Breaking Faith

As sexual scandal rocks the Roman Catholic church, Protestants face a lurking sex scandal as well. Will churches and national organizations take biblical steps to prevent further shame?

By Lynn Vincent


Sometimes the truth is unpleasant. No one enjoys discussing the lives shattered when shepherds turn out to be wolves. But Paul told the Ephesians: Do not only shun the "unfruitful works of darkness, but instead even expose them." Though the apostle concedes it is disgraceful even to speak of wicked things done in secret, he adds that exposure drags dark deeds into the light, waking "sleeping" believers that they in turn might walk wisely.

A disturbing pattern of sexual exploitation is afoot in some churches, including churches that generally teach biblical truth. As God told Cain, sin is always crouching at the door, making it essential for both church leaders and members to understand the problem and its warning signs, if they are not to fall into nightmares like these:

  • In Homestead, Pa., William Michael Altman, senior pastor at nondenominational Grace Christian Ministries, visits the hospital bedside of Marcia Bezak. Mrs. Bezak, a childhood molestation survivor with a 15-year history of depression and eating disorders, has just attempted suicide for at least the third time. According to Mrs. Bezak's testimony in a civil suit she filed in 2000, Mr. Altman says he will counsel her and help her recover. During counseling Mr. Altman tells her that her husband does not understand or appreciate her; he also allegedly convinces her that it is God's will that she regularly perform oral sex on him. When confronted, Mr. Altman confesses the relationship to church leaders, but later claims it was a consensual affair.

  • In Fergus Falls, Minn., Nazarene pastor Mervin Kelley initiates sex with a female parishioner who came to him suffering from clinical depression related to childhood incest. While providing spiritual aid and comfort, Mr. Kelley tells the woman, who is also the church pianist, about his past experience of having sex with animals. He also tells her he wants to engage in homosexual acts, and invites her to watch. Before preaching on Sundays, he sometimes leaves a "gift" for her on the church piano: a tissue containing his semen. When confronted, Mr. Kelley claims the relationship was a consensual affair.

  • In Detroit, Haman Cross Jr., pastor of Rosedale Park Baptist Church and a nationally known speaker on sexual purity, begins counseling parishioner Donna Scott, first for marital sexual troubles, then for problems related to childhood sexual abuse. According to Mrs. Scott's testimony, Mr. Cross gives her pornography, convinces her that "phone sex" with him will improve her marital sex life, and convinces her that sexual contact with him will help heal her incest wounds. In deposition testimony, Mr. Cross denies saying that the sexual contact was therapy and instead claims the relationship was a consensual affair.

    While northeastern precincts of the Roman Catholic Church writhe in the bonds of yet another sex scandal—more than 80 priests accused of pedophilia and other abuse—the Protestant church has a severe problem of its own: some pastoral counselors having sex with counselees. Such contact can be classified biblically as "adultery" or "fornication," but often is not a "consensual affair." It is sexual abuse—and an egregious abuse of power that can rob women of their faith in clergy, in the institution of the church, and even in God.

    Sexual contact during or after any counseling relationship is considered grossly unethical by a broad slice of professional counseling groups, including the American Association of Christian Counselors, the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, and the National Association of Social Workers. That's because of the power counselors hold over clients—power born of authority and being privy to clients' most intimate emotions and fears. Experts say this power is magnified in pastoral counseling.

    "With ministers, we let down our guard," said Kansas behavioral medicine specialist Richard Irons. "The counselee often sees the minister not only as a professional with her best interests at heart, but also at times as the very instrument of God's healing power, and possibly as her last refuge of hope."

    When a pastor steals that hope by sexualizing a counseling relationship, damage to women can range from depression to relationship trouble to suicide, said Gary Schoener, a Minneapolis psychologist who has consulted in more than 3,000 clergy sexual abuse (CSA) cases since 1980.

    Peter warned the early church of "false teachers" who "seduce the unstable ... entice by sensual passions of the flesh," who promise freedom while "they themselves are slaves of corruption." Since most women don't report CSA and most churches don't publicize it, its frequency today is difficult to pinpoint. Joe E. Trull, co-author of the book Ministerial Ethics (1993), helped write the CSA policy for the Texas Baptist General Convention. From his study of literature on clergy sexual abuse, he concludes that "from 30 to 35 percent of ministers of all denominations admit to having sexual relationships—from inappropriate touching and kissing to sexual intercourse—outside of marriage." Mr. Trull estimates that "at least half" of that contact occurs in pastoral counseling.

