Understanding Clergy Misconduct in Religious Systems: Scapegoating, Family Secrets, and the Abuse of Power

Author: Candace R. Benyei, PhD
Source: Amazon.com

Review By Renée Zitzloff, Pokrov.org exclusive
February 3. 2005

For the last decade or more an item often landing in the news has been the misconduct and abusiveness of clergy. In the late eighties this often had to with scandals surrounding TV evangelists, but lately much attention has been focused on the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. However, clergy abuse and misconduct have no boundaries as far as denominations, and unfortunately there does not seem to be a denomination yet with a good track record for dealing openly and truthfully when these things occur. The web site <a href=’http://www.pokrov.org’>Pokrov.org</a> for Orthodox victims of clergy abuse and misconduct stated:

”Over the last three years we have received several copies of letters our readers have sent to their churches to tell about their abuse — letters that never received any response from the hierarchs. Some of our readers have even met with bishops in person. Many of our readers find that their letters and pleas to authorities come to a dead end because the bishop or hierarchs ignores them or discredits them. They end up feeling even worse than they did before. These stories have prompted us to write the Pokrov guidelines which are from a victims’ perspective.” This web site warns victims not to go alone to their church authorities to report abuse. This is disheartening to say the least.

A significant book that addresses the issue of clergy abuse and misconduct is Understanding Clergy Misconduct in Religious Systems: Scapegoating, Family Secrets, and the Abuse of Power by Candace R. Benyei, PhD. This vital book demythologized spiritual leaders and helps the reader to see the negative effects of placing them on a pedestal. It is an incisive look at the outrage of abuse from the perspective of victim, perpetrator and counselor.

In most churches and religious systems when abuse or misconduct occurs, it is generally covered-up and kept silent. Though there may seem to be good reasons to do this, Benyei documents how this secret keeping is destructive to the victim(s) and the congregation, whether they know it or not: “The keeping of the secret produces more pain to more people than the original insult itself”(Pg 104).

“The secret may be closely held by a few main players; the secret may be vaporous and no one may know anything for sure. . . nonetheless, a great deal of energy is used in keeping the lid on Pandora’s box, which includes not only the secret but the resultant rage, anger, loss, fear and shame” (Pg 106).

One of the worst results of abuse or misconduct is the fact that the victim often becomes the scapegoat. Benyei notes, “Because it is unbearable to believe that the beloved spiritual leader could commit such acts, since that would shatter the fantasy that one had at last found the ultimate caregiver, victims are often unforgivable.” (Pg 95).

It would be an advance if the clergy and hierarchy and spiritual leaders of churches and religious systems would make it their responsibility to inform people about abuse and misconduct they themselves might commit, but this is highly unlikely. Therefore it is incumbent on lay people to educate themselves and others when it comes to abuse in religious systems. So often we portray the Church as a safe place to come, a sanctuary, a haven. It often is a place of healing. However, it can also be a place of deep wounding and sin. As Mother Gavrilla of blessed memory once said, “The Church is like a huge ship full of sailors, biting each other in the throat, tearing hair, punching, but the wonder is that the ship is coming into port because Christ is at the helm.” This side of the Church must also be revealed if it is ever to be healed. For healing to happen, we must understand the illness. I highly recommend Benyei’s book as a place to start.