Press Release

Senator Dave Min to Unveil Legislation Prohibiting Adult Sexual Abuse by Religious Clergy

(SACRAMENTO, CA) – Today, Senator Dave Min (D-Irvine) announced he would be authoring legislation to prohibit the sexual abuse of adults by religious clergy in California. The proposed bill, which will be introduced in early 2024, signifies a crucial step toward providing justice for victims and holding perpetrators accountable by establishing misdemeanor and felony charges for adult sexual abuse, and eliminating consent as a defense for clergy members accused of sexual battery, when they are in a counseling or confessional relationship with the survivor.

“Survivors of sexual assault should be able to seek justice, regardless of who the perpetrator is,” said Senator Min. “For too long, we have denied that justice to survivors when their perpetrators are religious leaders. Our priests, ministers, and other ordained clergy hold a unique position of power, and we have seen too many of them abuse this position to sexually exploit the members of their congregation. We cannot stand idly by while this power imbalance allows for the sexual exploitation of adults who are victimized because of their faith or religious reverence. I look forward to working with my colleagues in 2024 to right this wrong and ensure that adult victims of clergy abuse have the opportunity to seek justice and accountability.”  

Clergy sexual abuse occurs when a member of clergy uses his or her position and power to exploit, harm, and sexually abuse a member of their congregation. Due to the highly gendered nature of religion in the U.S., the majority of clergy sexual abuse is perpetrated by men and the majority of the victims are women. According to a study by Baylor University, in any given congregation with 400 adult members, seven women on average have been victims of clergy sexual misconduct since they turned 18. 

"Women remain the forgotten majority of persons to survive clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse,” said Lucy Huh, a Ph.D. candidate researching abuse in religious settings, and herself a survivor-advocate who brought the issue to Senator Min. “This form of abuse uniquely impacts every facet of a survivor's life, including their faith and relationship with God. Criminalizing clergy sexual abuse of adults is a crucial step toward providing legal protection, ensuring accountability, and deterring future abuse within religious institutions. This legislation sends a powerful message that clergy members are not above the law, fostering a culture of accountability and preventing the perpetuation of systemic abuse often concealed by churches and religious organizations."

The bill is poised to bring California in line with 13 other states and the District of Columbia, including Connecticut, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, have enacted similar laws to address the issue. The bill’s removal of adult consent harmonizes the laws for religious clergy abuse with the laws that already exist for doctors and therapists who have similar counseling relationships with their patients, prohibiting sexual relations between clergy and congregation members who have a counseling or confessional relationship.

“Unfortunately, the unethical and abusive behaviors of clergy toward adults are often treated differently than other helping professions like psychology, social work, and medicine,” said Dr. David Pooler, Professor at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University and expert on clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse of adults. “Adult Clergy Sexual Abuse does happen and clergy in some states get a pass on harmful sexual behaviors for which other professionals would be charged. California is providing a positive example by working to ensure sexually abusive clergy can be held accountable just like every other helping professional so that people in religious communities can feel safer.”

Overall, 3.1 percent of women who attend religious services at least monthly reported being the object of a sexual advance by a clergyperson or religious leader, according to research published in the peer-reviewed Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 

"It's imperative to recognize that the prevalence of clergy sexual abuse extends beyond children, impacting adults significantly more than widely perceived,” said Dorothy Small, a survivor and leader at Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP) from Sacramento. “Experience has shown that internal handling often leads to victim-blaming, cover-ups, and secrecy. Establishing a legal framework will not only safeguard individuals from harm but also hold perpetrators accountable for their reprehensible actions. By fostering accountability within religious institutions, the proposed legislation sends a clear message – that members of the clergy are not above the law and will face consequences for grooming and sexually abusing those under their spiritual care."

“The majority of clergy sexual abuse targets adults, exploiting trust within the pastoral relationship,” said Katherine Archer, a Survivor and Advocate who experienced clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse in Southern California. “These are not affairs — they are egregious violations that cause life-long wounds. Perpetrators have often groomed not only the victim but entire parishes as well, so that the victim is blamed when coming forward or seeking help. Furthermore, church-led investigations often fail due to inherent biases and inadequate acknowledgment of power differentials.  I have known of women who have suffered severe mental health consequences after going to a church and reporting clergy abuse. To address this, we need a clergy abuse bill criminalizing misconduct, transferring investigations to law enforcement for unbiased and effective handling.”

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Senator Dave Min was elected to represent the 37th Senate District in 2020 and is the Chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water, as well as the Vice Chair of the California Asian American & Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus. The 37th Senate District is in the heart of Orange County and includes the communities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Foothill Ranch, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Laguna Beach, Laguna Woods, Lake Forest, Newport Beach, Orange, Tustin,
and Villa Park.