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Sexual Assault Awareness Month: The Problem of Clergy Abuse

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Spirituality is an important part of life for many individuals and families. Churches fulfill spiritual and religious needs, but also provide community and guidance to members. Religious leaders, along with providing personal counsel and support, are seen as moral authorities.

Together, these factors make it easy for a predatory spiritual leader to abuse congregants. Hiding behind their influence in the community and reputation as a holy individual, clergy members may warn their targets against reporting their actions by claiming others will not believe them.

Sadly, in many cases, their threats are proven true. Multiple churches have covered up for abusers within their midst, either ignoring accusations altogether or quietly shuffling abusers away from congregations when words of their misdeeds began to spread. These actions harm survivors by keeping them trapped in dangerous situations and, often, eroding their trust in the community that is a huge part of their life. They also put others at risk of suffering at these abusers’ hands. While clergy abuse has become less taboo to discuss in recent years, it is still a serious problem that continues to harm people to this day. We want all survivors of clergy abuse to know we believe you—and if there is anything we can do to help you find justice, we absolutely want to help.

Clergy Abuse Can Affect Anyone

Though many people, upon hearing the term clergy abuse, think of the Catholic Church sex scandal, the problem is much more widespread. Nearly any faith with a hierarchical structure has the potential for this kind of abuse. Other churches including Jehovah’s Witness, Southern Baptist, and United Methodist have been forced to reckon with serious organizational issues within the past decade. In the coming years, we may see other traditions undergo the same process.

Clergy misconduct is also often associated with child sex abuse; this is, of course, a very serious issue, and must be stopped. However, clergy can also sexually abuse adult members of their congregation. Children may be especially vulnerable to sexual abuse, but clergy members still hold a position of authority over adults in their congregations and, in the course of their work, often gain significant trust from those they lead. They may take advantage of private interactions to push boundaries and assault those under their care.

What Enables Clergy Abuse?

Clergy abuse is not only about access, spiritual leadership, and trust. A study conducted by Baylor University surveyed over 3,500 individuals to find those who had either been sexually abused themselves, learned their loved ones were abused by clergy, or worked professionally with survivors or offenders. Interviews with these individuals identified 6 themes common to the congregations whose members suffered abuse:

  • Blending of social roles between clergy and members of their congregation may put congregants in vulnerable positions or make them dependent on Church leadership. As a spiritual leader, counselor, and personal friend, clergy may be able to learn facts they can hold against those who rely on them.
  • Private communications via cell phone and email made it easier for clergy members to form inappropriate relationships without having to worry about family or community members witnessing their interactions.
  • Warning signs were ignored by family members, friends, or victims who “mistrusted their own judgment” when they experienced a clergy member acting inappropriately.
  • Lack of oversight means clergy members have no one to hold them accountable, and those who question their behavior may not know where to report it.
  • A culture of trust among congregations allows members to let their guard down. This can result in them sharing private experiences and information with clergy members that they would not share with others.
  • Niceness culture that pervades society, particularly religious groups, prevented witnesses of inappropriate behavior from speaking up.

Because churches are granted some leeway by society because of the role of religion, and because they have a strong incentive to appear above reproach, they are likely to cover up sexual abuse and get away with it. While the brave survivors who came forward with their stories have pushed for change, it’s likely many churches and religious organizations are continuing to conceal sexual abusers in their midst.

Abusers Within the Clergy Continue to Take Advantage

Holding abusive clergy members publicly accountable is essential for our safety. Congregants deserve to know when someone they trusted has been taking advantage of their community. Furthermore, when clergy members do not face public consequences, they may continue to take advantage of others.

An investigation of defrocked clergy who were credibly accused of sexual assault found that, after leaving the Catholic Church, these individuals ended up as teachers, nurses, counselors, volunteers at organizations that work with children, and in other places that would allow them access to vulnerable individuals. Dozens have since been convicted of sex crimes, including sexually assaulting minors; distributing, making, or possessing child pornography; and indecent exposure.

If these individuals had faced criminal consequences—or any public consequences at all—for sexually assaulting members of their congregation, could the people they assaulted and abused after leaving the church have been saved from this fate? Certainly, they would have been turned away from jobs involving children, had they been convicted and forced to register as sex offenders. Churches that simply get rid of abusive clergy put others in danger of suffering at their hands.

What You Can Do As a Clergy Abuse Survivor

If you or a loved one was abused by a member of the clergy, we want you to know your rights. Even if your church covered up misconduct and protected wrongdoers from facing criminal charges, you may be able to bring a civil lawsuit against your abuser.

Filing a clergy sex abuse claim can:

  • Allow you the chance to tell your story
  • Help you secure compensation for counseling and other treatment
  • Warn others to stay away from your abuser
  • Show other survivors that justice is possible and encourage them to come forward with their own claims

Additionally, because civil courts have a lower burden of proof than criminal courts, it is much easier for survivors to prevail. Even if your abuser was tried but not convicted in a criminal case, you might be able to get justice by filing a lawsuit.

The first step for anyone considering a clergy abuse claim is speaking to a skilled lawyer. Our team at Lanier Law Group has handled more sex abuse and assault claims than any other firm in North Carolina. We can answer your questions and help you understand what your rights are.

Clergy abuse will continue to be a problem until all of us make the commitment to believe survivors and stand up for their right to be heard. We can help you tell your story if you are ready.

Call our North Carolina sex abuse lawyers at (855) 757-4204 for your free and confidential consultation.