Religious Communities & Child Sex Abuse

Many religious organizations have been hit with waves of child sex abuse complaints in recent years, including:

  • the Catholic Church,
  • Jesuits,
  • Seventh-day Adventists
  • and the Hasidic Jewish community

Tragically, survivors of sexual abuse are often intimidated or threatened into silence. Our experienced civil lawyers can help.

Brian Kent “When religious officials cover up reports of child sex abuse, they do a serious disservice to victims. Concealing evidence in child molestation cases is a major offense that should not go unpunished.”

— Brian Kent, Esq.

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Places of worship provide solace, spiritual growth, and a loving community to millions of people worldwide. But tragically, some religious communities are plagued with horrific, longstanding crises involving child sex abuse committed by trusted congregation members or even religious leaders.

dark church silhouette landscapeWorse yet, abuse in these communities is frequently shrouded in secrecy, with religious officials often bending over backwards to hide abuse allegations from the community at large, the greater public, and even from law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

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Victims describe being dismissed, shamed into silence, or even ostracized by religious leaders and their community simply for attempting to bring their experiences with abuse to light and to stop abusers from targeting more children.

Religious Organizations Hit In Sex Abuse Scandals

Though the threat of child sexual abuse can arise in any community or organization, some religious communities may possess characteristics that render them relatively risky:

  • Cut off from society at large. Any community that tends to be isolated from the rest of society can create an environment where abuse is easily hidden or even encouraged.
  • Strict power dynamics.  When children are taught to obey and honor church leaders without question, it can be exceedingly difficult for them to speak against such leaders, even if they’re hurting children.

Catholic Church Scandal Explodes

Since at least the early 1940’s, reports of widespread child sex abuse perpetrated by the priesthood were sent to high-ranking church officials, only to be largely ignored. One staunch advocate of removing offending priests from the ministry was Gerald Fitzgerald, who founded a special congregation with the purpose of rehabilitating priests deemed unfit to serve due to alcoholism or other personal problems. Though Fitzgerald was firmly committed to helping priests overcome their challenges and return to their parishes, he strongly believed that attempts to rehabilitate pedophiles were ultimately futile.

Over 3000 lawsuits have been filed against Catholic dioceses nationwide over child molestation and other forms of child sex abuse allegedly perpetrated by priests. In attempts to cover up the scandal, the Catholic church has responded to many of these claims with multi-million dollar settlement offers. The total amount of settlements relating to the sex abuse scandal exceeded $3 billion after 2012, and more allegations are being raised every year.

Society Of Jesus (Jesuits)

The Jesuits, an order of Roman Catholic priests widely-known for their focus on missionary work, was heavily targeted during rise of the Catholic sex abuse scandal, when allegations surfaced involving the abuse of First Nations youth in Jesuit schools in Alaska. These allegations eventually led to a $50 million settlement in 2007, the largest settlement agreement negotiated at the time with a single religious order.

More recently, sex abuse allegations have been increasing in other countries, such as in the Philippines, where an abuse survivor is asking for $16 million in compensation from the Jesuit order, after receiving a confession letter from the alleged abuser.

Jehovah’s Witnesses

Jehovah’s Witnesses have long suffered from horrific cases of child sex abuse, made worse by how the problem and its handling is intentionally shrouded in the utmost secrecy by religious officials. In fact, for decades, regional leaders, known as “Elders” in the organization, have been specifically instructed not to involve law enforcement in investigations of child sex abuse.

The overarching corporation that serves as the central authority for Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, has become notorious for staunchly protecting perpetrators of abuse from being identified by law enforcement, even flouting court orders demanding the names and locations of accused officials.

Though officials claim sex abuse cases are “rare” within the community, it’s difficult to know the true magnitude of the problem considering the secrecy demanded of JW members in dealing with allegations. Several cases have been publicized in which victims were turned away by church elders, and only later told law enforcement, leading to convictions.

Critics say that many previously-accused child molesters are only briefly suspended, and then later reinstated into positions of power that enable them to abuse children.

Church Of Latter Day Saints (Mormon Church)

The Mormon Church has seen a number of high-ranking officials convicted for child molestation, rape, and exploitation throughout the 2000’s. These include Warren Jeffs, a former LDS Church President, who was charged and convicted in multiple criminal cases after attempting to escape being arrested, for allegedly arranging marriages between adult male congregation members and underage girls, by flying out of Utah. He was later arrested in Nevada and tried on multiple counts including rape, sexual abuse of minors, and incest.

Hasidic Jewish Communities

Child sex abuse survivors from Hasidic Jewish communities are often shamed or guilt-tripped into silence. The Jerusalem Post conducted an investigation, interviewing a large number of rabbis in communities to inquire about their views on reporting child molestation and other forms of child sex abuse. Most interviewees felt that allegations should be strictly handled within the community. Victims describe being told to consider the effects of telling outsiders of their experiences, with rabbis often trying to convince them to forgive the perpetrator or scare them into believing that publicity would harm their reputation and marriage prospects or have a negative effect on the perpetrator’s family.

Further Reading On Child Sex Abuse