Spiritual leaders may use their authority and charismatic power to create situations resulting in sexual relations with their followers. At one extreme this may be part of the belief system and practices of the religious group and considered acceptable by all concerned. It may be treated as a special favour discretely accorded to particular followers who belong to the leader's inner circle or who are chosen for it. In those groups where it conflicts with accepted practice, it may be the result of sexual harassment on the part of the leader, possibly encouraged by deluded behaviour on the part of a follower seeking particular attention.
Canon law of the Roman Catholic church provides serious penalties, including dismissal, for sexual misconduct and criminal behaviour, both of which are involved in molesting minors. But the law contains many procedures for protecting priests against unfounded accusations, and certain provisions that have made its strict enforcement difficult. For example, under canon law, priests cannot be penalized for acts that occurred more than five years ago, whereas the statute of limitations in American criminal and civil law has increasingly been extended for cases of sexual abuse of minors. Furthermore, if a priest molested a youth under a psychological compulsion, that condition can be cited in church law as a reason for mitigating the penalty.
There are numerous reports of Christian clergymen and priests who have misused their authority, and perverted their victims sense of spirituality, through various forms of sexual abuse, sometimes with parishioners and notably with children. Some 400 Catholic priests in the USA have been charged with child molesting since 1982, and the Church has paid an estimated $400 million in damages and costs. One such priest, is accused of abusing perhaps 100 victims in three states -- including a boy in a full body cast who could not move to resist. The Pope first publicly acknowledged the problem in the USA in 1993. In 1989, a US Pentecostal evangelist was sentenced to 20 years in prison for sodomizing more than 100 church boys. Two assistant pastors received 12 and 15 years for transporting the boys between states for orgies.
In other religious traditions and groups, sexual liaisons with the leader may be considered acceptable, even desirable, or simply tolerated as of relatively marginal significance. Media publicity was given in 1993 to the practices in the Branch Dravidian group where the leader reportedly had sex with most of the female members. There have been many reports of guru-disciple liaisons in western ashrams and new age groups.