were not reported to have committed any sexual offense at their houses, the victim's homes, or other off-site locations that were not directly connected to church-related activities.
Chiefly, what separates these offenders from the different typologies that emerged is the emphasis on an opportunity. These individuals were not reported to have created a specialized situation outside of the church activity to carry out their sexual victimization. Offenses outside of a church activity indicate a higher degree of planning, such as those who groom their victims and environment. However, these individuals capitalized on perceived opportunities within their specific church roles to sexually victimize, primarily with children they had direct contact with or control over in their official capacities. This phenomenon is evidenced by 73.8% of known offenses occurring exclusively at the church or a church-sponsored activity, with 26.2% occurring at both the church and a related location. It is imperative to keep in mind that the remaining two typologies, off-site and serial offenders, could have initially begun their offending as an on-site offender.
Table 1: On-site Offender Characteristics (n=85)
Sunday Sch. Teac.
Off-Site Chur. Act.
Multiple examples will be provided to illustrate the on-site typology. One example is the arrest of Reginald Robinson, a 24-year-old volunteer with a youth group at Beth Judah Ministries Church of God in Christ (Kansas City, Missouri). Arrested in 2002, Robinson was charged with the molestation and sodomization of a 13-year-old church member. The offense is alleged to have occurred within the church basement. Thus, the teenage victim was under the direct control of Robinson in his supervisory role as a youth volunteer. Additionally, this offense occurred at the church and during a church activity. Therefore, the offender seemingly exploited a perceived opportunity through his volunteer role to sexually assault the victim while attending a church activity.
The second example of an on-site offender was a 53-year-old Music Minister, Mark Michaels. Michaels was the Music Minister at Bethany Baptist Church in Montclair, California. Michaels was arrested for the alleged molestation of a 15-year-old boy. The victim was a member of Michaels's choir, whereby the sexual victimizations were alleged to have occurred both at the church and inside Michaels's car while it was parked in the church parking lot. Like the previous example, this offense included an individual directly connected to the offender's role within the church and at the physical church location, thus underscoring the importance of opportunity.
A third example of an offender who fell under an on-site typology was a 67-year-old pastor named Travis Payne. A pastor from South Texarkana Baptist Church (Texarkana, Arkansas) was arrested in 2012 (March) for Second-Degree Sexual Assault. The victim, in this case, was a three-year-old female church member. The mother discovered Payne sexually assaulting her daughter in the bathroom while attending church services. This case demonstrates that the offenders need not have direct supervisory control over the individuals they choose to victimize. Yet, they take advantage of a perceived opportunity to offend through official church functions.
On-site offenders represented approximately 1/3rd of the offenders (33.5%; n= 85). The average age of on-site offenders was 39.8 years, with a standard deviation of 13 years and a mode of 21 years. Race/ethnicity was only known for 80% (n=68) of the on-sites with the majority being White (77.9%; n= 53) with Black representing 17.6% (n=12) and Hispanic representing 4.4% (n= 3).
Primarily, on-site offenders occupied the role of Pastor or Youth Minister within the church. Specifically, Pastors and Youth Ministers each accounted for 30.6% (n= 26) of the offender roles. Youth Volunteers were the next most represented role, constituting 11.8% (n= 10) of the valid sample. It is essential to point out that two of the three top on-site roles held a direct supervisory position in contact with youth at the offender's church.
Victim selection is also imperative to understand more about particular offenders. Overall, on-site offenders targeted female victims at 64.3% (n= 54) compared to the 35.7% (n= 30) that chose male victims. It is also important to mention the ages of the victims. Overwhelmingly, on-sites targeted adolescents (12 to 17 years-of-age) at 88.2% (n= 75). A small minority (9.4%; n= 8) of victims were children (0 to 11 years of age). Only two (2.4%) adult victims were chosen by on-sites. One of the adult victims was a 30-year-old female who had been raped, while the other was a 'young adult' who had improper sexual comments made to them. It is clear through the data that most on-sites occupied a role within the church whereby they had some form of control over their victims, who were overwhelmingly adolescents or children.