    No current theological breakdown of offending pastors exists, but a 1984 Fuller Seminary survey of 1,200 ministers showed one in five theologically conservative pastors admitting to some sexual contact outside of marriage with a church member, while over two-fifths of "moderate" and half of "liberal" pastors owned up to the same.

    A Journal of Pastoral Care article summarizing a 1993 survey of Southern Baptist pastors showed 6 percent acknowledging sexual contact outside of marriage with someone in the congregation. Roy Woodruff, executive director of the 3,000-member Association of Pastoral Counselors, estimates that about 15 percent of pastors "either have [violated] or are violating sexual ethical boundaries."

    Today, 20 states have made sexual or therapeutic deception by professional counselors a crime. Typically, clergy are included in these statutes if they are offering advice for emotional or mental problems. Some states, including Minnesota and Texas, also criminalize sexual contact resulting from pastoral care relationships. But some churches are unwilling to deal biblically with the issue. As Peter Mosgofian and George Ohlschlager write in their book Sexual Misconduct in Counseling and Ministry, "churches often are split between warring camps; and victims are treated in ways that eventually result in lawsuits."

    "Most churches in cases I handle come in and try to cover it up," said Denver attorney Joyce Seelen, who handles about a dozen CSA cases each year. "The notion of the church telling people to be quiet, then quietly transferring the minister, happens all the time." Sometimes, congregations and denominations turn pastors into victims with unbiblical excuses: "If only his wife had satisfied him, he wouldn't have fallen," or "If only that wicked woman hadn't seduced him." A website, www., has detailed information about clergy sexual abuse.

    In 1995, Donna Scott emerged as "the wicked woman" in the minds of some members of Detroit's Rosedale Park Baptist Church. Pastor Haman Cross Jr., however, never left his pulpit, though church leaders learned details of his behavior during a 1997 lawsuit brought by Mrs. Scott and her husband Bertram. Mr. Cross also continued to speak on behalf of Campus Crusade for Christ, even though Crawford Loritts, Crusade's associate director of U.S. Ministries, was told in 1997 of Mr. Cross's relationship with Mrs. Scott.

    In 1988, Bertram and Donna Scott began attending Rosedale Park Baptist, where Mr. Cross, a fiery preacher, nurtured a growing congregation. In 1989, Mrs. Scott lost interest in marital relations following the birth of the couple's son. Mr. Scott sought counseling with Pastor Cross. Mrs. Scott didn't like the idea of counseling since she thought she would be blamed for the trouble in her marriage, but she relented.

    In the beginning, Mr. Cross counseled the Scotts together, giving them what he called "resources" that he said would help them overcome bedroom troubles. Early "resources" seemed just clinical enough to be credible, but rank pornography followed: a photo-illustrated guide to oral sex, at least one hardcore video, and a brochure touting films featuring "raunchy girl-girl sex" and a "full blown orgy."

    That Mr. Cross would counsel them on sexual technique did not seem out of the ordinary to the Scotts. He had previously taught "Improving Your Love Life" church seminars. In them he coached parishioners about erogenous zones.

    By 1990 Mrs. Scott says she was having some individual counseling sessions with Mr. Cross that started to end in what she calls an "extended full-body hug." Although Mrs. Scott says she was somewhat uncomfortable at first, she decided to trust that her pastor's intentions were pure.

    Psychologist Elizabeth Horst, author of Shame-Healing for Victims of Clergy Abuse, said pastors who intend to sexualize a counseling relationship often break the ice with an innocent-seeming embrace. "Most of us would be able to say 'no' to a pastor who outright requested sex in the first meeting," Ms. Horst said. Therefore, offending pastors sometimes engage in a process known clinically as "grooming."

    Grooming progresses from touch that seems innocent to touch that is more recognizably sexual, such as sensuous massage or a kiss on the lips. "The offender may still insist that this behavior is not sexual, by labeling it 'healthy exploration' ... or emphasizing the elevated spiritual nature of the relationship," Ms. Horst said. Further, women with a history of childhood sexual trauma may be unsure of what contact is appropriate with a male authority figure. During depositions in 1997, Mrs. Scott said that her father had sexually abused her, and that as an adult she was raped twice.

