Types of Religious Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse can occur in any setting: at school, work or church. Religious sexual abuse occurs between a member of the clergy and a member of the church. Religious sexual abuse unfortunately pervades hundreds of churches throughout California, with documented cases recently coming to light as dioceses make an effort to become more transparent and honest about this crime. 

Public Disclosure Lists from dioceses in California alone have thus far named almost 700 priests and other clergy members with credible allegations against them for the sexual abuse of minors. Sexual abuse can encompass a range of actions, words and behaviors from a member of the clergy with a parishioner as the target. Any kind of religious sexual abuse could have a significant impact on the survivor.

Sexual Advances 

Any sexual behaviors, words or actions from a priest or another member of the clergy can constitute religious sexual abuse if the target is a member of the parish. Most state laws classify these actions as clergy abuse even if they are consensual due to the imbalance of power between the member of the clergy and a parishioner. The clergy member’s position of power can make it difficult for a parishioner to say no.

  • Remarks or jokes of a sexual nature
  • Sexual innuendos
  • Requests for sexual favors or romantic relationships
  • Pressure to perform sexual acts
  • Hugging or touching without consent
  • Intentionally invading personal space

A sexual advance from a clergy person to a member of the church is inappropriate and against the law in many states. Sexual advances could lead to relationships or isolated incidents of abuse. Many survivors end up in abusive situations due to coercion, deceit, flattery or the assumption that the perpetrator is safe due to his or her position in the clergy. Then, they may not know how to speak out about the religious sexual abuse they suffered.

Harassment or Discrimination

Sexual harassment by a priest refers to unwanted sexual advances such as those listed above. Verbal or visual conduct of a sexual nature toward parishioners can qualify as sexual harassment in California. Any offensive behavior or action of a sexual nature, including gender-based actions, is sexual harassment. Discrimination based on sex refers to treating certain parishioners unfairly because of their gender, sex, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation or marital status. Priests and other clergy members could face criminal and/or civil repercussions for committing sexual harassment and discrimination.

Physical Touching 

Physical touching such as unwanted hugging, kissing or caressing from a priest constitutes religious sexual abuse. Any physical interactions of a sexual nature between a member of the clergy and someone in the church is a crime. Physical touching can turn into child molestation or sexual assault, as well as crimes such as fondling. A priest physically touching himself in front of a child or adult parishioner to sexually arouse either party is also a form of sexual abuse.

Sexual Assault

The crime of sexual assault refers to the unwanted touching of someone else’s intimate parts. The California Penal Code describes these parts as a female’s breasts, the buttocks of a male or female, the sexual organs, groin and anus. The crime of sexual assault may escalate to sexual battery if the priest touches a person’s private parts without permission while unlawfully restraining the person. Molestation is one of the most common types of sexual assault between a priest and a parishioner.


Sexual assault or abuse by a member of the clergy could lead to rape, or the crime of committing nonconsensual sexual intercourse through means of force, intimidation, coercion, threats, fraud or drugging. Rape is an extremely serious crime that can have long-lasting effects on survivors. Sodomy is a similar crime that can also deeply affect survivors. Statutory rape is the crime of having sex with a minor (anyone under 18 years old), even if consensual.

If you or a loved one experienced any type of religious sexual abuse in California, contact the attorneys at Manly, Stewart & Finaldi. We can help you fight against perpetrators and the diocese that may have facilitated sexual abuse at your church.