I was recently asked to present a paper at an international conference in London in which I made the statement that I felt that safeguarding standards within faith communities needed to be set at a higher level than for the rest of society. My reason for asserting that this should be case is the existence of the spiritual harm that results from abuse committed within faith communities. The emotional, physical, and mental consequences of sexual abuse perpetrated on children has been well documented. However, when sexual abuse occurs within a church setting there is an added and unique dimension of suffering that is often experienced by the victim. I refer to this as spiritual harm. This element of suffering has been rarely referred to in the literature generated by the subject and would be viewed by me as the neglected consequence of clerical sexual abuse.
To be precise, I would define spiritual harm as that which impacts upon the individual’s ability to have and develop their faith as a consequence of the abuse perpetrated upon them by others whom they view as being part of their faith community and in positions of authority. When a young person suffers abuse in wider society, the impact of this upon them can be and often is profound. When the abuse occurs within a church setting and involves clergy, the impact is even greater and often has the added result of weakening or destroying that young person’s belief or faith. It is this element that I want to focus attention on in this paper and argue that its existence requires a higher standard of safeguarding within church settings to avoid it occurring.
As in the rest of society, the best outcome that you can achieve from the provision of safeguarding services within churches is to prevent harm occurring at all. It is better to prevent than to seek to protect after harm has been inflicted on a child or children. Therefore, the focus of safeguarding should be prevention and the creation of risk free environments for young people which enable them to develop their faith and grow up in a safe and nurturing environment. All possible steps to achieve this should be taken which should include ensuring that anyone who has harmed a child in the past should not be involved in ministry again. Similarly, those who have allowed harm to occur as a consequence of not taking action to prevent it happening, should also be removed from ministry.
In essence, what I would argue for is a “zero tolerance” approach to the management of clerical abuse. There should be no deviation from this standard and it should be applied without exception across all churches. For this to be considered to be in place, there should be clarity regarding the sanctions that any perpetrator would face within the church.
Drawing on my own experiences of working with survivors of clerical abuse, most have lost contact with the church and find it impossible to regain sufficient trust to allow them to again practice their faith. They would speak about being distant from the church. Importantly, many feel that the church has forgotten about them and does not make any effort to reach out to them, seeing them almost as an embarrassment in some way.
Most of us would view the places that we worship as being islands of tranquillity and peacefulness in our busy lives. Survivors of clerical abuse as a result of the spiritual harm that they have suffered, are deprived of being able to draw on these reservoirs in their lives. They associate church attending with pain, suffering, and abuse finding themselves unable to enter them again.
Much attention has been given by churches that have experienced a problem with clerical offending on providing financial redress to victims for the abuse. This is important but it does not address the critical issue of the spiritual well-being of the survivor. They are like lost sheep but the shepherd has no interest in finding them again or leading them home. To me this appears to be a serious failing on the part of the churches and one that I can find no justification for.
I would assert that the first consideration that a church should have when engaging with a survivor of clerical abuse is to determine their spiritual well-being. They need to communicate care, love, concern, and a sincere desire to help them to rebuild their faith. If this cannot happen within their church, then they need to help them to come to terms with that fact and gain some element of peace in their lives. I found no evidence to support the view that this attitude was widely present within the setting that I worked in for a number of years in the Irish Catholic Church. Apart from the occasional gesture there was no coordinated strategy to reach out to survivors and no great commitment to do so that was evident to me. I always regarded this as a great failing and one that needed to be urgently changed.
Many fine words have been spoken by people in positions of authority in the church in recent times. This is to be welcomed but these words need to be supported by actions that clearly demonstrate the sincerity of what has been said. The impact of the spiritual harm inflicted on those abused has been greatly increased in the past for survivors when they have seen the guilty prosper and those that failed to take actions to protect them, have stayed in their posts and even been promoted. This is unacceptable and you cannot expect any discerning observer to regard the words of the shepherd as being sincere when there is so little interest demonstrated in the plight of the lost sheep.