    Focus on the Family director of counseling Willy Wooten compares the sexual vulnerability of such women to the human immune system: If continually attacked, it becomes run down and unable to fight off incursions. "The same thing happens psychologically," he says: "Previously abused women are more vulnerable to expecting that behavior from male authority figures. They may not like it, but if they were always treated that way, they may believe that's the way the world is, or at least that's the way it is for them."

    Whether a counselee is responsible for resisting such behavior is a matter of hot debate. Some groups, such as the Collegeville, Minn.-based Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute, hold that the counselee is innocent of wrongdoing. The pastor-offender, trusted and often imbued in the woman's eyes with godly authority (however unscriptural), is privy to intimate details of her life. He can exploit that information to make her think he is the only person she can trust—even above her husband. From that point, some clergy-counselors manipulate the client into believing that sex with him is therapeutic, even sanctified by God. The resulting liaison, particularly in the case of a childhood abuse survivor, is like incest, ISTI maintains: The father-figure is the perpetrator and the victim is blameless.

    But George Scipione, director of the Institute for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship in La Mesa, Calif., points out that childhood sexual abuse manifests itself in ways other than sexual immaturity, such as lesbianism, eating disorders, or substance abuse. "We don't tell the drug addict she is not responsible for her drug use because she was abused," he says. "Instead, we show her the freedom available in Christ and help her take responsibility for her own actions."

    Mr. Scipione emphasizes that the woman's responsibility doesn't shave a scintilla of blame from the pastor. He is 100 percent to blame—before God, the victim, involved families, his congregation, and sometimes the law—for abusing his positional power and harming the woman: "This is real evil in which pastors should be thrown out of the pastorate," Mr. Scipione said. Still, he notes that the woman, as an adult, also is responsible before God for her actions, in line with the biblical principle of personal responsibility on the part of those attacked. Deuteronomy 22:23-27 gives an example: A woman who is raped is innocent before God if she is attacked in a place where no potential help is near—but if she is in the city, she is innocent only if she cries out for help.

    Donna Scott says she believed Mr. Cross's attempts to "instruct" her sexually were meant to help her—particularly in light of his sex seminars. Her marital sex life did improve. In addition, Mr. Cross moved very slowly. According to Mrs. Scott's deposition, during 1991 and 1992, under the guise of improving her sexual relationship with her husband, Mr. Cross made very suggestive remarks to her, talked with her on the phone about sexual positions, and ultimately engaged her in "phone sex." In his 1998 deposition, Mr. Cross admitted having given the Scotts the pornographic material and talking on the telephone with Mrs. Scott about sex. He acknowledged that in 1993 and 1994 he penetrated Mrs. Scott's private parts with his fingers, and she fondled and kissed his private parts.

    Throughout the duration of Mr. Cross's sexual contact with Mrs. Scott, the Scotts were very active at Rosedale Park Baptist, and considered the pastor their close friend. Mr. Scott often met Mr. Cross for breakfast and accompanied him on speaking trips. Mrs. Scott, a self-employed writer who had earned a master's degree in radio, television, and film, worked with the pastor co-authoring books on such topics as Islam and biblical manhood. One book, Wild Thing: Let's Talk About Sex, was based on Mr. Cross's pastoral teaching about biblically approved sex; the book counsels young people to avoid sex that is not thus "sanctified."

    Mrs. Scott alleges that Mr. Cross at times quoted Scripture, assuring her that God approved of their sexual contact. She provided considerable specific, graphic detail about those alleged instances in deposition Exhibit No. 1. In a January 2002 interview with WORLD, Mr. Cross denied having told Mrs. Scott that God approved of their sexual contact. During his 1998 deposition he insisted that he was engaged in an "affair" and was responding to Mrs. Scott's desires. He also maintains that the physical relationship began after he terminated counseling with Mrs. Scott. Mrs. Scott disputes that claim.

    Still, Mr. Cross told WORLD he had "contributed to the problem of immoral clergy behavior. I feel [Mrs. Scott] has some responsibility.... But part of my repentance is to totally focus on my responsibility, my sin. I failed the Lord, I failed my congregation, I failed the Scotts, I failed my wife, I failed my children: I sinned against them."

