Sexual Abuse In Religious Institutions

Churches and other religious institutes are designed to be places where you should feel safe, cared for, and loved. So when the unthinkable happens — sexual abuse at your place of worship — it can be difficult to understand the events, what to do, and how to hold those accountable and responsible for their actions.

The first thing you should know is that it’s not your fault. Religious leaders and clergymen, including the religious institute itself, can and should be held responsible for the pain they have inflicted on you and your family. At Bachus & Schanker, our experienced sexual abuse lawyers are committed to protecting those who have been abused and exploited by community leaders who were supposed to protect them.

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What Is Church Sexual Abuse?

Church sexual abuse refers to any abuse that is sexual in nature and is brought on by a church leader to satisfy their own sexual desires. A physical sexual assault such as rape or molestation does not have to take place in order for sexual abuse to have occurred, although many survivors may experience a sexual assault over the course of the abuse. 

Victims are often groomed by their predators, and you may have been made to feel that the events you have experienced are not sexual in nature and do not constitute sexual abuse. However, they are wrong. This abuse can take on many forms. You and other victims can, unfortunately, endure a range of inappropriate and heartbreaking encounters, including but not limited to the following:

  • Unwanted sexual touching and physical contact
  • Fondling children on inappropriate parts of their bodies
  • Engaging in sexually suggestive conversation and physical activities
  • Engaging in activities where the victim is forced to get naked
  • Use of pornography
  • Sexual violence 
  • Sexual harassment 
  • Sexual assault and molestation of children

Victims of church-related sexual abuse are often made to feel as though they are not victims and that the behavior is normal and appropriate. But it is not okay. If you have experienced any of the above interactions with a church leader, you may have been the victim of church-related sexual assault. This also applies if you have a child who has described any of the above events. Please remember that it isn’t your fault and to contact law enforcement to seek out appropriate charges to hold the perpetrators accountable.

How Common Is Abuse At Church And Other Religious Institutes?

Unlike other crimes, crimes of sexual abuse, including sexual abuse in the church, are not accurately reported because you or other victims may be afraid to come forward. This is entirely justifiable, but please know you are not alone. An estimated 63% of rapes that do occur are never reported to the police, while only 12% of child sexual abuse cases are ever reported to the police, according to the latest data.

Current rates discovered by this data indicate that at least one in five women and one in 71 men have reported that they have experienced rape at some point in their life. These rates are even more sadly alarming when it comes to children. One in four girls and one in six boys have reported that they were sexually abused at least once in their life before turning 18. 

The documented rates of church-related sexual abuse cases are even more skewed as victims seldom come forward. Over the past decade, however, more victims have courageously come forward to publicly out their abusers.

As more brave victims speak out, a clearer picture is painted of how many church sexual abuse cases occur and to whom. More recently, several religious institutes have been implicated in widespread sexual abuse scandals. Among these institutes are: 

  • The Catholic Church
  • Evangelical Christians 
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses
  • Orthodox Judaism / Yeshivas
  • The Church of Latter-day Saints / Mormons
  • The Church of Scientology 

Sexual Abuse In Catholic Churches Versus Other Religions 

When it comes to sexual abuse in religious institutions, an overwhelming number of Americans are quick to associate the Catholic Church with abuse due to its disgusting reputation of victimizing and sexually abusing young children, particularly boys. 

In a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center, Americans have grown increasingly wary of Catholic Church clergymen and their misconduct in the church. The study also highlights the many efforts that have gone into holding those responsible accountable for their misconduct. In a more recent case, a Pennsylvania grand jury announced that Catholic leaders, including Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Washington D.C., were behind decades of sexual abuse and misconduct against their parishioners.

A majority of Americans regard the Catholic Church in a much different light when compared to other religious institutions regarding Church sexual abuse. The study found that about eight out of ten American adults say that the recent reports of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church are an ongoing problem that still exists. Unfortunately, roughly 12% reported that they feel the sexual abuse allegations against the Catholic Church are in the past and “mostly don’t happen anymore.”

Those surveyed also shared that they’re not quite sure what to make of church sexual assault being a unique problem to the Catholic Church. Roughly 47% share that church sexual abuse occurs in all religious institutes, not just the Catholic Church. An estimated 48% say that church sexual abuse is a problem unique to the Catholic Church.

What Are The Effects Of Being Sexually Abused At Church?

Whether church sexual assault occurs in a Catholic Church or another religious institute, the effect of being sexually abused at church can have deeply rooted implications.

You or other victims, especially younger victims, can be easily groomed by church leaders into thinking you were at fault or were the reason that the sexual abuse occurred. Please do not listen to them; it is not your fault. But because of this mentality, victims can experience effects including but not limited to the following:

  • Fear of speaking out against the religious leader
  • Fear of telling their loved ones about the abuse, as they may feel that it is their fault it happened
  • Disassociation from family members and other loved ones
  • Sudden changes in mood, behavior, or outlook on life
  • Apprehension to attend the church where the abuse occurred or any other religious organizations
  • Apprehension or fear of being left at church alone. For younger victims, this may be a fear or apprehension of going to church for extracurriculars such as Sunday School.

Regardless of the events that occurred, your age, or your background, it is important to remember that if you are the victim of a church sexual assault, you have been taken advantage of by someone who was supposed to protect you. While it can take exhaustive time and resources to heal through the trauma of the church’s sexual abuse, please do not blame yourself for the abuse.

What To Do If You’ve Been Sexually Abused At Church

If you have unfortunately been sexually abused at church, you may feel like you are to blame or are somehow responsible for your abuse. Please do not listen to that feeling. You are not alone, and it isn’t your fault. Predators are classified as such because they prey on victims who are vulnerable or are too young to understand that they are being victimized.

