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The Church Is Not Above The Law

For most Americans who have a faith, a place of worship like a church, synagogue or mosque is a symbol of that faith, and expressing it freely, without fear. For most Americans, that’s exactly what happens once the place of worship is entered, surrounded by others of the same faith, and ushered in by a spiritual leader, such as a priest, pastor, rabbi, or imam.

Tragically, however, sometimes, this complete faith and trust in a religious community can be broken, and the culprit may even be the spiritual leader. When this happens, it can be both traumatic and extraordinarily difficult to resolve the issue, especially in cases of sexual abuse, but American law does not take exception to religious leaders, and there are contingencies in place to fight this in court.

Clergy Abuse

When a spiritual leader abuses the responsibilities and trust given by the community, especially for activities such as sexual abuse, which is a criminal act, this is known as clergy abuse. The word clergy itself is a European term, specifically derived from Old French, to denote people officially ordained to minister and lead a religion. Of course, while the US initially had primarily Christian roots from its first waves of colonists, immigration over the centuries has expanded the faiths practiced in the USA to include Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and many others.

One thing that does not change is that American law recognizes that spiritual leaders, or clergy, have been accorded exceptional power and responsibility within a community. They are expected to conduct themselves in accordance with that responsibility and not use it for personal gain, especially of a sexual nature against adults—and especially children—who do not give consent.

Is It Really Abuse?

Of course, when thinking about abuse from a spiritual leader, this is always a difficult and worrying prospect. No one wants to accuse a religious leader of impropriety, and then be proven wrong. The initial accusation itself is usually enough for the religious organization to go on the defensive and fight the accusation, while the very public nature of such an accusation is likely to impair—or even destroy—the relationship the accuser has with the rest of the religious community.

Clergy abuse, however, can come in many different forms and doesn’t have to be as extreme as actual sexual activity. If you or a member of your family experiences:

  • Frequent touching from a clergy member, especially in genital areas
  • Flirtatious interactions
  • Hugs that linger for too long, or kisses to the lips instead of on the cheek
    Frequent private encounters that often focus on personal interactions rather than matters of faith
  • Gift giving and frequent personal encounters

Any of these activities is alarming if it is focused on an adult. If it is focused on a minor, it becomes dangerous. And while it’s true that some faiths do allow for romantic relationships between clergy and laypeople, in most instances, there is no power dynamic of religious leaders and members of the local faith in effect. When clergy are permitted to have romantic relationships, it is always with someone outside the community they are servicing. A member of the clergy should never interact romantically with a member of a community that clergy member is serving.

Taking Action

If you find you or someone you know is being victimized by clergy abuse, it is an upsetting situation that can often feel like there is no solution. The truth, however, is that while clergy abuse is a complex issue, it is one in which the law can help. There are attorneys with experience in clergy abuse. Talk to them and find out what the best approach is for resolving the situation.

During his time as a public attorney for the State of Florida, Bernard Walsh developed a passion for defending the legal rights of Florida's citizens. Having seen many people being taken advantage of after being injured and the financial harm that can cause for families he committed himself fully to helping injured clients get justice, by fighting to make greedy insurance companies pay what they owe.

The Church Is Not Above The Law

Goldman Babboni Fernandez
Murphy & Walsh

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