This next section presents research evidence about a specific context for sexual abuse in which men are more likely to be victimised than females. As stated in the Prevalence and characteristics module, two major research studies have demonstrated that males represent three quarters of those who are sexually victimised by faith based personnel.

In terms of effects, research has shown that there are a range of factors associated with this abuse that are important to understand. Religion is a belief system that shapes understandings of the self and of the world, and suggests an ordering of relations between people and the world. Clergy are not just doing a job but can be seen as God's representatives on earth. Clergy abuse, like other forms of abuse can therefore have a profound impact on people's understanding of self and the world, and on their life possibilities. The sense of betrayal that often accompanies clergy abuse can produce an overwhelming fracturing of 'trust' and 'belief'. Like all sexual abuse, clergy abuse involves an abuse of power. This power is amplified when people are encouraged to have faith or trust wholeheartedly and unquestioningly.

Religious beliefs around sex, sexuality and 'homosexuality' can also make it more difficult to speak about sexual abuse or sexual assault. Another factor which complicates the process of recovery can be that a number of religions emphasise the spiritual importance of forgiveness for a person to find peace and acceptance in their life. This may compound the complexity of the recovery process. Recent research by Easton, Leone-Sheehan, and O'Leary (2016) on male survivors of clergy perpetrated sexual abuse showed negative impacts various aspects of survivor self-identity: total self, psychological self, relational self, gendered self, aspirational self, and spiritual self. Easton et al. (2016) emphasise the importance of practitioners working with survivors to recognise the interconnected nature of the various domains of self-identity and incorporate a holistic approach to treatment. They suggest helping clients articulate and embrace their authentic self should be included as an intervention goal:

“Although helping a client rediscover, recover, or redefine their global self-identity represents a formidable clinical challenge, a strategy to promote healing could include the interpretation, integration, and creation of meaning from the abuse experience.” (p.18)

Several researchers and authors over the past two decades have discussed the similar factors associated with abuse by faith based personnel:

  • Devastated spirituality, the majority of victims leave the church altogether (McLaughlin, 1994).
  • Spiritual damage and a need to address this (Rossetti, 1995).
  • Unique trauma characteristics – God as silencing strategy, PTSD of limited use as trauma is complex, heightened potential for re-victimisation by institutions (Farrell, 2000).
  • Damage to core values and expectations of trust, honesty, accountability and safety in everyday life, and especially in institutions (Gross-Schaefer et al., 2001).
  • Pressure to remain silent for God and good of Church. Unique and powerful betrayal by Church and therefore distrust of institutions (Gavrielides & Coker, 2005).
  • Unique betrayal and not only a violation of physical, psychological, and emotional wellbeing, but also a violation of one's faith (Guido, 2008).
  • Abuser embodied God who is "good and right", but who does something not "good or right" – resulting in "crazymaking" antithetical impacts of double messages leading to an "inability to think straight", "stigmatisation and contamination" – branded as evil, trust and relationship alteration, shattering and violation of sense of personal safety – re-victimisation by denial and lack of belief of disclosures – "angry congregations... angry friends and family members... scared to death... as I had felt the church was a safe place"; victim to the whole institutional system of the church and how they reacted to it (Flynn, 2008, p. 226-232).
  • "A child who is abused by an adult identified as a representative of God feels like he is being abused or abandoned by God" (Lew, 2004, p. 287).
  • Difficulty in knowing that the sexual contact was abusive and not their fault, due to sexual naivety in context of Christian upbringing, compliance with portrayal that they were responsible, acute disturbances in psychosocial functioning, intense fear that others would find out in the church and family and need to "guard the secret", difficulty remembering portions of events, and some unable to remember entire periods of their childhood (especially for boys abused by multiple perpetrators) as well as intrusive memories, dissociation, fear of remembering or thinking about the abuse, low self-esteem and self worth, fears they were somehow attracting men and questions about their sexual identity, profound changes in capacity to trust leading to isolation and detachment from others, shame guilt and anger, self-defeating ways of functioning, suicidal ideation, poor sleep, mood disturbance, negative experiences of disclosure to church, increasing their distrust (Isley et al., 2008).
  • Enabling aspect of religious conditioning through a toxic spirituality, and re-traumatisation of victims through "cover-up" responses and expectation for victims to "put it behind you" (Doyle, 2009).

Isley et al. (2008, p. 210), in his qualitative research with male victims of clergy perpetrated CSA, presented findings which clarified the ways that God was used as a silencing strategy as part of "sophisticated and effective manipulation by perpetrators":

“Being told they were dirty or evil, they invited or caused the perpetrator to have sex with them, they would not be believed by others, they would be punished for what they did, they would be taken from their home, they deserved to be abused, they were ‘chosen’ over others to receive either the abusers or God’s ‘love’, they would show love of God by not telling, or they would be hurt if they told.

“Since the priest-perpetrator is seen as a representative of God and a highly revered and respected person in the community, victims are often coerced into believing that being sexually abused is their expected role and the way religion is expressed through them.

“A dread of impending punishment from God or others can keep victims alienated from religion but also from themselves and loved ones” (Isley et al., 2008, p. 210-211).

