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Clergy Abuse: Betrayal and Relational Complex Trauma. Christine A. Courtois, PhD , ABPP Psychologist , Private Practice Courtois & Associates, PC Washington, DC Relevant Books by Dr. Courtois. Outline.

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clergy abuse betrayal and relational complex trauma

Clergy Abuse: Betrayal and Relational Complex Trauma

Christine A. Courtois, PhD, ABPP

Psychologist, Private Practice

Courtois & Associates, PC

Washington, DC

  • I. Clergy abuse and incest have similar dynamics
    • Both are forms of complex trauma
  • II. Complex trauma ->complex reactions
  • III. Complex reactions -> complex healing
    • Understanding dynamics and common reactions helps to better understand the injury and to heal
defining trauma
Defining Trauma
  • What is trauma?
    • Stressor event or experience (includes witnessing)
    • Overwhelming
    • Different types: impersonal, interpersonal, identity
  • What makes it traumatic?
    • Overwhelming emotionally and cognitively
    • Cannot be emotionally processed in the normal way
    • When interpersonal, adds to the trauma
      • betrayal, secrecy, silence, taboo, force/violence, blame/shame, etc.
    • Avoided and not processed
      • generalizes and/or goes underground
defining trauma1
  • What is Complex Trauma?
    • Interpersonal/identity
    • Often during childhood/adolescence
      • Impacts development
    • In context of a relationship
      • Betrayal/Misuse/Exploitation
      • Repeated/chronic
      • Entrapping
      • Escalating over time
        • Seriousness & intrusion
what is incest
What is Incest?
  • Sexual abuse by family members (also by non-relatives who have family roles, including clergy)
  • Violates primary relationships and roles
  • Violates responsibility to protect
  • Misuses authority, power, knowledge
  • Preys on and exploits those who are younger/smaller /less powerful/naïve/


