Effect of Clergy Sexual Abuse on Self-Identity

By: Tyler Aliperto and Patrick Noaker

I don’t even know who I am,” said one survivor (Participant 508) due to the effects that being sexually abused by a priest as a child had on his self identity.

 

This is a feeling that many of our clients and many victims of clergy sexual abuse express at some point in their lives — the feeling of “what could have been” had I not been sexually abused at such a young age and by such a respected and trusted authority figure. Not only are these feelings and questions of self-identity validated by the experiences of survivors all around the world, but now they have also been substantiated by a scientific study conducted in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

The Study:

The study, conducted by Boston College professor Scott D. Easton, Griffith University professor Patrick J. O’Leary, and Nursing Sciences expert Danielle M. Leone-Sheehan, surveyed 205 men who indicated that they were survivors of clergy sexual abuse using an open-ended question asking survivors to describe “how (if at all) the sexual abuse has affected your self-identity.”

Through this study, these experts found that survivors of clergy sexual abuse suffer an identity crisis in six key areas: the total self, psychological self, relational self, gendered self, aspirational self, and spiritual self. Many survivors, 48.1% of participants, “reported effects that were classified into multiple domains.” This shows that in many cases survivors do not only experience an identity crisis in one area of themselves, but rather in multiple facets of their self-identity all at once.

The area that participants most commonly say their identity has been affected is within their psychological self; which can lead to mental health problems, self-harming behaviors, and low self-esteem. Nearly half (47.8%) of those surveyed had suffered an identity crisis within their psychological self. While for one survivor (Participant 474) these feelings of low self-esteem manifested in self-judgment, “I spent a lot of time thinking I was going to hell,” for another the psychological identity crisis led to a completely different personality:

Those five years [of sexual abuse by a priest] ruined everything. My self-identity is sad, melancholic, shy, retiring, and angry. Never happy, never satisfied, never content or at peace.” (Participant 456)

Implications:

There are many implications and possible policies/practices that can be drawn out from the results of this study in order to help treat and respond to the identity crisis associated with clergy sexual abuse.

One major implication of these findings discussed by the study’s authors is that it is critical to reduce the barriers to mental health services for male survivors of clergy sexual abuse. Not only do these barriers include the expensive cost and lack of access to mental health services for many, but also the perceived stigma around psychological treatment. By educating people (particularly men) around the benefits of obtaining treatment and also making treatments more efficient and cost-effective, it may be possible to reduce the barriers to mental health services and thus improve the psychological well-being of many survivors of sexual abuse.

In addition to improving the accessibility of mental health treatments, the authors encourage practitioners working with survivors of clergy sexual abuse to incorporate a holistic approach to treatment that recognizes the interconnected nature of the various areas of self-identity. Practitioners should help clients to “articulate and embrace their authentic self” as an intervention goal, something which the authors suggest can be done through “including the interpretation, integration and creation of meaning from the abuse experience.”

Due to the identity crisis within the psychological self, mental health practitioners working with survivors of clergy sexual abuse should also carefully evaluate survivors for the possibility of compulsive behaviors (such as substance abuse), low self-esteem, and suicidal thoughts/actions. Since clergy sexual abuse also affects the aspirational self and one’s sense of success, it is important for practitioners to “promote realistic goal-setting and problem-solving skills” in order to help survivors reach personal goals and experience themselves as a successful person.

For the Catholic Church, the authors offer this advice toward long-term reconciliation:

Beyond financial settlements, it is clear that regaining the trust of the victims, their families, and other parishioners will require persistent efforts by church officials, such as a credible process for investigating and addressing new clergy abuse allegations. These processes need to be characterized by transparency, accountability, timeliness, and independence… A broader, more comprehensive approach by religious institutions could include funding clinical assessments and treatment programs for survivors and reaching out to (and communicating with) survivor advocacy groups.”


About the Authors:

Tyler Aliperto, a recent graduate of the HECUA: Inequality in America program, is a Research and Social Media Advocate with the Noaker Law Firm LLC and a Digital Communications and Journalism major at St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota.

For 27 years, Patrick Noaker has represented clients in courtrooms across the country, including hundreds of sexual abuse survivors. He is a member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum for winning multiple jury trial verdicts exceeding $1M and for winning millions more in settlements. Patrick has also been selected by his peers as a Minnesota SuperLawyer.