In Bad Faith: When Clergy Abuse, with Anna Segura-Montagut, Ph.D.
Clergy have a uniquely intimate place in the lives of people of faith: present at baptisms, weddings, sick beds, and funerals. They’re with us when we’re at our worst and at our best, and life’s highs and lows. And while most clergy view this as a sacred trust with parishioners, others—as we have learned—sadly use that access and trust to abuse children.
Anna Segura-Montagut, Ph.D., joins us to discuss a research study that moves beyond news accounts, books, and movies to explore critical questions when working with survivors of clergy abuse. How is survivors’ belief in God affected by the abuse? And how does that impact resilience? How is their trust in institutions affected? How does that impact their access to the very social and community supports needed to heal from that abuse? And most importantly, how do we walk besides these survivors in their own healing journey even as we struggle with our own feelings about faith and faith communities?
Topics in this episode:
- Research decisions (1:37)
- Similarities and differences (5:03)
- Impact on belief (9:43)
- Advice for child abuse professionals (15:25)
- Entrapment (18:19)
- Implications for clergy and the church (20:26)
- Future research (23:51)
- What survivors need (25:44)
- Reason to hope (31:17)
Anna Segura-Montagut, Ph.D., clinical psychologist; assistant research scientist, Family Translational Research Group at NYU Dentistry Center for Oral Health Policy and Management
“An Exploratory Study on Mental Health, Social Problems and Spiritual Damage in Victims of Child Sexual Abuse by Catholic Clergy and Other Perpetrators,” N. Pereda, L. Contreras Taibo, A. Segura Montagut, F. Maffioletti, Journal of Child Sexual Abuse 31(2):1-19. DOI: 10.1080/10538712.2022.2080142, May 2022
Sherry Hamby, Ph.D., appeared on One in Ten on February 14, 2020. Her interview was later republished on August 6, 2020, as part of our “Best of the Best” series. “Greater Than the Sum—Multiple Adversities in Children’s Lives”
Season 4, Episode 19
“In Bad Faith: When Clergy Abuse,” with Anna Segura-Montagut
Hi, I’m Teresa Huizar, your host of One in Ten. In today’s episode, “In Bad Faith: When Clergy Abuse,” I speak to Anna Segura-Montagut, professor and researcher at the University of Barcelona, about the impact of clergy abuse on victims. Clergy have a uniquely intimate place in the lives of people of faith: present at baptisms, weddings, sick beds, and funerals. They’re with us when we’re at our worst and at our best, and life’s highs and lows. And while most clergy view this as a sacred trust with parishioners, others—as we have learned—sadly use that access and trust to abuse children.
Anna’s study moves beyond news accounts, books, and movies to explore critical questions when working with survivors of clergy abuse. How is their belief in God affected by the abuse? And how does that impact resilience? How is their trust in institutions affected? And more importantly, how does that impact their access to the very social and community supports needed to heal from that abuse? And most importantly, how do we walk besides these survivors in their own healing journey even as we struggle with our own feelings about faith and faith communities?
I know you’ll be as interested in this conversation as I was. Please take a listen.
[music begins to fade]
[1:37] Teresa Huizar:
Anna, welcome to One in Ten.
I was very excited to read your study, which was recently published along with your co-authors in May, I believe.
One of the interesting things that I found about this study, and you know, here in the United States, we’ve had our own clergy abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and in other faith communities, too. But this is the first study I think I’ve seen that really compared the effects across different types of child sexual abuse survivors: Those who had abuse within the family. Those who had abuse from external individuals who were not part of the family, but also not clergy. And then those who were survivors of clergy abuse. What made you decide to look and compare those three groups?
Well, we were interested in the faith. So faith and beliefs in God, in this sense, uh, we know it’s one of, could be one of the resources or strengths that people use to navigate through life.
I was working with Sherry Hamby while she was finishing the development or the poly strengths—
—research and I learned that from her that we should take that into account when we explore the strengths that people use to cope with abuse. So we thought that this could be something that could be impacted by that experience, negative experience. And that could be like a key impact on this specific community, and that that seemed to be something that was important. So the experience of child sexual abuse had a negative impact in this faith and that kind of predicted social and mental health problems.
[3:30] Teresa Huizar:
We’re going to get into some of those with some specificity here at the moment. But it’s so interesting that you’re talking about Sherry Hamby’s work. We’ve had her onto the podcast, too, to talk about her work because we find it very interesting as well.
