Child Abuse by Clergy

views updated

Child Abuse by Clergy

In the mid-1980s a scandal emerged in the United States and Canada that would have a profound impact on the trust people have in their clergy. Clergy who had been entrusted with the care of children in the course of church activities had abused that trust by engaging in sexual acts with those children. With each allegation and conviction, more cases emerged. Today many denominations have developed or are in the process of developing protocols designed to limit the possibility of sexual abuse of children by pastors and other church workers. Nonetheless, much damage has been done to individual children, their families, and to the credibility of the church.

Social Context

What was the context in which this crisis emerged? A number of factors contributed to the coming to light of this abuse of children. First, the late seventies and eighties were a time of growing recognition of the nature, extent, and impact of child sexual abuse. Mandatory reporting of abuse to social workers was one of the legal markers of this shift in attention to the problem of abuse of children (Burkett and Bruni 1993, p. 29). It was thus an issue that was highlighted in the public consciousness at the time that the church-related abuses began to come to light. Second, as a result of this growing awareness, police, social workers, and the justice system became increasingly receptive to and prepared to deal with allegations of child sexual abuse. Despite this growing receptivity, feelings of shame and guilt by the child victims and adults' trust in the clergy meant that there was some degree of obliviousness to the abuse and reluctance to report it. In addition, the controversial issue of repressed memory meant that some victims were coming forward twenty or thirty years after the abuse was said to have actually occurred.

Explanations for Clergy Abuse

The majority of the incidents of abuse that attracted attention in the 1980s involved Roman Catholic clergy. One of the "intuitive" responses offered to the question "Why?" has been the requirement of clerical celibacy within the Roman Catholic Church. The suppression of natural sexual urges, it is argued, results in a perversion of sexuality, which in turn results in abuse of children and other inappropriate sexual behavior. One weakness with this explanation lies in the fact that while the majority of abuse of children has been documented as happening in the Roman Catholic faith community, it is not under the exclusive purview of Catholic priests (Bottoms et al. 1995; Jenkins 1995). Estimates of the number of clergy who are abusive range from 2 to 6 percent for both Protestant and Catholic clergy ( Jenkins 1996, p. 50; Burkett and Bruni 1993, p. 57).

Another explanation for this abuse of children is individual psychosis. Some people argue that clergy abuse children because of their own personal histories, which themselves may involve abuse. Such psychological explanations may have some validity, but they ignore the structural context in which abuse takes place. They pathologize abuse as a sickness, to be dealt with at the individual level. It is also critical to examine the sorts of social relations and structures that facilitate the abuse of children in sacred settings.

One of the accomplishments of the feminist movement has been to frame abuse of many types as an abuse of power. Thus rape is defined as being about power and control, not about sexual desire. So, too, can we see clerical abuse of children as an abuse of power, in which religious authorities are in fiduciary relationships with children. Both power and trust facilitate the possibility of abuse and the preservation of its secrecy when it does occur: "[T]o child (and adult) parishioners, clergy are inherently powerful, trustworthy, and free by definition of mortal vice in much the same way as is God" (Bottoms et al. 1995, p. 90).

Problems of Definition

Although defining child abuse by clergy might seem to be an easy task, a number of issues have emerged in the process of the definition of the problem. Described as "pedophilia," the problem has been limited by definition to one involving young children. Yet the diversity of circumstances challenges this simplistic description. Very young boys and girls have been abused, as have teenage males and females ( Jenkins 1996, p. 79).

One of the most troubling definitional issues has arisen in the conflation of "homosexuality" with the abusive behavior of priests and other clergy against children. A proclivity to engage in sexual intercourse or other sexual acts with children of the same sex is not homosexuality and has nothing to do with gay or lesbian identity or orientation. Yet the crisis of abuse of children by the clergy has been used as a launchpad for antigay and antilesbian crusades.

The Response of the Church

Although the church has gradually acknowledged the need to respond to the crisis in its midst, it has been slow to do so. "The poor response of the Roman Catholic elite to the sexual abuse crisis made the process of dealing with the scandal even harder for Catholic believers" (Nason-Clark 1998). The response of the church elite in the case of the abuse of aboriginal children in residential schools in Canada has been especially problematic. Denial of both incidence and harm has resulted in the alienation of Native Americans from the Christian church, and further, in the inscription of "messages of pathology over the texts of Christian forbearance, sacrifice, and self-discipline (Fiske 1999). Debate continues to rage over whether the appropriate response to abusive priests is to ban them from ministry completely, or to limit their contact with children while allowing them to continue to perform their clerical functions.

The Impact on Faith

What impact has the abuse had? Capps (1992, 1995) discusses the possible negative effects of physical and emotional abuse of children in the context of the church. These effects include adult disassociation manifested by withdrawal of feeling and lack of confidence. We do not yet have a full picture of the effects of child abuse, however.

At the level of the church congregation, parishioners of abusive clergy have understandably felt hurt, betrayed, and angry. Parents have been devastated by the thought that a person they viewed as called by God, with whom they have trusted their children, is capable of such treachery. Nancy Nason-Clark and Anne Stapleton have explored the impact of the scandal of clerical abuse of children on Roman Catholic women in Newfoundland. Some women left the church completely, some left for a time, and others continued to participate in Mass and other church activities, arguing that it was individual clergy, rather than the church or God, who were to blame.

Clerics' abuse of children raises important issues about faith and authority. At a broader level it forces us to ask questions about social institutions and abuse of power. Abuse of children takes place within families, in schools, in sports, and in other recreational groups. However, it is viewed as especially heinous when it takes place in a religious context.

See alsoCelibacy; Chastity; Clergy; Mainline Protestantism; Priesthood; Roman Catholicism.


Bottoms, Bette L., Phillip Shaver, Gail S. Goodman, and Jianjian Qin. "In the Name of God: A Profile of Religion-Related Child Abuse." Journal of SocialIssues 51, no. 2 (1995): 85–111.

Burkett, Elinor, and Frank Bruni. A Gospel of Shame:Children, Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church. 1993.

Capps, Donald. The Child's Song: The Religious Abuse ofChildren. 1995.

Capps, Donald. "Religion and Child Abuse: Perfect Together." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 31, no. 1 (1992): 1–14.

Fiske, Jo-Anne. "Ordered Lives and Disordered Souls: Pathologizing Female Bodies of the Colonial Frontier." In Perspectives on Deviance: The Construction ofDeviance in Everyday Life. 1999.

Jenkins, Philip. "Clergy Sexual Abuse: The Symbolic Politics of a Social Problem." In Images of Issues: Typifying Contemporary Social Problems, edited by Joel Best. 1995.

Jenkins, Philip. Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis. 1996.

Nason-Clark, Nancy. "The Impact of Abuses of Clergy Trust on Female Congregants' Faith and Practice." In Wolves Within the Fold: Religious Leadership andAbuses of Power, edited by Anson Shupe. 1998.

Shupe, Anson. In the Name of All That's Holy: A Theoryof Clergy Malfeasance. 1995.

Lori Beaman