Priests, Pastors & Preachers Who Prey on Their ParishionersClore Law ·
When people struggle with their faith, it is commonly said that we should pray for them. Over the past few decades, a tragic truth that underlies why many people struggle with their faith has emerged in courts throughout the world: betrayal by priests, pastors or preachers who preyed on parishioners instead of having prayed for them.
Sexual abuse of women and children by priests, preachers and pastors is of epidemic proportion. The Catholic church has received the most notoriety for complicit clergy, including with movies like “Spotlight," and “[r]esearch suggests that the sexual abuse of children is a problem for the church everywhere.” It has even been said that “[t]he only unaffected continent is Antarctica.”
Yet, the saga of sexual abuse knows no religious or denominational boundaries. In fact, this epidemic has been documented extensively as occurring in virtually all religious communities, in the form of non-fiction books, academic and religious articles, and in legal, media, and secular sources.
Churches and Religious Organization Involvement
Churches, church institutions, and church-related activities should safe for members and their families. Church schools, camps, trips, counseling, and other functions are anything but safe when a sexual predator is allowed to have unsupervised access or interaction with children or the vulnerable. The majority of sexual abuse victims in these settings know and trust their offender, which makes the offense even more destructive and harmful.
A review of literature, media, and cases on the subject of sexual abuse by clergy reveals a number of characteristics responsible for or involved in these situations, such as:
- Failing to educate and train church members and others about sexual boundaries with clergy and clerical workers.
- Inadequate policies or protocol, or enforcement of policies or protocol, to prevent sexual abuse.
- Insufficient vetting or background investigations of priests, preachers and pastors.
- Improper supervision of priests, preachers and pastors, including permitting them to be alone with children or vulnerable church members.
- Enablement of the pedophile or predator cleric/clergy, often by reassignment or relocation far away once the abuse is suspected.
- Incomplete investigation of suspected sexual abuse, or investigation that seeks to conceal sexual abuse for legal liability reasons.
- Minimizing or excusing the actions of the clergy/clerical worker, under the guise of not judging, or on the pretext of his or her redemption.
- Denying responsibility for the clergy/clerical worker, on the basis that there was a lack of an employment or legal relationship.
- Ignoring obligations or state laws to report child sexual abuse.
- Blaming the victim in an attempt to protect the clerical worker or clergy.
What Constitutes Clergy Sexual Abuse?
We often hear from the media allegations of clergy sexual involvement with parishioners or teens in the context of an “affair.” In truth, this is clergy sexual abuse, which encompasses sexual behavior or activity between clergy and any parishioner, not just those who are underage. Different religious organizations and institutions assign varying definitions to clergy sexual abuse, and some are short or not entirely clear whereas others are much longer and detailed. For instance, clergy sexual abuse has been defined, in part, as:
“Clergy sexual abuse is the term we use to describe a wide range of behaviors and activities that are sexually explicit, physically intimate or suggestive, or sexually charged. These may include sexual intercourse, other genital sexual activity, other physical contact that is sexual in nature, sexual language, suggestions, confessions, looking at sexually explicit or suggestive material, and other behaviors that carry sexualized energy and intention. Clergy sexual abuse is sexual activity and/or contact between pastors and parishioners, or between clergy and those individuals who look to them for pastoral leadership and care. Even those behaviors which seem relatively innocuous may be extremely harmful to certain individuals, thus all sexualized activity is off-limits because it is impossible for the pastor to know in advance what the implications of that behavior may be for any given parishioner.”
Prevention of Sexual Abuse
Over the past two decades, as untold numbers of clergy sexual abuse cases have been revealed, many religious organizations have instituted sexual abuse prevention education for their members and families. Typically, these prevention booklets and presentations focus on the need for clear boundaries between clergy/clerical workers and members and children. The educational resources usually clarify matters such as the single clergy member, dating a member of the clergy, responsibility for setting and keeping sexual boundaries (which is always the clergy’s responsibility), discipline, and safeguards, etc.
When churches or religious communities fail to provide such education to members and their families, boundaries may be blurred for both clergy and parishioner. By the same token, without clearly defined policies, procedures and protocol concerning interactions with children, there is significant potential for child sexual abuse. Various religious institutions look at this situation similar to a secular one. Policies setting forth acceptable as opposed to unacceptable contact and care should exist for child day care facilities, schools, and other institutions caring for young children. For example, even a young child can and should be taught, within the limits of his or her capabilities to understand, personal safety topics such as “good or nurturing versus bad or harmful” touching. These types of policies and procedures should also set forth when and where adult interaction can and cannot occur alone or unsupervised. Moreover, religious communities and institutions have an obligation to ensure that before adults are allowed to interact or interface with children, that they are screened to determine if they are in fact suitable to do so.
Screening typically involves interviewing and learning the clergy or clerical worker’s desires, goals, behaviors and eagerness to interact with children. This is very important since many child molesters are known to attempt to “groom” their victims, e.g. steps such as luring or targeting a specific child, attempting to gain his or her trust, filling that child’s perceived needs (such as with gifts, extra attention, or affection, etc.), isolating the child, sexualizing the relationship, and maintaining control. There are various resources available to assist churches and institutions in this type of screening of clergy/clerics, including child psychologists, psychiatrists and others such as youth-serving organizations affiliated with national organizations.
In addition to conducting interviews and screening for these matters, religious organizations also have an obligation to conduct proper background or criminal investigations and vetting of clergy and clerical workers before they are hired or permitted to function in their roles with parishioners and their families, especially before they are around children.
