Adult Clergy Sexual Abuse

Adult Clergy Sexual Abuse occurs when a religious leader engages in sexual contact (hands on OR hands off) with an adult congregant or any vulnerable person. Clergy sexual abuse occurs when a religious professional (pastor, priest, or clergy member, ordained minister, deacon, elder, worship leader, or Sunday school teacher) uses their position of authority and power to gain access to, and trust of, an individual in their care for the purpose of having a sexual “relationship”. Clergy abuse often occurs in a pastoral setting where the religious professional is sought for employment, religious care, counselling, instruction, direction, or mentoring. Clergy sexual abuse occurs when any one of these sacred relationships is sexualized, trust is betrayed, and the victim is sexually exploited. This type of abuse usually involves the offending pastor using his/her authority and power to manipulate the victim to “consent” to the conduct. The physical, spiritual, and emotional damages of this type of abuse are profound. Survivors oftentimes take a lifetime to process and heal from such trauma.


Fortunately, in a growing number of states, this type of abusive conduct by religious leaders is a crime.[1] Furthermore, in many states the victims of such abuse have an option to file a civil lawsuit against both the offending religious leader and the institution that is responsible for failing to properly supervise the leader and/or hiring or retaining a leader that they knew or should have known perpetrated this type of abuse.


Adult clergy sexual abuse is much more prevalent than most people realize. One denomination released a study that stated that sexual abuse/harassment was more likely to occur inside the church than in the workplace and that clergy members exploited congregants at twice the rate as secular counselors.[ One of the challenges with adult clergy sexual abuse is that many people still don’t recognize this conduct as abuse and still consider it to be simply an “affair”, whereby they oftentimes blame the victim for “destroying his (or her) ministry”. As a result, all too often victims remain silent while the offending leader moves on to find and abuse others.


Research and practice have demonstrated the consequential reality of re-victimization when reported victims are required to tell their story, even under the most favorable of circumstances. Regrettably, the institutional response to a disclosure of clergy sexual abuse is often more destructive to the abuse survivor than the actual abuse itself. The unthinkable reality is that survivors of clergy sexual abuse will be impacted personally and spiritually for the rest of their lives. In describing this type of abuse, one expert wrote:


“Adult victims of sexual exploitation by clergy often don’t see themselves as victims. Without wider public awareness of the extent and impacts of this form of sexual violence, adults who have been sexually victimized by a beloved priest, pastor, minister, rabbi, or other clergy will remain the “silent majority” of clergy sexual abuse victims, suffering in their shame and self-isolation.”


This highlights the importance of having a sexual abuse attorney who understands how spiritual authority and power key components of clergy sexual abuse and the unique cultural dynamics within faith communities that so often silences and vilifies victims, while coming to the support of clergy offenders.


Holding the Institution Accountable


Victims of adult clergy sexual abuse should consider holding the institution who employed and enabled the offender to perpetrate the abuse responsible in a civil court of law. Oftentimes, abuse survivors spend years and lots of money seeking professional help as part of their healing journey. The survivor should not have to pay for that out of their own pockets. Holding the responsible institution civilly liable can oftentimes provide abuse survivors with the much-needed financial resources to receive professional help.


I have been working with and representing survivors of adult clergy sexual abuse for many years and have the experience and knowledge of navigating these types of cases in various types of faith communities and cultures. At Boz Law, PA we are prepared and committed to use our experience and knowledge to advocate on your behalf and do what we can to hold the offender and employing institution legally accountable.


Schedule your consultation today.


[1] For example, in Texas consent is not at issue when it involves a clergy member and a congregant.

[2] Diana Garland, When Wolves Wear Shepherds’ Clothing: Helping Women Survive Clergy Sexual Abuse, 2006.

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