Institutional abuse, stories of sexual harm from schools and churches, seems to be in the news almost every day.
This is both a good and a bad thing.
It is good because it means that more victims are starting to come forward, speak their truth and hold their abuser accountable.
I think it’s kinda obvious why it’s bad. No one should be able to abuse their position of power or authority.
So, How do we Prevent Institutional Abuse?
As with any type of sexual abuse, the question becomes, how do we prevent institutional abuse?
We all want to believe that there is some way to screen out those individuals who might be prone to sexually abusing others. We would love to bar them from becoming clergy, boy scout leaders, teachers, etc.
Despite the prevalence of this form of abuse, there is not a lot of research on institutional sexual abuse as a specific form of abuse.
ATSA’s most recent edition of their scientific journal, Sexual Abuse, was dedicated to the problem of institutional abuse.
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Scientific Studies and Research
I think it would be easier for most to believe there’s something unique about people who commit institutional abuse.
Harris and Terry (2019) indicate that child sexual abuse (CSA) perpetrators in institutional settings are similar to those who offend elsewhere.
Additionally, the factors that make children vulnerable to abuse are not unique to these settings either.
This makes it difficult to identify those who might abuse and keep them out of situations where they have easy access to victims.
Personality Characteristics and Institutional Abuse
Amrom, Calkins & Fargo (2019), researchers from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, looked at personality characteristics of sexual abusers.
They hoped to find a way to identify sexually abusive clergy.
They used the MMPI-2 and MCMI-III in the study, which are widely accepted personality measures.
What is known from studies of pre-employment MMPI-2s is that clergy applicants tend to present as:
- Uncomfortable with expressions of anger
- Strongly needing approval
Additionally, past research shows us that Episcopal and Presbyterian clergy applicants tend to present as generally well adjusted, but do display elevations of narcissistic, compulsive and histrionic traits.
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The Categorization of Amrom’s Study
Amrom et. al.’s study looked at the MMPI-2 and MCMI-III of three categories of clergy:
- Sent to treatment for child sexual abuse
- Referred to treatment for noncriminal sexual behavior with adults
- Referred to treatment for non-sexual reasons such as depression, drug, or alcohol problems
Finally, Amrom’s control group took the test for pre-employment and had no history of clinical or sexual issues.
Results of Amrom’s Study
Amrom’s study indicated there were no differences between the sexual abuse group and the sexual misconduct group.
There was, however, a difference between the sexual abuse group and the control group. The control group showed more signs of psychopathology than the sexual abuse group.
Amrom, et. al. identified an elevation on the MCMI-III’s Aggressive/Sadistic subscale for the sexual abuse group.
Ultimately, the authors opined that the MCMI-III and MMPI-2 were not able to distinguish between the four groups. Therefore, these personality measures aren’t very helpful for screening out potential sexual abusers from the clergy applicants.
Institutional Abuse and Grooming
Another study in the special edition by Spraitz and Bowen (2019) looked at the grooming techniques used by priests who have sexually abused.
Some studies have shown, in addition to traditional grooming techniques, clergy will use their role as priests or as an extension of God to abuse parishioners. The researchers analyzed records from several Archdioceses and unsealed records that all involved priests or monks in sexual abuse cases. They created a taxonomy of grooming techniques in the priest sexual abuse cases.
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What is Grooming?
Grooming is the process an abuser uses to create a “special” relationship with a victim and create opportunities to abuse. Typically the abuser is an adult and the victim is a child.
In this study, priests used the following techniques:
- Giving alcohol, cigarettes or drugs to the victim
- Giving gifts to the victim
- Taking the victim on overnight trips
- Physical contact
- Using mentorship or friendship
- Playing favorites
- Creating a relationship with the family
- Abusing the position of respect and reverence
Results of the Grooming Study
Unfortunately, the researchers found the grooming techniques of abusive clergy in their sample were no different from non-clergy.
The technique of abusing the position as a person of God was not an overt form of grooming.
They found that the use of this technique may not be “purposeful, overt, or done consciously in all instances.”
There were clergy who did use this technique overtly, but not many in this study.
Takeaways About Institutional Abuse
In short, the studies in this special issue of Sexual Abuse confirm, for the studies published, the individuals who perpetrate sexual abuse in institutions are not significantly different from those who abuse outside of institutions.
These results are frustrating as it would be a boon to the prevention of sexual abuse if there was a way to predict who might abuse versus who might not.
The research will continue and hopefully, in the future, more work will be published that can help institutional abuse prevention efforts.
Do you feel your sexual behavior, or that of someone you love, is out of control? Consult with a professional.
Have you found yourself in legal trouble due to your sexual behavior? Seek assistance before the court mandates it, with Sexual Addiction Treatment Services.
As professionals, our time is valuable. Dr. Weeks created the Mitigation Aide Research Archive because there isn’t enough focused, data-backed research available in easily digestible formats.