Nashville — The three companies that insure the majority of Protestant churches in America say they typically receive upward of 260 reports each year of young people under 18 being sexually abused by clergy, church staff, volunteers or congregation members.
The figures released to The Associated Press offer a glimpse into what has long been an extremely difficult phenomenon to pin down - the frequency of sex abuse in Protestant congregations.
Religious groups and victims' supporters have been keenly interested in the figure ever since the Roman Catholic sex abuse crisis hit five years ago. The church has revealed that there have been 13,000 credible accusations against Catholic clerics since 1950.
Protestant numbers have been harder to come by and are sketchier because the denominations are less centralized than the Catholic church; indeed, many congregations are independent, which makes reporting even more difficult.
Some of the only numbers come from three insurance companies - Church Mutual Insurance Co., GuideOne Insurance Co. and Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Co.
Together, they insure 165,495 churches and worship centers for liability against child sex abuse and other sexual misconduct, mostly Protestant congregations but a few other faiths as well. They also insure more than 5,500 religious schools, camps and other organizations.
The companies represent a large chunk of all U.S. Protestant churches. There are about 224,000 in the U.S., according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, although that number excludes most historically black denominations and some other groups, which account for several thousand congregations.
Church Mutual, GuideOne and Brotherhood Mutual each provided statistics on sex abuse claims to The Associated Press, although they did not produce supporting documentation or a way to determine whether the reports were credible.
The largest company, Church Mutual, reported an average of about 100 sex abuse cases a year involving minors over the past decade. GuideOne, which has about half the clients of Church Mutual, said it has received an average of 160 reports of sex abuse against minors every year for the past two decades.
Brotherhood Mutual said it has received an average of 73 reports of child sex abuse and other sexual misconduct every year for the past 15 years. However, Brotherhood does not specify which victims are younger than 18 so it is impossible to accurately add that to the total cases.
Abuse reports don't always mean the accused was guilty, and they don't necessarily result in financial awards or settlements, the companies said. The reports include accusations against clergy, church staff and volunteers.
Even with hundreds of cases a year "that's a very small number. That probably doesn't even constitute half," said Gary Schoener, director of the Walk-In Counseling Center in Minneapolis, a consultant on hundreds of Protestant and Catholic clergy misconduct cases. "Sex abuse in any domain, including the church, is reported seldom. We know a small amount actually come forward."
Tom Farr, general counsel and senior vice president of claims for GuideOne, based in West Des Moines, Iowa, said most abuse cases are resolved privately in court-ordered mediation. Awards can range from millions of dollars down to paying for counseling for victims, he said.
One of the largest settlements to date in Protestant churches involved the case of former Lutheran minister Gerald Patrick Thomas Jr. in Texas, where a jury several years ago awarded the minister's victims nearly $37 million. Separate earlier settlements involving Thomas cost an additional $32 million.
When insurance companies first started getting reports of abuse from churches nearly two decades ago, the cases usually involved abuse that happened many years earlier. But over the past several years, the alleged abuse is more recent - which could reflect a greater awareness about reporting abuse, insurance companies said.
Insurance officials said the number of sex abuse cases has remained steady over the past two decades, but they also said churches are working harder to prevent child sex abuse by conducting background checks, installing windows in nurseries and play areas and requiring at least two adults in a room with a child.
Patrick Moreland, vice president of marketing for Church Mutual, said churches are particularly susceptible to abusers.
"By their nature, congregations are the most trusting of organizations, so that makes them attractive targets for predators," he said. "If you're a predator, where do you go? You go to a congregation that will welcome you."
A victims' advocacy group has said the Southern Baptists, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, could do more to prevent abuse by creating a list of accused clergy the public and churches could access.
"I think they should have a list of credibly reported clergy child abuse," said Christa Brown, a member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a group initially created to hold the Catholic church accountable for sex abuse by its clergy.
"These are things people are entitled to know," said Brown, who says she was sexually abused as a child by a Southern Baptist minister. "The only way to prevent this crime is to break the code of silence and to have absolute transparency when allegations are raised."
At the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in San Antonio this week, the Rev. Wade Burleson of Enid, Okla., proposed a feasibility study into developing a national database of Southern Baptist ministers who have been "credibly accused of, personally confessed to, or legally been convicted of sexual harassment or abuse."
A convention committee referred Burleson's motion to the SBC executive committee, which will report back with findings and a recommendation at next year's meeting in Indianapolis.
Southern Baptist President Frank Page said leaders are considering several options to help churches protect children against abuse.
"We believe that the Scripture teaches that the church should be an autonomous, independent organization," Page said. "We encourage churches to hold accountable at the local level those who may have misused the trust of precious children and youth."
Several years ago, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which represents moderates who have increasingly distanced themselves from the conservative-led Southern Baptists, started a list of accused clergy for churches, but not the public. Under pressure from victim advocates, the Texas group just released the names of some convicted sex offenders who may have been ministers in local congregations.
Joe Trull, editor of Christian Ethics Today and retired ethics professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, helped the Texas convention create its registry and says there are now about 11 cases involving clergy abuse with minors.
But he believes these are just the "tip of the iceberg" because churches don't have to report abuse cases to the registry and aren't likely to.
"The problem we're having is that churches just weren't sending the names," Trull said. "In the normal scenario, they just try to keep it secret. We're going to have to be more proactive and let them know if they don't come forward, they're helping to perpetuate this problem."