Sex scandals rock trust in all religions' leaders

Martin Nussbaum, a Colorado Springs attorney who specializes in representing religious institutions, is concerned that the daily reports of sexual-abuse accusations ''will have a chilling effect'' on how clergy members serve parishioners in the future. Well, the future has already arrived. Clergy members are doing all they can to avoid any situation that might be construed as improper.

* Rabbi Arthur Weiner in Paramus, N.J., no longer offers rides home to bar mitzvah students who require transportation because both parents work.

* Episcopal priest Howard Maltby in Lexington, S.C., has French doors between his office and the reception area, deliberately diminishing privacy.

* Methodist minister Wayne Walters in Glendale, Calif., avoids most psychological-based counseling because it engenders unusual dependency between parishioner and pastor, which is too often the matrix of sexual improprieties.

But solutions to sexual wrongdoing by the clergy -- which may include consensual sex and therefore is broader than ''sexual abuse'' -- require more than defensive gestures. To begin with, religious institutions need to implement new policies -- and the sooner the better. Pope John Paul II is now holding a special meeting with American cardinals in Rome to discuss the growing scandal. Bishop William Skylstad, vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, says one key question that might be discussed is ''whether we should have a nationally mandated policy concerning sexual abuse.''

Studies and legal cases of sexual misbehavior by the clergy are difficult to find, but those available reveal the seriousness of the problem. U.S. News and World Report, for example, cited a nationwide study that found that ''1 in 4 members of the clergy reported having some kind of sexual contact with someone other than their spouse, and more than 1 in 10 said they had committed adultery.''

Why this high incidence of sexual misconduct by those who preach to others against sexual sin?

The Rev. Ronald Barton, co-author of Sex in the Parish, says that ''the ongoing, long-term associations that clergy establish with their parishioners foster emotional relationships (that) make pastors vulnerable.''

The Rev. Marie Fortune, founder of the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle and a prominent authority on clergy sexual misconduct, offers three explanations for the problem: ''Until recently, there was virtually no time devoted in seminary curriculum to defining boundaries of sexuality between pastor and parishioner. Secondly, few policies were in place in the church and ministerial associations. Thirdly, the setting in which most pastoral counseling occurs is isolated and with little supervision by a superior. The other helping professions -- clinicians, therapists -- were way ahead in all three areas, and the clergy had a lot of catching up to do.''

Now churches are trying to catch up, with varying degrees of success.

Decentralized denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention and many evangelical churches have no required national policies, leaving each individual church to establish its own guidelines. But mainline Protestant denominations -- such as Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Episcopalians -- all have national policies defining inappropriate sexual behavior.

Episcopal dioceses, for example, typically prohibit church workers with a history of sexual abuse from interacting with children. They also require that clergy members limit their counseling of a parishioner to six sessions before that person is referred to another professional.

The Presbyterian Church defines any sexual relationship, even consensual, between a minister and parishioner as ''sexual malfeasance.''

Reform rabbis who are suspended for sexual misconduct may not seek or accept rabbinical placement and may be rehabilitated only with the monitoring of colleagues who serve as their ethical mentors.

Beyond establishing guidelines, some denominations are even more proactive. Fortune has conducted training workshops in about 35 mainline Protestant, Catholic and Jewish seminaries on sexual boundaries. And this summer, the California-Nevada Conference of the United Methodist Church will host 14 workshops on the subject of sexuality and ethics -- half for clergy and half for laity -- at seven sites.

In addition to guidelines and seminars, more concrete steps are required:

* Seminaries should be more careful in screening potential students, and their curricula should include seminars on the ethics of sex and boundaries.

* Religious hierarchies must report known violators to religious and secular authorities.

* Clergy members who have behaved improperly should be reassigned to administrative positions that have minimal contact with laymen.

* Those clergy members who continue to serve faithfully and honestly are also a considerable part of the solution. They can convey their empathy to those they serve by shaking a hand or grasping an elbow while respecting others' physical space. During more than 30 years in my own congregation, I have avoided exaggerated hugging and kissing of congregants as gestures of affection. The popular model of the chummy, touchy-feely clergyperson is not useful or appropriate.

The pope's spokesman in Rome has said that one cannot tell how bad priest abuse is until it can be compared with such abuse in other professions. But comparative statistics are irrelevant in this case, because two trusts have been broken. When both trust and faith in religion have been shattered, ministers' misdeeds are doubly devastating to victims.

The extent of the breach means that all clergy members, both the innocent and the guilty, are responsible for rebuilding confidence instead of simply retreating into defensive strategies.

Gerald L. Zelizer is rabbi of Neve Shalom, a Conservative congregation serving the Metuchen-Edison, N.J., area. He is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.