But I think this is something that may be sometimes overlooked by child abuse professionals, the fact that, for many individuals, their religious faith is a source of strength to them and something that they really rely on to deal with adversity throughout the lifespan. And, as we’re going to talk about, when that gets damaged in some way, if someone has been relying on that, that can have a very significant impact on them.
Now, because you are in Barcelona and we are here, I want to set the stage a little bit for people. Because I think the cultural context is always different wherever you are. What was the starting point in terms of people’s belief in God? Was there a fairly high percentage of the participants in your study that believed in God to begin with?
And so when you look at these three groups, and you sort of went into this study to look at the impact of their faith and what happened to that as a part of the child sexual abuse, what did you think you were going to find before you even had the finding? What were your hypotheses in the study?
Yeah, the hypothesis was that the impact on their faith will be greater for those who experience child sex abuse at the hands of clergy people or those involved in the Roman Catholic Church.
[5:03] Teresa Huizar:
So, one thing that I thought was very interesting in your study is, you kind of—you looked at a lot of factors. You looked at the faith, but you also looked at lots of things about this. And there were some ways in which clergy abuse victims were not really very different than any other form. There were some things that were very similar. Can you talk about some of those things in which, whether someone was a sexual abuse survivor by a family member or someone else, or clergy, it seemed to be no significant difference statistically.
So those that were similar. I’m sorry, Teresa, I mostly remember the ones that were different. The ones that were similar, if I remember that well, were disclosure and …
So one of the things that I remember from reading it recently—and I realize you’re already onto the next research, you know, subject, so you’re not still back in what you published back in May.
But one of the things that I thought was very interesting is there didn’t seem to be very much difference in, for example, the gender of the abuser. They tend to be mostly male.
You know, and there didn’t seem to be much different in the types of abuse that people suffered.
Kids experienced the range of abuse irrespective of who their abuser was. And the fact that these were not one-time occurrences, you know, often the abuse had gone on—
—for some time.
But now let’s turn kind of to your point about what sticks out in the mind, which is, the things that were really different. What was really different for those people who had been abused by clergy in the Catholic Church?
Yes. I just wanted to thank you, Teresa, regarding the child sexual abuse characteristics, they were not very different. One of the things that stand out for me was that the abuse was not sporadic, and this is something that I thought it would be. And it actually was very similar to those that experienced that in their families.
So I was just still struggling with this hypothesis I had in my mind before we did the study, but the results were similar. So, yes, thank you for bringing that up.
And things that were different. For example, the victims’ sex. So most of the victims that reported child sexual abuse by clergy were males. It’s something that we’ve been seeing across studies all over the world that most of the victims are males and yeah, that will be one of the differences.
The other one will be that some of them use this authority and use some specific messages related to that faith to the church, uh, in order to, uh, yeah uh, commit this negative experience, child sexual abuse.
[8:07] Teresa Huizar:
I thought it was interesting that the paper pointed out that in a number of clergy abuse instances that were captured in your study, the clergy themselves were using symbols from the faith or religious events or other kinds of things directly connected to the faith and incorporating it essentially into the, the abuse.
And so in those instances where it’s so completely connected in that way, what did you find when you were asking questions about people’s faith in general, their belief in God, their, you know, sense of, um, connection to their religious faith, those kinds of things? What did you find that was different for those individuals who had been abused by clergy?
So, um, we found that it was pretty similar. One of the limitations of the study, of course, is that we were not able to do this, like in a longitudinal basis. So we weren’t able to know their faith before that happened.
Afterwards, what we saw was that there was an impact on their faith for those who experienced this experience. But we didn’t know if that was actually lower among them at the very beginning. But this is what the tendency, what the results tend to show. that there was an a negative impact on their faith.
[9:43] Teresa Huizar:
And one of the things that I remember from the study is that you didn’t ask the question just generally. You asked them to essentially rate how impacted something was. So was it a little bit, was it more than that? Was there an extreme—that was one of the categories—was there an extreme impact on it? And what seemed very interesting to me is that for those people who said that their belief in God specifically had been impacted extremely by this event, not really event, but by the fact that they had been victimized in this way, that that correlated with a lot of very negative things. Very negative trauma symptoms and outcomes for them. Can you talk about some of those?
Yeah. So yes, one of the things, for example, we asked and we saw that there were differences was you worry about your doubt or your lack of belief in God.
