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religious leader sexual abuse

Sexual abuse and assault cause long-lasting harm, especially when a person in a position of power perpetrates the abuse. The media has spotlighted priest sex abuse cases in the Catholic church in recent years because a slew of sexual allegations of abuse emerged in the early 2000s.

A 2004 New York Times article reports that one study found that 4% of priests in the Catholic church engaged in sexually abusive behavior over 52 years. The Catholic church scandal encouraged multiple courageous survivors to bring attention to abusive priests in the Catholic church and priest sexual abuse in other religious institutions.

Our legal professionals at Nessler & Associates have helped more than 200 victims of sexual abuse get millions of dollars in compensation and move forward with their lives.

We help clergy abuse survivors gain closure by holding abusive clergy members responsible by pursuing legal action in a civil lawsuit and seeking financial compensation for the abuse they perpetrated.


What is Clergy Sex Abuse?

Clergy sexual abuse happens when the abuser has power over the sex abuse victim. This clergy member might be an abusive priest in the Catholic church, pastor, rabbi, imam, monk, youth minister, or volunteer. Clergy abuse depends on the offender using the ministerial relationship to gain access to children and to get the sex abuse victims to comply.

Sexual abuse isn’t limited to sexual intercourse. It also includes:

  • Fondling
  • Voyeurism
  • Sexually charged conversations, whether in person or digitally
  • Owning, producing, or sharing child pornography
  • Masturbation in the presence of a minor
  • Sex trafficking
  • Any kind of sexual contact that involves a minor
  • Any kind of unwanted sexual contact

Victims of clergy sexual abuse are often children. However, a 2009 study suggested that approximately 3.1% of clergy sexual abuse victims are adult women. These adult survivors reported receiving unwanted sexual advances from a member of the clergy or religious leaders beginning when they turned 18.

Sexual abuse survivors might be able to hold their abusers and any Catholic church staff who cover up the abuse accountable, even if the statute of limitations has expired.

Contact a priest abuse attorney at Nessler & Associates to determine if you can file a clergy abuse claim. We can review the circumstances of your claim and help you understand your legal options. We can also provide helpful resources for a sexual abuse plaintiff, such as the National Sexual Assault Hotline, to help you get the support you need so you can heal.


The Prevalence of Sexual Abuse by Clergy

One study of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy showed that 4.4% of clergy were accused of sexual abuse of minors. On average, the abuse continued for 1.3 years.

Despite seemingly low abuse reports, many sex crimes go unreported. The actual number of clergy abuse cases is likely much higher.

A new clergy sex abuse investigation has revealed that the Southern Baptist Church leadership engaged in behavior similar to that of the Catholic Church by ignoring or disbelieving sexual abuse victims’ reports of abuse or covering up the act to avoid an abuse scandal.

The Southern Baptist Church left convicted molesters in positions of power without warning the church or congregation. While an employee of the Executive Committee kept a list of accused abusers, no one did anything to remove those abusers from power. Other Protestant churches face the same issues with avoiding or covering up reports of abuse.

The same issues plague Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and other religious institutions. Even well-meaning organizations contribute to the problem by guarding sensitive information, leading to accidental and intentional cover-ups.

However, thanks to the #MeToo movement, members of the Muslim church are confronting issues of sexual assault and abuse among Muslim church leadership.

Media focus on the Catholic church

The main reasons the media focuses on the Catholic Church include:

  • The Catholic church’s centralized power and management structure
  • Anti-Catholic political and media bias in Protestant-dominated countries
  • Secular legal systems that allow the identification of organizational responsibility
  • Power of bishops to silence sex abuse victims

One issue contributing to faith leader abuse in the Catholic church is nondisclosure agreements used in the settlement process with sexual abuse survivors. These agreements can benefit the victim by protecting their identity; however, they should only be used at the victim’s request because they also shield the abuser from public scrutiny.

They also provide the Catholic church with a reason not to disclose the history of abuse to a new congregation.

