Childhood sexual abuse occurs in religious communities and settings that are supposed to be sacred, safe spaces for everyone. This widespread problem has affected various faith-based groups and denominations far and wide. In recent decades, investigations have uncovered decades of abuse and coverups, and survivors have come forward to share their stories and name those who violated them.
Below, we examine what clergy sexual abuse is, why it happens, and some religious organizations that have faced scandals. If you or a loved one has endured such abuse at the hands of a trusted church official or anyone affiliated with a faith-based organization, you can explore your legal rights with a Tacoma sexual abuse lawyer.
What Is Clergy Sexual Abuse of Children?
Clergy sexual abuse occurs when religious authority leaders misuse their role or position to encourage or force individuals with less power (or no power) to engage in sexual intercourse or activity.
This abuse can include various acts, including:
- Unwanted or inappropriate touching or physical contact (e.g., fondling, molestation, sodomy, rape)
- Sending sexual images (e.g., pornography) or sexualized emails, text messages, videos, etc.
- Inappropriate sexual language, conversations, jokes
- Forcing someone to engage in sexual contact
- Asking someone personal questions about their sexual experiences
- Sexual harassment of any kind
- Other acts of a sexual nature
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Religious Institutions Investigated for Sexual Abuse Offenses for Over 20 Years
Childhood sexual abuse can happen in any religious institution. No data or evidence suggests any one religion, faith group, or denomination is more prone to having leaders or members who sexually abuse children and other vulnerable people. However, some religious institutions have been reported more than others for institutionalized child sexual abuse. Among them are:
The Catholic Church
For at least the past couple of decades, dioceses throughout the United States have been the center of investigations after priests and other clergy members were accused of sexual abuse involving minors. Several sources, including The Guardian, mark 2002 as the year the crisis began for the U.S. Catholic Church.
That year, The Boston Globe released a report highlighting abuse that took place in the Archdiocese of Boston. Since that time, countless allegations and accusations of coverups have prompted “credibly accused” lists of clerics and others who were involved in inappropriate relations with children.
In 2018, a nearly 900-page report revealed that more than 300 priests had abused minors in Pennsylvania, and in 2023, Maryland’s Attorney General released a report naming 156 Catholic clergy members who abused at least 600 children over 60 years.
As ProPublica reports, since the U.S. Catholic Church does not offer a national searchable database of credibly accused clergy, the publication created one. The interactive database uses data from “credibly accused lists” that dioceses and religious orders have released in recent years. As of 2020, when the database was last updated, 178 U.S. dioceses serving 64.7 million Catholics released lists of accused clergy. Together, the lists identified 6,770 names.
Southern Baptist Convention
Clergy and staff in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, have also faced clergy sexual abuse allegations. A joint investigation by The Houston Chronicle and The San Antonio Express-News found that nearly 400 Southern Baptist Convention leaders with formal roles within the organization had either pleaded guilty or been convicted of sexual crimes against 700-plus minors since 1998.
In 2022, Southern Baptist Convention leaders published a previously confidential list identifying pastors and other church personnel linked to sexual abuse allegations over 20 years. In a joint statement, the organization’s leaders said that it made the list public for the first time as an “an initial, but important, step towards addressing the scourge of sexual abuse and implementing reform in the Convention.”
Guidepost Solutions, an independent firm, first published the list as part of an investigative report. It alleged that SBC’s Executive Committee mishandled allegations of sexual abuse for many years, as National Public Radio (NPR) reports.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon Church)
It has been alleged that some clergy leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (known as LDS or the Mormon Church) have sexually abused children. Reports are few, however, because of the church’s approach to handling these allegations.
Reports like this one from the Associated Press (AP) say the church protects itself from claims involving child sex abuse in a few ways:
- Its clergy-penitent privilege means church clergy do not have to report predators who have confessed to them in private that they have violated children. In this 2023 case, AP reports how an Arizona judge dismissed a child sexual abuse lawsuit against the church, citing clergy-penitent privilege.
