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Child Sexual Abuse by Catholic Priests Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Jan 7th, 2021

Sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests is an issue that was highlighted in the recent decades by journalists and social activists. According to Harper and Perkins (2018), the problem has been a matter of public interest since the 1990s. The main issue that had an impact on the victim’s cooperation with abuse was not reporting the crime. The problem was influenced by the relationship between the families and the religious establishments. Furthermore, when reported, the cases were not appropriately handled by the church because of the bureaucracy and the internal hierarchy that influenced the decision-making process.

However, the human rights activists together with journalists have brought attention to the critical issue, leading to many changes being made in the Catholic Church. Additionally, the state has developed legislation that encouraged the victims of such crimes to report them, regardless of the timeframe in which the abuse was committed.

The result was nearly 10,280 cases of sexual abuse by representatives of the Catholic Church that were reported between 1950 and 2002 (Saltzman, Easton, & Salas-Wright, 2015). To be able to successfully help the victims of sexual abuse crimes committed by priests, it is critical to understand the causes and factors that influence the decision of people not to report.

Literature Review and Data Analysis

Social pressure was a determining factor in ensuring that the church modifies its policy regarding the investigation and punishments of those who commit sexual crimes against children. Flam (2015) focuses the research on the sexual crimes committed by Catholic priests before and in the early 2000s. The author highlights the importance of factors that lead to the change in the decision-making process of the church officials regarding such cases.

Women movements, victim movements, popular culture are among the factors that helped change the attitude inside the church. In the US, Catholic Church has acknowledged the crimes, and introduced reforms to counteract the crimes. The change led to a “a multi-actor, multi-rule governance regime on the sexual abuse issue” (Flam, 2015, p. 386). Thus, the author argues that the previous governance structure of the Catholic Church and the bureaucracy that was caused by it led to issues with investigating the sexual assault crimes. The author presents a detailed history of the church’s functioning to the time when human rights movements began being widespread across the world and in the US. The fact allowed victims to feel the power to come forward and talk about the assault.

Researching the data about the convicted priests can be helpful in understanding the underlying reasons behind the issue. Hansen (2015) focuses the research on the priests accused of sexual assault in Minnesota after the state passed a “Child Victims Act.” The law allowed the victims of sexual abuse to come forward and report the abuse to the police, regardless of the time when the crime had happened. This led to many accusations and lawsuits directed at the priests of the Catholic Church. Hansen (2015) determined variables that were common for the accused priests. One of the questions of the study focuses on the outcomes of the findings in regards to the victims.

The author implicates that further studies comparing clergy offenders and non-clergy offenders is needed to determine the possible causes of child abuse in the Catholic Church. In addition, Hansen (2015) states that one of the critical aspects of not reporting the crime is the relationship between the families of the victims and the priests. The research offers insight into the causes of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and proposes many aspects that need further investigation to determine appropriate treatment for the abusers.

Psychological theories can help understand the crimes against children in the religious settings. Harper and Perkins (2018) investigate the issue of reporting child sexual abuse committed by priests of the Catholic Church. As part of the study, the authors look at the “system justification and moral foundations theory” as frameworks for further research on the subject (Harper & Perkins, 2018, p. 30). Furthermore, they offer a solution for those who work in the field of informed training and interventions, as the paper provides a method for improving reporting practices. It is acknowledged by the authors that reporting an observed abuse in religious settings is complicated. It can be concluded that established psychological research can help gain insight into the issue.

Sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests is not an issue that is prevalent only in the US. Germany set up a particular reporting system in 2010 to acknowledge the crimes. According to Rassenhofer, Spröber, Schneider, and Fegert (2013), another purpose of the system was to connect with the victims and gain insight on the problem. The research reviewed the backgrounds of the victims, including the gender and frequency of abuse. In addition, the desire of a victim to receive compensation was taken into account. The victims received the communication channel, and it offered them an opportunity to get professional help and provide information to the police. The approach, taken by the German government, proved to be effective in communicating with the victims.

The childhood abuse has an impact on one’s adult life; therefore, the issue needs to be addressed appropriately. Saltzman et al. (2015), researched the topic of Posttraumatic Growth Inventory in adults that were subjected to child abuse by priests. The emphasis of the study was on the spiritual growth of the subjects. The authors state that the healing process for men who were abused in childhood by Catholic Church representatives is long and complex (Saltzman et al., 2015). Although measuring the impact the abuse has on one’s mental health is difficult it is critical to provide help to adults that deal with the trauma.

The data shows that the reporting of crimes has increased since the “Child Victims Act.” In addition, social movements that support human rights have contributed to the change in the society that provided a possibility to report the crimes. The Catholic Church was pressured to change its hierarchy and bureaucratic procedures in response to the public outrage. In addition, the data collected by researchers can be used in further studies to understand the causes of abuse in Catholic Churches. The researchers have found that government initiatives directed at creating a communication channel are helpful for the victims. Furthermore, it is evident that adults that have experienced sexual abuse in childhood require assistance due to issues with mental health.


Q1: In your opinion, how did the recent policy changes in the law influenced the ability of victims to come forward?

A1: The law that allowed convict priests was one of the essential factors. The fact that the victims could press charges regardless of the time that had passed since the occurrence is critical for many. For me, it was essential as it allowed me to step forward and tell the real story. This should ensure that people committing those crimes are put in prisons where they can no longer hurt others.

Q2: Do you think that the church has changed its attitudes towards these crimes?