Predators are also inherently good at convincing you that speaking out about the abuse will bring on more negative consequences than good. Additionally, predators tend to have the manipulative ability to emotionally separate you from your loved ones so that you are not empowered to confide in them about the abuse.

Talk To Someone You Trust 

If you have sadly been sexually abused at church, please tell someone you trust about the abuse. If you do not have someone you trust, contacting the authorities and alerting them about the abuse is imperative.

If you are unsure whether what you have experienced constitutes sexual abuse, you should still tell someone you trust or contact your local authorities. The very fact that you feel uneasy about a situation that has occurred is enough to validate that misconduct may have occurred, whether it be sexual abuse, physical abuse, or any other type of abuse. 

Seek Medical Attention

If you have unfortunately been the victim of a physical assault such as rape or molestation, please seek medical attention immediately. Medical professionals will conduct a rape kit that can prove invaluable during criminal proceedings against your abuser.

Speak With A Church Sexual Abuse Lawyer 

Recovery following a sexual assault will look different for every survivor. Often, healing can take time and may require physical and mental health services. As a victim of someone else’s abuse, you can begin to take back your power and hold your abuser accountable. Requiring them to pay for your physical and mental health services can be a step toward recovery. This is done when you file a civil lawsuit in which you can seek compensation for your losses because of the abuse you have regretfully endured.

Can You Sue A Priest Or Religious Institution For Sexual Abuse?

Even though this is an incredibly difficult time, you can — and should — sue a priest or religious institution if you have unfortunately experienced sexual abuse at church. By filing a lawsuit against a priest of a religious institution, you can take steps toward taking back your future while holding the liable parties responsible.

You can file a suit against the abuser themselves and any other individual who took part in the abuse. Additionally, as painful as it is, you can take legal action against the church, temple, or mosque where the abuse occurred. Religious facilities can be held liable if they allow the abuse to continue, either directly or indirectly. This may help to provide some closure as you begin healing.

What Damages May I Recover In A Church Sexual Abuse Case?

When seeking restitution in a church sexual abuse lawsuit, you can pursue both economic and non-economic damages. Economic damages are designed to return you to your financial state before the abuse. This means you can legally file for the full losses you incurred because of the abuse. These losses include but are not limited to the following:

  • Medical treatment, including hospitalization, doctors visits, and ongoing medical treatment
  • Costs associated with physical or mental therapy following the abuse
  • Lost wages if you were unable to work or earn an income after the abuse
  • Any other financial losses that you suffered because of the abuse

Non-economic damages are designed to help you seek restitution for the pain and suffering you have endured because of the abuse. Non-economic damages are typically intangible losses that are difficult to calculate as monetary losses. Examples of these damages can include the following:

  • Trauma and mental anguish
  • Pain and suffering 
  • Anxiety and PTSD due to the assault 
  • Mental health issues that resulted because of the assault 

According to the Advocacy group, the average settlement for clergy sexual abuse is roughly $268,000. While a settlement can help you address medical services and other financial burdens, it can assist you in reclaiming your future and regaining the power you might have lost.

A settlement also plays a pivotal role in helping bring light to the abuse. The majority of individuals who have filed a clergy sex abuse lawsuit say that they were motivated to do so because it could help other individuals from experiencing abuse at the hands of the clergymen in the future. 

Recent Colorado Sexual Abuse Lawsuits

Colorado has had its unfortunate share of church sexual abuse cases. In 2021, a former Aspen Catholic priest was accused by a former altar boy, Keegan Callahan, of sexual assault. Callahan — who was just seven years old at the time and is now 24 years old — accused Rev. Michael O’Brien of assaulting him over 300 times in the early 2000s. Through the legal action Callahan took, O’Brien was charged with his crimes and is now serving a 14-year prison sentence. 

In a similar 2022 case, Colorado resident Brian Barzee filed a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver, accusing the facility of exploitation and sexual abuse at the hands of a former priest. Several other priests were also accused of sexual misconduct.

How Can An Experienced Colorado Sexual Assault Lawyer Help Me?

a statue holding the scales of justice and a sword sits on a book alongside of a gavel

Church leaders are put in positions designed to protect children. When they violate this duty, it is important to hold them responsible. If you have sadly been the victim of church sexual assault, while it will be a painful journey, you have the power to hold them accountable by taking legal action.

Please know you’re not alone in this, and your efforts will hopefully help you during your recovery process. Your courage to speak out can also help protect others from becoming victims at the hands of your abuser.

The sexual assault lawyers at Bachus & Schanker understand how painful this is for you, but we will be with you every step of the way and help protect your rights.


Americans See Catholic Clergy Sex Abuse as an Ongoing Problem. (2019). 

Auslander, J. (2021). Former Aspen priest faces civil lawsuit accusing him of 300 occasions of sex assault on altar boy. 

Major Sexual Abuse Settlements in the Catholic Church. (2023). 

Miller, F. (2022). Lawsuit alleging child sexual abuse filed against Archdiocese of Denver
Statistics about sexual violence. (2015).

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Written and Legally Reviewed By: Kyle Bachus

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Kyle is a member of the Colorado and Florida Bar associations and has served on the Board of Directors of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association for more than twenty years in total. Over the years, Kyle has achieved justice for many clients. He has served on numerous committees and repeatedly won recognition from his peers at both the state and national level. He is proud of the role he has played in the passage of state and national legislation to protect consumers and is a frequent speaker and guest lecturer.