Understanding and Addressing the Intersection of Spiritual Struggles and Clergy Sexual Abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in Baltimore

Loyola University Maryland

Project Description

We investigated the psychological and spiritual damage done by clergy sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church through a multi-method study of spiritual struggles. Spiritual struggles in the psychological study of religion “refer to pain, anger, fear, doubt, or confusion related to religious and spiritual beliefs, experiences, and practices. Broadly speaking, spiritual struggles refer to distress or conflict in domains of life that individuals perceive as sacred.” We investigated how and under what conditions spiritual struggles are experienced by Catholics and former Catholics related to sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church, with particular attention paid to the unique experiences of Black Catholics and former Catholics. Baltimore, our home, is a city at the foundation of both the Catholic and the Black Catholic traditions in the United States, thus providing a distinctive context for the study.

The research methods entailed a mixed-methods sequential design. In the first phase of the study, quantitative methods were used to survey 248 Catholics and former Catholics. Efforts were made to recruit roughly equal numbers of Black and non-Black Catholics, however only 7% (n = 17) of survey respondents identified as Black Catholics and 17% (n = 41) identified as former Catholics. We also interviewed 32 participants in depth (12 male, 20 female; 4 Black, 28 non-Black; 22 Catholic, 10 former Catholic).

Key Findings, Quantitative Data:

Given the significant sample size difference between comparison groups, nonparametric inferential statistics were used for comparative analyses. A significant limitation of these data are the relatively small number of former Catholics (n = 41), Black Catholics (n = 14), and Black former Catholics (n = 3) in the sample.

  • In general, religious and spiritual struggles were common among all participants (n = 248). The most common types were struggles with other religious/spiritual people, doubts about religious/spiritual beliefs, and concerns about personal morality. Struggles with God, demonic forces, and ultimate meaning were also present, but less prevalent.
  • All forms of spiritual struggle were linked with experiencing greater symptoms of anxiety and depression; however, divine struggles and struggles of ultimate meaning were most highly related to both depressive symptoms and anxiety. The presence of meaning in life was related to fewer symptoms of both anxiety and depression.
  • Perceptions of institutional betrayal by the Catholic Church were related to greater interpersonal struggles, religious and spiritual doubt, perceptions of sacred loss and desecration, clericalism and postconventional religious reasoning.
  • There were no differences between Catholics (n = 207) and former Catholics (n = 41) in perceptions of institutional betrayal regarding sexual abuse within the Catholic church; however, Catholics scored higher on perceptions of desecration related to sexual abuse in the Church and overall presence of meaning in life in comparison to former Catholics. Former Catholics reported more struggles related to morality, religious and spiritual doubt, and ultimate meaning, as well as greater symptoms of anxiety and depression in comparison to Catholics. Former Catholics also reported more frequent daily spiritual experiences and greater postconventional religious reasoning than Catholics.
  • Black Catholics and former Catholics (n = 17) scored higher on experiences of racism within their own church, in other religious settings, and in non-religious settings in comparison to non-Black Catholics and former Catholics (n = 231). Black Catholics and former Catholics also reported greater demonic struggles and lower perceptions of clerical indifference than non-Black Catholics and former Catholics. No other differences were found on study variables between Black and non-Black Catholics and former Catholics.

Key Findings, Qualitative Data:

  1. Catholics and former Catholics experienced spiritual struggles with the institutional Church as a result of clergy sexual abuse. Current Catholics reconciled these struggles through rationalizations (i.e., clergy are human, and humans are sinful) and focusing on the value of their experiences of Church in their local parish rather than the negatives seen in the broader institution. Former Catholics viewed clergy sexual abuse as one of many hypocrisies of the Church. Although Black Catholics experienced spiritual struggles with the institutional Church related to clergy sexual abuse, the historical and current racism of the Church lessens the intensity of this struggle.
  2. The participants interviewed who were actively practicing their Catholic faith do not often think about clergy sexual abuse. As one participant stated, “I really don’t think about it, you know, it’s not… If it’s something that’s in the news, you know, it may go through my mind, but as a regular routine thing, it’s not there.” Most participants reported thinking about clergy sexual abuse as a response to media coverage. What seemed to influence whether people think regularly about clergy sexual abuse is proximity and specificity: the more specific the event or close to their social networks it is, the more conscious and deliberative reflection will be.
  3. Catholics and former Catholics tended to experience spiritual struggles that are interpersonal or with the institution, not intrapersonally or with God or demonic forces. As one participant stated, “I think I would leave out the spiritual struggles with God, because I think for myself, I’ve separated the institutional Catholic Church from God. For me the institution is a seriously flawed human made institution.” Interestingly, struggles with God were rare, as were struggles with one’s own culpability. More common were struggles with the institution (seen as the Archdiocese and more broadly, USCCB, and personalized in bishops, regardless of their behavior) and struggles with other people about remaining Catholic.
  4. Current, but not former, Catholics coped with the impact of clergy sexual abuse by working to preserve their religious practices and theological beliefs. As one participant stated, “I believe what I believe, regardless of what humans do. And there’s been some bad humans, but some of them had to be priests and some happen to be boy scout leaders, some happen to be other things. It’s a shame, but it doesn’t change what I believe.” Common coping mechanisms that fostered maintenance of religious practices and beliefs were inertia, rationalization, and dividing the church into good and bad actors while identifying as part of the “good guys.”
  5. Due to the history of institutional racism within the Roman Catholic Church, the moral failings of the Church were not a spiritual struggle for Black Catholics who have already had to carve out their own safe spaces. As one participant said, “I think white Catholic churches were shaken in a way that at least my African American Catholic Church wasn’t because there was already an inherent distrust in the institution to look out for us. Black Catholics already know how the institution has treated them as African Americans in the past. It isn’t threatening to imagine that a racist organization has intractable evil coming from it.” This sense also made it easier to adopt a kind of de-facto congregationalism that focused only on the local parish as where Church happens. Surprisingly, we did not have people talking about cases of abuse committed and occurring in predominantly Black parishes, though there have been some well-known cases. 

