The psychological impact of clergy-perpetrated child abuse

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Clergy-perpetrated child abuse can have a dramatic effect on children’s faith, family relationships and how they view the world.
Christian churches in Australia and around the world have faced a raft of allegations of clergy-perpetrated child sexual abuse as well as accusations of inadequate efforts to bring perpetrators to justice.

Encouraged by an increased focus on the issue as well as several inquiries, including the ongoing Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, an increasing number of Australian victims are coming forward to tell their stories and seek help.

So what separates clergy-perpetrated abuse from other types of child abuse?

Double betrayal

In addition to betrayal by the religious institution, many victims feel betrayed by family members who struggle to understand what has happened. Compare a case of clergy-perpetrated abuse with a case of child abuse where a member of the clergy is not the perpetrator. If a child was abused by a stranger walking home from school, chances are they would tell their parents straight away. Immediate social and psychological support would be provided, and the school would be briefed about the child’s needs.

This contrasts dramatically with the likely sequence of events when a child is abused by a member of the clergy. In this circumstance, the child may not tell their parents or anyone else about the abuse – studies have found many victims take an average of 23 or 24 years to disclose their abuse.

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