At Nessler & Associates, our experienced attorneys believe clergy sexual abuse victims deserve justice no matter their religion. We believe that abuse by clergy should be prosecuted, and our child sex abuse attorneys will take legal action to hold child sexual predators and religious leaders accountable for what happened to you, even if the criminal courts couldn’t or wouldn’t.

survivor of clergy sexual


Offender Characteristics

Men commit the overwhelming majority of faith leader abuse, and very few of them have diagnosable paraphilia or abnormal sexual desires. Around 2% of abusers have pedophilia or a sexual attraction to prepubescent children. Nearly 4% of clergy abusers have ephebophilia, a sexual attraction to children between 15 to 19.

Most abusers share higher than average scores on a Narcissistic Personality Inventory. This essential trait amplifies instances of sexual abuse for people in positions of power. The most frequent role of male offenders in a study of Protestant sex abuse against children was a pastor, followed by a youth minister.

Offenders in closed communities, such as the Jewish orthodox community or Catholic church, rely on the stigma attached to sexual abuse to keep priest sexual abuse victims quiet. Even if a sex abuse victim reports to someone in the community, the chances are high that the police will never receive a report.

This lack of ability to file a report makes it difficult for abused children to find help until after they become adults. The statute of limitations for sexual abuse cases varies from state to state; however, they are typically more liberal than statutes of limitation for other offenses.

Abusers try to control reality through manipulation. They use their positions of power to affect how people see them and the events in which they participate. They excel at manipulation and can turn people against the victims.

Offenders also isolate victims of childhood assault from friends and family. They groom the abuse survivor to keep secrets and sow mistrust by telling the sex abuse victim they will be in trouble or shunned for a slight offense. These tactics create a trauma bond between victim and offender and remove the victim’s support system. This is one reason many clergy abuse cases go unreported for years and leave the victims with long-lasting emotional injuries.

Priest sex abuse is generally committed at the parish level, and they prey on victims within their congregations. The Catholic dioceses are more responsive to sexual abuse claims today than when the first abuse allegations emerged in 1984, but some still shield abusers.

Contact a sexual abuse lawyer at Nessler & Associates if you or a loved one experienced abuse by a clergy member in a Catholic church or other religious institution. We aggressively protect the rights of clergy abuse survivors and can handle your sexual abuse claim with compassion and expertise.


Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse

If you suspect clergy is abusing a child or teen you love, look for these common warning signs.


If the child goes back to previously outgrown activities, such as sucking their thumb, bedwetting, or using a security blanket, it can signal sexual abuse.

Sudden behavior changes

Childhood sexual abuse impacts psychological development and can cause children to act out more than usual. This acting out might include fighting, disturbing other kids in class, or causing property damage.

Sudden unexplained fears

If your child suddenly starts acting scared of people who share a characteristic like red hair or a deep voice, you should examine that fear. Some sexual abuse survivors also fear places that resemble where the abuse occurred.

Fear of being touched

This fear manifests when children flinch when they are touched or shrink away from touch. If your child shrinks away from physical affection they were not previously bothered by, they may have suffered abuse.

Substance abuse

Adult survivors of clergy abuse turn to alcohol and drug use to numb their feelings of shame and disgust or in an attempt to feel something different.


Cutting and burning are common self-harm activities victims use to relieve emotional injuries. Disordered eating is a self-harm mechanism that the victim usually can’t fully control but is often caused by trauma.

Problems at school

Abuse survivors often let their grades decline or start skipping class. Along with self-harm, this mechanism allows the child some control over their life.

Inappropriate sexual actions for their age

Some childhood sexual abuse survivors display overly affectionate behavior toward strangers or stop any affectionate behavior toward friends and family. Others engage in excessive masturbation, drawings with sexual content, or conversations with sexual content inappropriate for their age. They often display more knowledge of sex than they should have.

If you notice even subtle changes in several of these areas, get your child help from a doctor or therapist to find out what caused these changes. The sexual abuse attorneys at Nessler & Associates are ready to assist you in getting justice through a civil claim, even if there isn’t enough evidence for a criminal conviction.

Our trial lawyers will pursue awards at trial to protect your rights and get you the justice you deserve for your childhood assault.

 clergy abuse attorney


Clergy Sexual Abuse and Long-Term Effects Suffered by Survivors

The sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, pastors, rabbis, or other religious leaders can cause severe long-term damage to the victims. Clergy abuse survivors in one study most commonly reported anxiety, depression, mistrust, sexual dysfunction, and difficulties maintaining relationships.

