Catholic Church Priest Sexual Abuse
It’s no secret that the Roman Catholic Church is a major offender in child sex abuse, both in the U.S. and nationwide. For decades, abusive priests groomed, molested, and abused children. Many in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church covered up allegations and transferred offending priests to other parishes rather than address the problem directly. In many communities, the cycle of abuse continued, with some children who were groomed and abused growing up to themselves become abusers.
Confronting an abuser is always difficult, and the circumstances surrounding Catholic priest sexual abuse make it even harder for the victim to disclose. Oftentimes, they look inward, blame themselves, and feel isolated and alone. Now, however, with the veil of silence broken, hundreds of people are coming forward with their stories, naming their abusers, and seeking long-awaited justice.
If you’ve been abused by a member of the Catholic clergy, you aren’t alone. There is hope and help for you. Or, perhaps you suspect someone close to you is in trouble. Learning more about Catholic Church priest abuse can help you seek the help you need to heal and the support you need to hold your abuser accountable.
How is sexual abuse defined?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), sexual abuse is defined as “unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats, or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.” The APA notes that offenders and victims know each other, making sexual abuse different from other kinds of sexual assault, where the perpetrator may not know the victim or may not know them very well.
Sexual abuse can take many forms, such as:
In cases of clergy sexual abuse, there is often a power dynamic, where one party feels coerced into submitting to the advances of the other. It’s important to note that sexual abuse isn’t limited to a minor/adult situation. One adult can sexually abuse another one, using the same manipulation tactics or threats an adult would use on a child.
What is clergy sexual abuse?
Clergy sexual abuse is a situation where a member of the clergy, Catholic or otherwise, sexually abuses a non-consenting person. Minors cannot, by definition, give consent. Therefore, any sexual conduct with a minor is legally non-consensual.
Even if the victim isn’t a minor, often, the power imbalance between a priest and a member of the church is such that the individual doesn’t feel that they can say no. As per the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, “Consent is never possible when someone feels like they don’t have a choice.” Therefore, minors and adults who feel that they cannot say no to sexual advances by a Catholic priest are victims of sexual abuse.
Clergy sexual abuse is especially tragic because so many people in vulnerable positions look to their priests for guidance and support. When priests abuse that trust and power, they should be held accountable.
Sometimes abuse is reported, but the reports of abuse are not acted upon, leading to repeated abuse of the same or multiple individuals. This occurrence is even more of a concern, as members of a diocese seek to protect the perpetrator.
Grooming and Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse often starts with grooming the victim. Grooming occurs when an abuser engages in manipulative behavior that is intended to bring the victim closer to the abuser and create an atmosphere of trust. The abuser may also use tactics that create an element of fear, such as making threats toward the victim or their family if they don’t comply.
Grooming behavior is slow and can be subtle. It can take weeks or months before any overly sexual conversation or contact occurs. Grooming reduces the chances that the victim will report the abuser, as it establishes a bond and can make the victim feel as though they were a willing participant.
Grooming begins with the abuser gaining access to the victim. In Catholic Church clergy abuse cases, a priest may supervise a youth group or invite potential victims to help around the church, talk, or go on outings. Isolating the victim from others they trust is essential. The abuser may make the victim feel listened to and understood or give gifts or money.
Secret-keeping is an integral part of grooming a victim. The abuser may tell them to keep the gifts or money a secret or say that others would be jealous if they knew that the abuser was taking the victim to special events, such as a sports game or shopping.
Abusers play on the eagerness of victims to please and on creating a sense of guilt in the victim. Victims may feel as though they’d hurt the groomer’s feelings by not going along. They may be afraid of losing the groomer’s affections, gifts, and attention.
Once a bond is established – and it’s important to note that there is a distinct imbalance of power between a groomer and victim – then the abuse begins. The abuser de-sensitizes the victim to sexual topics and touching. They may introduce pornography, drugs, or alcohol to increase the chances of cooperation. As the abuse continues, the victim can become enmeshed with the abuser, often feeling as though they were an equal participant or that they wanted the abuse.
Because the role of the clergy is one of responsibility and authority, grooming behaviors can be particularly effective. Vulnerable people may turn to the priest for support and care, extending a sense of trust that can easily be manipulated by a predator.
The power dynamic of clergy sexual abuse
Sexual abuse or harassment by a priest can be especially insidious, as it can tangle the victim’s perception of authority and faith. Priests hold esteemed positions within the church and often within the community at large. Victims may find it difficult to speak out against a leader in the church.
In the Catholic community, pre-marital sexual contact and homosexuality are frowned upon. Victims may feel as though they will be vilified for their role or have committed a sin. The religious implications for victims may mean that they simply try to bury the abuse or deny to themselves that it even happened.
