Religious Duress and Reverential Fear in Clergy Sexual Abuse Cases: Examination of Victims’ Reports and Recommendations for Change

Published date01 June 2021
Date01 June 2021
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-17BrcWFJ6l4aur/input 921232CJPXXX10.1177/0887403420921232Criminal Justice Policy ReviewSpraitz and Bowen
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2021, Vol. 32(5) 484 –500
Religious Duress and
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
Reverential Fear in
DOI: 10.1177/0887403420921232
Clergy Sexual Abuse
Cases: Examination of
Victims’ Reports and
Recommendations for Change
Jason D. Spraitz1 and Kendra N. Bowen2
According to prior research, approximately 14% of sexual victimizations by priests
are reported to civil authorities. Victim grooming by the abuser is a main reason the
number of reported incidents is low. The concept of reverential fear and religious
duress is related to grooming, but very little empirical research focuses on the
concept. Reverential fear and religious duress is a type of fear that limits the ability of
clergy sexual abuse victims to disengage from their abuser; it intensifies when one has
reverence and respect for the clergyman who abused them. In this article, available
data from personnel files from several Catholic institutions are analyzed to gain a
deeper understanding of reverential fear and religious duress. Findings suggest victims
of clergy sexual abuse experience reverential fear and religious duress. The discussion
focuses on why victims remain silent and provides recommendations for new policy
and for improving existing policy.
clergy sexual abuse, sexual grooming, religious duress, reverential fear, Catholic
During the past two decades, the amount of empirical research on issues related to
sexual abuse of minors within the Catholic Church has grown. Granted, research
1University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, USA
2Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jason D. Spraitz, Criminal Justice Program, University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, Eau Claire, WI 54701, USA.

Spraitz and Bowen
existed prior to this, but much of this generation of data collection began in response
to the early-2002 Boston Globe reports about widespread clergy sexual abuse in the
Archdiocese of Boston. To date, the John Jay College studies (2004, 2006) are the
most comprehensive examinations of abuse in the Catholic Church. From the data
gathered in the John Jay studies, researchers learned the prevalence rates of sexual
abuse in the Catholic Church over a 53-year period, abuse patterns, length of abuse, as
well as institutional responses to allegations (Terry, 2008). Between 1950 and 2002,
approximately 4% of priests (n = 4,392) committed child sexual abuse against 10,667
known victims (Terry, 2008). Terry (2011) notes that most abuse incidents involving
clergymen were never reported to civil authorities. The research shows that about 14%
of sexual victimizations involving priests are reported to law enforcement; most alle-
gations are made after statutes of limitation expire (Terry, 2011).
Grooming is an important factor to consider when questioning why victims of sex-
ual abuse may choose not to disclose their victimization or wait years to report allega-
tions. The main intentions of victim grooming are gaining a victim’s compliance,
maintaining secrecy, and avoiding disclosure (Craven et al., 2006). The concept of
reverential fear and religious duress is linked to grooming, but much less empirical
research exists about this idea compared with the overall grooming literature. The fol-
lowing begins with a discussion of religious duress and reverential fear. Then, data
from three Catholic institutions are analyzed for evidence of duress and fear to under-
stand the context of this phenomenon. A discussion of how this information can be
used to inform policies and prevention measures also is included.
Benkert and Doyle (2009) describe religious duress as a type of fear in victims that
hinders their ability to detach from the abuser. They argue that religious duress is simi-
lar to the idea of reverential fear, which intensifies based on the high levels of respect
that one has for a person in position of authority. Doyle (2003) suggests the concept of
religious duress is grounded in theological teaching:
The Catholic Church has taught for centuries that priests are men set apart from and
above others. The difference begins with ordination. At that moment, by divine action,
the man is made a priest and is joined to Christ in such a way that he is substantially
different from other human beings. (Benkert & Doyle, 2009, p. 228)
In this sense, all clerics (priests, bishops, deacons) are deemed representatives of
God and act as God’s surrogate (Doyle, 2003). Benkert and Doyle (2009) note that
victims of sexual abuse by clergy may react with religious duress because the clergy-
man is a surrogate of God. As Spraitz and Bowen (2019) point out, a clergyman acts
in persona Christi, or as a surrogate of God. That surrogacy coupled with the rever-
ence that many bestow upon clergymen due to their status as authority figures ties it to
reverential fear (Benkert & Doyle, 2009).

