Sexual Traumatization by Priests: What Is the Effect on Spirituality. (Religion)

By Van Wormer, Katherine; Berns, Lois | USA TODAY, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Sexual Traumatization by Priests: What Is the Effect on Spirituality. (Religion)


Van Wormer, Katherine, Berns, Lois, USA TODAY


MORE THAN 175 U.S. priests suspected of molesting minors have either resigned or been dismissed from duty since the clerical sex scandal erupted in January, 2002. The numbers will continue to mount.

What does the experience of molestation by a "man of God," a priest, do to one's spirituality? We know from the opinion polls that, en masse, the effects of the Church scandal have been catastrophic, that many Catholics have lost faith in the priesthood and especially in the Church hierarchy for its near-universal failure to deal with the situation. Consider the headlines: "Catholics in Crisis" (U.S. News & World Report); "Sex Scandals Rock Trust in All Religions" (USA Today); "The State of the Church" (Time); "How Abuse Scandals Are Playing in Catholic Pews" (Christian Science Monitor).

How about the individual victim's response? What does the experience of "sanctuary molestation" do to his or her religious faith? To find answers to this question, we have some revealing interviews obtained by one of this article's coauthors [Berns], herself a survivor, who attended a conference for victim/survivors of clergy sexual misconduct in 1997 and 1998 in addition to educational workshops on the subject. A few years later, she conducted face-to-face, ethnographic interviews with eight subjects and a telephone interview with a ninth woman who was otherwise unavailable. All the women in the study were white, Roman Catholic from birth; all had been sexually exploited/abused by a Catholic priest, some in childhood; and all had lived in a cloak of secrecy and experienced disapproval by the institutional Church. All found that their faith in God was shattered. An unexpected finding was that all had lost their fathers early in life or were estranged from them.

Take Maria (not her real name), who compares her victimization by her stepfather with that by her priest: "I know what it's like to be a victim in a church and outside a church. It is different. When it's done in a church [by a representative of the church] it holds even more power over you--if you can believe that--more power over you than my stepfather. As horrific as my abuse was at the hands of my stepfather, it never compared to what I had to go through with [Father]. That is saying a lot because it was horrific what happened with my stepfather but with [Father] I had to piece together my soul. The inner core of my being was not shattered by my stepfather as it was with [Father]. It was split into parts at times, but it was not shattered ... you are not only raped physically and emotionally, but when someone messes with your spirituality, you are in for a whole lot of problems."

These women who were exploited/abused by priests were highly religious and church-involved. Their very religiosity, paradoxically, enhanced their vulnerability. Having been heavily active in church affairs and rituals, they were in closer proximity to the pastor than were women who had a more-carefree attitude toward the Church. Perhaps their very neediness at this point played into the scenario as well.

When asked to describe how their families practiced their faith or how their families related to the Catholic Church, they responded with statements such as: "The Church was important"; "We had a strong Catholic background. We attended Catholic school"; "The sacraments were important, especially the Eucharist"; and "I never really thought of it as a religion. It was more a way of life." Without exception, the victims came from backgrounds that took Catholicism seriously.

So, the spiritual damage to a woman's sense of self by her being sexually abused/exploited by a priest, a "God-like" person who occupies a position of sacred trust, is enormous. The respondents not only felt violated, but experienced a great sense of loss because their source of spiritual support that had been invested in this person and his church was rudely swept away. Several commented that clergy sexual abuse is worse than other forms in this regard. …

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