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Why Predators Are Attracted to Careers in the Clergy

Some further insight into a serious phenomenon.

The eye-catching headline read, “Which Professions Have The Most Psychopaths?” (The Week, October 30, 2013) What ensued was quite a dialogue on the internet, as everyone seemed to have their own favorite picks or a personal horror story. The article stimulated debate, but unfortunately did not add clarity to a worthy subject. And that subject is: Why would a so-called “psychopath” be found in greater numbers in one profession versus another?

According to the article, CEO positions attract the most psychopaths. Perhaps so, if one considers the history of Enron, Bernard Madoff, and movies such as “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013). But the one career that caught my eye, and that 30 years ago probably would have escaped me, is that of the clergy (8th in line behind law enforcement, according to the article). I say 30 years ago because prior to the revelations relating to Catholic priests abusing children, one would not think of predators going into the clergy, yet that is a reality. Which begs the question, why a so-called “psychopath” would be attracted to the clergy? As it turns out, there are good reasons for this; that predators understand all too well—but first some caveats.

Unfortunately, the term psychopath is bandied about too much, making things murkier. There is a huge difference between a psychopath as defined by Robert Hare, a sociopath, someone with antisocial personality disorder, someone with conduct disorder, an aggressive narcissist, or someone with dissocial personality disorder. Unfortunately most people, even many clinicians, don’t differentiate, and we should. Too often these terms are lumped together, as in the above captioned article, and that can be confusing. There are distinctions between all these terms, and so rather than use this vague and overused term (psychopath), I will call these individuals predators, which encompasses all of the above noted disorders and pathologies.

I should also note that I am not writing this article to criticize any particular religion, because any religious group, as history has taught us, can be taken advantage of by predators or malignant zealots. Rather, it is an analysis of why predators would choose to imbed themselves within a religious organization or seek to be part of the clergy—so that we can be more aware in order to protect our loved ones and ourselves. Knowing what we do now, it is fitting that we examine predators among the clergy and how they would use their office or a religious organization to take advantage of others.

Having said all of that, we need to be reminded that predators seek to be in organizations (any organization) for a variety of reasons that are both useful and beneficial but that may not be clear to us; including of course so that they can better conduct their predatory activities. The reasons vary, but here are just a few:

1. Organizations provide a convenient infrastructure from which a predator can prey on others for financial gain or to otherwise exploit others (sexually, mentally, physically).

2. Membership in a legitimate institution, be it a club, a branch of the military, or a corporation, gives legitimacy to individuals. We are more respectful and trusting when we are told a certain person is a VP or head of sales for XYZ company rather than just a stranger off the street.

3. Organizations give predators ready and easy access to an identifiable pool of individuals or potential victims. A cable television installer, for instance, can gain access to a home, assess the level of security, appraise what is of value, or determine if the person lives alone.

4. Organizations give predators access to potential victims they otherwise might not come into contact with, or might have to spend a lot of time finding. Predators may even find potential victims conveniently working two cubicles away.

5. Alliances are easy to make in an organization. These can serve to provide the predator information about exploitable weaknesses of others, as well as proprietary, personal, or sensitive data otherwise difficult to obtain.

6. Colleagues within an organization can serve to warn or protect the predator as a result of conspiratorial alliances or because they have a fiduciary interest in those predatory practices (predatory accountants protecting predatory CEOs).

7. Some organizations can be very financially rewarding for predators where they can exercise their anti-social traits (e.g., lack of conscience, indifference to others, bullying, cavalier attitudes, minimal concern for the welfare of employees, narcissism, sense of entitlement, placing profits over people). Often a similarly calloused and indifferent board of directors, interested only in profits, rewards these predators and their anti-social acts. It is a toxic but profitable symbiotic relation that is all too often familiar.

8. Organizations often try to “handle” negative things in-house to avoid bad publicity, so they are reluctant to report even gross criminal misconduct on the part of the predators in their midst; preferring to transfer them, fire them, or have them leave quietly.

9. Organizations are sometimes structured in such a way that the predator merely has to take advantage of existing weaknesses in the organization in order to profit – as we saw with the banking debacle of 2008.

10. Predators know that in civil lawsuits victims will go after the corporation with the deeper pockets rather than go after individuals with limited financial resources.

As we can see, there are a host of reasons why predators join organizations and if you think like a predator, it makes perfect sense. But there is something disturbing about why they would choose the clergy, or for that matter join a religious organization of any kind. It is disturbing because most of us don’t think about these things. Most people don’t think like a predator, but below are some insights that should make you think. These insights are based on conversations I and others have had with predators who intentionally sought to join religious organizations and from studying such individuals:

1. As noted earlier, within organizations, predators have access to a ready/available pool of potential victims. Within a religious order, those potential victims are identified for the predator, who knows how often they will get together and where (Sunday worship service at 11:00 am, at the local chapel, for example). Metronomic frequency of meetings creates opportunities for the predator to exploit directly, or even at a distance, such as committing burglaries based on knowing precisely when no one is home.