Investigation & Reporting of Sexual Abuse
When a clergy member or clerical worker has been reported or is suspected of sexual abuse, the religious organization or institution has a duty to investigate, for the sake of the parishioner or child as well as the clergy/cleric. Usually the procedure for starting the investigation, and how and by whom it should be conducted, is set forth in the religious entity’s charter, bylaws, or organizational publications. When an investigation of child abuse begins, for instance, the clergy or clerical worker suspect should be kept from having any isolated, unattended, or unsupervised contact or interaction with any child, in any setting that the church controls, sponsors, endorses, or with which it is affiliated, etc. In short, in this situation the church is on notice that the accusations may possibly have validity and that it should err on the side of caution. Surprisingly, however, some churches may fail to follow this prudent practice, creating the risk that another or other incidents may occur before the investigation is concluded.
Additionally, some states require clergy to report child sex abuse but others do not. Most states have broad laws that call for anyone learning of child abuse to report it, and they also have categories of “mandatory” reporters—people who must report child abuse and who can be prosecuted criminally if they do not. While more than half of U.S. states have laws that make clergy mandatory reporters, a number of states do not. Where child sexual abuse does not have to be reported by clergy, it goes without saying that it is easier for it to be covered up or concealed. Because of these circumstances, there have been numerous reported cases where the religious victimizer is reassigned or relocated by a church, or even flees to another state (or worse another country) before he or she can be apprehended and prosecuted criminally. If the predator reaches a country without extradition treaties or agreements in effect with the U.S., then he or she may forever escape any criminal prosecution.
Accountability for Sexual Abuse
No one should suffer the nightmare of sexual abuse or sexual assault. There have been far too many cases of lost childhoods and ruined adulthoods from the heinous nature of such abuse. Mental health studies have revealed that when child sexual abuse occurs within religious relationships, such as between a religious leader and a child, the effects are often worse throughout the child’s life and into his or her adulthood. Many decades later, the abuse can have profound and damaging consequences on the psyche of victims, as well as destructive effects on their relationships. Although church leaders and even the predator might pray to be forgiven, forgiveness should never include the survivor foregoing justice.
Sometimes victims of sexual abuse may still belong to the same church or religious organization as where they were victimized, and they fear becoming a pariah if they pursue a civil case for money damages against the church or religious entity. They may not know that in many or most states and courts there is a provision for the victim’s lawyer to sue by using only the victim’s initials or even a fictional “Jon Doe” status, so as to completely maintain their anonymity. By the same token, some victims feel that it must be too late to sue for such events that happened when they were a child, without ever realizing that many states extend the statute of limitations, i.e. the time for adults to sue when they were victims of sexual abuse as a child.
The Lawyer’s Role
The lawyer who is experienced in handling sexual abuse cases, including against religious organizations and clergy or clerical workers, will know and understand the important literature, laws, and information on this subject. He or she will be able to work with qualified clergy and other expert witnesses to determine the institutional failures that allowed sexual abuse of child or woman to occur, how it could and should have been prevented, and how to prove it.
The attorneys at Clore Law Group have experience and expertise with civil prosecution of sexual abuse cases, including those involving religious organizations, to a successful resolution. We have handled such cases in different states, and against various organizations. If someone you know may have experienced a tragic situation like this, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call us Toll-Free at 1-800-610-2546 for a free and confidential consultation.
See, e.g., https://www.pulitzer.org/winners/boston-globe-1.
Paulson M, “World doesn’t share US view of scandal: Clergy sexual abuse reaches far, receives an uneven focus,” The Boston Globe (4/8/2002).
See Evinger JS, “Annotated Bibliography of Clergy Sexual Abuse and Sexual Boundary Violations in Religious Communities,” (Nov. 12, 2018, 33rd rev.), at: https://www.faithtrustinstitute.org/resources/learn-the-basics/ce-faqs.
Povich ES, “Is the Clergy Required to Support Child Sex Abuse? Not in Some States,” Stateline (Jan 24, 2019): http://www.governing.com/topics/public-justice-safety/sl-clergy-sex-abuse-reporting-states.html.
Erickson-Pearson J, “Safe Connections: What Parishioners Can Do to Understand and Prevent Clergy Sexual Abuse,” A Resource for Members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (2005), accessible at: http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Safe_Connections.pdf.
Karageorge K, Kendall R, “The Role of Professional Child Care Providers in Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse and Neglect,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, Children’s Bureau, Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, p. 57 (2008).
Welner M, “Child Sexual Abuse: 6 Stages of Grooming,” (10/18/2000), accessible at: http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/child-sexual-abuse-6-stages-of-grooming/all. See also Spraitz J, Bowen KN, et al, “Proposing a Behavioral Taxonomy of Priest Sexual Grooming,” International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy," Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 30‐43. (2018).
See fn7, above. In South Carolina “a member of the clergy including a Christian Science Practitioner or religious healer…must report when in the person’s professional capacity the person has received information which gives the person reason to believe that a child has been or may be neglected.” SC Code § 63-7-310 (2012). But there is an exception when the clergy member obtains information about the alleged incident in the form of privileged information within the context of the Clergy-Penitent relationship—which does not have to be reported–meaning any confidential communication properly entrusted to him in his professional capacity and necessary and proper to enable him to discharge the functions of his office according to the usual course of practice or discipline of his church or religious body.” Id. at §§ 63-7-420, 19-11-90.
Shea DJ, “Effects of Sexual Abuse by Catholic Priests on Adults Victimized as Children,” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, The Journal of Treatment and Prevention, Vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 250-68 (July 2008).
In South Carolina, for example, the statute of limitations deadline to be able to sue for sexual abuse is “six years after the person becomes twenty-one years of age or within three years from the time of discovery by the person of the injury and the causal relationship between the injury and the sexual abuse…whichever occurs later.” SC Code § 15-3-555 (2001).