Tex. ó From its founding in 1987, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in
America, which puts its membership at more than 5.3 million, has
earned praise for its "zero tolerance" approach to sexual misconduct
among its clergy.
After adopting a prevention strategy a decade ago, which its
regional branches shaped into policies for handling abuse
complaints, the national church dedicated a staff member solely to
the issue, and in 1996, it published a 62-page book to educate its
congregations on the subject. Bishops, pastors and seminarians now
"The word has gone out in this church that clergy sexual abuse is
not to be tolerated," a 1998 church study stated.
Yet abuse still occurs. In a case every bit as disturbing as
those roiling the Roman Catholic Church, a former Lutheran minister
from this small East Texas city has pleaded guilty to federal child
pornography charges and faces state charges of sexually assaulting a
teenage boy. A civil lawsuit accuses Lutheran officials of ignoring
past incidents involving the pastor, Gerald Patrick Thomas Jr., and
says they bear responsibility for his actions, a claim the national
church strongly rejects.
To some extent, clerical sexual abuse exists in every religious
group, experts say. But quantifying the problem is almost
A handful of studies compiled by the Center for the Prevention of
Sexual and Domestic Violence, some more than a decade old, suggest
that up to 15 percent of clergy members in all religious groups have
engaged in some inappropriate conduct, whether a stolen kiss or
full-fledged sexual abuse. But few authoritative statistics are
available on the number and type of complaints, and what information
churches collect is usually kept secret.
"Unfortunately, there's no hard data," said the Rev. Marie M.
Fortune of the United Church of Christ, who runs the center, which
is based in Seattle.
While new disclosures on abuse cases involving Catholic priests
are released almost daily, as the church comes under pressure from
the press and prosecutors, it is not hard to find recent anecdotal
examples of abuse in other groups as well.
In February, a North Dakota jury ordered a former Lutheran
pastor, Dale Trautman, to pay $48,000 to a woman in his congregation
with whom he had had a sexual relationship. The jury did not hold
the national church liable. Also that month, a Maryland Episcopal
priest, Kenneth Behrel, was found guilty of abusing a 14-year-old
boy in the 1980's. In March, Howard Nevison, 61, the cantor at
Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan, turned himself in to authorities on
charges that he molested his young nephew.
Most major religious groups have guidelines on how to prevent and
respond to accusations of pastoral sexual abuse. The policies differ
not only by group but also within denominations, since oversight is
often carried out regionally. Decentralized denominations like the
Southern Baptist Convention and many fundamentalist Protestant
churches have no national policy, leaving it to individual
"With a great many churches, there are no policies or procedures,
even at the regional level," said Gary Schoener, a Minneapolis
psychotherapist who has been consulted in more than 1,000 clerical
sexual abuse cases. "And there's a huge and probably growing group
of miscellaneous churches that aren't part of any kind of
denomination where there's central authority."
In a legal case that got the attention of national religious
groups in 1992, a Colorado jury awarded more than $1 million to a
woman who had been molested by an Episcopal priest and held the
local diocese liable for damages.
"That was the one that changed everything," Mr. Schoener said.
"That was the first time a bishop in a diocese had been accountable
in an adult case."
Joyce Seelen, the lawyer who represented the woman, estimated
that she has handled 50 cases of clerical abuse in 20 years,
covering Methodists, Episcopalians, the Church of Christ and the
fundamentalist Church of the Nazarene.
"In my practice, I have not seen institutions taking steps to
correct the problem," Ms. Seelen said. "Every one of the churches
that we've been successful against walked into court and said, `We
didn't know, and if we had known, we would have done something.'
Over and over and over, what we saw was they didn't know because
they didn't want to know."
The question of whether top church officials did too little to
prevent abuse lies at the center of the civil lawsuit involving Mr.
Thomas, the Lutheran pastor here.
"This guy should never have been allowed to be placed back into
an environment where he could get at little kids," said Ed Hohn, a
lawyer representing the plaintiffs.
According to court documents, in August 1996, while Mr. Thomas
was a seminarian on a pastoral internship in rural Wilson, Tex., a
sheriff's deputy concluded that he had given alcohol to two
brothers, ages 10 and 12. The boys, who often slept at the pastor's
house, also said they found a pornographic video. Ultimately, no
charges were brought because the boys did not say that anything
inappropriate had occurred.
Internal church documents confirm that a supervisory pastor, Mel
Swoyer, investigated and filed a report. Mr. Thomas, the pastor
wrote in a letter, is "an excellent intern" but "I still do not know
what I think about Jerry's
sexuality." The pastor also noted his concern that Mr. Thomas kept a
bedside picture of a boy he had met at a church camp.
A year later, Mr. Thomas met suspicion during another pastoral
internship, at a Lutheran church in Columbus. The church's pastor,
Carol Stumme, told F.B.I. agents in 2001 that boys often went to Mr.
Thomas's apartment. Though Mr. Thomas reassured her that nothing
inappropriate was happening, she banned him from further church
Mr. Thomas, who was ultimately ordained, arrived in Marshall in
1999 as the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, next to a high
school. Guidance counselors often recommended him as a mentor to
But in May 2001, federal and local investigators said they became
suspicious after they learned Mr. Thomas was shopping for a truck
for a 14-year-old boy. The boy later admitted he was blackmailing
Mr. Thomas with a CD-ROM he had taken from the pastor. The CD-ROM
contained video of teenage boys displaying their penises and, in one
case, masturbating as an adult's voice can be heard encouraging him.
There were also illegal child pornography videos on the CD-ROM.
Several boys told investigators that Mr. Thomas masturbated in
front of one boy and that he showed them pornographic videos and let
them drink alcohol. One boy, then 16, said in an interview with a
reporter that Mr. Thomas had sexually assaulted him.
Mr. Thomas faces up to five years in prison after pleading guilty
to the child pornography charge, but he has denied sexually
assaulting the 16-year-old.
"He has pleaded guilty to what he's guilty of, and he adamantly
denies any other charge," said Mr. Thomas's lawyer, Tonda Curry.
John Brooks, a spokesman for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in
America, declined to comment on the civil suit against the church.
He noted that Mr. Thomas had resigned as pastor before his arrest
and that church officials had since removed him from their national
"We're pretty confident that after the facts are heard, the
church will be exonerated," Mr. Brooks said.
He said that as a rule, the Lutheran church dismissed pastors
found to have engaged in inappropriate behavior. "We respond to
these things quickly," Mr. Brooks said. "We certainly do not move
pastors who are not in compliance with our clerical standards. We do
not move people from one church to another because of
He said the national church had averaged "less than one case a
year" involving pastors and child sexual abuse since it was founded
15 years ago. He estimated that the number of cases involving
pastors and adults was three to five a year.
Jan Erickson-Pearson, a Lutheran pastor in suburban Denver, who
previously worked as the national staff member assigned to clerical
sexual abuse issues, said the church's efforts to prevent the
problem were guided by a desire "to guard the integrity of the
ministry and make sure that the church is a safe place."
Asked to explain the charges against Mr. Thomas, Ms.
Erickson-Pearson responded: "This sounds like a flip answer, but why
does this still happen? Sin."