- The church uses nondisclosure agreements or confidentiality agreements to keep sex abuse claims hidden.
- AP alleges that in its investigation, it uncovered that the church monitors its Helpline for victims to counteract calls about abuse and send the most serious cases to its legal representation.
Still, reports of abuse have been documented, and there could be others that have not been reported. Also, in 2023, a jury awarded a California woman $2.28 billion in a sexual abuse lawsuit after she sued the Utah-based LDS church along with her mother and stepfather, who were active members.
She alleges she told church officials about her stepfather sexually abusing her, which started in the 1980s and lasted for nearly a decade. Still, they did not report it to law enforcement.
How Does the Abuse of Children Happen in Religious Institutions?
While many religious organizations know they must keep children and young people safe, sexual abuse still occurs in these institutions. The investigations into faith organizations revealed patterns that led to and encouraged abuse, including:
Power and Abuse of Authority
Many religious organizations follow a traditional system of having a leader or a body of leaders at the top of the hierarchy. They assume authority over their congregations or parishioners to lead, and power flows from the top leader down the chain.
This model of governing places some in more powerful positions than others. Those with the least power are at risk of bullying and could fall victim to predatory religious leaders. Despite their role and responsibility to lead, they seek to take advantage and violate those with the least power of all – children.
Some perpetrators engage in a practice known as grooming. They spend weeks, months, or years building a relationship with the child, earning their trust, before violating them sexually, as Michelle McManus explains in her commentary for The Conversation. One reason grooming happens is because those in powerful positions have access to children, as religious leaders and others in the clergy often do.
Religious institutions involved in childhood sexual abuse scandals have seemingly taken vows of secrecy to keep this crime against children under wraps.
Hiding these misdeeds has only added to the crisis. With heads turned the other way, sex offenders are emboldened to continue violating children. This only adds to the physical and psychological harm survivors endure.
As the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) explains, sexual violence affects survivors physically, psychologically, and emotionally in many ways, including the following:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Difficulty building relationships and trusting others
- Self-harm, suicide, and suicide attempts
- Panic attacks
- Sleep disturbances (insomnia)
Reports of Abuse Dismissed or Ignored
Another reason clergy sexual abuse is widespread is because those who can and should protect children ignore those who report it. Victims often endure sexual abuse for long periods before telling someone.
In some cases, victims were ignored or silenced when they came forward to tell church leaders about the sexual offenses. Others, including parents and others within a church or diocese, were also dismissed when they expressed their concerns or observations.
Lack of Action, Refusal to Hold Leaders Accountable
Holding church officials accountable for their sexual offenses involving minors did not happen for years in many religious institutions. When no one acted, the violations only increased. Some faith-based groups harbored offenders, moving them around to other parishes or church homes when accusations surfaced. Some church denominations view sexual misconduct as a spiritual matter instead of a criminal one, so clergy members did not alert the police or other law enforcement.
Monitoring and tracking credibly accused clergy are also challenges. As noted earlier, many dioceses and religious orders in the Catholic Church have not disclosed the names of people who have committed these crimes. They also do not have a uniform reporting system to determine who stands “credibly accused.” Some do not have a system at all.
Jackman Law Firm Seeks Justice for Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors
If you or a loved one has suffered sexual abuse in a religious setting, report it, seek resources for your medical and mental health needs, and consider taking legal action. You don’t have to take this on alone; we will help you. The sexual abuse attorneys at Jackman Law Firm care about our clients’ recovery from injustice and wrongdoing. We will work to obtain your deserved financial compensation from all parties that harmed you.
We can meet with you privately to review your situation and legal options. We will take care of everything and develop a legal strategy that addresses your case’s unique needs while you heal. We believe in holding perpetrators of child sexual abuse in religious institutions accountable. Call us today for a free consultation to get started.