The Off-Site Offender
The second typology to emerge from the data was the off-site offender. Off-site offenders were similar to on-site offenders, whereby they had only one known victim at the time of their arrest. The key difference between the on-sites and off-sites is that the off-sites offended exclusively away from the church facility or church-sponsored events. That is, none of their alleged offenses occurred on church grounds or were connected to a church-sponsored event. These offenses were primarily known to have occurred at the offender's home, the victim's home, or an off-site location not connected to the church (e.g., hotel, motel, etc.). In fact, 62.3% (n= 38) took place at the offender’s residence with 21.3% (n= 13) occurring at a general off-site location (e.g., motel) and 16.4% (n= 10) even were alleged to occur at the victim’s residence.
There are two critical reasons why on-site and off-site offenders must be separated from one another. The first reason is that on-site offenders capitalize on perceived opportunities to sexually victimize while assuming their official role and duties within the church. Comparatively, off-sites create opportunities to offend sexually. As opposed to the capitalization of opportunities, creating opportunities suggests a higher overall degree of planning by the offender. As argued by Raine and Kent (2019), offenders that are more opportunistic (i.e., on-site) do not usually involve grooming behaviors -- that seem evident with off-site offenders -- since the assault was opportunistic (i.e., unplanned). It is also important to note that many actions related to grooming would not be categorized as such unless a sexual assault occurs (McAlinden, 2006; Raine & Kent, 2019). The second reason is that those who create such opportunities to victimize sexually have a strong potential to repeat such behavior. Repeat sexual victimization could include the same victim or multiple victims, leading to the third typology of serial offenders.
Table 2: Off-site Offender Characteristics (n=55)
Several examples of the off-site typology will be provided. The first example of the off-site typology is Michael Babcock from Washington state. Babcock was a 29-year-old Youth Minister at Sunrise Chapel (Everett, Washington). Babcock reportedly had a 10-year-old church member over to his house for a sleepover. At this sleepover, he was alleged to have sexually assaulted him, culminating in a charge of First-Degree Child Molestation in December 2000. Since this was a sleepover at the Youth Minister's residence, this event did not physically occur at the church or through a church-sponsored activity. Instead, the offender created this situation precisely to sexually offend by having a sleepover to isolate the child in an environment entirely under his control.
A second example of the off-site typology is with 33-year-old James Harris of Georgia. Harris was a Sunday School Teacher at Brookwood Baptist Church (Lawrenceville, Georgia). Arrested in January 2011, Harris was alleged to have sexually victimized a 14-year-old male congregant numerous times across three years. As the boy's Sunday School Teacher, he would take the boy to the shopping mall, baseball games, and multiple other non-church-related activities, including a motel room. Harris even was alleged to have purchased a cellular phone to stay in contact with the boy. In contrast to an on-site offender, Harris, an off-site offender, allegedly created numerous occasions and opportunities to sexually victimize the boy over a multiple-year period. Further in contrast to the on-site offenders, no known victimizations were alleged at the church or church-sponsored activity.
A third example of an off-site offender is a 26-year-old Youth Minister named Michael Mohler. Mohler was a youth minister at First United Methodist Church (Troy, Ohio), arrested in July 2013. Mohler allegedly engaged in numerous sexual activities on multiple occasions with a 15-year-old female member of his youth group. It was alleged that the victim approached Mohler the prior year when she was having difficulties with her boyfriend. Mohler soon purchased the female gifts, inviting her to his house to watch movies and go out to dinner with her. The alleged sexual activity was reported when he had the female over to his home under the guise of watching movies. Like the previous examples, Mohler also created opportunities to offend in an environment where he had complete control. Moreover, this occurred after a lengthy period of grooming behaviors, such as dinner, gifts, and providing relationship advice.
Fully 21.6% (n= 55) of offenders with available information were identified as an off-site offender. Off-site offenders were slightly younger when compared to on-site offenders, with a total mean age of 38.2 years. One key difference is the mode age of off-site offenders. Off-site offenders had a mode age of 35, whereas the mode age of on-site offenders was 21. The standard deviation for off-site offenders is 11.8 years, also less than on-site offenders, albeit slightly. The racial/ethnic composition was very similar when comparing the two with 66% (n= 31) being White, 25.5% (n= 12) being Black, and 8.5% (n= 4) being Hispanic.
