The experts call it "crossing boundaries" a polite, dinner-party way of referring to the hug that lasts too long, the compassion that turns into sexual passion, the consensual affair that in reality is anything but.
Such transgressions are the grossest form of hypocrisy, violations of trust by those sworn to uphold our trust, and they happen more frequently than we'd want to imagine.
As the pope and his cardinals struggle with the sexual abuse scandal engulfing the world's most powerful church, it's time to point out a disturbing accompanying truth: Sexual misconduct is a serious problem for members of many clergies, whether they wear a collar, a cross or a yarmulke.
True, the survey data are sparse, and some of them are dated. But the evidence, compiled by the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle, is unmistakable.
Seventy percent of Southern Baptist ministers in 1993 knew of other ministers who had sexual contact with someone in their church. Twelve percent of Protestant ministers surveyed in 1988 had had intercourse outside of marriage, and 30 percent of those relationships were with someone in the congregation.
Nearly 40 percent of the ministers surveyed by the Fuller Seminary in 1984 reported that they had had sexual contact with a church member. Nearly 13 percent confessed to sexual intercourse with a congregant.
This behavior is so widespread that Church Mutual Insurance Co., the leading insurer of worship centers in America, receives on average of four or five claims of clergy abuse a week.
Now, these data do not specify the age of the victims a factor fueling the public outrage in the Catholic Church scandal, in which most of the victims apparently are children and teens. But there's another reason for the outrage and disgust: Most of the Catholic priests' victims are boys.
"And when it happens to boys, it's a bigger deal," says Marie Fortune, a minister who heads the Center in Seattle.
"The sexual abuse of boys is treated by our society as a more grievous act," adds Gary Schoener, a clinical psychologist and executive director of the Walk-in Counseling Center in Minneapolis, who has consulted in about 2,000 church-related sexual abuse cases. "The damages awarded to boys are much, much higher than when girls or women are involved. There's harm to both sets of victims, but we tend to pay more attention to the boys."
Inevitably with girls there's the accusation directly made or vaguely implied that she was somehow responsible. But, Schoener says, "I've never heard anyone accuse a 10-year-old boy of being seductive. I've never even heard of anyone accusing an adolescent boy of being seductive."
This implication that the female is an active player but the male can never be is not confined to clergy abuse cases, unfortunately. But it should lead us to a deeper truth about these scandals.
The truth is not about sex. It's about the abuse of power.
So screening gay men from the Catholic priesthood will not make all the embarrassing headlines go away. Nor will arguing that the cause of this misconduct is the vow of celibacy.
Protestant ministers marry. Rabbis marry. Sexual relations are sanctioned for these members of the clergy, yet some of them persist in taking advantage of the vulnerable and trusting. Even when celibacy is not an issue, they cross boundaries that should never be crossed.
The Catholic Church is coming under fire not only because of society's concern about little boys, of course. No other religious denomination of its size is so centralized; no other stands accused of covering up so many egregious cases of abuse.
But to frame this only as a "sex scandal" in one religion misses the larger point: Even in this modern age, the power held by clergy is immeasurable, respected by most but, sadly, not by all.