So people who experienced child sexual abuse by someone involved at some point in the Roman Catholic Church, they experience that at a higher degree. So this decrease of faith among this group correlated with mental health and social problems specifically, for example, yeah, with internalizing problems, which will be like anxiety or depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, but also like kind of sexual problems or other problems like sleep disorder or eating disorders.
[11:17] Teresa Huizar:
I think the thing that’s a little bit surprising is, I think someone might not necessarily, as a child abuse professional, say to themselves, “Well, if someone says that their belief in God was extremely impacted by being sexually abused by clergy, I’m going to see these heightened issues around anxiety, depression, more so than even other survivors. You know, that I’m going to expect to see that. I’m going to see it impacting their sleep and other things like that.”
I also saw that there was an elevated suicidality, which I thought was very interesting.
Can you talk about that a little bit? Because that, you know, we know that there are risk for suicide and suicidal ideation with child sexual abuse survivors. But can you talk a little bit about that?
Because that just seemed very, very worrisome.
Yeah. This is one of, of the other mental health problems we explored, and it seemed to be significant among this group that we were comparing to the other child sexual victim survivors.
Our hypothesis or what we thought at the end is that faith doesn’t need to be one of the strengths that people use to cope in their daily lives. But whenever you rely on these strengths, the fact that an experience kind of erased that, or erased the possibility of using that, kind of takes out one of the elements that you use to cope. So your resources decrease.
So, in my mind how I explain this is that obviously it has a higher impact for these people because they were relying on some resources that now they cannot. And it’s not that they cannot use their resources, it’s that they associate these resources with a negative or really negative traumatic experience.
[13:16] Teresa Huizar:
There are several things you just said that I think are really interesting. One is, you’re not saying that someone needs to be religious or have a belief in God. You’re simply saying that if you do, and you’ve been relying on that, um, as a way to deal with adversity and then that gets damaged in some way, then you just have fewer emotional resources to draw on to deal with the adversity that you’re facing.
I think one of the things that I was, um, thinking about with this is because so many individuals who’ve been abused by clergy had religious symbols, events, other things that were wrapped up in their abuse, one of the things your study noted is that people can find it very triggering to even be exposed to those things again.
Can you talk a little bit about that?
And now that you say it, I remember that in our preliminary data, we explored not only the impacts on their faith in God, but also their beliefs in the church as a whole, in this institution. We eliminated that from the final results because that was kind of difficult from like separating that from God, their faith in God.
But you could tell that there were significant impact among these specific group of child sexual abuse survivors on the way they see, at the present moment, the institution. So, yeah, I would say that this carries on, like this experience, the use of these symbols related to the institution, these people that not only conducts this traumatic experience, but also have a role in these institutions—like, let’s not forget that like they are embedded in an institution and representing that. So that has can an impact afterwards. Either it’s a crisis of faith on this institution, less kind of resources for these people to cope or, uh, a less resource for these people to cope on their daily lives or a prediction of kind of mental health or social problems.
[15:25] Teresa Huizar:
It’s so important what you’re noting, which is, it’s not just that the person experiences this betrayal by an individual, the person who abused them, but because it’s embedded in the institution, they also are left feeling that the institution has betrayed them as well. Especially if those investigations and disclosures aren’t handled very well. Unfortunately in the U.S., in many cases they were not. And so we certainly see the same things I would say here.
You know, when you think about the people who will be listening to this, who are all child abuse professionals, they work with child victims of abuse all the time, including those who’ve been victimized by clergy.
What do you think are the most important things for them to be thinking about and incorporating into their practice based on this study?
I would say acknowledge all this. All we were conversating right now that some people—and again, like results, uh, from all these studies seem to point towards the direction, but like every person has its own experience.
And having said that, I think like the first thing would be to acknowledge that you can still have a conversation with, or be in a conversation with, with a child sexual abuse survivors by clergy that uses faith or wants to repair that, to walk in their lives. But you can also have another person in front of you that doesn’t want to heal that part or still use that resource.
So I would say, even though we saw like an extreme decrease in or effect on that faith, there were still a group of people that believed and used that on their daily basis. So I would say like having that in mind. And also expect that had an impact—that child sexual abuse could have an impact—on their daily symptoms, but also in other areas of, of their lives.
For example, you were talking a little bit about this before, and is that these kind of abuses happen in an institution and in context that, uh, people tend to rely on those authority—on those people. So, I think like institutional abuse tends to have other impacts, and these professionals will find other characteristics that child sexual abuse by family members do not express.
