Defining Abuse

It seems appropriate to start off with a basic definition. What is abuse? Simply put, it’s any behavior intended to intimidate, coerce, or cause suffering in another person or persons.

What’s the one common theme in abuse? Inevitably, it is a real or perceived imbalance of power. The power may be organizational, as in the case of clergy versus laity. In those cases, clergy enjoy a unique position in the church that, by definition, creates an imbalance in power.

In other cases, it may be educational. Clergy have specialized learning that, by its very association with the Bible and the divine, conveys a certain imprimatur.

In still other cases, power may derive from simple longevity. A priest or lay leader who has been in a particular church for years may feel that they have the “inside scoop,” on how things are done, and may be perceived as a go-to by relative newcomers.

In all cases, the other component of abuse is misuse of power by the person in the more powerful position. For clergy, this means putting their needs ahead of the needs of those they care for. For example, a priest who satisfies his or her emotional or sexual needs at the expense of parishioners is, by definition abusive.

This paradigm can be tricky. Clergy and lay leaders alike often serve out of a sense of satisfaction that comes from caring for others. But in a healthy relationship, boundaries are maintained, and neither party suffers as a result.

Some forms of abuse can be difficult to spot. While behavior such as sexual conduct with a parishioner may be facially abusive, other forms of abuse may be more insidious.

In cases of spiritual or emotional abuse, issues that may seem minor in isolation become anything but when viewed as a larger pattern. For instance, a single incidence of clergy yelling at a parishioner may signify nothing more than a really bad day, and a chance to grab coffee, talk things out, and move forward. But if a priest routinely yells at parishioners or tries to intimidate them, then you may be dealing with spiritual and emotional abuse.

Unfortunately, spiritual and emotional abuse often is difficult for adjudicatories to spot. Thus, it may take several complaints before church officials recognize the seriousness of the situation.

In all cases of abuse, there is one great truth that must always be remembered: In every instance, the person in the position of power is responsible for maintaining boundaries. That is the case even if the other party has behaved badly. And to those who have hurt by the church, I encourage you to remember this. You are not at fault.


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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