How Can We Help Victims of Clergy Abuse?

A new review explores what clergy abuse can mean for victims.

by Romeo Vitelli Ph.D.

When John J. Geoghan was sentenced in January 2002 on multiple charges relating to his long history of serial child abuse, he represented the latest in a long line of cases involving sexual abuse in the clergy. Evidence at Geoghan’s trial showed that he was repeatedly transferred to different Catholic dioceses following allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour involving young boys. During the 1960s and 1970s, he continued to be transferred to positions where he would have regular contact with children, even after the Church arranged for him to be treated for pedophilia. Even after he formally retired from his active clergy work in 1993, the allegations continued. By the time he was finally sentenced (after first being removed from the priesthood) in 2002, his career of abuse was believed to stretch back decades and involved more than 130 boys.

In the aftermath of Geoghan’s sentencing (and his murder in prison less than a year later), the resulting scandal led to the resignation of Boston’s archbishop and numerous investigations concerning how the Church dealt with Geoghan and many of the other priests who faced allegations. It also highlighted the treatment of whistleblowers by the Church, many of whom faced serious penalties for attempting to expose what was happening. Still, while most of the investigations into clergy abuse have focused on the Catholic Church, cases of equivalent abuse can be found in virtually every other religion as well.

Despite countless new stories about abuse by clergy, not to mention the various movie and television dramatizations of different scandals that have come to light, actual research into the impact of this kind of abuse on victims has been surprisingly scarce up to now. But a new review article published in the journal Traumatology provides a comprehensive look at the psychological impact of clergy abuse on victims and how it differs from other types of sexual abuse.

Written by Danielle M. McGraw and a team of fellow researchers at Alliant International University in Los Angeles, the article examined hundreds of peer-reviewed studies looking at clergy abuse, though only a small minority contained actual empirical data on clergy abuse victims. To supplement the available information, McGraw and her co-researchers also included victim data from several recent books on victims of clergy abuse, as well as dissertation data.

Based on their analysis, McGraw and her co-authors identified 2,412 clergy abuse victims who could be compared directly for the purpose of research. Though the cases varied, the authors found nine themes that tended to recur most often in discussing the long-term consequences for victims:

  • There is domination of Catholic perpetrators and victims in the clergy abuse literature. While clergy abuse occurs in every religion, more than half of the available studies focused on Catholic survivors of priest abuse. At this point, it is still unclear whether the dominance of Catholic victims in the literature means that Catholic clergy are more likely to offend or whether the prominent media focus on the Catholic Church makes it more likely for victims to report their abuse. In looking solely at victims of abuse who came to the attention of county-level prosecutors’ offices, social service departments, or municipal law enforcement, the actual proportion of abusers who were Catholic clergy was no greater than the percentage of practicing Catholics in the general population. On the other hand, abusers with Protestant or Fundamentalist were just as prevalent, though they tend not to get the kind of media attention that victims of Catholic clergy do. Unfortunately, international studies comparing victimization across different religious denominations tend to be rare, so direct comparisons between religions can be difficult to make.
  • A disproportionately high percentage of abuse victims tend to be male. On average, the proportion of male victims identified by McGraw and her colleagues ranged from 80 to 60 percent, though these tend to be skewed toward Catholic clergy victims. Since many of these studies are based on available victims who are often part of class action lawsuits or victims’ rights groups, females tend to be underrepresented in these studies. This bias toward male victims may be due to the greater access that clergy has to boys rather than girls, especially in countries in which females are not allowed to be altar servers in the same way that boys are. Females may also be less likely to come forward, especially if the abuser is a family friend who associates with the victim outside of the formal church setting. How accessible females are to clergy can also vary depending according to religious practices.
  • PTSD remains a common diagnosis following clergy abuse, but other diagnoses are possible as well. Clergy abuse often involves prolonged abuse occurring repeatedly over long periods of time. Such abuse often involves actual penetration with frequent threats to intimidate victims into remaining silent. All of this can result in a high probability of PTSD symptoms persisting long after the abuse stops. But PTSD is not the only possible diagnosis in such cases and the symptoms shown by victims can vary widely. This can lead to later problems such as depression, substance abuse, self-destructive behavior, problems in forming new relationships, and general psychopathology that can be hard to diagnose. Since many victims may refuse to divulge what happened to them until years afterward, they may not get the proper diagnosis or treatment until decades later (if at all).
  • Victims often have to face disbelief by family and secrecy by the church, which can make it easy for the offending clergy to continue their abuse. Available historical records suggest that clergy abuse dates back for centuries, with most victims being silenced to avoid scandal. Certainly, the Catholic Church, along with virtually every other religious organization charged with policing clergy, has a long history of concealing sexually inappropriate behaviour by priests or friars. For that matter, victims often face “shunning” by their own religious community over daring to speak out over what was done to them, something that often intimidates other victims into staying silent. Even if the victim is believed, members of the religious community often blame them for the abuse due to the absolute trust they have in their faith and the offending clergy.
  • Victims are typically left with a sense of betrayal and mistrust. Though all sexual abuse represents a betrayal of trust on some level, being abused by clergy can be particularly devastating. Considering that clergy are seen as the moral core of any religious community, taking advantage of this position of trust to commit sexual abuse, often over long periods of time, can lead victims to become much more cynical in their perception of all other adults in their lives. Research into clergy abuse victims suggests that they often have difficulty forming healthy relationships even years following their abuse. They are also likely to feel guilt over what happened and to believe that their own actions somehow led to the abuse.
  • Victims often feel shame, depression, and helplessness. Since most victims prefer not to divulge their abuse, at least for a while, they are often forced to deal with the shame and sense of helplessness that comes with what they have experienced. Victims who are the same gender as their abuser also find themselves questioning their own sexual identity and are especially vulnerable to abusers who encourage them to remain silent due to the “sin” most religions associate with homosexual behaviour. This prolonged shame and helplessness typically leads to depression and, because of victim reluctance to admit what really happened, can result in critical delays in receiving needed treatment.
  • Victim testimonies are often dismissed as “false memories.” For many victims, it may take years, or even decades, before they are able to reveal what happened to them. Given that abuse often occurred when victims were much younger, they may have difficulty recalling specific details because of the amount of time that has passed. If giving testimony in a courtroom, they may face harsh grilling by attorneys accusing them of making up the abuse or else having their memories contaminated by all of the extensive media coverage surrounding clergy abuse. And because of the amount of time that has passed and the lack of medical evidence backing up their testimony, victims often find themselves on trial as much as the clergy they are accusing. There is also the controversy that surrounds “recovered memories,” which can damage the credibility of victims despite the lack of evidence that this is a significant problem in clergy abuse cases. Still, the fear of being relentlessly grilled in a courtroom can often intimidate victims into remaining silent and rob them of the opportunity to face their accuser.

Though clergy abuse is becoming more widely reported, it’s clear that much more needs to be done for the victims of this kind of abuse, both in terms of providing them with support as they open up about what has been done to them as well as treatment to help them move on with their lives afterward. As Danielle McGraw and her colleagues point out in their conclusions, much more research is needed to understand how to encourage more victims to come forward as well as the kind of intimidation tactics that can be used to make them stay silent. We also need a better approach to protecting victims during the often grueling cross-examination process as well as dealing with the disbelief they often face from members of their own religious community.

While the problem of clergy abuse won’t go away anytime soon, it can still be possible for victims to cope with their experiences and regain the sense of trust they often lose due to their abuse. As new cases come forward, it is more essential than ever to find better ways to help victims move on with their lives afterward.