[18:19] Teresa Huizar:
One of the things that your paper noted, I thought it was really interesting, was that clergy abuse basically creates these extreme feelings of dependency and helplessness. Your study says, um, in context of extreme dependence and powerlessness, the dynamics of institutional child sexual abuse may be better described by the term entrapment. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Well, this happens in a context where there are like these authority figures and where kids experience this place as their second home.
I just want pause here for a moment because I want to say that most of these victims now are in their sixties, fifties. They experienced this or they reported to us that they experienced this so many years ago. Some of them were living in these institutions, which were schools that were run by the Catholic Church or they went there on the afternoons to do some sort of service.
So, as we could compare to sports, this was the second home for the kids. And parents relied on these people, on these authority figures as kind of the people who would take care of their children. And on top of that, these authority figures were well respected in their communities. Just like they were the moral voice in these communities.
So these children felt—and this is what they explained to us during the interviews we did. They explained that they were, they felt trapped. They felt that they were not believed, they were denied. They were, yeah, no, not helped.
And until this day, at least back home, the church doesn’t want to be involved in this kind of open processes that Spain is trying to have.
[20:26] Teresa Huizar:
Well, you know, I think that this is just going to be, continue to be, such a struggle. And I think here in the U.S., you know, I think for victims who come forward now who are still children, they’re likely going to go through a Children’s Advocacy Center and get the help they need.
But just like in Spain, we have so many adult survivors who are in their fifties, sixties, seventies. And who never got help as children, you know. And even in their adulthood, often didn’t get help until they were much, much older, and you can really see the effect of that on their lives. You know, it’s just, it’s such a tragedy.
What do you think the implications of this study are for clergy themselves and for the institution of the Catholic Church?
So I guess depends on the perspective. My hope would be that they work together with the Catholic advocates and they want to think about how to repair this and take like a statement on this and, yeah, work together with the advocates. It doesn’t seem that they’re looking at this, this way.
Which, if I’m allowed to say this, I think it’s not working in their favor because people suffered and not acknowledging that, I don’t think it’s a good way of doing things.
We know—and this is my victimology perspective. We know that in a context of power or hierarchical institutions, in these institutions where there are, like, authority figures, this tends to happen. We’ve seen this in sports. I was, uh, reviewing yesterday the [Larry] Nassar case in the States. We’ve experienced this in Spain, in the gymnastics team, national team. And we’ve seen this in many, many different institutions. So I think from a victimology point of view, denying this is is not wise.
The data is there, so it’s difficult to deny it, I would say.
Another thing will be to acknowledge this and try to think about what to do to put resources to prevent this from happening. To elaborate resources in order to detect. Or to put resources for those children who are in these systems or these institutions so they can get help. Or clergy that know about this right now so they can raise their voice and notify this without being punished themselves. So, that I think is my takeaway, or would be kind of my takeaway if I were them. I don’t wanna say that, uh, it’s not what’s happening. I think there are some initiatives, but …
[23:51] Teresa Huizar:
We’re going to hope they read your study again and pay attention to its findings, which I think are very important.
I mean, I think the thing is, I think for religious institutions, if you want to still be a religious institution and have members, people have to trust you. And it’s trust that’s been violated here. So to your point, you know, those fractured relationships need to be healed, for everybody’s benefit.
I’m just wondering what’s next for you in terms of research? What are you working on now?
So, in this study, we’re still thinking if there’s something there to be analyzed about these variables. As you saw, we started studying this in Spain. We had a really hard time recruiting and hearing from survivors. The church still has a lot of power in Spain. And once you’ve—and this is just an hypothesis we had to explain our recruitment numbers—but, once your trust relationship in an important institution for you has been broken, it’s difficult to relate to another one.
Suggests research. Right? So, uh, we’re still wondering is there something left in there to study? We combine our studies with Chile. As you saw in the study they’ve been doing research in this field for a while. And right now I’m working in other, kind of, areas of child victimization. I was working with Vicky Banyard on sexual and dating violence prevention, in the city of New York, evaluating some initiatives.
[25:44] Teresa Huizar:
Well, let me just say I would love to see this study done in the U.S. I mean, love it. So if there’s any way we can help you with that, you just let us know because I think it’s, it’s just so valuable, the work, and really looking at, you know, how do we help these adult survivors who often have few resources available to them?
