Priests, pastors, and other religious leaders are expected to be the congregation’s guardians. They are automatically accorded respect and moral authority, and are expected to conduct themselves in a manner befitting their station.
Therefore, reports of sexual abuse perpetuated by clerics are especially harrowing – more so if the victims are children, teens, and vulnerable people.
The first reports of sexual abuse in churches in English-speaking countries surfaced in the late 1980s. These reports were based on testimonies given by adults who alleged that they were sexually abused by priests or other members of the religious community, when they were children.
Similar reports continued well into the 1990s, which culminated in 2002’s Boston Scandal. A landmark investigation by The Boston Globe, the “scandal” yielded 800 stories springing from the testimonies of multiple individuals accusing priests from the diocese of Boston of committing sexual abuse.
The public was outraged, especially after it was revealed that church officials actively chose to cover up the sexual misconduct and molestation cases instead of bringing the perpetrators to justice.
More than 18,000 men and women have come forward as victims of sexual abuse in the United States, according to Bishop.Accountability.org, and 6,721 priests, clergy, and other church workers have been exposed as abusers. However, only a scant number have been convicted for their crimes, with the majority of the suspects either simply shuffled off to other dioceses or defrocked so they could return to being private citizens.
Here’s everything else that you should know about sexual abuse in churches:
Sexual abuse occurs across in many religious organizations
While some of the more notable cases of sexual abuse in churches involved members of the Roman Catholic clergy, sexual abuse occurs in other religious organizations.
- Southern Baptist Church
- United Methodist Church
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
- Jehovah’s Witness
- The Church of Scientology
Much like the cases that involve Roman Catholic clergy, most of the abuses reported at these other churches have been routinely silenced and covered up, all to preserve the churches’ reputations.
Sexual abuse leaves lasting scars on its victims
Sexual abuse can have a profoundly devastating effect on its victims, especially when the abuse happens on a child, and perpetrated by a trusted person such as a religious leader or church elder.
Effects that sexual abuse can have on its victims are:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Sleep issues
- Elevated blood pressure
- Deviant sexual behavior
- Sexually transmitted infections
Moreover, because churches and religious congregations often teach their members about the importance of values such as purity and chastity, many victims of sexual abuse often feel guilty and confused about their ordeal, which can further complicate their trauma.
What are the signs of sexual abuse in children?
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), sexual abuse may not always be easy to spot in children and young people, especially if abusers go to great lengths to conceal their actions.
However, there are some signs that point to possible sexual abuse that parents and guardians should be on the lookout for.
These signs include the following:
- A fixation with bathing or changing clothes
- Fear of being left alone with certain people
- Thumb sucking, bedwetting, and other regressive behaviors
- Changes in eating and sleeping habits
- Mood swings and increased aggression
- Loss of interest in friends, school, and hobbies
- Self-harming behavior
- Sexual behavior or awareness that is unusual for the child’s age
Other signs include marks of physical trauma on the child’s genital area, unexplained bleeding, bruising, or blood on their bed sheets, underwear, or other articles of clothing.
What should I do if my child is a victim of sexual abuse?
If your child is a victim of sexual abuse:
- First and foremost, comfort and reassure your child that none of what happened was their fault.
- Call services such as the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673), or the Childhelp National Abuse Hotline at 800.4.A.CHILD(4454). Both lines are open 24/7 and can help you through the process of reporting the crime.
- If you are planning on pursuing legal action, you can ask San Diego-based law firm Hogue & Belong and our team of top sexual harassment lawyers for help.