For on-site offenders, most occupied a role within the church whereby they had direct contact or supervision over youth. However, the same relationship dynamic was not present for off-site offenders. The two most represented roles were Pastor (45.1%; n= 23) and Youth Minister (33.3%; n= 17). The remaining present roles were as follows: Music Minister (5.9%; n= 3); Associate Pastor (5.9%; n= 3); General Volunteer (3.9%; n= 2); Deacon (3.9%; n= 2); and Choir Volunteer (2.0%; n= 1). The Youth Minister role was the only role to directly have a supervisory responsibility for youth of any age as specific job duties whereby they would have direct contact with minors as part of their role. As such, most offenders (66.7%; n= 34) categorized as off-sites had to specifically create a situation to be alone with the victim outside of their normal job duties. Ultimately, this suggests planning -- potentially grooming -- as a key part of the commission of these offenses, thus underscoring the need for further separation from on-site offenders.
Off-site offenders were very similar to on-site offenders in their victim-type. Most off-site victims were adolescents (12-17 years) with children (0 to 11 years) representing 12.7% (n= 7). The overwhelming majority of victims were female (81.5%; n= 44) with only 18.5% (n= 10) being male. There were no known adult victims.
It is evident with the off-site offenders that these were not isolated incidents of sexual victimization. Instead, these were offenders alleged to have sexually victimized their chosen victim numerous times over weeks, months, or years. Consequently, this suggests a higher level of grooming behaviors when compared to on-site offenders. This characteristic is like the third and final typology of the serial offender. However, the critical difference is that off-site offenders only had one known victim, whereas serial offenders had multiple known victims.
The Serial Offender
The third and final typology to emerge from the data was that of the serial offender. Serial offenders differ from the other two typologies in one prominent way, the total number of known victims at the time of arrest. Whereas the first two typologies had one known victim, serial offenders were known to have more than one victim at the time of their arrest. Another essential distinction between serial offenders and the previous two typologies is the locations in which the victimization was known to take place. The first two typologies were selected based on where the offending occurred (i.e., exclusively off the church campus, solely at the church campus, or both on and off church grounds). In contrast, serial offenders were chosen if they had more than one known victim at the time of the arrest.
Serial offenders appear to be intrinsically different from other typologies for four important reasons. The first reason is that it can be inferred that offenders who have multiple victims have been carrying out such actions for an extended period. That is, they have been able to develop the expertise and experience to select, groom, and victimize while going primarily undetected. Elements of grooming behaviors were found in each of the serial offender cases. A second reason is that these offenders may have victimized individuals at multiple churches yet could evade detection. In some cases, individuals were discovered sexually abusing at their church. Yet, they were instructed to find another position to avoid the media attention that would follow the discovery.
A third reason is that serial offenders could have potentially begun as an on-site or off-site offender, yet their behavior escalated to include multiple victims after avoiding detection and perhaps gaining more comfort and confidence with their offending actions. This potential reason is evidenced by serial offenders committing their offenses primarily at the church grounds (37.6%; n= 41) and at the offender's residence (33.9%; n= 37). Overall, serial offenders were slightly more inclined to commit their offenses away from the church grounds (62.4%; n= 71) (i.e., Offender's Home, Victim's Home, general off-site location).
A fourth reason why it is essential to separate serial offenders from others is that individuals with more than one victim might be more inclined to suffer from a paraphilia. In essence, serial offenders may be attempting to fulfill a more profound sexual desire caused by a paraphilia rather than when an opportunity presents itself, such as with an on-site offender. Therefore, serial offenders may hold a position of power and control within the church as a means to sexually offend.
Table 3: Serial Offender Characteristics (n=114)
Sunday Sch. Teac.
Off-Site Chur. Act.
Similar to the prior findings, three illustrations of serial offenders that emerged from the data are provided. The first example of a serial offender is James Souder, a 42-year-old church member at the First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, arrested in April 2007. His arrest was for the alleged sexual molestation of three adolescent boys aged 14, 15, and 17. Souder was relatively new to the community, was not married, and did not have children. Despite this profile, he was very active in the church, volunteering in the church choir, men's Bible study, and volunteered with the youth group. Through these volunteer efforts with the youth group, he began to purportedly mentor them. However, soon after this mentorship, Souder was alleged to pay adolescents in exchange for performing a variety of chores at his house. Eventually, Souder told some of the boys that he was in the process of becoming a nurse and that he needed to perform a medical exam on them as part of his studies. This act was the impetus for Souder to begin physically touching and ultimately sexually assaulting the boys.