    Ultimately, Mr. Cross's female secretary exposed his behavior in June 1995, secretly taping voice-mail messages that revealed Mr. Cross was having inappropriate contact with at least two women, including Mrs. Scott. Later he would testify that he'd also touched that secretary's breasts, and had counseled all three women. The secretary gave her tapes to Rosedale Park's associate pastor Gregory Alexander.

    Initially, Mr. Alexander said he thought that Pastor Cross might have to step down from the pulpit. He confronted Mr. Cross, who admitted that he had had inappropriate contact—but no intercourse—with the three women. But the senior pastor refused to provide more details, and Mr. Alexander didn't press. When Mr. Alexander questioned her in June 1995, Donna Scott told him there had been no inappropriate contact. She told WORLD she said that because she did not believe at the time that the contact had been inappropriate, but believed instead Mr. Cross's alleged claim to be helping her. Further, the Scotts did not learn immediately of Mr. Cross's contact with the other women. And since they believed their pastor was their close friend and marital savior, they interpreted the secretary's secret tapes as an attempt to ruin a great man. "We even sent him cards saying we were praying for him," Mrs. Scott remembers.

    But Mr. Alexander and the Rosedale deacon board ultimately decided that Mr. Cross need not give up preaching. Instead, he would have a window cut into his door, no longer counsel women alone, have no further contact with the Scotts, and undergo counseling. Mr. Cross later testified that he attended at least seven counseling sessions. Mr. Alexander told WORLD he feels Rosedale's leaders acted properly based on the information they had.

    Writing to the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul ordered tougher sanctions for sexual immorality: "I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality.... Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? ... Purge the evil person from among you."

    Rosedale Park Baptist's weak response to serial pastoral sexual misconduct may well have been a foregone conclusion. The makeup of the church's leadership raises serious questions about its ability—or motivation—to exact substantive discipline. Mr. Alexander is Mr. Cross's brother-in-law. Together, they appointed all five deacons, including Mr. Cross's father-in-law, Robert Alexander.

    Such leadership arrangements can create a dangerous accountability vacuum, according to authors Mosgofian and Ohlschlager. Churches with a charismatic leader, who need not report to others outside the church, may foster a lack of accountability and information. In such churches, the congregation is likely to rally to the side of the sexually offending pastor, label the woman a Jezebel, and cast her out of the church. But churches that are aware of this danger can require greater information flow. The Texas Baptist General Convention (BGC), for example, recently adopted a CSA policy that requires confrontation with the minister, full disclosure of charges and any investigation to the church body, a formal hearing, and follow-up counseling for all involved.

    Rev. Mark Laaser is a former CSA perpetrator who now works to prevent the problem. He recommends that seminaries train prospective pastors more carefully in counseling ethics, and also in the intense emotional dynamics involved in counseling —dynamics that if not carefully managed can lead to sexual sin.

    Groups such as the Texas BGC and the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute suggest that churches educate laity about CSA, publish written guidelines for reporting and investigating it, and perform background checks on prospective pastors. A background check on Grace Christian Ministries pastor Michael Altman would have revealed that he had served prison time for falsifying a $50,000 loan application. It also would have shown that he was asked to resign by two former congregations amid serious charges, according to John Cooper, treasurer of the First Christian Church of Dothan, Ala., and an elder at an Ontario, Canada, Church of Christ.

    Marcia Bezak's civil suit against Mr. Altman is still pending in federal court. He also faces a jury trial next month on criminal charges. But Mrs. Bezak will not testify: In April 2001, facing a divorce from her husband, she hanged herself.

    After a criminal trial in Minnesota last year, Nazarene pastor Mervin Kelley served a year in prison for sexually exploiting his female parishioner. He was released from jail in February, but faces 14 years' probation and must register as a sex offender. The parishioner has filed a civil suit against Mr. Kelley and his former church.

    Haman Cross Jr., however, was never held substantially accountable for his serial misconduct, though his secretary was fired after her tapes revealed it. Some church members heard rumors of "an affair" with Donna Scott, but church leaders did not formally reveal the pastor's behavior to the congregation, according to two former Rosedale members, one of whom said she waited a year for church leaders to make a statement or apology to the congregation. Those former members say that they, their families, and about 20 other families, left the church.

