What Makes Clergy Abuse So Different?

GoodTherapy | What Makes Clergy Abuse So Different?

by Mary Alexander, JD

What Makes Clergy Abuse So Different? 

Acts of sexual abuse are inexcusable. Acts of sexual abuse at the hands of priests, clergy, and other religious leaders are particularly inexcusable, not only given the many facets of their unique positions but also because of the complexity of the religious institutions that employ them. Clergy abuse causes harm in many ways, but new laws are increasing accountability for clergy members and legal options for abuse survivors. 

The abusive acts are never the fault of survivors. It takes courage for a survivor to acknowledge that abuse occurred. For some, reading this article may be a step in your process of acknowledging what has happened to you. You are not alone. 

This Moment in History

Clergy abuse is not a new phenomenon. Survivors, many of whom were children at the time of the sexual abuse, are now coming forward in greater numbers. This is, at least in part, due to recent changes in law allowing survivors to seek civil justice for the pain, emotional distress, and trauma suffered as a result of the abuse. 

Clergy Abuse Is Different

Clergy members are unique in their positions. Due to the inherent nature of their esteemed positions and the belief that they are closer to God, religious leaders occupy positions of authority. They are respected and deemed trustworthy. They are also the very people who are expected to set an example of moral and ethical behavior in our communities. People often look to clergy when in need of help, guidance, or to confess their sins.  

Betrayal of Trust

However, when members of clergy prey on their students and congregants, they are exploiting not only their trust but the trust of their families. These are the people they are supposed to be serving. Many survivors have suffered in silence, fearful that they would not be believed if they reported the abuse. Indeed, the dark irony is that the abuser may be the same person the survivor would have otherwise turned to for counseling in such a time of need. Furthermore, when the perpetrator of sexual abuse is a clergy member, the religious institution may also be responsible and liable for the abuse. 

Criminal acts of sexual abuse have been committed by local religious leaders and their employees for decades. The most common example is the longtime and ongoing abuse, mostly of minors, by Catholic clergy members. The 2015 film “Spotlight” told the true story of the Boston Globe journalists who uncovered decades-long cover-ups at the highest levels of Boston’s religious, legal, and government establishments, touching off a wave of revelations around the world. Because the cycle of abuse had occurred for so long in secret, with little to no consequences for the abusers, several of the accused or convicted in this investigation and others like it stated that the abuse had become normalized to them.  

The Impact of Clergy Abuse

Emotional Distress

Most, if not all, survivors will agree that the impact of sexual abuse does not stop once the physical contact has ended. Physical contact is often associated with levels of emotion, and it is well documented by organizations such as the Department of Health and Human Services that survivors feel shame, guilt, and embarrassment surrounding the abuse they suffered. These very same feelings are what predators count on to keep their abused silent. 

If you are wrestling with the emotional distress of abuse, help is available. Click through to find a therapist near you who can help. 

Power and Manipulation

When the abuser is a religious leader or member of the clergy, complications can arise because they often know how to elicit certain responses from people. Many priests are expected to be able to soothe and counsel people in times of emotional distress. It is reasonable to believe that if that same priest had engaged in physical or sexual abuse, he could use that specialized ability in more sinister ways, namely, to deter a survivor or their family from reporting the abuse to other leaders within the religious organization or to law enforcement. 

An abuser will often feel he is in control of the situation and will go on with life and business unscathed, believing he will presumably be backed by his religious institution if accused. That influence can begin with something as simple as a whispered rumor among the congregation to preemptively tarnish the survivor’s reputation. From there, the abuser succeeds if the matter snowballs in his favor or if the survivor never comes forward with a claim. 

Psychological Trauma

Psychological trauma often goes hand-in-hand with emotional abuse. But the critical difference between the two is that psychological abuse has stronger effects on a survivor’s mental capacity. While emotional abuse affects what people feel, psychological abuse affects what and how they think. 

It’s not uncommon for psychological abuse to take place during and even after the physical act(s) of abuse. This often looks like manipulation, gaslighting, or making harmful threats. In an instant, an innocent survivor will feel that what is happening is acceptable or that no one will believe them. Although many individuals do face hurdles when coming to terms with and reporting physical and sexual abuse no matter the context, reporting the abuse can often be a way to take back their own power. 

Mental Health Concerns

It is important for survivors of sexual abuse to seek professional help and to find healthy ways to cope with the emotional and psychological impact of their abuse. People who have experienced psychological abuse often report feelings of depression, suicidal ideation, low self-esteem, difficulty trusting others, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD has effects that can last for years. It can paralyze people’s mental states to prevent them from working, concentrating, or caring for themselves and others. 

Trying to Cope Through Substance Abuse

The psychological impact can also lead to drug and alcohol abuse as a coping mechanism. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has published several studies and reports detailing how alcoholism can be a consequence of child abuse. While alcohol and controlled substances may do long-term damage, they can be perceived as providing temporary solace from the torment. However, research shows that alcohol can actually complicate symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD. 

Sexual and Physical Pain

Physical abuse such as beatings, lashings, and burnings may have been supplemented by sexual acts performed or demanded by clergymen. The physical pain endured by survivors is often accompanied by and causes emotional distress and psychological trauma as well.

The Road to Healing

It is common for anyone who has been through the trauma of sexual abuse to want to feel safe and to regain control of their life. The process of healing from abuse is different for everyone, and support groups for survivors have grown in recent decades. 

But there is a difference between healing and justice, and survivors should feel vindicated if they want one or both. 

You Have Rights

The abuse of a child almost always occurs in private and out of public view, so proving that the church or religious organization knew or should have known (of the abuse) can be particularly challenging. Thankfully, legal reforms in California and other states have been passed to help empower survivors and their families. 

California Law

In 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law AB 218, which enhanced protections for survivors of crime and abuse. This law includes measures establishing an amnesty clause protecting survivors and witnesses of sexual assault

For survivors of childhood sexual abuse that occurred in California, this update to the law adds extra time to seek civil justice. AB 218 raised the age limit for abuse survivors to bring legal action against their abusive clergy member or other church-affiliated abusers. This law gives survivors of childhood sexual abuse until age 40 – or five years from the discovery of the abuse – to file civil lawsuits. Before AB 218, the age limit had been 26, or within three years from the discovery of the abuse. Furthermore, AB 218 provides a three-year lookback window for claims that would have previously expired under the old law.

The Legal Process for Survivors Wanting Justice

Survivors of sexual abuse now have stronger laws on their side. If survivors want to secure civil justice, they can do so in a court of law. It can be tough to investigate claims if the reported abusive conduct took place many years ago. Still, it is important to move forward with them regardless of how much time has passed. 

The first step in achieving justice for a survivor of sexual abuse is to speak with a plaintiffs’ lawyer who is familiar with these new laws and has had success litigating sexual abuse claims

Law firms like mine represent clients of almost every age, gender, sexual identity, and race. We have collaborated with experts for years on civil and criminal matters involving clergy sexual abuse. It’s important to know that if you have suffered abuse, you have rights that you are free to exercise.


Mary Alexander is a plaintiff attorney based in San Francisco who represents victims of abuse and accidents. Visit her firm’s website here.


If you’re struggling to deal with any type of abuse, please reach out for help. There are many trauma therapists who are trained to support people in your exact situation. You don’t have to go it alone. To find a trauma therapist who can help, click through to search for a therapist near you and filter by Common Specialties>All other issues>Abuse/Abuse Survivor Issues.

© Copyright 2021 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Mary Alexander, JD

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