Souder meets the classification of a serial offender for several reasons. First, he used his position as an adult church member to volunteer with the youth group. Second, he created numerous opportunities, such as paid jobs, to bring the boys to his house, where he had complete control. Third, he created a facade that he was a nursing student that needed the adolescents' assistance, which served as the basis for physical contact. Thus, these characteristics demonstrate how he is inherently different from the on-site and off-site offenders.
The second example of a serial offender is Marty Meadows, who was arrested in June 2002. At the time, Marty was a 34-year-old Youth Minister at Sunset Lane Baptist Church (Bessemer City, North Carolina). Meadows was arrested for the alleged sexual victimization of seven total female members of the church's youth group. It was reported that Meadows recruited girls from his youth group under the age of 15 into his ‘singing group.’ Once present, he engaged in 'sexual truth or dare.' It is likely that Meadows specifically formed this 'singing group' to isolate victims for a considerable time under the guise of a church activity to carry out his sex offenses. The reports were not clear how long this alleged victimization took place.
A third example of a serial offender is the arrest of David Pierce. Pierce was arrested in 2009, following 29 years of employment as a Music Minister at the First Baptist Church located in Benton, Arkansas. Through his arrest, it was revealed that Pierce typically groomed young males, around the ages of 11 and 12, who were a part of his choir to serve as their ‘mentor.’ Many of these boys did not have a male figure in their lives, such as a father. Often, Pierce believed that these boys would come from troubled homelives. In addition, Pierce was reported to engage in a practice he referred to as 'charting,' whereby he would take measurements of each boy's height, weight, and ultimately their penis lengths. Pierce even would have older boys within the group who had been through this process for years to gain the trust of the new boys.
Most of the sexual abuse occurred when Pierce organized camping trips. Often, the abuse during the camping trips would include forced group masturbation and instructing the boys to stand naked in a nearby stream. Some of the boys continued sexual contact with Pierce into their early 20s. For example, Pierce (while in his office) told one of his victims, who had been groomed since he was 12-years of age, to perform a sexual act with a sex toy upon finding out about the victim's upcoming marriage. This victim was in his early 20s when this final assault occurred. Pierce may have sexually assaulted at least 12 boys in 29 years. Initially, he was charged with crimes related to the sexual abuse of only four boys due to the statute of limitations.
Serial offenders represented nearly half of all offender types at 44.9% (n= 114). Serial offenders were the oldest overall typology among all typologies with a mean age of 41.8 years. Despite this difference, they had a slightly older mode when compared to on-site offenders (21) and were considerably younger than off-site offenders (35) with a mode of 25. In addition, the standard deviation for serial offenders was the largest of all typologies at 14.8 years. This finding suggests that serial offenders were older and generally held a position within a church for a more extended period compared to the other typologies. This finding also indicates that serial offenders were relatively successful at avoiding detection for extensive periods, emphasizing their mastery of grooming techniques.
For racial/ethnic characteristics, serial offenders were similar to the other typologies. The vast majority of serial offenders were White (74.7%; n= 68), followed by Black (14.3%; n=13), Hispanic (9.9%; n=9), and Native American (1.1%; n= 1). For the offender role, this finding was similar to off-site offenders, with 37.6% (n= 41) of serial offenders occupying the role of Pastor and Youth Ministers representing 28.4% (n= 14). The third most represented role was also someone with direct supervisory capacity over youth being Youth Volunteers at 12.8% (n= 14). The remainder of serial offender roles were as follows: Sunday School Teacher (4.6%; n= 5), Music Minister (2.8%; n= 3), Volunteer (3.7%; n= 4); Associate Pastor (3.7%; n= 4), Deacon (2.6%; n= 3); Church Member (1.8%; n= 2), and Church Camp Worker (0.9%; n= 1).
For victim-type, serial offenders showed a slight preference for females at 52.7% (n= 58). Despite this finding, serial offenders had the highest overall representation of male-only victims at 47.3% (n= 52). This finding is a striking difference compared to the on-site (35.7%; n= 30) and the off-site (18.5%; n= 10) offenders. As such, this finding suggests that serial offenders might suffer from a paraphilia, whereby they are offending to fulfill sexual urges with a specific group of victims (i.e., young males). This characteristic is a key distinction from the previous two typologies. Despite the different representations of male victims, the age range of victims was similar to the previous typologies. Primarily, serial offenders targeted adolescents at 55.3% (n= 63) with 18.4% (n= 21) focusing on children. Approximately 1/5th of all cases (21.2%; n= 24) had adolescent and child victims. Serial offenders were also known to have young adult victims, representing only 4.4% (n= 5). It is important to mention that all but two of these cases involved a young adult between the ages of 18 to 22 that had been minors when the offense first took place.