These points demonstrate compelling reasons why victims do not disclose the abuse. For men in particular, the message from within the church was that homosexual acts are a sin, or an unspeakable evil, yet these acts were committed by the priest who represented God and the church. Through the abuse, victims were often exposed to this very harmful 'crazymaking' double message. The labelling of the homosexual act as a sin by the church also compounded the message that victims were 'contaminated' by evil. 'Contamination' due to 'sexual sin' was reported not only by male victims, but also for women as one of the factors in the trauma experienced by those sexually abused by clergy (Flynn, 2008).

In his analysis of research, Farrell (2000, p. 22) found that "sexual abuse by clergy is different rather than worse" and that "child sexual abuse by clergy appears to create in its victims unique trauma characteristics distinct from other types of abuse". According to Farrell (2000, p. 22), the key factors (in no particular order of significance) which make it unique include:

  • Clerical perpetrators often use God as a silencing strategy.
  • The shattering of survivor beliefs create significant theological, spiritual and existential conflict.
  • Within a legal perspective, the offence incorporates civil, criminal and canon law.
  • Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is of limited use in dealing with survivors.
  • Survivors' experiences have highlighted how the actions of church establishments have heightened potential to re-traumatise survivors  (Farrell, 2000, p. 22).

Farrell's (2000) point that a PTSD diagnosis is of limited use when dealing with survivors of CSA by clergy is congruent with the findings of broader CSA research which suggests that 'complex' trauma offers a more fitting diagnosis and understanding of the impacts of CSA (Briere & Scott, 2006; Foster et al., 2012).

According to research by Fater and Mullaney (2000), the impacts of clergy abuse reported by males were:

  • Perceiving themselves as different, vulnerable sometimes in relation to the person who perpetrated the abuse's charisma.
  • Plagued by vivid multi-sensed memories.
  • Experiencing a need to please.
  • Feeling guilty and ashamed.
  • Fearful of the consequences both to his family and to the person who committed the abuse, if they speak out.
  • Feeling responsible that they participated in the secrecy that can cover up and allow abuse to continue.
  • Men report being angry at the Church's seeming inability or deliberate refusal to identify and remedy its problem. For some, engagement with the Church with its inherent power structures reproduce feelings of powerlessness and victimisation.
  • Feeling overwhelmed by emotions.
  • Feeling intense anger, both inwardly directed, often associated with suicidal ideation, depression, and feeling overwhelmed and outwardly directed, alienating or altering life's relationships (work-love-play).
  • Some men decide to completely break with the Church.
  • Although emotional confusion can temporarily affect men's abilities to set present and future goals, men do report feeling enhanced strength and hopefulness. Often this strength and energy becomes expressed through a concern for others.

Another unique aspect of the context of sexual abuse by personnel in faith based institutions is that often these institutions offer complaint procedures and/or redress procedures. This means that men who have experienced abuse, either historically or in recent times, may lodge a written complaint with the church or religious authority, seeking for the facts of the matter to be adjudicated, and various forms of redress may be negotiated. Unfortunately there is little published research about the needs and experiences of those who use such procedures. Further information can be obtained from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. This report contains relevant information about the cases reported in submissions.

Section summary

Research literature demonstrates that there are unique issues associated with abuse by faith based personnel. This includes the use of 'God', the status of clergy, and religious conditioning as part of silencing strategies, profound double messages regarding the 'sin of homosexuality', and complexities associated with 'spiritual trauma'. Men commonly report that, additional to the common effects of sexual abuse, they often feel a sense of identity loss or questioning. Given that men make up more than three-quarters of those victimised sexually in faith based institutions, it is important that practitioners have knowledge of the effects when assisting men to deal with them.

External resources

Australian Royal Comission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

The Royal Commission held a public hearing in Sydney from Monday 6 to Friday 24 February 2017.The public hearing inquired into the current policies and procedures of Catholic Church authorities in Australia in relation to child protection and child-safe standards, including responding to allegations of child sexual abuse.

The Royal Commission held a public hearing in Sydney from Friday 17 to Wednesday 22 March 2017. The public hearing inquired into the current policies and procedures of Anglican Church authorities in Australia in relation to child protection and child-safe standards, including responding to allegations of child sexual abuse.

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – Anglican Church case

The Anglican Church is under the spotlight over child sexual abuse (2:06 minutes).

Unholy Silence – ABC Documentary about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Australia

External link: 4corners — Unholy Silence

The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (Ireland)

The Irish Commission was established on 23 May, 2000 to hear evidence from persons who allege they suffered abuse in childhood, in institutions, during the period from 1940 or earlier, to the present day. The report was published in 2009.

Chapter 7: Record of abuse (male witnesses). See section 7.109 which summarises the evidence provided by witnesses of sexual abuse. Please take care reading this as it contains content which may be triggering.

Fater K., & Mullaney, J.A. (2000). The lived experience of men who allege sexual abuse by clergy. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 21(3), 281-295. doi: 10.1080/016128400248095

This study describes the essential structure of the lived experience of adult male survivors of childhood sexual abuse by clergy. Read more.

Question Mark

Questions for reflection

  1. What additional particular difficulties can men and their families face when sexually abused by a member of the clergy or faith based organisation?
  2. What additional support or referral would be useful, if the man you are working with wishes to take criminal or civil action, or report the sexual abused he experienced to the faith based institution?

Record your thoughts on this page.



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Last modified: Sunday, 29 July 2018, 12:48 PM