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What is "clergy" abuse?

Clergy abuse occurs when a member of clergy uses his position of power and authority to exploit, harm, and sexually abuse a member of their congregation.

A parishioner is in a vulnerable position relative to a clergy because of the unequal power. Whenever this power is used to wound and to exploit trust, abuse has occurred. Abuse means to use wrongly. The shepherd preys on the sheep for food. 

Clergy sexual abuse and misconduct is ungodly, deeply wrong, and extremely harmful to victims and the entire community. Clergy sexual misconduct happens in our parishes and it is hardly a rare occurrence. 

Not all clergy abuse their position of authority. However, 20% of pastors (of all Christian groups) have misused their power and position to sexually abuse or sexually harass victims in their congregations. 

It is estimated that 90-95% of victims of clergy sexual abuse are adult women congregants. Adult victims of clergy exploitation do not immediately view themselves as victims, yet this is the vulnerable "silent" majority used as prey for abusive shepherds.


In the initial stages of figuring out clergy abuse took place, the victim may blame themselves and protect the abuser because of the traumatic experience the cleric has induced on them through the cycle of abuse

When the abuser is a clergy in our community


The first step is to recognize and acknowledge the truth: that our beloved clergy is an abuser who misuses the Holy Office of the Priesthood to prey on his sheep.  


While it is acknowledged that errant clergy exist in the Orthodox church, it is rarely spoken of publicly. The result is that the faithful are not trained to discern when it comes to the counsel of clergy. The faithful are expected to receive the words of any ordained person uncritically. The failure to speak of clergy fallibility is a terrible mistake and a sin against the souls of the people of God.     

We should not be surprised that some beloved priests violate their clergy vows as shepherds. The prophet Ezekiel speaks of such shepherds who abuse their people with the metaphor of shepherds preying on the sheep (Ezek 34:8-10). 

Because the victims are the voice of Christ for the people of God, they need to be heard. Silencing and blaming victims completely misses the work of God. Christ comes through the vulnerable, not the powerful. When we protect the reputation of a community with an abuser amongst us, this is not the call of God. Rather we are called by God to listen to the voice of those abused by clergy. 

Prosopon Healing is a church community of Orthodox Christians trained in clergy abuse tactics. We are here to listen to you and help you identify clergy abuse and a path of healing. 

We believe you! 


Clergy Abuse Follows Specific Cyclical Patterns

Clergy who abuse are not mysterious, but rather their abusive behavior follows predictable patterns. Abuse is a voluntary behavior rooted in the choice to control and dominate another person. Clergy abuse is insidious in nature because the clergy needs to ensure trust is gained before they can abuse.   


The cycle of abuse starts off mildly but escalates each time the cycle is repeated. Intermittent violence and reward are used to break down the victim's sense of identify and freewill. The coercive control involves isolation, degradation, and forcing the victim to violate their moral code. 

The cycle of abuse starts with excessive "loving" attention from the clergy toward the target victim (Reward). Reward is necessary and used to instill gratitude for the abuser talking to the victim again after the silent treatment. Reward serves as positive reinforcement to reinforce the abusive behavior. Reward involves a moment of calm before escalation to the next exploitation incident of increased intensity. 


The abusing clergy then begins to blur the boundaries between his role and that of the parishioner in order to make inappropriate requests (Request Exploitation). The clergy may ask inappropriate questions during the sacrament of confession, on the phone or in a text message. These requests are manipulative in nature and function to test and make the parishioner comfortable ("grooming") so that the abuser can cross the boundaries insidiously without the victim or anyone else noticing.


An abusive clergy often brings targeted parishioners (victims) into his emotional turmoil ("poor me") as a way to divert the gaze away from his abusive behavior. He creates confusion to distract. 

Moments of silent treatment in the form of "pulling back", ghosting or stonewalling are also used. A clergy reflects Christ and when they ghost a parishioner this is referred to as Withholding Christ. The silent treatment functions to elicit a response from the (victim) parishioner.

The cycle repeats with the clergy making an excuse for the (abusive) behavior and temporarily amends the interaction with the (victim) parishioner (Reward) until the next phase of exploitation with escalated intensity.   

The victim's response in this cycle often makes them feel "complicit" in the participating interaction, even though there is no consent because of the unequal power between the clergy and parishioners (victims). A clergy who abuses has multiple victims. Many leave in silence, one or two speak up. 

"Red Flags" of Spiritual and Clerical Abuse

This wheel shows various tactics used by abusers in clerical positions. Cases of clergy abuse rarely occur without an organizational processes actively in place that either ignore, hide or support the way that clergy can perpetrate abuse against church members. This wheel is for all faithful in parish setting to better identify abusive tactics used by clergy.

Why is this abuse?

What happens when clergy abuse is discovered ?

1.) Clergy abuse is a process that is uncovered with the help of friends raising concerning red flags about the clergy, an article or a website about clergy abuse, during training sessions about domestic violence or during therapy sessions.    


2.) Because the victim is a trauma patient, the victim does not immediately realize that indeed abuse occurred and they are indeed a victim. The victim may even protect the abusive clergy. 


3.) When the clergy is exposed for abusing a parishioner (victim) he denies all wrongdoing. He uses D.A.R.V.O. (Deny, Attack, Reverse, Victim, and Offender) behavior. Denial is a typical response of an offender. They deny as a way to protect themselves and their reputation. They do not care about the victim(s) and thus deny wrongdoing. They usually have had multiple victims. 

4.) When more evidence is exposed, the abusive clergy diminishes the abuse. They claim that a sexual assault and/or rape is "consensual" or "a mutual affair". They conflate abuse with a consensual affair that takes place between two people of equal power; however, given the clear unequal power differential between clergy vs. parishioners the correct terminology is: clergy abuse.   

5.) Some clergy even shed tears as an emotional response not because they care for their victim(s) but because they got caught and exposed. They may say that their behavior is due to stress, that they "sinned", and that they "repented". However, repentance is not an emotional response. Repentance is a slow process involving owning responsibility for harming the victims and steadfastness is proof of sound repentance.


6.) When the excuses and emotional responses have been exhausted in justifying the abuse, a dialogue of "a sin is a sin" begins. However, sexual abuse by a member of the clergy is not just like any other sin. The notion that every single sin is the same is not true. When a member of the clergy preys on a vulnerable human being that is predatory behavior and not just any other sin that all people experience when they "miss the mark". Predatory behavior by a priest inserts deep harm in one's spiritual self, making it harder to access the healing mysteries from the sacraments in the Church. This is because the predatory priest has often used the sacraments and the office of the priesthood to groom and harm the victim.     

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