The goal of the present study was to create a typology of alleged sexual predators who committed their offense(s) at or through activities provided by U.S. Protestant Christian churches. Three typologies emerged by examining news reports on the arrest of 326 individuals meeting the above criteria. These were the typologies of the on-site, off-site, and serial offenders.
The first offender typology of the on-site offenders were male offenders who had only one known victim at the time of their arrest. Moreover, these were individuals who had either committed their offenses at the church, during a church-sponsored activity, or through some combination of these two location-types. The on-site offenders represented 33.5% of the total sample. Commonly, sex offenders are generalists more so than specialists (Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2004; Lussier et al., 2005; Miethe et al., 2006; Simon, 2000; Smallbone & Wortley, 2004). That is, offenders will generally choose any victim available when an opportunity presents itself. However, compared to prior research, this study found that on-site offenders primarily selected female adolescent church members as their victims.
The on-site offenders within this study are likely similar to the offenders who occupied the situational child molester in Miller (2013). Situational child molesters, according to Miller (2013), are offenders who sexually victimize children because they view that an opportunity to do so has presented itself. Like situational child molesters, on-site offenders may prey upon those they perceive as helpless, such as a child or adults with a disability. It is possible that the on-site offenders could be similar to the four individual types of situational child molesters (i.e., naïve/inadequate, regressed pedophile, indiscriminate pedophile, or sexually indiscriminate). Unfortunately, data did not allow for this level of analysis. Future research should examine whether on-site offenders within this environment share similarities with the four subtypes of situational child molesters.
The second offender typology that emerged from the data was off-site offenders. As with on-site offenders, these offenders also only had one known victim. However, the critical difference between the two offenders concerned the location they chose to offend. Specifically, off-site offenders were only known to have committed their offenses at off-site locations, such as their home or the victim's home. Also, like on-site offenders, off-site offenders primarily targeted female adolescent victims. Off-site offenders represented 21.6% (n= 66) of all offenders.
The characteristics of off-site offenders in the present study closely resemble the seductive molester typology found in prior works (Miller, 2013; Terry & Tallon, 2004). Seductive molesters are individuals that will implement grooming techniques to both initially and continue their sexual victimization of a chosen victim. Individuals that meet this categorization also are delusional to the point where they believe there is a mutual attraction between themselves and the victims (Miller, 2013; Terry & Tallon, 2004). There was evidence that some Youth Ministers even performed mock wedding ceremonies to groom their victims into believing that God condoned the sexual activity. However, the very presence of the belief in mutual attraction could not be verified in the data. Future studies should further explore those who choose to groom their victims within this setting to create opportunities to offend off-site, especially examining differences between off-site offenders with the seductive molesters.
The third and final typology to emerge from the data was serial offenders. Serial offenders had more than one known victim at the time of their arrest. In contrast to the two previous typologies, no location criteria were placed upon these offenders since those having more than one victim suggests a myriad of other potential issues. Similar to the last two typologies, serial offenders also preferred female adolescent victims. However, serial offenders had the highest representation of male and child victims. Nearly half of the offenders in the study were identified as serial offenders. Moreover, this typology was the most represented in the study.
It is important to expand upon the high representation of serial offenders in the present study. It may suggest that individuals might discover what these offenders are doing; however, they allow them to continue to operate in the environment and continue their abuse. There were multiple instances of these offenders having a known abuse history without law enforcement being contacted until it occurred again or at a new employer. As such, many of these offenders were allowed to remain in their positions of power. Remaining in a position of power allowed them to continue their sexual victimization. It is essential to consider that serial offenders could have started as on-site or off-site offenders. Yet, their grooming tactics and victim preferences could have evolved as they remained in their position. Future research should examine how sexual victimization progresses in this environment.