You know, it’s one of the differences in the U.S. Child victims have some pretty significant resources that will be made available to them. But if you’re an adult survivor, you just don’t have as much. And the only way in the U.S. that you do is essentially by suing the church or something like that.
And so it’s just one of those things where we just don’t know enough, and I would just really love to see more of this type of work being done. And I was so excited to see that you did it um, and just couldn’t wait to have you come on here and talk about it because of that. So is there anything else that I should have asked you as a part of your interview today and I didn’t?
Thank you, Teresa. Of course, it would be great to do this here in the States. And Spain is way less diverse than the U.S. in terms of religiousness. or religions. But I would love to also explore this in other, uh, religious context—and not only religious because we know that this happens in schools, this happens in sports. So yeah, I like to explore that.
I just want to share something that one of the victims told us during the interviews, and it’s going back to your point. One of the victims told us that he needed the help when he was a kid. And not only the help, he needed to be believed and trusted, by the system, by the church institution, but also his family. Because one of the things that these powerful institutions, at least back at that time created is that people relied and believed them more than sometimes on their children. So, this person was kind of describing to us all the negative impacts he experienced across his own life until today.
So back to your point, the key is to continue to study this and hopefully work together to create mechanisms so we can prevent or at least detect it sooner.
[28:21] Teresa Huizar:
I think you raised such an important point, which is that when you’re dealing with an institution, especially an institution like the church, if parents don’t believe their children when they disclose because they’re trusting this person or this institution, it just really fractures the family relationship too. And so now you have an individual who can’t rely on their faith and they can’t rely on their family either. And we’re really leaving people in a very difficult position to try to heal from abuse in that way.
Which goes back to something you asked me at the very beginning, and I was speechless. So, what are the similarities? And one of the similarities I would say is that when children disclose this, one of the worst things that can happen—and research kind of supports this—is that the person who receives this message from the kid, if they don’t believe the kid, that has a high impact on this kid.
So, and you add the institution with all the ramifications that this has, not just for the family but also for the community. For these kids, it also had implications in terms of study because they were studying in there. So they were expelled from these institutions. They weren’t allowed to continue their studies.
[29:55] Teresa Huizar:
You know, we sometimes forget that, don’t we? That it wasn’t only—as though, I mean, and I’m not saying only, but you know what I mean. It’s not simply that it broke their attendance at mass or whatever. It’s also that if you were a student at a Catholic school and suddenly you were expelled, then what did that mean for your education?
Or if you lived in a community that’s very religious, what did it mean for your relationships in the broader community of people sided with the priest and not with you? So I just think we forget that for so many of these victims, they wound up leading very, very isolated childhoods, really.
Yeah. And I remember this from the study we did. What we were talking about is, uh, kind of the, the problems they had from that moment on.
One of the things that we explored was whether they were experiencing or had experienced other kinds of victimization. And actually our study saw that some of them experienced abuse and neglect before that child sexual abuse experience. And some of them, since the child sexual abuse was not sporadic, they experienced that in overlapping with other experiences. We know from research that has a compound effect on later problems.
[31:17] Teresa Huizar:
One of the things I’m wondering is, you know, you spent some time with these adult survivors who were telling you about their experiences. Did anything about that leave you hopeful?
Some of them were writing about this—
—even though they were for for themselves. Some of them explain that they grew—and this is about the interviews. So it’s very, like, specific—
—from the experiences that I remember. But some of them explain that they broke many, many relationships. But on that moment in the present, they were cultivating the ones that were nourishing them, I would say that. So this is something I remember.
I would say that the message that they shared is that they were navigating through life being conscious of what they were carrying that was very traumatic. And there was no way to kind of get rid of that. At the same time, they were conscious of the things that they were gaining in terms of growing: relationships, for example, careers, in terms of professional development.
[32:41] Teresa Huizar:
Back to your study of resilience with Sherry Hamby and others, right?
The fact that people are remarkable and even when they’ve gone through very difficult things, you know, finding ways to build good relationships and happier adulthoods for themselves too. So.
[outro music starts]
Well, let me tell you what gives me some hope, and that is researchers like you that are still looking into these important topics and not giving up on them and going away to other subjects.
I just think this is still a critically important one to continue to research. So I think you very much for all the research you’ve done so far and all that you will do. Anna, thanks for joining us.
Thank you, Teresa. Thank you.
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