2. Some religious organizations require members to expose their faults, sins, or frailties in public. This is “manna from heaven” for predators who then use that information to better access or target their victims. Information like that serves to provide all the exploitable weaknesses a predator needs. As one predator told me, “With that kind of information I know exactly who to target and when.”

3. People gossip in most organizations, and in religious organizations it is no different. These informal social channels can be very effective in divulging who got promoted and has extra cash; who is going on vacation; whose spouse is overseas for seven months; who is naïve or gullible: who needs financial help; or who is having marital problems and is now lonely or vulnerable.

4. Within a religious organization, individuals of different social strata associate with one another with greater ease than in society. This gives the predator of low social status access to people who often live and socialize within restricted or gated communities and who otherwise would be impossible for them to target. In other words, if you can’t afford the country club, you can have access to those same socially higher-status people at a church gathering. This is a favored technique of conmen, grifters, and swindlers especially for Ponzi or pyramid schemes.

5. Many religious organizations preach forgiveness, even for felonies. For predators this is truly a godsend. This means that if they get caught, they can ask for forgiveness and chances are it will be given, in a pious but naïve effort to help the lawbreaker “learn from his mistakes.” Unfortunately, the predator sees this as an opportunity to sharpen his skills and to do his crime again, perhaps this time more carefully.

This apparently is what happened so many times with Catholic priests who were eventually convicted of serial child abuse. They were systematically “forgiven” along the way and thus they left behind a Grand Canyon-sized “debris field of human suffering” – namely children scarred for life, not to mention the trauma of the childrens’ families and the crisis of faith triggered among many devout Catholics as these transgressions were exposed.

If you are only casually familiar with what went on with the priests and the thousands of victims, you must read the Pulitzer prize-winning book Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church, by the superb investigative staff of The Boston Globe. And if that doesn’t rake at your heart, then Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church, by Leon J. Podles should make you cringe, cry, and cogitate.

6. Because religious organizations preach brotherly love, even when someone has done horrific crimes, there will be those gullible enough to defend the predator or willing to look the other way. The book Betrayal, by the Boston Globe has account after account of exactly that kind of sickening indulgence. But you don’t only have to look at religious organizations; just look at how many still defend, poodle-like, Jerry Sandusky, the convicted ex-football coach at Penn State, even after so many revelations of child abuse. In the book, Betrayal, there is example after example cited of parishioners, even fellow priests, staunchly defending priests convicted of serial offenses.

7. Another advantage for the predator in a religious organization is that if caught, he or she can very conveniently say it was “Satan's” fault. Whether cheating, taking advantage of the elderly, conducting financial shenanigans, or even abusing children, the predator merely has to say that the “devil” tempted him or her and that’s that. Predators know they can rely on a certain portion of the population to buy into that argument, and so they use it.

8. If the predator is in a position of authority within a religious organization, he or she can claim persecution by the “enemies” of the church or the organization. Any outside scrutiny subjecting the predator to the sanitizing rays of light is thus characterized as, “them,” the unbelievers “against us.” This often compels the group to “circle the wagons” in support of their leader, as we saw with David Koresh and Jim Jones. And of course they will argue that it is we the “outsiders,” who are distrusting of the leader/predator, and who don’t understand, because we simply don’t have “faith,” or we are (the more trendy) “haters.”

For the religious-based predator it is very convenient to label these individuals enemies of the: “the church,” “the Lord”, “the congregation,” “the prophet,” “the leader(s),” “the free practice of religion,” and an attack on the “the anointed,” “the faithful,” or the “righteous,” on and on. Once you label something an “enemy,” it truly does bring the true believers, as Eric Hoffer warned us, further together. This is exactly what happened when inquiries were first made of Warren Jeffs – later convicted of sexual assault on two girls. This is exactly the argument made by those who supported Jim Jones, many of whom are now dead as a result of his command to his followers to poison their own children and themselves.

9. If the predator becomes a leader within the organization, or if lucky, becomes the head of a church or religious group, then he or she is immediately cloaked with power and authority (moral power) that mere corporations don’t have. Keep in mind that most people still have a high respect for their church leaders and are willing to give them greater latitude and the benefit of the doubt.

10. Predators soon realize that the ability to invoke a deity in their defense is a powerful card to hold that trumps all other arguments. They can always say, “I was moved by the lord,” to do this or that, “I was commanded by God to,” do this or that, or “it is the will of the lord,” to do this or that. That is a tough, faith/emotionally-laden argument that is difficult to refute; especially for believers that are already vested having spent time and money in an organization. Thus the rape of children is justified merely by invoking the ostensible desire and will of a deity. And let’s be clear, predators love that they can do that. Once again, this is precisely what Warren Jeffs did with the assistance of repugnantly complicit mothers who willingly offered up their daughters for his sexual pleasure. Fugitive cult leader, Victor, Arden Barnard is alleged to have invoked the same defense, that he had a right to sexually abuse children because it was “God’s word.”

