Abuse of Adults in the Church: What You Need to Know

Many people view the sexual abuse crisis in the Church as mainly involving the abuse of children. Yet consider these news stories of Catholic leaders: former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was credibly accused of the sexual harassment and abuse of adult seminarians, prominent Catholic composer David Haas, recently accused of “sexually predatory actions” against young women, and the revelation that the late Jean Vanier, revered founder of L’Arche, had “coercive” sexual relationships with at least six women. Clearly, not all victims of sexual abuse are children.

Victim-survivors of sexual abuse in adulthood and researchers who study this type of abuse say the problem is more common than Catholics realize, adding that victims develop traumatic wounds that are notoriously tough to heal.

To understand the sexual abuse of adults, we spoke with two experts. Paula Kaempffer is Outreach Coordinator for Restorative Justice and Abuse Prevention for the Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis, a role that involves coordinating all efforts in the archdiocese to help abuse victim-survivors heal. She is also a survivor of three instances of adult sexual abuse by clergy. The first took place when she was 27, and being interviewed by a priest in the Diocese of Galveston-Houston for a job. The second took place just two years later, when Kaempffer was sexually abused by a parish priest she met while working in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Texas. “I grew up with seven brothers so he was just another brother,” she explains. “It was just devastating.” Later, in her early 30s, she worked with a priest who touched her inappropriately multiple times. Despite these experiences, Kaempffer has had a long career in the Church, which includes 33 years leading the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). “I loved my work in RCIA,” she says. “It was the main thing that nourished me.”

Our second expert is David Pooler, Ph.D., LCSW, associate professor of social work at Baylor University, who has conducted one of the largest studies of women abused by church leaders. Originally trained as a Protestant minister, Pooler has studied and worked with adult survivors from an array of Christian denominations, including the Catholic Church. Sexual abuse by clergy is “clearly not just a Catholic issue,” Pooler says. Here, he and Kaempffer offer key insights about the abuse of adults.

1. Relationships between clergy and PARISHIONERS can’t be fully consensual.

This is due to the “power differential,” or imbalance of authority between the two people in the relationship. Clergy members and other ministers are traditionally viewed as “having more expertise and knowledge around scripture and tradition and similar things,” Pooler explains. For many people of faith, clergy also serve as a stand-in for God. This clouds the less-powerful person’s view of the relationship, making them unable to “give a yes that’s free and clear,” he says.

For Kaempffer, the sexual advances were in the context of her job, committed by men who had a say over her career. “My experience of it was it would have cost me my livelihood [to reject their advances],” she says.

Pooler notes that people in some helping professions, such as doctors and psychotherapists, receive training to recognize these dynamics. In his field, social workers are taught early in their careers about power and boundaries. “We learn right away that the person with more power is always responsible for clarifying what appropriate and healthy boundaries are,” he says. Even if the person with less power suggests or pursues a sexual relationship with the more powerful person, “it’s always the social worker or person with more power who needs to explore that very directly and clearly, and set the boundaries and say, ‘That’s not what this relationship is about.’”

2. Age matters less than we think.

“We’ve made a huge mistake in our society assuming that once a person reaches the age of 18, they’re no longer vulnerable,” Pooler says. “We think that when they were 15 they were vulnerable, but when they’re 18, they’re no longer vulnerable, they’re an adult and can say yes or no. That’s just not true, especially when it comes to clergy persons because we revere them so much, we respect and trust them so much.”

Kaempffer notes that sexual predators are often master manipulators who groom their victims and have radar for vulnerability in both children and adults. “They know exactly who to look for: somebody who’s struggling,” she says. “They can pick out the person who is not going to say anything, who’s just going to go along.”

3. Sexual abuse of adults by clergy is likely more common than we realize.

Pooler’s colleague, the late Diana Garland, conducted a 2009 survey of women who attended church services at least weekly. The study suggested that one of every 33 women in a congregation in America has experienced sexual harassment or sexual misconduct by a religious leader at some time in their adult life. “The average American attends a congregation of 400 adults, so that’s an average of seven women per congregation,” Pooler suggests.