Project Staff

Principal Investigators

Gina Magyar-RussellGina Magyar-Russell, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Loyola University Maryland. She is a licensed, practicing psychologist in Maryland and specializes in psychological and spiritual adjustment following adverse life events, with emphasis on the treatment of anxiety, mood, and spiritual problems. Her research focuses on spiritual struggles and their association with mental health, nontheistic sanctification, sacred moments, and the integration of spirituality into psychotherapy. She has served on the Executive Committee of the American Psychological Associations, Division 36, The Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, and has co-authored over 40 publications on religiousness, spirituality and health, as well as depression and anxiety, in a variety of populations. She enjoys teaching courses on the treatment of psychopathology, cognitive behavioral therapy, and the psychology of religion, as well as serving as a doctoral dissertation mentor and supervisor for clinicians in training.

Jill SnodgrassRev. Dr. Jill L. Snodgrass is Associate Professor of Theology at Loyola University Maryland. She is a pastoral and practical theologian, a scholar-activist, and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Her research focuses on spiritual care and counseling with traditionally marginalized populations. She is the editor of Navigating Religious Difference in Spiritual Care and Counseling (Claremont Press, 2019), the author of Women Leaving Prison: Justice-Seeking Spiritual Support for Female Returning Citizens (Lexington, 2018), and the author of numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters. Dr. Snodgrass has served as a pastoral counselor in churches, shelters, transitional housing facilities, and community centers, and she is the Clinical Director of Spiritual Support at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

Joseph Stewart-SickingThe Rev. Joseph Stewart-Sicking, Ed.D., NCC is Professor of Counseling and Chair of the Department of Education Specialties at Loyola University Maryland. An ordained Episcopal priest, he is a counselor, spiritual director, and congregational consultant.  His scholarship has focused on the relationship between mental health counseling and spiritual direction and integrating spirituality and religion into counseling in pluralist settings. He has published numerous articles and books in the areas of counselor education and supervision, career counseling, religion and spirituality in counseling, and spiritual direction, the most recent of which is Bringing Religion and Spirituality into Therapy: A Process-Based Model for Pluralistic Practice (Routledge, 2019).  Dr. Stewart-Sicking has worked in congregational, addictions, and child/adolescent inpatient settings, and serves as a priest in the Diocese of Maryland.


Martin BurnhamRev. Dr. Martin J. Burnham, P.S.S., received his Doctor of Philosophy in Counselor Education and Supervision from the Pastoral Counseling and Spiritual Care Department of Loyola University Maryland in May 2019, with a dissertation titled Conceptualizing and Measuring Clericalism in Roman Catholic Priests. As a native of Baltimore, Maryland, Fr. Burnham is a priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and has been a member of the Sulpicians since 2014. Fr. Burnham is currently a licensed professional counselor in the State of Maryland and serves in leadership roles in the American Counseling Association, and is also Director of Discernment and Admissions for the US Province, Society of St. Sulpice.

Rodney ParkerRodney L. Parker, Ph.D. is the acting Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer  and an affiliate faculty member of theology at Loyola University Maryland. He holds a Master of Divinity and Master of Theology from Duke University, and a Master of Science in Pastoral Counseling and a doctorate in Counselor Education and Supervision from Loyola University Maryland. He is ordained in the Church of God in Christ and his research focuses on the impact of spirituality and cultural forms of coping on racism-related stress of Black male students at Jesuit Catholic institutions.