The Psychological Impact of Clergy-Perpetrated Sexual Abuse

6 min read

We haven’t heard much about child sexual abuse by religious leaders lately but this doesn’t mean it isn’t still happening. And it doesn’t mean that those who suffered from this type of abuse aren’t still suffering. Clergy sex abuse involves the violation of trust and the exploitation of vulnerable individuals by religious leaders, including inappropriate and unwanted sexual contact, inappropriate touching, fondling, and sexual acts.

Determining the prevalence of child sexual abuse within faith-based environments is difficult because these environments vary from small, independent congregations to massive organizations such as the Roman Catholic Church. The well-known John Jay study found that there were 4,392 Catholic priests in the United States with allegations of abuse between 1950 and 2002, about 4% of the total number of priests who served during that period. A study examining news reports of arrests for child sexual abuse in Protestant settings nationwide found 326 cases between 1999 and 2014.

There is a great deal of evidence showing that clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse (CPSA) has devastating effects on its victims. For example, a number of recent studies show that boys may be particularly susceptible to abuse of this type. A large-scale study on abuse allegations in the Catholic Church in the U.S. and a smaller study in Australia on allegations against Anglican clergy found that the majority of these allegations involved male victims.

Survivors of clergy abuse can experience numerous challenges throughout their lives, such as depression, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, substance use disorders, and difficulties forming adult relationships. It is also believed by many experts that clergy abuse can damage the faith lives of its victims; many survivors interviewed described their experiences as “soul murder.”

To understand this concept, it’s important to consider how religious leaders are viewed in many congregations. These leaders are spiritual role models and, in some cases, are considered people through whom the divine acts. For some survivors, their perception of the abuse as children was that they were being directly assaulted by God.

In addition, perpetrators often carry out abuse in ways that entangle the abuse with children’s faith lives. Many interviewed were abused in religious places such as sacristies or confessionals and/or asked to engage in religious activities such as reciting prayers while they were being abused. In some cases, religious objects or holy water were used as part of the abuse.

According to research (Fogler et al 2008), clergy-perpetuated sexual abuse can catastrophically alter the trajectory of the psychosocial, sexual, and spiritual development of a victim. Fogler drew together the literature and provided some theoretical foundations presented in a special issue of the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, attributing the damaging impact of sexual abuse by clergy to the way in which it undermines the victims’ trust, sense of self, sexual identity, and social and cognitive development.

Brady (2008) drew strong parallels between clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse and abuse within the family, finding that they are both particularly damaging and difficult for children to deal with. These include the fact that:

  • The families of many victims were closely allied with the life of their church—a “spiritual family,” so to speak.
  • The abuse tended to occur over an extended period of time, similar to many cases of incest.
  • Adults frequently did not believe reports of abuse when alerted to it, which often occurs in cases of incest.
  • Church leaders tried to silence victims to avoid scandal, also a repeated theme in incest.
  • Many victims did not disclose the abuse until adulthood, again similar to many cases of incest. (Doyle, 2003, as cited in Brady, 2008, p. 360.)

Grooming by Religious Leaders

In the case of clergy abuse, victims often blame themselves because they hold the perpetrator in such high esteem that they can’t imagine the person would do such a thing unless provoked. But ironically, clergy that abuse children tend to engage in the practice of grooming, just like many typical molesters. The grooming performed by religious leaders is even more effective and powerful than the typical grooming that occurs in most sexual abuse scenarios. Within the religious community, a predator may spend weeks, months, or even years grooming a child in order to violate them sexually.

Sexual Abuse Essential Reads

Susan Raine and Stephen Kent created a theoretical framework for analyzing and discussing religiously-based child and teen sexual grooming, the first of its kind. They examined the research on abuse in a number of religious denominations around the world to show how some religious institutions and the leadership figures in them can slowly cultivate children and their caregivers into harmful and illegal sexual activity.

Religious grooming frequently takes place in a context of unquestioned faith placed in sex offenders by children, parents, and staff. Perpetrators, who may include religious and spiritual leaders, volunteers, camp counselors in religious-based camps, and staff in religious schools, prepare the child and significant adults and create the environment for the abuse. Often, by the time the abuse actually happens, the child feels they have given consent.

Abusers draw not only on their positions of power and authority as adults, which is potent in and of itself, but also on the assertions about God’s will—the ultimate unquestionable authority for religious adherents—and a figure that can inspire fear as much as it can awe and love.

When abuse is disclosed, it is often met with skepticism or denial, even by the child’s family. Because devotion to the institution may shape social identity, especially for more devout individuals, members of a religious community may be entirely suspicious of the victim’s claims, favoring instead the religious figure and his or her status and perceived credibility. In some cases, an entire society may be groomed. For example, Ireland is an entire nation that exhibited a “culture of disbelief” toward abuse claims after widespread revelations of abuse in the 1990s. Members may seem to have a greater loyalty to the institution than to the abused victims.

If you believe you were sexually abused by a member of the clergy, I urge you to seek professional help or to reach out to organizations devoted to helping victims of clergy abuse such as SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests) or RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Sexual Exploitation National Network). To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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