Abusive Clergy: The Aftermath 

Based on my own experiences with an abusive clergyperson, I’ve come to a realization. That realization is that there often is little that can be done to repair the harm that results, no matter how sincere the efforts may be. Moreover, the betrayal of trust often results in cascading layers of misconduct, both within the church and among those who are not members, but are affected by the misconduct.

Underpinning this paradigm is the nature of the relationship between clergy and laity. By nature of their role, we trust clergy with our hurts, our joys, our secrets, and often the most intimate details of our lives. In addition, clergy are there with us at most of life’s milestones: birth, marriage, children, divorce, death. So they become part of the fabric of our lives.

So, when clergy engage in misconduct, they rupture an important reference point in our lives. The result is a deep sense of hurt among those affected.

It is this same paradigm of trust that often leads churches to deny that clergy misconduct has occurred, even when the evidence is overwhelming. This in turn leads to fracturing in the local church, as people turn on each other.

In some cases, people will blame the victim for disclosing the misconduct. The truth shall set you free–right up until you speak it. In these situations, where churches have not learned to deal appropriately with the allegations, conflict and unhealthy relationships can fester for years.

Another twist is that some will attempt to discredit the victim; this may even include other clergy.  This in turn leads to the feeling by family members and friends that they need to take sides. That’s understandable, but unfortunate, because with no one taking the high road, things just cascade and behavior gets worse and worse.

Fueling this is the all-too-human notion that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. People, not without reason, conclude that clergy who engage in misconduct are likely capable of additional misconduct. So particularly in environments where there’s a dearth of structured business practices and internal checks and balances, people may assume the worst. And if the clergyperson in question has played fast and loose with leave, or expenses, or their discretionary account, it is easy to see these issues in a whole new light.

Regrettably, those who have experienced clergy misconduct may suffer from anxiety, depression, PTSD, panic attacks, and suicide. Physical symptoms, including irritable bowel syndrome, sweating, and more.

Unfortunately, while these situations can and should receive medical care, counseling, and pastoral care, there’s no easy fix. Victims may suffer for the rest of their lives.

Of course, appropriate apologies are the right thing to do, and may help victims move towards healing. Fauxpologies, on the other hand, inevitably make things worse.

It’s interesting, too. Clergy, ajudicatories, and churches may be eager to move on, but victims can and will move at their own pace towards healing, and some never will. This is particularly the case if abusive clergy have enlisted the aid of allies in the church, such as staff or the vestry. If these participants in misconduct have not also attempted to make things right, conflict and pain will continue.

This paradigm illustrates another important point, which is that churches that have experienced misconduct often need professional help moving past the experience. Healthy boundaries and healthy relationships must be fostered and, in some cases, rebuilt. Ignoring misconduct simply fosters additional discord.

Meanwhile, it’s very common for those affected by misconduct to go through a period of wandering with intent. They may not attend church at all, attend rarely, or attend another parish. This is healthy and normal, and ajudicatories or caregivers can help by ensuring that victims have access to clergy who will provide pastoral care and support during this time.

In short, there’s no easy road back from clergy misconduct. The path forward is arduous, costly, and painful. But healing requires a very intentional effort and commitment on the part of all involved.

About Eric Bonetti

I'm a cradle Episcopalian, living in Northern Virginia. My interests include writing, policy, sports, cooking, volunteer work, good food and wine, and teaching kids' cooking classes. I retired in 2017 and now just work for fun. I'm also a regular contributor to Episcopal Cafe, and have been published at HuffPo and other major sites and publications.
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