    In June 1995, the Scotts also left Rosedale; both testified that Pastors Cross and Alexander had urged them to do so, a charge the pastors deny. Mrs. Scott says she felt depressed and confused after leaving the church, abandoned when she thought Mr. Cross had been helping her improve her marriage. She sought counseling for depression with Christian therapist Marie Heitkamp. Though she believed she and her husband had been unfairly "forced out" of the church, she still believed Mr. Cross's disputed claim that his sexual contact with her had been God's way of helping her overcome sexual dysfunction. In late 1996, her new pastor explained to her, after Mrs. Scott confided in him, that Mr. Cross's behavior was abusive. The realization, she says, triggered nightmares and suicidal thoughts; she did not feel safe in church and avoided the Bible.

    In 1997, the Scotts filed suit against Mr. Cross and Rosedale Park Baptist Church. They charged clergy malpractice, negligent supervision, breach of fiduciary duty, and fraud. In addition, they sued for breach of implied contract, since Mrs. Scott believed she was owed money for books and tapes she had worked on for Mr. Cross and the church. The pastor and church countersued, alleging defamation. According to the counter-complaint, Mrs. Scott had damaged the church's reputation and also caused Mr. Cross to lose speaking opportunities. Pursuant to Michigan law, mediators stepped in to settle the case. They awarded the church $3,500, Mr. Cross $5,000, and the Scotts $15,000.

    But even after the lawsuit revealed to Rosedale Park leaders the details of Mr. Cross's sexual misconduct with three parishioners, and that he had violated the church's disciplinary order not to contact the Scotts, they took no further disciplinary action. He continued as senior pastor at the church, and also continued speaking at Campus Crusade events.

    In 1997, Mrs. Scott telephoned Crawford Loritts, Crusade's associate director of U.S. Ministries. She told him of her relationship with Mr. Cross and overnight-mailed to him a version of what would become the lawsuit's "Exhibit No. 1"—that detailed and sometimes graphic listing of alleged sexual contacts between Mr. Cross and Mrs. Scott. The document lists several instances in which Mr. Cross allegedly told Mrs. Scott that sex with him would heal her incest wounds, and that God approved of their relationship.

    In 1999, Mrs. Scott says she called Mr. Loritts again and told him she believed Mr. Cross had lied during depositions in 1998. She says she offered to send Mr. Loritts material about clergy sexual abuse, but that Mr. Loritts refused and questioned her motives.

    WORLD called Mr. Loritts to ask if Mrs. Scott's statements were true. At first he refused to comment, then issued a written statement: "In 1997 I received communication containing allegations against Rev. Cross. As I looked into the matter my inquiry led me to conclude that Rev. Cross' church was not only aware of the allegations but they had or were addressing them and that Rev. Cross continued to serve in his role as pastor of the church. Since the local church, the body most familiar with the facts surrounding the allegations against Rev. Cross, had not acted to remove him from his position as pastor, Campus Crusade for Christ had no reason to alter its occasional use of Rev. Cross as a speaker."

    Certainly, Campus Crusade for Christ is a ministry known for its integrity—and the integrity of its speakers. In the case of Haman Cross Jr., Mr. Loritts declined to reveal the details of his inquiry with Rosedale Park Baptist Church, or how he resolved questions over Mrs. Scott's detailed allegations. He also declined to comment on the 1999 follow-up conversation alleged by Mrs. Scott. Mr. Cross is scheduled to speak in June at Crusade's Student Venture Conference in Colorado, an event for high-school students.

    Meanwhile, the Scotts have moved on with their lives. From 1996 to 1999, Donna Scott saw four different nonpastoral counselors and attended a support group for victims of sexual abuse. By 1999 she felt ready to speak out on behalf of other CSA victims. That year, she worked with the Michigan legislature to make that state another where it is illegal for licensed counselors to have sexual contact with clients and former clients.

    "When I was raped, I fought back, and ran half naked out of my apartment and hid in the bushes," she told lawmakers during official testimony. "When my pastor deceived me, how could I fight back, when he was saying ... this was part of God's plan to heal me? I knew what the rapist did was rape.... But my pastor, my counselor said this was help."

    Copyright 2002 World Magazine (03-30-02). Used by permission.