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Pastoral care for victims of sexual abuse: Combining clerics' and confidants' experiences

Conference contribution
Authors Lisa Rudolfsson
Published in 1st International congress on spiritual counselling and care. Istanbul, Turkey: 7-10 April 2016
Publication year 2016
Published at Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion
Language en
Keywords Pastoral care; Victims of sexual abuse; Vow of silence
Subject categories Applied Psychology, Psychology of religion


One dimension of working through an overwhelming trauma, such as sexual abuse, is to make sense of what has happened and possibly to find some kind of meaning in it (Harvey, Orbuch & Weber, 1990). Today, the clergy is identified as an important mental health resource and caring for people suffering from psychological trauma forms an important part of pastoral care (Hendron, Irving & Taylor, 2011). At the same time, the effects of sexual abuse are becoming more highlighted, including awareness of the consequences on faith (Farrell, 2009). This presentation combines clerics’ and sexually abused confidants’ experiences of pastoral care by integrating three studies (Rudolfsson & Tidefors, 2012; 2014; 2015). In Sweden, clerics are bound by an absolute vow of silence, which overrides the obligation to report, even if the victim of sexual abuse is a minor (Church of Sweden, 2010). Therefore, how the clerical vow of silence is handled and perceived by both clerics and confidants will also be discussed. In one study, four focus groups with clerics were conducted. The two other studies were built on interviews with 7 women and 1 man who had been sexually abused and sought pastoral care. In all studies the material was analysed using inductive thematic analysis. Confidants described feeling abandoned by, and angry at, God and sometimes felt excluded from the Christian community. The effects the abuse had on their faith were described as essential to their trauma and as an issue they needed to work through. In pastoral care, the confidants described their needs to be recognized, to express doubts, and not to be rushed towards forgiveness. The clerics expressed a wish to offer the best care possible. When at its best, both clerics and confidants described pastoral care as validating and offering an arena to connect to God in a more meaningful way. However, insecurity and perceived lack of psychological knowledge provoked self-protecting strategies for the clerics, making them disconnect and sometimes trying to avoid disclosure of sexual abuse in pastoral care. The confidants described being met with such attitudes as provoking feelings of shame and guilt: feeling like no one could stand to listen to them. The vow of silence was described as both making it possible to tell and as obstructing the cleric’s ability to help confidants out of the abusive situation. Feelings of being caught in a trap where described by the clerics, since the vow of silence prevented actions from being taken. Confidants who had confided in a cleric while the abuse was ongoing, all described the clerics’ refusal to stop the abuse as a betrayal. In summary, pastoral care could have a potential beneficial function for victims of sexual abuse. However, it can also put both the confidant and the cleric in exposed situations. Consequently, clerics need to be supported and prepared for this task. Further, there is a need to discuss the consequences of the vow of silence: the burden it puts on clerics and how it affects confidants’ ability to receive help.

Page Manager: Webmaster|Last update: 9/11/2012

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