Over the past year, the Catholic Church has taken several steps to publicly address the tragedy of institutionalized clerical abuse. From the announcement of the Catholic Church’s intention to create rules to protect adults from clerical abuse to the Vatican’s decision to discipline a Polish Archbishop for failing to take action after learning of allegations of sexual misconduct by priests under his supervision, the church hierarchy appears to be moving towards a new approach to the problem of clerical abuse. While, as a society, we’ve come to understand the extent to which clerical abuse alters lives, it remains up to the impacted individual to determine how to address the situation. Some choose to simply move on, putting the past definitively behind them. Others opt to report the abuse to the authorities or to pursue a civil case against the perpetrator with the assistance of a clergy abuse attorney. Clerical abuse remains a complex and difficult issue that raises many uncomfortable questions for both directly impacted individuals and society at large — in response, this post provides fundamental information for those seeking basic details regarding the definition and consequences of clerical abuse. 

What is clerical abuse?

Clerical sexual abuse fundamentally involves the inappropriate use of power by church officials such as priests, deacons and archdeacons. It’s most often committed against children, but evidence has emerged indicating that many adults have been subjected to similar conduct by clergy members. Clerical abuse can involve a variety of activities, including inappropriate touching or unwanted intercourse. Involving children in age-inappropriate conversations or asking suggestive questions are other frequently reported activities that also qualify as abuse. 

How does clerical abuse typically impact victims?

Clerical abuse has been shown to have several devastating consequences for victims, from depression to life-long difficulty forming trusting relationships. Many victims, particularly those who were abused during childhood, struggle with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression — conditions often made worse by the reluctance of loved ones to believe children who report problematic events. Several studies have indicated that clerical abuse victims tend to have difficulty forming long-lasting relationships due to an inability to trust others. And many also experience deep feelings of isolation, feeling as if no one could possibly understand what they’ve been through — an idea made even more damaging by a sense of shame that often silences victims. Other studies indicate that clerical abuse victims often employ unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drug and alcohol use to minimize the impact of overwhelming emotions. 

Clerical abuse has the potential to fundamentally alter the course of a person’s life. Having one’s trust violated by a trusted individual associated with a religious institution often results in lifelong struggles to come to terms with what occurred. For those struggling with how to take the first step towards healing, speaking with a clergy abuse attorney is often a smart first step.