The second reason why the high presence of serial offenders within this environment is essential is due to the potential that these offenders sought out these positions to sexually offend. Prior research by Beauregard et al. (2007) found that most of the offenders in their sample of serial sex offenders would seek out their victims at specific places. Approximately 1/5th of their sample of serial sex offenders became involved in a profession to access their victim-type (Beauregard et al., 2007). They also found that 20% of their sample had joined a youth-centric organization, with nearly 10% doing so with the specific goal of abusing sexually. As such, serial offenders may be the most likely offender typology to emerge that actively sought positions within the church environment to offend sexually. Future research must examine both the backgrounds and the motivations of serial offenders. This further study is essential to understand the offenders' reasons for joining this environment, whether it started for employment or for more nefarious purposes.
From a policy standpoint, the responsibility to prevent, intervene, and report instances of sexual abuse within one's church fall squarely on church officials' shoulders. Findings in the present study demonstrate that most sexual abusers within this environment are serial offenders. That is, they are experienced and have likely carried out their abuses for extended periods. Therefore, clear policies and procedures and their enforcement are imperative to prevent and intervene in instances of sexual abuse within one's church. Examples of such policies include two adults with adolescents or children at all times and highly structured off-site activities where an adult and minor cannot be alone with one another.
The two aforementioned policy examples would appear to address most alleged abuses within this environment. However, it may also be helpful for national organizations, whereby individual churches must abide by rules and regulations to be recognized as a member church (e.g., SBC), to actively implement mechanisms to prevent and investigate instances of sexual abuse. For example, an internal registry to prevent those credibly accused from obtaining positions in other member churches -- similar to the Boy Scouts of America -- to restrict access to known volunteers with substantiated accusations (see Abused in Scouting, n.d.). Having an internal registry would be easier to manage and disseminate accurate information quicker to member churches when compared to state sex offender registries that are notoriously plagued with issues, such as incomplete or altogether inaccurate information (see Letourneau et al., 2010).
As argued by Wortley and Smallbone (2006) and Terry and Ackerman (2008), increasing the effort that it takes for an individual to commit sexual abuse should be essential to CSA prevention strategies. Many of the same elements Terry and Ackerman (2008) argued for the Catholic Church can be applied to individual Protestant congregations. Specifically, the two aspects of increasing effort and increasing risk could be beneficial and relatively easy to implement for Protestant Christian congregations. One can increase effort by screening employees for problematic behaviors (e.g., sexual attraction towards children) and reducing alone time with children. Moreover, one can increase risk by installing extra surveillance (e.g., cameras, staff, etc.) measures throughout the church campus and providing CSA prevention education to all congregants.
Brotherhood Mutual (2022), one of the largest insurance companies for faith-based organizations in the U.S., has a model that appears to be a solid basis for CSA prevention strategies that embodies many of the above elements. Specifically, Brotherhood Mutual (2022) states three primary aspects of a CSA prevention plan (1) Use the Six-Month Rule, (2) Screen All Workers, and (3) Use the Two Adult-Rule. The six-month rule refers to not allowing anyone to volunteer with child services within the congregation unless they have been affiliated with the church for at least six months. Although well-intentioned, this approach does not address that most individuals committing CSA within this setting are high-ranking employees. The second aspect of screening all workers is developing an application form with references and examining any prior church members or volunteer work. The final step is similar to the above suggestion of having two adults present in every room or private space. Other helpful tips include not permitting off-premises events or activities overnight. Although flawed, many of these suggestions would likely be an excellent first step to preventing CSA within a congregation.
This study also has implications for qualitative and quantitative research. For qualitative research, this study highlights a much-needed area for further detailed examination. For example, in-depth interviews with offenders would greatly assist with understanding the grooming tactics of sexual abusers within a unique setting, such as a church. For quantitative research, this study highlights the need to develop and maintain detailed databases to track offense information over long periods. Moreover, large databases would allow for analyzing trends related to the offense, offender, and victim characteristics.
This study has demonstrated that there are distinct sex abusers who operate within U.S. Protestant Christian churches. Each type of abuser is unique in how they offend, how often, and who they target. With most abusers being identified as serial offenders, churches must develop better policies and procedures to prevent and identify instances of sexual abuse. Further examination of this topic must continue to prevent, intervene, and investigate sexual abuse within this environment.
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Andrew S. Denney is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology & Justice at Loyola University New Orleans. His research focuses on institutional corrections, offender reentry, sex offenses, and sexual deviance. His most recent publications appear in Criminal Justice Review, Journal of Criminal Justice Education, and Policing: An International Journal.