4. Victims of sexual abuse as adults suffer intense shame.

Through her job with the Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis, Kaempffer runs support groups—currently held virtually during the COVID pandemic—for those who were sexually abused in the Church as adults. She’s learned that adult survivors often carry deep, complex pain.

“There’s a tremendous fear that people are not going to believe them, that people are going to blame them, that people are going to think that they could have gotten out of [the abusive situation],” she says. Kaempffer has encountered victims whose parents doubt their son or daughter’s story, asking, ‘Did you lead him on?’ And in her experience, victim-survivors frequently engage in lacerating self-talk.  “They’ll say to themselves, ‘Why didn’t I stop this? How did this happen? How could I have been so stupid?’” When a predator cloaks his actions in the language of faith and spirituality, the victim’s wounds become even more complicated.  “It takes a lot of therapy and a lot of hard work to rise above that,” Kaempffer says.

Pooler agrees. “One of the things I’ve learned from my research is that this is super complicated trauma that’s not easy to heal,” he says. “The poor responses by congregations add to it.” Church members who hear about the abuse will often take the clergy person’s side and ostracize the victim. “That adds another layer of trauma that survivors say is as bad, if not worse, than being abused by the minister,” Pooler says. The victim is left suffering without the support of their church community, which in different circumstances would serve as a protective factor and help them heal.


Possible Safeguards Against Abuse of Adults in the Church

Kaempffer and Pooler offer the following ideas that they theorize could reduce the risk of sexual abuse of adults and children.

Discuss sexual abuse openly. Kaempffer believes that parishes benefit from the opportunity to discuss openly the broad topic of sexual abuse in the Church, as well as any specific instances of abuse in their local community. When abuse has occurred, “Parishioners are hurting, they want to understand what happened, and many want to support victim survivors,” she says.

Recognize clergy and church leaders as human. “Assume that sexual abuse can happen in your church, with your minister,” Pooler says. “That’s really a paradigm shift for so many people. As much as that rocks the boat and is unsettling, I think it’s necessary. That allows you to begin to think: What do our priests need? Do they need a sabbatical? Do they need time off? Do they need extra training? In other words, assume that they’re actually capable, if in a vulnerable place, of doing harm. Treat your priest and leader as someone who is way more human than you ever would’ve thought.”

Offer clergy and church leaders enhanced training. Church leaders such as priests, deacons, and others could benefit from training about power, boundaries, and other topics related to relationships, such as transference and counter-transference; these subjects may be studied in some seminaries but likely not all, Pooler says. Kaempffer also feels strongly that all clergy should learn about interpersonal relationships and undergo psychotherapy, not just spiritual direction, in the seminary. “At various times in our lives most of us could  benefit from therapy, but it’s especially important for those who are charged with the care of others,” Kaempffer says. “We would want them to be as healthy as possible and to have dealt with any issues they are carrying through life, as most of us are.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

Editor’s Note: We invite you to check back next week, when the Awake Blog will continue the conversation about abuse of adults in the Church.

3 thoughts on “Abuse of Adults in the Church: What You Need to Know

  1. Thank you for raising this issue which I have been researching now for around 9 years. You can find my Masters here: https://eprints.qut.edu.au/96038/ and an article based on that study, here: https://eprints.qut.edu.au/111885/. My PhD on the reporting experiences of adults abused by Catholic clergy will be released within the next few months.

    This is a major issue, if for no other reason than how it is connected to the covering up of all clergy abuse. It is a poorly understood form of clergy abuse and to overcome that lack of understanding, we need to hear from those who have experienced it. My studies are based on survivor experiences.

    For those who may be interested, I have also presented a petition concerning McCarrick and adult abuse here: Please consider signing and/or passing on. Thank you. https://www.change.org/p/catholics-pope-francis-release-the-mccarrick-report-into-networks-supporting-abusive-clergy

    Please, keep up the good work here.

    Stephen de Weger

  2. Stephen –

    Thank you so much for reaching out and sharing your work! We would be very interested in connecting and hearing more. Could you send us an email at awakemke@gmail.com? We look forward to talking with you!

    – Awake

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