Criminal Justice Policy Review 32(5)
Reverential fear and religious duress are linked to victimization in several ways.
Benkert and Doyle (2009) found that clergy sexual abuse victims consistently reported
fear that was paralyzing and numbing during the abuse because they did not believe
that a surrogate of God would do something so horrible. They argue these feelings
have a fourfold impact on victims of clergy sexual abuse. First, it eases the seduction
and grooming process for the offender. Religious parents are honored when priests
show special attention to their child; often unbeknownst to the parent, this enables
grooming. Second, it increases the moral confusion experienced by the victim because
the very acts involved in sexual abuse are condemned by the Church. Third, grooming
may eventually make the victim nonresistant to prolonged abuse due to feelings of
powerlessness that are compounded by guilt; the complicated bond victims have with
the clergy abuser exacerbates this feeling. Fourth, it discourages reporting of abusive
behavior. The feelings of powerlessness, fear, and shame coupled with the traumatic
bond between the victim and the abuser can discourage reporting. In addition, victims
feel scrutiny and condemnation from the Catholic Church and its members (Spraitz &
Bowen, 2016; Spraitz et al., 2016, 2017), thus decreasing the likelihood of disclosure
(Benkert & Doyle, 2009).
Strong empirical evidence exists in support of these contentions, especially related
to the stages of grooming. The first stage is victim selection, which is based on several
factors, including psychological vulnerabilities (Elliott et al., 1995; Finkelhor, 1994;
Olson et al., 2007; Williams et al., 2013), attractiveness (Elliott et al., 1995), and
unstable family situations (Conte et al., 1989; Elliott et al., 1995; Lang & Frenzel,
1988; Olson et al., 2007). According to Winters and Jeglic (2017), the second step
occurs when offenders gain access to their target, the community that their target is a
part of, or the victim’s family members and caretakers (Craven et al., 2006; Elliott
et al., 1995; Lanning & Dietz, 2014; van Dam, 2001, 2006; Wortley & Smallbone,
Emotional manipulation occurs in Stage 3 (Winters & Jeglic, 2017). This is when
offenders begin to develop trust and gain the compliance of their victims. This stage of
seduction and enticement includes game playing and the introduction of alcohol and
drugs by the offender (Terry, 2008); abusers also give gifts to their victims (Kaufman
et al., 1998). The fourth stage of grooming is the gradual desensitization to physical
contact (Winters & Jeglic, 2017). Spraitz et al. (2018) and Spraitz and Bowen (2019)
identified many of these grooming behaviors, and several others, in a series of studies
analyzing unsealed personnel files of priests that had been credibly accused of child
sexual abuse.
For example, Spraitz et al. (2018) discovered that sexually abusive priests from one
Catholic diocese engaged in eight types of grooming behaviors. They gave their vic-
tims alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs; they gave their victims gifts; they secluded their
victims by taking them on overnight trips or by allowing them to sleep at the rectory.
Offenders played favorites with potential victims, which left the victimized children
yearning for attention from the abuser; they provided a false sense of guidance, men-
torship, and friendship; they groomed the family of their victims. Abusers gradually

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desensitized the victim to sexual touch, and they abused the respect and reverence
bestowed upon a priest (Spraitz et al., 2018).
In a follow-up article, Spraitz and Bowen (2019) examined a different Catholic
institution that had disclosed abuse. The same grooming tactics were viewed. But, the
researchers also admitted to erring in their first grooming study. Specifically, some of
the items that they initially thought were abuse of respect and reverence and were
victim disclosures consistent with religious duress and reverential fear. Of this groom-
ing technique, they write, “Instead of claiming that the latent use of this technique is a
form of grooming perpetuated by the alleged abuser, it is more accurate to think of it
as religious duress or reverential fear experienced by the victim” (Spraitz...

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