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Priest Abuse: Male Compared to Female Victimization Impact

Girls as well as boys have been traumatized by priests

The sexual crimes committed against children and adolescents by Catholic priest have figured prominently in the media over the past decade, and rocked the Catholic Church the world over. The "sins of the fathers" have been more than matched by the sins of the church hierarchy which showed more concern for the protection of the abusive priests than for the prevention of future violations or for the suffering caused to the victims.

Whereas the media focus has been largely on the scandal of the cover up, on the behavior of individual priests, and on Pope Benedict's complicity in reassigning fallen priests, a concern that is rarely addressed is the psychological impact on the victims of these violations. The psychological impact varies by gender.

First, a look at the statistics: The most detailed statistics on child abuse for the Catholic clergy that I can find comes from the special report based on a national survey of victimization conducted for the 2004 American Catholic bishops' conference. The findings reveal that the frequency of child abuse among Catholic priests is not remarkable-involving around 4 % of priests and deacons who served in the U.S., but its pattern is. Outside of the Catholic Church, the overwhelming numbers of juvenile victims of sexual abuse are female. Within the church, however, four out of five of their victims are male. Most were adolescents aged 14 or over; 15% were under 10.

Impact on Both Male and Female Victims

To the Catholic child growing up in a Catholic family, the authority of the priest has no parallel. The moral authority of the priest transcends that of ordinary mortals because it is assumed to come from God. In the Roman Catholic Church, the ordained priest is addressed as "Father" by Catholics both young and old. He carries out his functions largely without supervision.

Frequently, congregations idolize their spiritual leaders and view them as God's representative on earth. Accusations of misbehavior, therefore, are apt to be refuted by the community and family members. Not only do priests possess a power granted by a divine being, but they are celibate or sexually pure. Such is the general assumption within the Catholic Church. A sexual advance made by "a man of God" is thus extremely disillusioning to the child, who is often highly religious and trusting of this highly esteemed adult. The male victim is apt to have been an alter boy; the female victim, a vulnerable girl who has gone to the priest for personal counseling. As a predator, the priest takes advantage of the vulnerability of the child or youth. Typically one priest has multiple victims. Reports from adult survivors of priest and other clergy abuse indicate a high rate of trauma among the survivors.

A review of the literature on priest/clergy abuse reveals that for both genders the typical survivor became disillusioned with the church and suffered a loss of religious faith as a result of the abuse and the subsequent institutional response to the abuse. An inadequate amount of research has been done to determine the full extent of suicide attempts or completed suicides of victims of this form of abuse. One estimate in the literature is that 20 percent of children who were abused by religious authorities considered suicide at some point.

Psychological Impact on Molested Boys

The disproportionate number of male compared to female victims is seen as a reflection of the role that priests traditionally were expected to play as role models to young males. Keep in mind the fact that until fairly recently, only boys could be altar boys (servers) who got to work alongside the priests.

Media accounts have focused almost exclusively on the violation of boys. Because priest molestation of boys is homosexual, the public reaction to these violations is pronounced in a heterosexist society. Sexual relationships between men and boys are associated with sexual identity issues in the maturing youth. Often he tells no one and tries to deal with his conflicted feelings alone. Testimony from adult survivors reveals feelings of extreme anger and resentment and a psychological inability to confide in anyone about the abuse.

Psychological Impact on Female Victims

In contrast to the low estimate of victimized females by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a random survey of over 7,000 active Catholics in the U.S. and Canada found a closer ratio, that 1.7 percent of the females and 3.3 percent of the males had been sexually abused in childhood by a priest. In any case, a significant number of girls have been victimized by priests. Such sexual relationships with female parishioners reinforce a traditional male power dynamic.

It is my good fortune to have access to some first-hand data obtained by my former student, Lois Burns, for her women's studies thesis at the University of Northern Iowa. In her ethnographic interviews with 9 female survivors of Catholic clergy misconduct, Burns found two major themes: loss of religious faith, and attacks on their personal integrity when they told of the abuse.
These survivors reported that their faith in God was shattered. Not only had they endured personal violation, but they found themselves without a spiritual home which to turn. An unexpected finding was that all had lost their fathers early in life or were estranged from them. Significantly, several of those surveyed had experienced some kind of sexual violation earlier in life, even before the priest encounter. This increased their vulnerability.

All those who were interviewed reported that they were forced into secrecy, often after a few failed attempts to get help. Some were accused of having been seductive with an innocent priest. Most responded either by repressing the memory for long periods or by blaming themselves. Several of the women were successfully healing from their pain as therapeutic and social support many years later. Some turned to a Heavenly Mother for solace.


The institutional church has reluctantly begun to acknowledge the magnitude of the damage that has been done through years of denial and deception. Oversight by lay Catholics and reporting of criminal cases to the authorities would further ensure the integrity of the Catholic Church.

Admission of women to the priesthood and reevaluation of the enforced celibacy rule are changes that might prevent further abuse, although they are not likely to occur at the present time. Both steps might help provide a much larger pool of intelligent, healthy candidates from which to choose. The Vatican's response, which is to remove known homosexuals from the priesthood, is not helpful. This is a case of scapegoating and a false equating of homosexuality with pedophilia.

Once an allegation of priest sexual abuse has been reported, there are two parties in need of treatment. First, the focus should be on the victim, to provide support and reassurance. Secondly, the priest, is in need of therapeutic attention and support and the opportunity to make amends, so that, even if he is dismissed from the priesthood, and/or imprisoned, he will not continue his apparent harmful behavior.
For a grassroots organization fighting for clergy abuse survivors' rights see Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests at

More from Katherine S. van Wormer M.S.S.W., Ph.D.
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More from Katherine S. van Wormer M.S.S.W., Ph.D.
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