Having power over another person can significantly affect how comfortable the other person feels about declining to participate in sexual activities. Relationships have a power imbalance when one party can decide whether another party has money, a job, or a place to live. The influence of one party over another can also be impactful when the victim perceives that the abuser has the power to influence their life, such as by altering whether the victim’s family has a place in the community and acceptance into the Catholic Church.
Power imbalances influence how comfortable a victim may feel rejecting unwanted touches or sexual contact. Consent is never possible if the victim is a minor. When one party feels that they don’t have a choice, consent is not possible between adults.
The power imbalance between Catholic priests and potential victims, as well as the opportunities for predatory members of the clergy to groom minors, may contribute to how widespread the problem of sexual abuse has been in the Catholic Church.
Understanding the signs of clergy abuse
Many parents may not understand the unspoken indications of sexual abuse in children. Victims of sexual abuse often feel ashamed, hurt, embarrassed, and isolated. Other common indications that a child is being sexually abused are:
An exam by a physician qualified to identify sexual abuse can help determine whether your child has been hurt. If a victim comes forward with a declaration of sexual abuse, it’s important to take them seriously and seek counseling from a qualified psychologist or therapist trained to treat cases of child sexual abuse.
The effects of sexual abuse
The effects of sexual abuse can last years, often a lifetime, for many victims. Sometimes, the victim becomes an abuser, perpetuating a cycle of abuse. Other times, the victim turns the hurt, shame, and anger towards themselves. They may engage in risky behaviors, such as drinking or using drugs, self-harm and mutilation, risky sexual encounters, or suicidal ideation or attempts. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is also common for sexual abuse victims. Treatment for sexual abuse can help mitigate some of these effects for victims, as can facing their abusers and seeing them brought to justice.
Immediate reactions after abuse may include:
Shock, fear, or disbelief
An overwhelming sense of guilt or shame
Pain, bleeding, or other physical symptoms
Shrinking from the touch of others
The earlier a sexual abuse victim receives treatment, the better the chances that they’ll recover and understand how to establish healthy boundaries. While there may not be a cure for sexual abuse-related trauma, many studies show that intensive therapy from a qualified professional may help.
Help for survivors of clergy abuse
Survivors of sexual abuse, whether they’re adults or children, have options. Some people may want to pursue a case in court against their abuser or the Catholic Church or the diocese in which the offense was committed. Others may want to remain private and seek therapy and treatment on their own.
If you wish to pursue a case against your abuser or help a loved one file charges, there are some important steps to take. First should be consulting with a lawyer experienced in Catholic Church priest abuse. Your attorney will walk you through the steps of filing a lawsuit and what to expect during the process. They’ll answer questions about whether the victim’s name will be published or not, and they will help you navigate making witness statements and potentially testifying.
Your lawyer may file a suit naming the individual priest who harmed you, as well as the church and/or diocese with which the abuser is affiliated. The unit may even name the greater organization; many cases of Catholic Church priest abuse have named the Vatican as a defendant.
You’ll likely be asked to document anything that you can remember about the abuse, from the grooming process through each occasion when something happened. This will include dates, times, and any conversations that you can remember, as well as the specific actions that took place. Your lawyer will probably advise you not to confront your abuser alone but rather to communicate through them, the lawyer. Likewise, if your abuser contacts you after retaining legal counsel, refer them to your attorney.
Each state has a unique statute of limitations for molestation and sexual abuse survivors. Individual states have been opened limited look back windows for sexual abuse survivors to seek legal claims against their abusers from their childhood. The New York window closed in August, 2021, but California, Colorado, and Louisiana remain open through 2022. Laws regularly change, so seek the counsel of a child sexual abuse lawyer to determine the statute of limitations for your unique situation.
Independent resources for sexual abuse survivors
RAINN is the nation’s most extensive sexual abuse support network, where survivors and their families can learn more about different types of abuse and find local help, such as support groups. It also covers the laws regarding sexual abuse in each state, including the statute of limitations to file a claim and any exceptions to that statute. You can go online or call (800) 656-HOPE.
If you’ve suffered Catholic Church priest abuse, you have other options in addition to filing a lawsuit. You may file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and contact the DOJ with specific questions about your case.
Have you been abused by a Catholic priest?
If you’ve experienced Catholic Church priest abuse, you aren’t alone. For decades, the Church hid allegations of sexual wrongdoing, and many people suffered in silence. Now, with so many people bravely coming forward and sharing their stories, the priests who engaged in sexual misconduct are being held accountable. Therapy from a professional trained to help sexual abuse survivors can help you heal and deal with the trauma you experienced. An attorney can help you seek justice in your case.