Clergy sex abuse is the fault of the institution, not the religion.
Last year, the Southern Baptist Conference was forced to confront its own hidden history of sexual abuse, after the release of an explosive report on how the leadership of that Protestant denomination had ignored and even “vilified” sexual abuse survivors. Sadly, the S.B.C. had only been repeating a familiar pattern of cover-up and institutional protection already observed in the Catholic Church (and still coming to light, as with the recent report on hundreds of cases of sexual abuse by clergy discovered since 1950 in several dioceses in Illinois). The same lack of accountability in both denominations has left them liable to criminal prosecutions and civil lawsuits.
These latest revelations are simply more evidence of a pandemic of child abuse that has infected countries all over the world and can be found throughout the 20th century. I have previously characterized this epidemic as “a war on children” that, unfortunately, has not attracted enough of a national investigation here in the United States, even though many other countries (including France, Germany, Great Britain and Australia) have already initiated national inquiries into abusive domestic institutions.
The historical record shows that children in the United States have been abused by predators in all sectors of society, secular as well as religious.
Non-believers may charge churches with hypocrisy, but the historical record shows that children in the United States have been abused by predators in all sectors of society, secular as well as religious. As the Harvard University psychiatrist Dr. Judith Herman demonstrated in her groundbreaking book Trauma and Recovery in 1992, abusers have been found not just in churches, but also in commercial corporations, hospitals, schools and athletic programs, where the offenders have been teachers, coaches, doctors and bosses, as well as clergy.
As a longtime abuse researcher, I am convinced that this broad pattern of abuse shows that any religious connection is only the beginning of the story, not the end. The S.B.C. report looks like yet another stone thrown into a pond, creating ripples that lap at many feet across society—again, secular as well as religious.
I therefore want to offer a revised interpretation of the determinants of sexual abuse by suggesting that we change our analytic lens to focus more on the modern corporate institution, and its prevailing culture, as a major source of abuse. That is, it is not the substance of the institution (e.g., religion) but rather its style of operation that fosters inequity and abuse. This milieu provides a hiding place for in-house abusers who bank on getting their sins sheltered under the corporate umbrella of institutions more concerned about reputation than reparation.
It is not the substance of the institution (e.g., religion) but rather its style of operation that fosters inequity and abuse.
I must emphasize that a new focus on institutional dynamics in no way diminishes the gravity of the criminal behavior exhibited by religious institutions like the Catholic Church and the S.B.C. Moral leaders are supposed to operate by higher standards, as Pope Francis made crystal clear in a 2015 interview where he addressed the “grave problem” of child abuse and discussed his creation of a Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to focus on the prevention of abuse.
Francis used the 2015 interview for a remarkable exegesis about the cosmic consequences for the church, and the spiritual damage to the child, of clergy abuse. “One priest abusing a minor is reason enough to move the Church’s whole structure,” he said, in a strong reaffirmation of sacerdotal theology. “It is a priest’s duty to nurture a little boy or girl in holiness and in their encounter with Jesus…and what [abusers] do is destroy this encounter.”
When abusers are sheltered by religious institutions, the betrayal of faith makes the abuse even more painful—but it is their culture as institutions as much or more than their religious mission that facilitates such tragic failures. (Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich addressed this point in 2021 when he resigned as a gesture to take responsibility for sexual abuse by priests. In his resignation letter, he called for “a new awakening in the church” to show “that it is not the institution that stands in the foreground, but the mission of the Gospel.”) If we can recognize that religions are not the sole perpetrators, we can arrive at a more nuanced appreciation of the causes of abuse in our society. That enlightened appreciation of the commonalities shared by abusive institutions should help society develop better safeguards for the protection of children.
Doubting Thomases may insist that religious entities in our society play a unique role in child abuse, regardless of other contributors. But I would argue that that role is a function of a significant contributory feature common to large, hierarchical, corporate institutions like the Catholic Church and the S.B.C. That is, they have captive audiences of parishioners who are deeply loyal to their churches and offer them moral and financial support, enjoying thereby the reciprocal benefits of belonging to a spiritually rewarding community. As a consequence, potential abusers in such religious communities have both ready access to large numbers of vulnerable, exploitable people and the protection of the corporate umbrella if someone blows the whistle on them.
When abusers are sheltered by religious institutions, the betrayal of faith makes the abuse even more painful—but it is their culture as institutions that facilitates such tragic failures.
But this “captive audience” phenomenon is not unique to religions. It happens across our society and has been exploited in a variety of contexts. Remember Coach Jerry Sandusky and his captive audience of young athletes at Penn State? Or sports physician Larry Nassar with his captive audience of female gymnasts under the auspices of the U.S. Olympic Committee? A similar captive audience was found at the prestigious University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where former students of art, music and ballet have sued their teachers for sexual and other forms of abuse. And yet another captive audience was found at Harvard University in 2019, where graduate students and staff reported decades of sexual abuse by their boss and mentor, Professor Jorge I. Dominguez.
Then there is the big Canadian secret—the kidnapping and incarceration of thousands of helpless children in Quebec in the 1940s and 1950s, mostly born to unwed mothers, during the reign of Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis, a period now known as La Grande Noirceur (“The Great Darkness”). These orphelins de Duplessis—a unique audience of captive victims—were imprisoned for many childhood years in hospitals, orphanages and asylums where they suffered severe abuse at the hands of the Catholic religious orders who were paid to run these institutions for the province and the federal government. (These were separate from the “residential schools,” many run by the church, where Indigenous children were mistreated.) As claimed by the Toronto Star investigative reporter Ellie Tesher, who interviewed orphan survivors in Montreal in 2000 (the interviews are not currently online), the guilt for these crimes against humanity runs across all sectors of Canadian society—civil, political, medical and legal, as well as religious.
Such heterogeneous examples of “captive audience phenomenon” are just a few of the many exceptions that prove the rule: Religions, as guilty as they are, do not have a corner on the market of abuse. Culprits can be found across the whole spectrum—private, public, secular, religious—of institutional life. The two most notable features of that culture are asymmetries of power and authority figures: The former create dependencies and inequalities, while the latter manipulate these dependencies to exploit vulnerable subjects.
And who are the most dependent, and vulnerable, subjects? Children! For the first 18 years of their lives, they exist in a world of authority figures and asymmetries of power—at home, church, school, sports, youth clubs, etc. That enforced dependency fosters vulnerability, which abusers are only too ready to exploit to their advantage.
My message is straightforward: Don’t let the latest religion scandals, at the S.B.C. or elsewhere, distract us from identifying the critical features that link all abusive environments. In retrospect, the exposé of the Catholic Church’s criminality in Boston in 2002 looks like the canary in the coal mine, warning us that so many institutions, whether religious or secular, contain the toxic gas of abuse.