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Religious Sexual Abuse

church sexual abuse

Places of worship should be safe havens to lay your troubles down and embrace your faith. People often turn to religion to gain a sense of community and connection, of belonging to something greater. But what if that safe place turns into a setting for abuse? What if that sense of comfort and connection is shattered by sinful acts? What if your role as a believer turns into the role of a survivor at the hands of clergy members?

Every nine minutes, a child is sexually assaulted in the U.S., and 93% of survivors know their assaulter.

The Pride Law Firm has been securing justice for people of all ages against abusive religious leaders for more than ten years. If you have suffered sexual assault in a religious setting, filing a lawsuit can help you in your journey to healing. You can receive valuable compensation to alleviate lost wages or pay for quality care and counseling. Besides finding justice for your wounds, you can help end the cycle of abuse by coming forward to create a better future for yourself and others after you. The Pride Law Firm is available to answer your questions and help you understand your options.

Defining Church Sexual Abuse

When a person in a position of religious authority or power such as a priest, clergy member, rabbi or pastor sexually exploits a churchgoer in order to satisfy their own desires, it is considered church sexual abuse. It is also referred to as molestation and includes any unwanted sexual contact such as inappropriate touching, fondling, use of pornography, sexually suggestive activities, nakedness and sexual assault.

How Religious Leaders Misuse Their Power

The Catholic Church in particular has suffered an epidemic of misconduct. A recent study from the University of Chicago estimates more than 100,000 people have been molested by Catholic priests alone – not even including other members of religious groups.

Moreover, a new survey by the Pew Research center showed that about 8 in 10 U.S. adults say the recent reports of sexual abuse and misconduct by Catholic priests and bishops reflect “ongoing problems that are still happening” in the church.

The differential of power between a religious leader and a churchgoer is like that of a physician and patient, with the added dimension of sacred trust. Because of the power a church leader holds over congregation members, a churchgoer may feel they lack the authority to refuse sexual advances. For this reason, the concept of consent becomes virtually meaningless. Any sexual relationship between a religious leader and a congregant automatically negates mutual consent, or characterization as “an affair.” It’s control and manipulation, and it is a crime. 

molestation by priest

Common Tactics Perpetrators Use

When sexual abuse occurs in a place of worship, it’s often confusing for survivors because they were most likely exploited by a person they looked up to and trusted. The relationship might not have clear boundaries, leaving the survivor questioning whether or not they have been violated.

If this describes your experience or know someone who has been taken advantage of by a clergy member, we can help you understand what has happened to you. We’ve outlined a few of the most common ways perpetrators often lure their survivors to take advantage them.


If a minister, priest, rabbi or pastor gives a member special treatment, the recipient may feel honored and grateful for the recognition. This can include pulling the member away from group events for one-on-one time, often under the guise that they’re needed to work on a project, or perhaps to privately discuss personal issues. The attention may seem warm and caring at first and may be accompanied by inappropriate touching, commenting on the survivor’s appearance or asking about their personal life. However, this type of favoritism is often the beginning stages of what is known as grooming.

Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner defines grooming as the process by which an offender draws a survivor into a sexual relationship and maintains that relationship in secrecy. Hiding the relationship is an essential feature of this strategy. Grooming sets the stage for abuse, typically by winning the survivor’s and/or the survivor’s loved one’s trust in order to gain more private time with them. This is particularly important for parents to recognize, since children tend to withdraw once there is sexual contact.

It is inappropriate for adult clergy members to inquire about a child’s personal matters, especially without parental consent or without a parent or guardian present. Grooming often looks harmless at first, but if you have doubts about whether the relationship is impure, don’t ignore them.


Sexual predators may also shame a survivor into submitting to the abuse, using religious ideas to convince them, such as trusting in God and the leadership they are under. They may convince a survivor that yielding to the treatment is reverent and that a failure to do so is rebellion against authority and sinful. Abusive church members may also threaten their survivors with severe consequences, including excommunication, sabotaging their reputation, ostracizing them from church functions and relationships or even punishment by God. Survivor shaming is a powerful psychological tool, making the person feel they have no power and therefore no choice.