    • Have fewer resources
    • Victims are more vulnerable if family is not healthy
common dynamics of incest
Common Dynamics of Incest
  • Betrayal and Relational Trauma
    • Betrayal of an essential and sacrosanct relationship and role
    • Not “stranger-danger”
    • Much more emotionally conflicted and damaging
    • May affect ability to remember
    • Second injury
      • Those who don’t respond or help
    • Institutional injury
      • Those that obstruct rather than help
      • Communities and organizations
common dynamics of incest1
Common Dynamics of Incest
  • Dysfunctional Family
    • With boundary and power problems; sometimes violent, poly-abusive, addictions
  • Power and gender dynamics
    • Patriarchal
  • Closed system
    • Loyalty expected, even when not deserved
  • Family rules and injunctions
    • Don’t!: know, feel, react, respond, tell
  • Paradox and hypocrisy
common dynamics of incest2
Common Dynamics of Incest
  • Victim who discloses is blamed, shunned, scapegoated,
    • “You are with us or against us; Don’t ask us to admit/change”
  • Supporters/interveners are treated with suspicion, may be attacked
  • Secondary and tertiary victims
    • Trauma has a wake: like a pebble in a pond
    • Other family members, others in the parish or faith community
incestuous dynamics of clergy abuse
Incestuous Dynamics of Clergy Abuse
  • Structured power and historical behaviors (including abuse) and doctrine
  • Patriarchal and hierarchical: Cardinals , bishops and priests as authority figures, extensions of the deity; contradictory views of women
  • Church as family
  • Church as closed system
  • Structured morals and beliefs (that are violated)
  • Structured training of priests
    • Vocations and seminaries
    • Personal and psychosexual development in the seminary
incestuous dynamics of clergy abuse1
Incestuous Dynamics of Clergy Abuse
  • Loyalty and obedience expected
  • Priest as God’s representative: Spiritual father
      • Authority and moral figure
      • May have a role in the child’s biological family
      • Always to be honored, obeyed, respected
      • Not to be questioned/suspected
  • Church and congregants as extended family
    • Children of God
    • Beliefs, structure, functioning
    • Loyalty, attachment, kinship/faith ties
incestuous dynamics of clergy abuse2
Incestuous Dynamics of Clergy Abuse
  • Betrayal-trauma, hypocrisy, & disillusionment
    • Betrayal of role and responsibilities
    • Betrayal of beliefs and teaching
    • Ambivalent attachment/conflicted emotions/loyalty
  • Second Injury
    • Enablers (housekeeper, other priests, etc.)
    • Passive bystanders (other priests, congregants, parents, Bishops, Cardinals, etc.)
    • Those who should help and don’t
      • Lack of investigation, follow-up, silencing
    • Disbelievers, blamers, scapegoaters, and attackers
  • Vicarious injury: collateral damage
incestuous dynamics of clergy abuse3
Incestuous Dynamics of Clergy Abuse
  • Institutional Injury
    • Suppression of reports and inadequate investigation
    • Lack of reporting to criminal authorities
      • Lack of cooperation with investigations
    • Non-removal of perpetrators and moving them from one parish to another with no warning
    • Non-pastoral response to victims
    • Actively working against victims’ suits & rights
      • Statutes of limitation, bankruptcies, etc.
    • Expensive defense attorneys
    • Questioning of recovered or delayed memories
incestuous dynamics of clergy abuse4
Incestuous Dynamics of Clergy Abuse
  • And the list goes on…
    • “Just get over it.”
    • “What’s the big deal?”
    • “All (litigating) victims want is money and to bankrupt the Church.”
    • “It’s homosexuality and not pedophilia”
      • Can it not be one or the other or both?
    • “The Church does not have to report to civil authorities.”
    • “The problem is recent and it is over.”
    • “Management systems are in place”
    • “Why should I/we apologize for what other priests/Bishops did?”
ii complex reactions to complex trauma
II. Complex Reactions to Complex Trauma
  • Individual and subjective
  • Initial and short-term:
    • Wide variety of behavioral, cognitive, emotional, physical/medical, identity, relational and family issues and symptoms
    • PTS and PTSD, depression, anxiety, dissociation, substance abuse and compulsions
      • by victim’s age and stage of development
    • May be noticed right away, but not understood
    • Child may not disclose, even when asked directly
    • Effects and symptoms may go dormant
complex reactions to complex trauma
Complex Reactions to Complex Trauma
  • Long-term:
      • Same: PTS and PTSD, Complex PTSD, dissociation, depression, anxiety, substance abuse
      • Episodic
      • Chronic
      • Again, manifested by age and stage
      • Delayed onset: Secondary elaborations of the untreated original effects
      • Cued by current events (positive and negative): media and other reports of clergy abuse; death of the perpetrator or others; feelings, thoughts, sensations; relationship and family issues; children and childrearing; response of others; institutional response, etc.
post traumatic stress disorder
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Major symptoms (the big three):
    • 1. Re-experiencing
    • 2. Numbing/detaching
    • 3. Hyper-arousal
  • Associated symptoms
      • Depression, anxiety, dissociation, substance abuse
      • Co-morbidity: medical and psychological
      • Self and relationship difficulties
complex traumatic stress disorders ptsd plus or minus
Complex Traumatic Stress Disorders: PTSD, plus or minus
  • Alterations in ability to regulate self and emotions
  • Alterations in sense of self
  • Alterations in ongoing consciousness
  • Alterations in relation to the perpetrator
  • Alterations in relation to others
    • MISTRUST, alienation
  • Physical/medical concerns
  • Alterations in meaning and spirituality
complex injury complextreatment
Complex Injury ->ComplexTreatment
  • Understand complex trauma and reactions
  • Find an experienced therapist
    • Must understand sexual abuse, special issues of clergy abuse, complex trauma
    • Not all therapists have training in the treatment of trauma
    • Don’t take this for granted!
    • Find someone you are comfortable with
    • The therapy relationship itself is part of the healing process
complex treatment for complex injury
Complex Treatment for Complex Injury
  • Sequenced treatment with three main stages:
    • 1. Information/education, safety and stabilization, dismantling defenses/survival skills and managing symptoms, skill-development including emotional regulation skills, development of therapeutic relationship
    • 2. Trauma memory processing: involves acceptance, grieving, and anger; strategizing about actions
    • 3. Life re-engagement, meaning, spirituality
complex treatment for complex injury reverse the lessons of abuse
Complex Treatment for Complex Injury: Reverse the Lessons of Abuse
  • Personal SAFETY is the foundation of healing
  • Support of others is crucial
    • Develop a support system
  • Put yourself and your family first
    • Determine your needs
    • Family members such as parents can be vicariously traumatized and may need support and treatment
    • Explain to children in age-appropriate ways
complex treatment for complex injury1
Complex Treatment for Complex Injury
  • Re-gain control: Get empowered for you
    • Treat any addictions/compulsions simultaneously
    • Challenge old messages and the “lessons of abuse”
      • Work to change thoughts and beliefs
    • Learn to remove/limit triggers
    • Learn skills to manage symptoms
    • Approach versus avoid trauma material but with skills and support in place and in a balanced way
    • Trauma must be emotionally processed
  • Use anger for you and not against you
on offering support
On Offering Support
  • Healing is a process
    • Expect ups and downs
    • Healing from complex interpersonal trauma is longer rather than shorter-term
  • Be unconditional and conditional
    • Person versus behavior
  • Expect your own reactions
    • Vicarious or secondary trauma
    • Crisis in faith
    • Engage in self-care and have limits and boundaries
    • Have own sources of support/outside perspective
on grieving
On Grieving
  • Compounded, complicated mourning for what was and what wasn’t
    • Multiple layers of betrayal and injury
    • Takes time and energy
    • Often involves righteous and justifiable anger
  • Ambiguous losses
    • Might not be recognized -> more loss and grief
    • Might not be supported
  • Search for meaning and validation
anger for empowerment
Anger for Empowerment
    • A difficult emotion, must be managed and modulated
    • Use anger to reverse the lessons and put the blame where it belongs and not on you
  • Litigation is one option, not the only one
    • Can have a high personal cost, better if later in the process, get information and choose carefully
  • Personal healing and recovery are the ultimate goals

Healing Is Possible and Is Your Right and Responsibility

Maintain Hope and Solidarity with Others

additional resources
Additional Resources
  • (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests)
  • (International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies)
  • (International Society for the Study of

Trauma and Dissociation)

  • (National Center for PTSD)
  • (National Child Traumatic Stress Network)
    • Referral list, help desk, books and videos on trauma topics