Measuring and Exploring Moral Injury Caused by Clergy Sexual Abuse

Xavier University Cincinnati

Xavier University (Cincinnati)

Project Description

Moral injury results from a betrayal of trust, disrupting one’s beliefs and moral compass. It comprises persistent psychological and emotional distress, moral confusion, spiritual anguish, social alienation, and distrust for institutions. Moral injury overlaps with and extends beyond post-traumatic stress disorder, which inadequately spans the psychological, emotional, moral, spiritual, behavioral, and relational dimensions of human personhood.

To our knowledge, our instrument is the first to measure moral injury caused by clergy sexual abuse and its concealment. In particular, this pilot study aims to measure moral injury as it relates to the moral conscience, which means “to know together.” For this reason, our instrument explores moral injury on three levels—intrapersonally, interpersonally, and transpersonally—intent on examining the impact of clergy sexual abuse and its concealment by officials in the Catholic Church on relationships and our collective sense of what we “know together.” To deny people the truth of what has happened is to deaden the moral conscience and undercut the moral resources to respond to survivors and all those impacted with compassion and solidarity.

Our research shows that clergy sexual abuse caused moral injury to survivors and that moral injury can be detected among other individuals, including those who work for the church at the diocesan or parish level as well as university students. We measured moral injury by addressing the following dimensions of the moral life: moral identity (the sense of one’s inherent goodness or the experience of shame); moral perception and reasoning (the ability to make sound moral judgments or the experience of moral confusion/disorientation); moral agency (the capacity to exercise free will or the experience of constraint/futility); moral relationships with others (feeling safe and being able to trust others or the experience of betrayal, stigmatization, or isolation); and relationship to God and institutions like the church (feeling connected and finding institutions credible or experiencing abandonment, punishment, and loss of confidence in the authority or credibility of the church). 

Key Findings

  1. Clergy abuse creates moral confusion in victims, created when their previously held beliefs about the world (their moral reasoning)—for example, “priests are good” or “the world is a safe place”—are contradicted by experiencing abuse. Until the moral confusion is resolved, survivors experience a limited sense of moral agency and a negative moral identity, often marked by shame and guilt. Enduring clergy sexual abuse damages one’s relationship with God and for many survivors, severs their relationship with the church. Most if not all survivors have difficulty trusting others or giving credence to the moral authority of the Catholic Church.
  2. Moral confusion can be resolved by constructing moral clarity through the acceptance, rejection, or reimagination of previously held beliefs and/or the creation of new beliefs. For example, the belief and experience of contradiction that priests are good, nice, moral, or even sinless, can resolve in multiple ways: (a) Acceptance: priests are good; (b) Reimagination: some priests are good and some priests are bad; or (c) Rejection and creation of new beliefs: priests are bad.
  3. Limited moral agency occurs when survivors are unable to make sense of their experience, leaving them unsure of what they can say or do. When survivors are able to make sense of their experience, they experience moral agency, giving them options for moving forward and reaching out for help.
  4. Negative moral identity begins to take hold when a survivor feels they are limited by their situation and lack of relational support. A person might feel shame: “I’m powerless to change this, so I must be weak. I’m disgusted with myself for being so helpless.” Or they might feel guilt: “There must be something wrong with me that caused this.” Positive moral identity can be established when a survivor feels they are able to impact their situation and others. For example: “I am good and able to help others” or “I am able to advocate for change.” (Many survivors indicated their healing resulted from positive responses from others, support from loved ones, and participating in survivor advocacy groups.)
  5. Moral reasoning is formed through relationships, lived experience, and one’s social context. Specifically, we found in the interviews that participants formed their sense of right/good and wrong/evil through the traditions of their church, family, culture, faith or relationship with God, and personal reflections.
  6. Moral reasoning informs both moral identity and moral agency. Specifically, we found that participants understood their agency (what they could say and do) and identity (self-image as good or bad) through the lens of their moral reasoning (knowledge about self and others, relationship to authority figures/institutions, and ability to self-express through narrative).
  7. Our interviews underscored the importance of relationships with others in the formation of the moral self. Not only do other people shape one’s moral identity (beliefs, values, practices) but other people also contribute to and/or constrain one’s moral agency. When survivors experience stigma, silence, and isolation, they are not able to recover a positive moral identity or heal from their abuse. When others reject, minimize, or misinterpret a survivor’s story, it undermines one’s moral value (i.e., sense of being worthy or belonging).

Further Reading and Viewing

Xavier’s full public report is available for download at the Xavier University website.

Marcus Mescher’s presentation  “A Body of Broken Bones: The Ripple Effects of Abuse on the Body of Christ”  for Awake Milwaukee’s Courageous Conversations series, 9 September 2021, was recorded and is available here.

Publications in 2023:

  • Theuring, Ashley and Anne Fuller. “Clergy Sexual Abuse and Moral Injury: The Impact on Jesuit University Students,” in Spiritual Healing from Sexual Violence: An Intersectional Guide by Debra Meyers and Mary Sue Barnett (London: Routledge, 2023).
  • Mescher, Marcus. “Clergy Sexual Abuse as Moral Injury: Confronting a Wounded and Wounding Church,” in Responding to the Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church: Perspectives from Theology and Theological Ethics by Daniel J. Fleming, James F. Keenan, SJ, and Hans Zollner, SJ (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2023).
  • Mescher, Marcus. “Toward a Taxonomy of Moral Injury: Confronting the Harm Caused by Clergy Sexual Abuse,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 23, no. 2 (Summer 2023).

Project Staff

Principal Investigators

Marcus Mescher is associate professor of Christian ethics, specializing in Catholic social teaching and moral formation. In addition to earning his M.T.S. and Ph.D. at Boston College, he worked in parish youth ministry and college campus ministry for almost ten years. Dr. Mescher is the author of more than a dozen academic essays and book chapters as well as many popular articles on topics ranging from the ethics of marriage and family life to the moral impact of digital devices to the application of Ignatian spirituality for healthcare settings. His first book, The Ethics of Encounter (Orbis, 2020), proposes how to build the “culture of encounter” championed by Pope Francis in the pursuit of developing an inclusive and equitable “culture of belonging.”

Kandi Stinson is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Race, Intersectionality, Gender, and Sociology. She completed a Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. Dr. Stinson taught at Xavier University from 1988 through 2022, serving in a variety of leadership positions on campus, including most recently as Program Director of Sociology and Faculty Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence. Her areas of specialty include both quantitative and qualitative research methods, gender, the sociology of health, and the sociology of religion.


Project Team

Anne Fuller is an assistant professor in the School of Psychology at Xavier University. She earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Loyola University Chicago in 2017. Dr. Fuller’s research interests include community-based prevention and intervention programs as well as risk and resilience factors that influence children’s, adolescents’, and emerging adults’ mental health. She has also conducted research and received clinical training related to experiences of trauma among youth.

Ashley Theuring is Assistant Professor of Theology, specializing in constructive and practical theologies. She completed her doctorate at the Boston University School of Theology in the Practical Theology program. Her first book, entitled Fragile Resurrection (Wipf and Stock, 2021), explores the question “What constitutes hope after domestic violence?” Dr. Theuring’s theological research is informed by her past work at a rape, crisis, and abuse center, Women Helping Women of Hamilton County, where she was as an advocate and educator. Her research continues to be informed by contemporary communities of trauma survivors and focuses on exploring religious practices, meaning making, and survival in response to trauma.