Cultivating sexual abuse in religious communities

Catholic enabler in chief, former Pope Benedict
Catholic enabler in chief, Pope Benedict XVI

In the last weeks, a Royal Commission inquiry has been hearing details of widespread child sexual abuse in Ballarat by Catholic clergy and its devastating effect on the community – where suicides have been too common. The extent of the coverup and its parallels with abuses in other dioceses has led some observers to beg the question, could there be a culture within the Catholic Church that fosters abuse?

Experts in the Catholic clergy scandals point to a number of factors that can also be found in other faith communities where sexual exploitation and abuse has occurred.

Deliver us from Evil

Amy Berg’s 2006 Academy Award nominated documentary ‘Deliver Us from Evil’ follows the case of Father Oliver O’Grady, a remorseless serial paedophile who offended against hundreds of children in California. The Church hierarchy were aware but whenever the alarm was raised they merely shifted him to other parishes. The film includes commentary from experts including Canon lawyer and victims’ advocate, Father Tom Doyle, on the factors within the Catholic Church that have facilitated abuse, cover ups and the revictimisation of survivors. Those elements of the ecclesiastic culture invite parallels with other abusive spiritual communities, including the Satyananda Yoga organization and Universal Medicine.

‘Deliver Us from Evil’ is confronting viewing, but the pattern of denial around Oliver O’Grady has been repeated many times. It can be seen playing out in the handling of the abuses in Ballarat and other religious communities around the world.

[Sorry the video seems to be no longer available. If anyone finds it on the net, please let me know, cheers, E.]

Some of the statistics from the documentary:

  • Since 1960, 10% of priests who graduated from one of the largest seminaries in the US were convicted of child sexual abuse offences.
  • At one point, 100 priests were under investigation by Los Angeles police alone.
  • In Cardinal Roger Mahoney’s Californian Diocese there were allegations against 556 priests.
  • Pope Benedict was granted immunity from prosecution in the US for conspiracy to cover up sexual abuse.
  • Over 100,000 victims have come forward in US alone. Experts say 80% of sexual abuse victims never come forward.

A voice of reason from inside the Church

In the 1980s, Father Tom Doyle was a Canon lawyer working at the Vatican embassy in Washington D.C.. In 1985, he became aware of several cases where Bishops, in a misguided effort to avoid scandal, had shifted known paedophile priests from parish to parish. Father Doyle and two colleagues devised a comprehensive action plan which they put to all US Bishops with recommendations for the Church to robustly confront the problem.

…we prioritized dealing with the victims. That was number one. We said at the time: “Don’t send clerics in there to the family. Send someone other than clerics. Send a kindly sister, a nun, somebody who can go in and not be identified with the clerical world.” We told them to be totally open with the media, report it to the police and so on.

The second part of our proposal [was] the creation of a commission by the bishops or a committee that would study this issue, every angle of it, and get the most up-to-date information on all angles. That meant getting involved in the secular world — psychological, legal, liability, the whole thing… PBS Interview

However, the manual for action was ignored and Father Doyle was shunned and demoted. Disillusioned, he became a tireless and outspoken advocate for victims, providing expert testimony in hundreds of cases. He has donated a good portion of his earnings from legal work and as an Air Force captain and chaplain to assist survivors.

A culture of abuse

The following are elements of the Catholic Church power dynamic that have fostered a culture of sexual abuse. Some are touched upon in the documentary, and expanded upon in Father Doyle’s court depositions and writings:

*Church as monarchy – preoccupation with ritual & superficial trappings of religious glory, lack of accountability, secrecy

The Catholic Church was seen as intrinsically holy and infallible, with a hierarchy created by God himself. Clergy members are thought to be the embodiment of Christ and are granted positions, such as that of Bishop, by the Holy Spirit. At the top is the Pope, holding absolute power and accountable to no one. The belief among the hierarchy that they are beyond reproach and above mundane forms of accountability, such as secular law, is what psychologists call ‘acquired situational narcissism’.

The hierarchy consider themselves essential to the Church’s existence. Clergy members lose their sense of personal individuality and responsibility as their personal identities merge with that of the institution and they become part of the rigid, undemocratic authoritarian structure. Priests who question authority struggle to maintain a career in the Church.

*Docile and submissive laity & contempt for lay people

Lay people are regarded as inferior and rewarded for being docile, unquestioning and financially generous. The response to charges of assaults on children has been to protect the clergy and by extension the institution. In every case, protecting children was not a priority, and nor was transparency or accountability to the lay community.

*Religious duress 

Father Doyle says clergy celibacy in the Catholic Church was not made mandatory until the 4th century. Prior to that, priests married and had families. Celibacy was introduced in order to stop priests’ property being inherited by their eldest sons, and to channel assets to the Church. It has no basis in the Gospel. He refers to an ‘illusion of celibacy’ in that many if not most priests have been unable to sustain it. However, the illusion of celibacy has provided much of the prestige and mystique of the clergy – giving parishioners a false sense of priestly purity and trustworthiness.

