The Dynamics of Clergy Abuse

Those who have never experienced clergy abuse all too often fail to recognize the unique harm that results from these situations. So why is clergy abuse so traumatic?

Part of the answer is that clergy stand in a unique role to us. If they are to be effective, we must be comfortable sharing with clergy details of our lives that we might well not share with others. Additionally, clergy are with us as we move past the mile markers of life: Birth, childhood, marriage, illness, and loss, and eventually our own deaths.

Moreover, we instinctively want our clergy to succeed. Particularly in the case of full-time clergy, we make a major investment in terms of time, treasure and talent in our clergy, so their success is wrapped up in our perceptions of our own success.

In cases where a congregant has served in a war zone and may already struggle with depression, anxiety, or PTSD, a betrayal of trust by clergy can be devastating. Even worse is a situation in which denominational officials refuse to take reports of clergy misconduct seriously; this is the ultimate betrayal, and often is legally actionable in court as a breach of fidicuiary duty. In short, our legal system requires that church officials who are entrusted with so painful a situation act with great care, lest they cause further harm. See, i.e.; Moses v. Diocese of Colorado.

It’s also true that whether the abuse is sexual, emotional, verbal or relational, abuse by clergy often causes irreparable harm. While some may even choose to remain in church, the vast majority leave, never to return. And many survivors of clergy abuse suffer from lifetimes of depression and anxiety, or commit suicide.

So, the only way to address clergy abuse is to prevent it, for once abuse has occurred, it often cannot be undone. Thus, it is incumbent upon church officials to respond quickly and effectively to allegations of abuse, or even suggestions that “something just doesn’t seem right.” While it may seem like this is over-reacting, the reality is that, in situations like this, where damage can be catastrophic, one must treat the warning signs with the same level of concern as smelling smoke on a crowded jetliner. It’s not okay to just ignore it and hope for the best–the matter must be explored immediately.

In that context, those denominations like The Episcopal Church which allow a complaint to be dismissed early on by an intake officer should use this option with the utmost care. Parishioners take their hearts in hand when they file a complaint, so dismissing a case only adds to the problem. Sure, there will be facially ludicrous complaints, like one I heard in a previous diocese in which someone complained that the rector had taken her parking spot. Or the person, who tried to tell me in all sincerity that my female rector, then in her 60’s, was about to give birth to a child conceived with the help of Elvis Presley, who himself was long-gone at that point. But in most cases, if a parishioner comes forward, he does so because there is a real issue afoot.

Adjudicatories also should understand that, in many traditions, my own included, disciplinary canons only apply to clergy. In the case of Bishop Bruno, for example, he argued that the complainants had improperly disclosed that they had filed a Title IV complaint despite the confidentiality provisions of Title IV. The hearing panel correctly noted, however, that Title IV only applies to clergy, so +Bruno’s complaint was irrelevant.

Lastly, all involved should be on the lookout for two universal comebacks from clergy accused of misconduct. One is the attempt to discredit by claiming that the complainant is “unbalanced,” which is irrelevant, unless as evidence of the harm that the accused clergy person has caused. The other is the tried and true, “You’re hurting my ministry.” But again, it is not the disclosure of misconduct that causes harm–it is the misconduct itself.

At the end of the day, as Christians we are called to bring light to the darkness.

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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