A2: I would very much wish to believe so. Although it is difficult to see what is going on behind the closed doors. However, the church has admitted that the abuse had occurred and from what I know was not obstructing the justice. However, if the church had acknowledged the issue earlier, many of the victims would have avoided the abuse.

Q3: What is the most challenging part (for the victim) in the process of reporting such crime?

A3: Admitting that it has happened, I would say. Also, I know that a lot of victims, especially those who are younger, experience difficulty because of the community pressures. The church is a big part of life for many people and experiencing these crimes is a difficult challenge.

Q4: Sometimes victims feel guilt when experiencing trauma connected to sexual crimes, is this the case with sexual abuse of children committed by Catholic priests?

A4: I think for a child, it is difficult to process what has happened and why. Not everyone can come to their parents and tell them what happened to gain protection from them. So, I think it is part of the coping mechanism for some people. Although with me, it was not the case, I do not recall thinking that the abuse was my fault.

Q5: What are some steps that we as a society can take to ensure that such crimes do not happen?

A5: First and foremost, letting the people that had such a terrifying experience tell their stories. Ensure that the criminals cannot hide from justice, and prosecute them lawfully. As for children, talking to them and explaining that such things should not happen can be essential.

Q6: What are some steps that one can take to help a victim of child abuse?

A6: I would say that help from a professional is needed. Referring a child to therapy is crucial, as they will not feel as if they are left on their own.

Critical Review and Recommendations

The reviewed literature has offered a lot of insight on the crime and its effects on the victims. The issue of child abuse in Catholic Churches had been in place for decades, however, many cases were left unreported. Hansen (2015) describes the establishment as the one that plays a “critical role in the lives of millions of people” (p. 8). This fact is emphasizing the seriousness of the issue and the consequences that the victims have to deal with.

It is essential to have a clear understanding of why the issue occurs in the first place. While the review of the literature does not offer an explanation for why the abuse had happened, the researchers justify the reasons why victims or observers choose not to report the crime. It is evident that the fact that the abuse was committed by a person who represents a religious organization has contributed to the non-reporting of the crimes.

It can be argued that the fact that the subjects of the abuse were children has added to the problem of cases that were not reported to the police. In addition, the research shows that the observers of such crimes often chosen to not report them for similar reasons (Harper & Perkins, 2018). The issue has psychological causes that require further investigation by researching the decision-making process of victims. Thus, the recommendation for new research is to focus on the not reported cases of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

Helping the victims of child sexual abuse should be the focus of the governmental services. The first step is to ensure that they have easy access to reporting the crime. The German approach, described by Rassenhofer et al. (2013) has shown that a solution as simple as a hotline can help many people tell the story of their abuse which can lead to further prosecutions. Receiving phone calls, emails, and letters have enabled the government to gain information about more than 4,600 cases of abuse by priests (Rassenhofer et al., 2013). It can be argued that one of the essential steps in the process of helping the victims is providing them with a resource where they can share their stories.

The recommendation for the US institutions would be to adopt the approach and offer an easy to access way for victims to communicate with social workers and government officials. Providing services that would focus on helping the adults to deal with the consequences is a vital aspect of dealing with the victims of sexual abuse. The child abuse can result in the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory, which can impact the life of an adult. Further research is needed to understand what type of an intervention or a treatment plan can be used in such cases.

The social pressure has enabled the changes in the Catholic Church. However, it is evident that the changes were made after long periods of hiding the crimes or failing to investigate and prosecute them. Flam (2015) describes the establishment before the reform as a “charismatic bureaucratic organization” (p. 389). The author states that re-evaluation of children that came into place after the World War II has influenced the attitudes towards the abuse. The kids were regarded as an object of fascination by parents. Additionally, women’s rights movement has contributed to the attention that was brought to the issue of child abuse. Thus, it is apparent that social movements have the power to raise awareness about specific topics.

Overall, the issue of child abuse by a Catholic priest remains a topic that needs to be investigated. The central question with the specific crimes is the decision of victims to avoid prosecution of the abusers. Additionally, the Catholic Church has contributed to the problem by obstructing the process of identifying the priests that could be involved in the crime. However, the situation has recently changed with the rise of the human rights movement.

This contributed to many people choosing to speak up about their experience, which in turn led to the implementation of the “Child Victims Act”. It is crucial to provide help to those who were victims of child abuse from Catholic representatives, to both children and adults. An important recommendation is implementing a channel of communication that would provide the victims with an ability to contact professionals and police.


Flam, H. (2015). Sexual abuse of children by the Catholic priests in the US: From a “charismatic bureaucracy” to a governance regime. Journal of Political Power, 8(3), 385-410. Web.

Hansen, M. A. (2015). Child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Web.

Harper, C. A., & Perkins, C. (2018). Reporting child sexual abuse within religious settings: Challenges and future directions. Child Abuse Review, 27, 30-41. Web.

Rassenhofer, M., Spröber, N., Schneider, T., & Fegert, J. M. (2013). Listening to victims: Use of a critical incident reporting system to enable adult victims of childhood sexual abuse to participate in a political reappraisal process in Germany. Child Abuse & Neglect, 34(9), 653-663. Web.

Saltzman, L. Y., Easton, S. D., & Salas-Wright, C. P. (2015). A validation study of the posttraumatic growth inventory among survivors of clergy-perpetrated child sexual abuse. Journal of the Society for Social Work & Research, 6(3), 1-11, 305-315. Web.

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