These deep wounds hamper the ability of sexual abuse victims to live normal lives and their mental and physical health. Recovery may include several types of behavioral therapy, treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, and medications.

Clergy sexual abuse victims deal with spiritual injuries and physical, psychological, and emotional ones. Because the offender uses the ministerial relationship with the survivor to abuse them, the survivor often loses trust with religious leaders and possibly their entire faith.

Sexual abuse in a religious institution also poses a challenge if the abuse allegations go unheard or if church officials refuse to take action. These issues have resulted in some clergy abuse victims becoming suicidal, particularly older child sexual abuse victims.

Sexual abuse survivors deserve to be compensated for the physical and emotional consequences of the abuse. The experienced attorneys at Nessler & Associates know how to win sexual abuse settlements against Catholic church authorities. We strive to expose abuse by clergy members and help clergy abuse victims recover.


How Damages and Other Remedies Combat Clergy Sexual Abuse

During civil actions, damages sought by child sex abuse attorneys against the Catholic Church put pressure on the church to respond more quickly and effectively when they receive reports of abuse and stop shielding Catholic priests who abuse their congregants. The Catholic Church loses the incentive to protect abusers when juries hold them accountable for significant awards for damages.

Action against abusers can prevent future abuse by holding Catholic church leaders responsible for not protecting their congregations from known abusers. These methods aren’t limited to the Catholic Church. Any religious institution that doesn’t believe sexual abuse survivors’ claims and doesn’t work to make sure the abusive clergy member no longer has contact with potential victims can be held responsible.

Nessler & Associates has a track record of winning clergy sex abuse cases for survivors of clergy abuse while prioritizing their needs. We vigorously fight against abuse by priests and other religious leaders to help our clients heal and convince the religious institutions to protect their congregations better.


Recent Settlements for Childhood Sex Abuse Cases

In the last several years, there have been several high-profile childhood sex abuse cases filed against clergy members of the Catholic Church. In these cases, the child and adult survivors of clergy sexual abuse in these cases received millions of dollars in damages.

  • New Jersey: The Catholic Diocese of Camden agreed to pay $87.5 million to 300 victims of clergy sexual abuse. In 2019, there were credible reports of abuse by 180 New Jersey priests against minors over several decades.
  • New Mexico: The Archdiocese of Santa Fe has settled for $121.5 million to compensate 375 claimants of clergy sexual abuse against the Catholic Church.
  • California: One of the largest settlements paid out by the Catholic Church was for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The church settled its sexual abuse cases for $660 million, equating to $1.3 million per sexual abuse plaintiff.

Attorneys for Clergy Abuse Survivors

Sexual abuse victims deserve to have a strong advocate representing their interests with the Catholic church or other church institutions that contributed to the abuse. Childhood sexual assault and clergy abuse victims need someone who can conduct an independent review of their claims and church records.

Finding the right child sex abuse attorneys can feel overwhelming, but if you or someone you love has been the victim of sexual assault by a Catholic priest or another religious leader, our legal professionals can help.

Nessler & Associates has been fighting faith leader abuse for decades by pursuing sexual abuse settlements and lawsuits. Our law firm protects the rights of clergy abuse victims during civil actions for financial compensation. We will guide you through the legal process with compassion and understanding.

We know how to conduct a discreet but thorough priest sex abuse investigation.
Whether you are an adult victim of childhood sexual trauma suffered in your faith organization or suffered sexual abuse or assault as an adult, every victim of clergy abuse deserves compassion, dignity, and a start to the healing process. A pivotal part of the healing process is holding the institution and the church leaders accountable for allowing the abuser to commit these assaults.

Contact a clergy sex abuse attorney at Nessler & Associates today at (800) 727-8010 for a confidential, free consultation. Our sexual abuse attorneys have more than 35 years of experience fighting for the rights of sex abuse victims and winning millions of dollars for courageous survivors.

We want to help you if you were a child victim of clergy abuse or an adult survivor. We protect the rights of all sexual abuse survivors to seek financial compensation, even in the absence of criminal charges against clergy members who abused you.

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