11. There is, it should be noted, no religion or sect that screens for psychopathy as defined by Robert Hare that I am awware of. All you need is to be ordained, or you declare yourself a religious leader and the way is clear for the predator. And so while some organizations, such as in law enforcement, screen for pathologies by using psychometric tools, very few religious organization do so. Which is why the predator would benefit from joining or leading such an organization. Across the planet, there is almost no scrutiny or due diligence that is or will be conducted. To connive, or to “con,” the predator merely needs his victim to have faith and trust in the predator something that is often easily achieved with the vestments of a legitimate religious organization.

12. To be a predator is to overvalue yourself at the expense of others – a key component of both the pathologically narcissistic and the predator (see Dangerous Personalities). Here is where a predator has an advantage because in a religious organization, this overvaluation of self is potentiated by the title that is either conferred, that comes with the office, or bestowed through ordination. For the predator, it is tantamount to being told, “you are” therefore “you can.”

13. Predators know or soon learn that society tends to revere and not question religious authority. People of high status such as famous coaches, TV personalities, politicians, and so on are often given great latitude to the point where allegations of misconduct, even serious criminal offenses are often ignored (Jimmy Savile in the UK; O.J. Simpson in the US).

14. Parents may be more trusting of a religious leader than of the average person. As history has taught us, they may dismiss allegations made by their own children as to sexual abuse by a religious leader or they will remain quiescent so as to not “rock the boat.” It is very tough for parents, especially those from humble background or who are deeply religious, to go up against a popular or charismatic leader, “the church” or a large, well-financed religious order. Often, as we now well know, the fear of retribution, being ostracized or socially marginalized, or excommunicated keeps victims and parents silent.

15. In most cultures, children pay deference to authority figures, especially religious ones. Knowing this, the predator can almost certainly count on children abiding by their sordid requests and keeping such matters “secret.” There is ample evidence of this from history, social psychology, and thousands of law suits.

So, where does this leave us? With the reality that predators are all around us. Anywhere from 1 to 4 percent or perhaps more of any population, according to researchers, is made up of individuals who are social predators (DSM V, 2013, 659-663). They may seek to join organizations for the additional benefits these organizations bring. It is not the organization; it is the individuals who seek to use those organizations for predation and that is the problem. Individuals who seek religious organizations because there they can more easily target victims and do so much more harm – that is our reality.

We cannot prevent all crimes, nor can we always know how predators will come after us, but knowledge helps. If we are sensitized ahead of time to how predators think, how they use legitimate organizations, and take advantage of others, perhaps then we can protect one more child, or perhaps even ourselves from these social predators.

This is what sex abuse of children on an industrial scale looks like.

Post Publishing Update:

"Pennsylvania Priests Abused Thousands of Children". August 14, 2018;

"Jesuits release lists of clergy accused of abusing minors," December 18, 2018

"500 priests in Illinois alone accused of child predation," December 20, 2018

"Catholic Church in Texas Names Nearly 300 Priests Accused of Sex Abuse" January 31, 2019

"Southern Baptist Church Sexual Abuse Database Reveals Hundreds Of Convicted Predators Among Leaders" February 10, 2019

"Vatican defrocks ex-US cardinal McCarrick over sexual abuse allegations" February 16, 2019

"Top Vatican official, found guilty of sexual abuse" February 25, 2019

"Nearly 400 Catholic clergy members accused of sexual misconduct in Illinois," March 20, 2019

"New York Archdiocese Names 120 Catholic Clergy Members Accused of Abuse," April 27, 2019

"2 Priests Convicted in Argentina of Sexual Abuse of Deaf Children," November 25, 2019

"Scandals, Compensation Programs Lead Catholic Clergy Sex Abuse Complaints to Quadruple in 2019," June 26, 2020.

"Ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick ran sex ring for clerics at New Jersey beach home, lawsuit alleges," July 23, 2020.

Slew of church abuse lawsuits hinges on state court decision.” August 14, 2020

"French Church abuse: 216,000 children were victims of clergy – inquiry" October 5, 2021

"The Catholic church’s sex-crime secrecy goes all the way to the top" - The Washington Post, January 25, 2022.

"New Jersey Diocese Agrees to Settle Sex Abuse Claims for $87.5 Million." The New York Times, April 19, 2022

"Maryland Finds That for Hundreds of Clergy Abuse Victims, ‘No Parish Was Safe" The New York Times November 18, 2022.

"Sex Abuse in Catholic Church: Over 1,900 Minors Abused in Illinois." The New York Times May 23, 2023

Copyright © 2014 Joe Navarro

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