Sexual abuse of children is shockingly widespread in the very institutions that are supposed to protect the most vulnerable. In the Catholic Church alone, thousands of allegations of sex abuse have surfaced in recent years. And it’s far from the only religious institution that has functioned as a safe haven for perpetrators of horrific abuse.
What is it about the religious context that creates an environment ripe for child abuse? A recent study out of the University of Alberta examined common patterns of child sex abuse and found common threads across multiple religious settings, from mainstream institutions to cults. Those similarities include:
- A hierarchical power structure: Whenever there is a division between the “clerics” or religious leaders and laypeople, it creates an opportunity for abuse. Those in positions of power are often above accountability. They may have vast resources at their disposal to both prevent the abuse from coming to light and sweeping it under the rug in the event that it does surface.
- Doctrines of divine authority: In the eyes of children, adults are already authority figures. Elevating that authority to a God-ordained level makes it all the more unlikely that children will be equipped to stand up for themselves.
- A position of trust: Trust and authority operate in tandem within the power structures of religious organizations. On an individual level, abusers excel at leveraging that trust to gain access to their victims, isolate them from others, groom them into compliance and keep them silent. The pattern is strikingly similar to how cult leaders gain their members’ trust and keep them entrenched, seemingly of their own volition.
- Institutional loyalty: Religious institutions play powerful roles in shaping social and cultural norms. Members place a high degree of trust in the institution itself. When survivors speak up against abuse, they often face disbelief – sometimes even by their own parents. It’s easier for people to disbelieve one individual than to question the entire structure and credibility of the religious institution that they have devoted so much of their lives to.
Together, these factors create a striking pattern: An authority figure in the religion – a priest or leader – builds rapport with the victim, their family and the community. They gain access to the victim – usually under the pretext of religious activities, such as having the victim serve as an altar boy. They start abusing the child, using their spiritual authority to assure the victim that nothing is wrong. (In many cases, they convince the victim that the abuse is “God’s will” or an expression of “God’s love”). They use threats, subtle or overt, to keep the victim silent. And if the victim does end up speaking out, they rely on their institutional authority to sweep it under the rug.
It’s a powerful cycle that shatters the lives and psyches of survivors.