The image of the priesthood has deteriorated markedly in the last decades. Many of the current legal cases are dealing with offences that occurred in an era when priestly authority was high and there was both greater awe for the institution of the Church and greater religious fear of God within the community. For many parishioners, especially children, the local church was the grandest building in town, and the priest one of the most important community leaders – deferred to by their teachers and parents. Some observers believe the very devout nature of the Ballarat Catholic community was one of the factors in the severity of the abuse and the extent of the cover up.

Awe of the clergy contributed to what Father Doyle calls ‘religious duress’. Believers are indoctrinated from an early age that priests are sacred personages who stand in the place of God. Celibate envoys of the almighty, they are seen to be free from sin and believed to have special powers to absolve it. Catholics fear that questioning this authority will incur the wrath of God.

The fear that arises from the threat of displeasure of religious officials carries over to a fear of displeasing God and this fear can be overpowering and immobilizing…It is instilled in a general way by the consistent teaching by the Church that God knows all, sees all and punishes offenses against Him…

In effect religious duress is an integral pillar of the ecclesiastical edifice, essential to achieving the control and obedience demanded by the clerical elite. Religious Duress, p.32-33

Fear made it difficult for victims to report the abuse. Many children were threatened by the abusers, and blamed for ‘leading the priest into sin’. Victims who gathered the courage to report these crimes were disbelieved. A witness at the Royal Commission last week, a victim of a convicted serial offender priest, spoke of being disowned by his family for pursuing charges, and his own mother approaching police and other authorities telling them he was a liar – adamant the priest could do no wrong. The apparent approval and unconcern of the Church and community which failed to address these crimes exacerbated helplessness among victims. Many children were resigned to accepting a ‘trauma bond’ relationship of prolonged abuse, deepening adverse mental health effects.

High level enablers, Cardinal Pell & Pope Benedict XVI
High level enablers, Cardinal Pell & Pope Benedict XVI

*Hostility to healthy sexuality

In the documentary, Dr Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea observed that many of the priests convicted for paedophilia offences entered training for the priesthood between the ages of 14 and 16 – arresting normal sexual development at a critical stage. Victims were in a sense the paedophile priests’ ‘psychosexual peers’ in that adults preyed on children who were at similar stages of undevelopment. The Church’s deranged attitudes to sex aggravated this behaviour. Because all sex outside of wedlock is regarded as sinful, child sexual abuse was seen to be no more transgressive than sex with an adult woman.

*Hostility to relationships, women, family and children

The celibate male clergy were elevated within a culture of disdain toward women, intimate relationships and marriage. Father Doyle says that priests never really get what these relationships are about, and that is reflected in their poor understanding of child development and cluelessness about the impact of abuse. Royal Commission testimonies reveal discussions among the Church hierarchy were only concerned with damage to the priesthood. The welfare of abused children and the prevention of further crimes were rarely mentioned.

Bishops who presided over the recycling of offenders were flummoxed by the outrage among effected families. Father Doyle commented, ‘none of them have ever been parents, and none of them had the vaguest notion of that incredible bond that exists between a parent and their child.’

*Treating victims as the enemy

Abused children were bullied and threatened by their abusers. One Ballarat victim was told the offender would do the same to his little sister if he ever told anyone. Another disclosed the abuse to a Christian Brother who merely told the child to stay away from that priest, as if it was the child’s responsibility to protect himself. The revelation of offences was met with whispering campaigns, rather than vocal proactive responses. Parents and community members entrusted the clergy to address the problem behind closed doors. Very little was reported to the police.

When the floodgates opened and victims and their loved ones sought redress through the criminal justice system, they were met with legal stonewalling and bullying, refusal or minimization of compensation, and pressure to stay silent. Meaningful acknowledgement and offers of support, apology and compensation were afterthoughts, if they occurred at all. In the documentary, two of Oliver O’Grady’s victims approach the Vatican hoping to deliver a letter asking the Church to acknowledge and respond to child abuse. They are refused entry.

The angry response from the mother who disowned her son because he’d brought shame upon a priest and the Church, is symbolic. Awe of the Church takes precedence over the welfare of parishioners, to the detriment of the most vulnerable.

Parallels in other movements

Other spiritual and religious groups where sexual exploitation and abuse occurs share numerous parallels. They have unaccountable hierarchies. They share disdain for sexuality, women and the family, and disregard for children. They treat victims as enemies, and complaints and criticism as an affront to their religious sanctity. They only vary in the types of religious glory that preoccupy them, and the forms of dread with which they impose religious duress.

