Clergy Sexual Abuse: A Traumagenic Framework

Finklehor (1985) provides a framework of understanding the traumagenic dynamics of sexual abuse that has stood the test of time.  While Finklehor’s work was completed on minor victims, it is a framework of understanding that easily transposes onto a victim of a predator at any age, by an offender of any status. Finklehor rightly defines these dynamics as the following:

Traumatic Sexualization: is the process by which a victim’s sexuality (sexual feelings and attitudes) are awakened or aroused in a victim, by an entirely inappropriate person, manner, context, and timing. When a cleric sexualizes a relationship that the victim understood to be paternal and Christo-centric, it is traumatic sexualization. The office of the cleric, the fiduciary trust, is tied intricately to the victim’s sense of deity, worship, communion, and fellowship with God the Father. This type of sexualized spirituality obliterates the victim’s ability to find solace in future formal religious experiences.

Betrayal: refers to the dynamic that occurs when a victim discovers that someone upon whom they entrusted their spiritual care to, has caused them great harm. “For example, in the course of abuse or its aftermath, victims may come to the realization that a trusted person has manipulated them through lies or misrepresentations about moral standards” (Finklehor & Browne, 1985).

Powerlessness: “is the dynamic of rendering the victim powerless. It is the sense in which the victims will, desires, and sense of efficacy are continually contravened” (Finklehor & Browne, 1985). Clerical offenders use the naïve trust of the victim, as well as their powerful position to groom the will, the desires, the piety, and the vulnerabilities of the victim. The persuasive clerical offender is able to effectively coerce and compel the victim into compliance, with the most spiritual and honorable of covers – the cloth of Christendom.

Stigmatization: In Greek and Latin, stigma was a mark or brand, especially one that marked a slave, so a stigma marked a person as inferior. (Dictionary, 2017) Stigmatization from clergy sexual abuse holds not only the full weight of sexual abuse itself but also the crushing load of communal ostracization. It is easier, it seems for the vast majority of Christendom to pathologize a vulnerable victim than to believe that a cleric could engage in corrupt and criminal conduct.


Finklehor, D. P. D., & Browne, A. P. D. (1985). The traumatic impact of child sexual abuse: a conceptualization. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 55(5).

Shupe, A. (2007). Spoils of the kingdom: clergy misconduct and religious community. University of Illinois Press.

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