Using shame to trap a survivor is one of the most powerful devices perpetrators use against their survivors, especially in religion, where shame often causes debilitating fear. If you feel you were abused and shamed for it, please know that it is okay to come forward. Many of the fears that abusers threaten their survivors with are lies, and it’s okay to talk to someone about it.

effects of church abuse

Effects of Church Sexual Abuse

Whether the abuse happened decades ago or weeks ago, survivors experience a range of emotions. This can include anger, sorrow, rage or even fear — fear of speaking out, of repercussion or blame. These are all normal emotional reactions to abuse.

Survivors share many of the same feelings:

  • Guilt about what happened
  • Self-blame
  • Difficulty with adult sexual relationships
  • Trouble setting boundaries
  • Struggles with self-esteem

This does not begin to cover the devastation of possibly losing your foundation of belief and basis for faith.

If you’re an adult survivor, chances are you’ve kept feelings inside for a long time. Perhaps you have tried to tell someone who didn’t believe you, or you don’t have someone you feel you could trust. The effects of the trauma might still be emotionally affecting you. Recovering from this experience can begin with telling someone and seeking professional help from an experienced sexual assault attorney. Simply take the first step and give us a call; we will take care of the rest.

If You Have Been Sexually Abused in the Church

Any person who’s received unwanted sexual attention or advances is a survivor of sexual abuse. Secondary survivors are those who indirectly experience the church leader’s sexual misconduct such as spouses, children and fellow churchgoers. If you, your spouse or your children are among the survivors, we can help you get the peace and justice you deserve.

If you’ve been a survivor of sexual assault or abuse:

  • Do not return to the church, as much as you may want to. Religious leadership may try to protect their own reputation and dissuade you from contacting police or taking further action.
  • Speak with a sexual assault attorney. Your attorney will help you understand your options moving forward and will explain how the legal process will look. At The Pride Law Firm, we offer free, 100% confidential consultations to discuss your individual matters.
  • Seek care and counseling. Beginning to process your feelings and talking with a counselor can help tremendously. Compensation from a lawsuit can help provide valuable means to meet with the top specialists in their field.

Many states across the country have been changing their laws to hold abusers accountable. Where you live makes a difference. Here’s a guide to the laws in your state.

Contact an Experienced Sexual Assault Attorney

You can become a survivor. Clergy members who molest those who look up to them must be held accountable for their criminal acts. Statistics show that sexual predators rarely take just one survivor. They continue their abuse to more survivors until they are caught. Not only can filing a lawsuit offer significant closure for yourself, it can also ensure your perpetrator does not have the chance to hurt someone else.

A lawsuit might sound intimidating, but we assure you: we will make the process as smooth and easy as possible. At The Pride Law Firm, we are more than just legal advocates; we are trusted friends to those who have suffered the heartbreaking reality of church sexual abuse. We will guide you through each step and you will never be alone.

Managing partner Jessica Pride has been fighting on behalf of survivors of sexual assault for more than ten years. She and her team have helped secure justice for hundreds of individuals and families, helping them heal and find the confidence they were sure they lost after the abuse.

To learn more about how The Pride Law Firm can help you after being sexually assaulted or abused by religious leaders, contact us today. Your information remains in strict confidence and all initial legal consultations are free and without obligation.

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Reach Out to Us

If you have been a victim of sexual assault, child sexual abuse, or workplace sexual harassment we are here to answer your questions, provide a free and confidential case evaluation, and connect you to resources. 

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The Pride Law Firm
2831 Camino Del Rio S., Suite 104
San Diego, CA 92108

Hours. M-F 8:30am - 5:00pm PST

Phone. ​(619) 516-8166

Fax. (619) 785-3414




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