Satyananda Yoga & Mangrove Mountain Ashram

The hopeless response to the exploitation, sexual assault and torture of children at Mangrove Mountain Ashram in NSW gave rise to Case Study 21 at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse. To this day, Mangrove Mountain and the Satyananda organization continues to shun and deny victims, banning them from Facebook pages and refusing to make meaningful acknowledgement of the crimes and the culture that enabled them. One survivor who chose to confront and question the ashram management was served with legal threats. Sycophants within the organization label the victims liars and whine about the damage to the yoga tradition and the distasteful shattering of their illusions.

Guru, the late Satyananda Saraswati
Guru, the late Satyananda Saraswati

Preoccupation with transcendence and bliss states, and the deification of Yoga personages in flowing robes blinded ashram devotees to routine exploitation and mistreatment of underlings, as well as financial and other misconduct. The children’s welfare did not rate as a priority in comparison with the pursuit of transcendent bliss. Ashram members were also preoccupied with competing for positions in the hierarchy. The authoritarian structure rewarded sycophancy and punished dissent, allowing corruption to proliferate in secret. Outsiders rarely challenged the perception that the hierarchy was incapable of wrongdoing.

The yoga tradition also values celibacy, and ‘renunciates’ are perceived as superior to lay people. Children are regarded as an inconvenient distraction from meditation, chanting and glorifying the ashram institution. At Mangrove Mountain, children were abandoned into the care of abusers while their parents pursued states of  ‘enlightenment’.

Awe of the guru’s perceived perfection and a fixation with body negative metaphysical concepts contributes to the Satyananda organization’s religious duress. Focused on transcendental states, devotees remain removed from ‘mundane’ reality. Reality is regarded as trivial in comparison to personal bliss. The human body is disdained as an ‘impure vehicle’ and an impediment to the liberation of the soul. Therefore, physical harm, including sexual harm, is not seen as a significant transgression. The doctrines of karma and non attachment were used to condition victims into thinking that abuse was inevitable, something they deserved, and that abusers were doing them a favour – helping to annihilate their ego. Abuse was portrayed as a tantric type challenge, an opportunity for the victim to detach from and transcend their suffering. Sadistic behaviour and victimization were framed as spiritual practice.

Universal Medicine

Universal Medicine is a Lismore based, commercial alternative medicine religion headed by Serge Benhayon, who has appointed himself and his undistinguished offspring as ‘Ascended Masters of the Hierarchy’. The group’s Esoteric healing practices include inappropriate touching of sexual abuse survivors, and the enterprise’s main recruitment gateway is through misleadingly advertised women’s health services. UM’s most controversial teachings and practices are omitted from publicity, and its occult philosophy and financial operations are kept secret.

Benhayon and his family have engaged in an array of child grooming behaviours. Followers regularly send juvenile girls to stay with Benhayon in his home, with the wife who first moved in with him at age 14 – against her mother’s wishes. Universal Medicine apologists aggressively harass and publicly defame complainants and critics such as myself who have questioned these behaviours. It’s difficult to imagine a victim coming forward given they’d face the same onslaught of bullying we have endured.

UniMed followers are fixated on the cult of Benhayon, believing him to be the World’s Teacher and the source of One Unified Truth, which is not questioned. He and his family are marketed as having unsurpassed ‘integrity’. Benhayon’s teachings also regard the human body as an inconvenience that obstructs human beings from attaining higher spiritual ‘initiations’. He denigrates human life, human health, sexuality and relationships, and glorifies death. Followers are encouraged to break up their families and neglect and punish children based on Benhayon’s teaching that ’emotions are the cause of all disease’. Adherents to his ‘Way of the Livingness’ also become captivated by trance states achieved through hands on healing practices and ‘gentle breath meditation’. They exalt themselves as ‘Claimed Sons of God’, with superior ‘energetic integrity’ to other mortals. Their sense of superiority makes them feel entitled to molest and call it ‘healing’, and to shun and harass non subscribers. Followers eagerly send their daughters to stay with the Benhayons under a belief that the company of such superior beings is a kind of blessing.

Religious duress in Universal Medicine comes in the form of threats that non adherence to the Way of the Livingness will result in disease, disability, rape and possession by supernatural entities, and multiple reincarnations into lifetimes of suffering. Followers believe illness and misfortune result from transgressions as minor as eating sugar or cheese. Sins from previous lifetimes may also result in misfortune, so there is no escape. They believe if they fail to adhere to the Esoteric way their children or other loved ones will be raped by evil entities. Many followers believe Benhayon has supernatural powers, including ‘clairsentience’ – the ability to know all, including their thoughts. Their beliefs have not only blinded them to overt child grooming behaviours, but have resulted in wholesale enabling and exaltation of abuse.


