Click & Learn
Loss of Faith & Clergy Sexual Abuse
By A.W. Richard Sipe
January 23, 2007

In order to have a fighting chance at developing in a normal way—that is to be capable of meeting the ordinary psychological growth challenges—children desperately need to maintain a mental image of a loving and rescuing parent. Men who destroy that parental birthright have been called Slayers of the Soul. Religious authorities are among the most powerful figures that have the capacity to perpetrate was has been called Soul Murder.1

One of the most authoritative studies of this psychological phenomenon asserts that to abuse or neglect a child deprives the child of a separate identity and the capacity for joy in life. That is the essence of soul murder.

Not only parents who sexually abuse minors inflict torture and deprivation under conditions of complete dependency. Abuse elicits a terrifying combination helplessness and rage—feelings that the child must suppress in order to survive. The child therefore denies or justifies what has happened, deadens emotions, identifies with the aggressor, and even takes on the guilt that is appropriate to the abuser.

From my own experience with victims of abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest or bishop I know this dynamic and all of the elements that other experts mention are operative when a priest betrays a child.

The results and effects of sexual violation—identity confusion, rage, shame, and guilt—can be invariably be observed to one degree or another in adult men and women who trusted a priest and experienced betrayal.

People have been encouraged to approach clergy for help with confidence in the priest’s spiritual power. Religious teaching encourages this trust at the same time that Vatican documents for nearly 2000 years have recorded the dangers and seriousness of priests who sexually violate those who trust them as guardians of their salvation.

Confession and spiritual direction with some priests are dangerous and perilous encounters for many believers, not just children. Studies are accumulating that demonstrate that confiding conscience matters—particularly of a sexual nature—to some priests offers that priest an entrée to seduce the penitent or counselee, problematic situations that Vatican documents have recorded for centuries still exist today.2

Suggestions by church officials that confessional boxes have glass windows and that counseling be conducted only with open doors are only two examples of the growing awareness that “Priests can’t be trusted.”

The number of Catholic clergy who abuse minors is astounding In the past five decades over 5,000 Catholic priests in the United States have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors. (That is the church’s count.) But to think that only the priests who have been reported for abuse are abusers is comparably to saying that only drivers who have received speeding tickets are violators.

Because sexual abuse of minors is a crime it has received the lion’s share of public attention. The church has coupled this concern with the number of homosexually oriented men in the clergy—priests and bishops. Still under wraps are records of the frequency with which clergy abuse women. When reports are made most often the woman is blamed as the “seductress,” the priest is absolved as “naïve,” and the situation labeled “consensual.”

Whatever term one uses to diminish or absolve the priest from responsibility for the sexual violation of a person—child or adult—is FALSE. No doctor, no therapist, no teacher—and certainly no clergyman—can claim that the professional relationship he has with patient, client, student or parishioner is equal in power. The responsibility for maintaining appropriate boundaries and behavior rests irrevocably with the professional. No priest can absolve himself from his professional responsibility or his obligation to maintain his celibate status. The consequences of his violations defy measurement.

The implication of the designation of permanent damage is clear and accurate. Violation of sexual boundaries by a person who holds a position of esteem, because he is a representative of religion—and God—not simply harms, it kills something in a person of belief.3

Some victims of abuse can eventually work through, to acceptable degrees, the psychological trauma of abuse. They may be able to free themselves from addictions, sustain adequate relationships, and maintain employment, but an important part of their life experience cannot be revived.

Clinicians who have interviewed and treated victims of sexual abuse by clergy—minors and adults—verify over and over that one of the common consequences of that violation by a Catholic priest is the complete loss of the comfort, support, spiritual sustenance, and meaning in the life the victim who previously experienced those life-sustaining elements in their religious life.

Those who do not understand the nature and depth of this deprivation think that the victim can merely “forget about it,” “move on,” or “find another religion.” This is not true.

Some victims cannot recover. A part of them is dead—their faith is gone.

Three analogous situations may help an observer understand the depth of this victim’s dilemma. First, think about the loss of a child: the death of a child is the single loss that is eternal in experience. A parent can never fully recover from this loss. Certainly life must go on, but there is nothing or no one who can substitute for the lost child. The parent cannot forget.

Second, the loss of an integral part of one’s body: if one loses a limb or one of the senses—an arm, leg, hearing, sight, touch—he or she can compensate, substitute and get along, but every accommodation is just that, an adjustment, but not a revival. A part is gone, dead.

Third, the loss of belonging and of patriotism: if through betrayal one were to lose citizenship, and a sense of patriotism, that loss cannot be revived by aligning oneself with another country. It is one thing to find a better place by choice, quite another to be ripped from ones homeland and origins.

Those who doubt that some men and women can suffer the deprivation of their faith as acutely as the loss of a child, the loss of a limb, or the loss of citizenship have not had the experience of treating victims of sexual abuse by clergy.

A person who has been grounded since childhood in one faith, where his or her self worth, acceptance, spiritual identity, and salvation were vested cannot simply forget, put it behind, or join another faith. Victims betrayed and abused by a priest can "go on" with their lives, but the part that is missing cannot be restored. Something is dead; something has been truly killed. The tragedy is compounded because the killer was a clergyman.


1 (Leonard Shengold, Soul Murder, Yale University Press, 1989)

2 (Cf. Doyle, Sipe & Wall, Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2000 Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse, Volt Press, Los Angeles: 2005)

3(Cf. Fr. Steven Rossetti, Slayer of the Soul: Child Sexual Abuse & the Catholic Church. Also A Tragic Grace: Child Sexual abuse and the Catholic Church, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota:)

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