Religious communities are one of many places which provide people a sense of belonging. Connecting with fellow congregants with like-minded beliefs brings comfort and safety. However, religious institutions are not exempt from exploiting, coercing, and manipulating devotees into unsavory demands. Experts.com Member and Psychiatry Expert, Dr. Mark I. Levy, MD, DLFAPA, shares insight about abuse, power, and institutional betrayal within religious groups.
Although abuse occurs in every religious institution and denomination, the most recent scandal involves the Southern Baptist Convention. According to AP News, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, along with other high-profile members, currently have a chance to acknowledge a scathing report regarding their lack of action toward allegations of sexual assault. For over two decades, survivors and involved members of the church received unsatisfactory responses to abuse, which included, “resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility from some within EC.” An investigation has been conducted and a report was released on Sunday, May 22nd, 2022.
After seven months, a lengthy 400-page report has now been published. It mentioned, “for many years, a few senior EC leaders, along with outside counsel, largely controlled the EC’s response to these reports of abuse…and were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC.” This list was made public days after the investigative report’s release, which was the SBC’s effort to encourage national churches to be “proactive” in defending the vulnerable (FOX News). Ed Litton, Southern Baptist Convention’s President, stated he was “grieved to my core” for the survivors and urged churchgoers to “prepare to change the denomination’s culture and implement reforms,” (AP News). He also vowed to address the failures and the report’s findings during their 2022 national meeting in Anaheim, California on June 14th and 15th, 2022. While the body of the Convention will meet in Anaheim, several high-ranking Executive Committee members will not be attending, as they have relinquished their roles in the church.
The Southern Baptist Convention is not the only denomination to be accused or charged with sexual assault. A recent study by the University of Alberta was released in 2019 detailing patterns of sexual assault in religious and ideological groups. This includes the Catholic Church, Protestants, the Branch Davidians, Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints, Hindu ashrams, and various cults. Along with academic studies, documentaries such as Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath (Netflix), The Vow (HBO Max), and Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey (Netflix) also expose the coercive abuse that occurs in these groups.
Experts.com Member, Dr. Mark I. Levy, MD, DLFAPA, provides his contributions on the matter. When asked about grooming minors and sexual assault against adults within religious groups, Dr. Levy presents a thought-provoking paradox. He states:
“When humans identify with codes of ethics, which all religions espouse, they put themselves at risk of their own fallible humanity. In general, there’s always this perceived idealization of the role of the person in a morally heightened position and the fact that life is imperfect.”
The discrepancy between the revered status of religious leaders, along with the virtuous sermons they preach, and the egregiously immoral acts committed, is the shock value associated with deplorable situations like the ongoing Southern Baptist Convention scandal. Sexual assault and rape are heinous crimes altogether, but the inconsistency also explains why religious sexual assault contentions make more news headlines than workplace, university, or random abuse cases.
Dr. Levy provides four reasons why sexual abuse continues in religious groups:
- Authority: The sexual abuse against minors and adults in religious environments has more of an emphasis on a person’s position of authority rather than the ideology itself. “Authority is a critical component to this because a person has to be in a role of trust and respect, which increases the chance of being able to abuse minors. It disarms them when the person is recognized as the leader because they are more prone to trust and believe them.” In communities like churches, repeat abusers in authoritative roles are not quick and brash in pursuing their ulterior motives. Due to their constant access to believers, they meticulously and strategically develop a seemingly benign relationship with their victims to ultimately exploit them at a given opportunity.
- Power: If authority is the vehicle for abusers, then power, granted by their authority, is the fuel that perpetuates these atrocities. “Sexual abuse is always about power. Sexual abuse of children, which clearly uses that, is also about the sexual gratification of the adult abuser’s needs. They’re peculiar because the sexual interest is focused on minors because of the abuser’s own psychopathology.” Defenders may say it is justified by culture, tradition, and love, but it is illegal under the law because children are not mature enough to give consent.
- Structure of the Group: “There are particular problems with institutions dominated by men, which are virtually all major religions. One wonders if the leaders of the Catholic Church were female…, whether there would be the same sexual abuse scandal.” This is not to say that women cannot abuse others. However, sometimes the camaraderie within fraternal groups is based on a “boys will be boys” mentality, which tends to excuse abusive behaviors and disregard the damage done to victims.
- Structure of Belief System: “I think that sometimes within religious belief systems where sin is a prominent concept and confession of sins leads to forgiveness, the psychological damage done, and not to mention the legality of the sin, is often overlooked because it is forgiven in a religious concept.” To reverse this, victims subject themselves to acts they would not do otherwise to avoid sin, reach salvation, or to meet the expectations of the congregation. When church leaders manipulate ideology for their own selfish satisfaction, they violate their congregant’s spiritual, moral, and physical vulnerabilities.
As stated above, offenders in authoritative positions like priests or teachers are typically repeating abusers. Repeat abusers generally commit certain behaviors that allude to deviant motives. Specifically, regarding the adult sexual assault of minors, Dr. Levy has named a few warning signs that can potentially mitigate further abusive situations when identified. These include solely befriending single moms, children having an “adult friend,” overstepping boundaries (children sitting on laps or being invited out to dinner alone), and becoming an “adopted uncle” of the family. Some of these behaviors may not directly indicate the person is an abuser, but all four certainly pose a concern.
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