Spiritual communities and institutions where abuse has proliferated share common hallmarks:

  • A deified spiritual hierarchy that is secretive and resists scrutiny
  • Preoccupation with abstract spiritual concepts takes precedence over dealing with reality, particularly the reality of safe, ethical and accountable behaviour
  • Clergy or spiritual personages’ merge with the institution or group rather than function as autonomous, responsible individual personalities
  • Members of undemocratic, hierarchical power structure consider themselves superior to lay people
  • Women, marriage and children are regarded as inferior and an impediment to spiritual life
  • Protecting the clergy and the institution or group takes priority over the safety and welfare of vulnerable underlings
  • Victims and dissenters are perceived as enemies of the clergy or organization and treated with hostility

In the end, regardless of the elaborateness of the robes and rituals, or the convoluted nature of beliefs, sexual abuse is always and only an abhorrent abuse of power. The use of religious authority in exploiting victims adds a further devastating element of spiritual abuse.

Father Tom Doyle on Religious Duress

Transcript of PBS Interview with Tom Doyle

Video – SBS Dateline interview with Father Doyle

8 thoughts on “Cultivating sexual abuse in religious communities

  1. Seems to me the old style of sexual abuse is hidden behind a cloak of secrecy and shame, religion and an invisible God who cannot be questioned by children who often did not have parental protection.
    Preying on children who are only able to speak out now as adults and even then, only a few prepared to go public.
    The modern day version begins with the abuser declaring themselves as some sort of earth god.
    He has practiced possessing and owning a targeted child/children and vulnerable adults and has got away with it.
    Prey on the vulnerable, but not through secrecy, get on a stage, exhibit your narcissis,m, it surely can’t be a lie if it is displayed so obviously.
    Those who are brainwashed not only cannot see the objective of sex, money and fame, they will fight to defend their earth god who they can see, touch and follow no matter what.
    In the past, reality TV would not have survived.
    Now we have shows full of people who are famous thus wealthy for doing nothing and being nobodies.
    Where are the quiet achievers who spend much of their lives silently looking for a cancer cure down a microscope, invisible, because they are not self promoting. They have earnt integrity.
    They do not jump on a stage claiming to know everything and demand integrity. They have no need to lie to the world.
    The world needs to stop believing these in sham abusers, stop the shallow, look deeper for the truth.

    1. I wish I had a Like button for comments. Great comment, thank you. I’m watching Bishop Bird obfuscate his way through questions about accountability at the Royal Comm. The whole Catholic Church a massive corrupt pantomime. The same with chanting and incense burning love ins at the ashram, and the Benhayon deification & cash raking circus.

  2. Jesus Christ / God is surely mortified by the abhorrent practices / crimes committed in His name. (Jesus, who Christians are meant to resemble, treated women & children with respect & protectiveness). A despicable abuse of power in a highly patriarchal, possibly mysogynistic organisations. Catholic & many other heirarchical “churches” sadly little resemble the early New Testament church (where believers met in homes or in public spaces, women are meant to be equal, treated with reverance & gentlenes, pivotal in decision making, etc). I believe that certain “spiritual” organisations attract power hungry peadeophiles, as they recognise how easy it is to perpetuate their crimes in a culture of idolatry & secrecy.

  3. With delusions of grandeur, a sense of entitlement, lack of empathy & “religious” excuses thrown in the mix …

  4. Reading this incisive Catholic church analysis (with an enabling, dismissive government, who happens to have a Catholic at its head), makes my blood boil! It certainly seems to support the theory that the Catholic church (& similar power hungry organisations) “evolve” to perpetuate severe child abuse. Attracting sick paedophiles who know they will be protected by a “spiritual/ cloak of immunity.

  5. A biography of Father Tom Doyle has been published: All profits from the book will be donated to charities benefitting abuse victims.

    And in a recent article Father Tom made a nice summary on this topic:

    The institutional church’s abject failure has revealed fundamental deficiencies in essential areas, all of which have been instrumental in perpetrating and sustaining the tragic culture of abuse:

    *The erroneous belief that the monarchical governmental structure of the church was intended by God and justifies the sacrifice of innocent victims;
    *The belief that priests and bishops are superior to laypersons, entitled to power and deference because they are ontologically different and uniquely joined to Christ;
    *A lay spirituality that is dependent on the clergy and gauged by the degree of submission to them and unquestioned obedience to all church laws and authority figures;
    *An obsession with doctrinal orthodoxy and theological formulations that bypasses the realities of human life and replaces mercy and charity as central Catholic values;
    *An understanding of human sexuality that is not grounded in the reality of the human person but in a bizarre theological tradition that originated with the pre-Christian stoics and was originally formulated by celibate males of questionable psychological stability;
    *The clerical subculture that has propagated the virus of clericalism, which has perpetuated a severely distorted value system that has influenced clergy and laity alike.

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