Why Abuse in Parochial School is Even Harder to Report

by | Mar 7, 2024 | Catholic Church

Parochial School Sexual Abuse Horowitz Law

Abuse in any setting is a profound violation of trust and safety, leaving scars that can last a lifetime. However, there’s a particularly insidious layer to abuse that occurs in parochial schools, making it not only profoundly damaging but also uniquely challenging to bring to light. So, is there a difference between being abused in a Catholic parish or a Catholic school? The answer is yes. Allow us to unwrap these complexities while offering insight into the difficulties survivors face in reporting abuse and the potentially transformational power of speaking out.

But first, an important caveat: We at Horowitz Law try very hard to be as sensitive as possible when discussing abuse. Please keep in mind that we are speaking generally and know that every situation is different. We just want to focus on the possible LEGAL OPTIONS for men, women, and children who are sexually assaulted in schools, as opposed to being assaulted in other settings. 

Every survivor suffers tremendously (though of course, some are less aware of their victimization and the long-term harmful effects of it). Every survivor is different. Every survivor copes with or overcomes their trauma in different ways. That said, however, if you were assaulted as a child in a religious or parochial school, generally speaking, you have more obstacles when stepping forward. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that you also have a higher chance of making a difference when you do.

A Few Obstacles Victims of Catholic School Sexual Abuse Face

First, it cannot be said clearly or often enough: We’ll lay out a few ‘negatives’ first, but please, keep reading because the ‘positives’ are powerful and worth the wait.

  • The Greater Range of Harm in a School Setting

Certainly, the environment in which abuse occurs can fundamentally alter the survivor’s experience and the aftermath of reporting. Parochial schools, with their intimate communities and intertwined relationships, create specific challenges for those who have been victimized within their walls.

For starters, almost by definition, Catholic schools are more tightly knit than parishes are. So too are Catholic boarding schools, as a general rule. Folks who attend a Catholic parish may see their fellow church-goers only once a week. Folks who send their kids to a Catholic school very likely see one another (and school staff) much more often.

To be more specific, parents who send their kids to a parochial school tend to see each other when picking up or dropping off kids in the morning and afternoon and sometimes during the weekday evenings at sporting events, theatre performances, parent-teacher conferences and other school functions.

Again, this is an obstacle because in more tightly knit settings, a survivor is much more apt to believe they will somehow be ‘outed’ if the talk, even one-to-one, about their experiences.

  • The Close-Knit Nature of Catholic School Communities

Catholic schools are usually smaller than public ones. That sometimes makes it tougher for victims to speak up, even years later, because they’re more fearful that their identity or abuse will be discovered, when the sheer number of possible kids a ‘John Doe’ or ‘Jane Doe’ could be is lower. (It’s easier to think of yourself as being able to remain ‘under the radar’ if your school had 1,100 students rather than just 300 students.) 

And Parochial schools are not just educational institutions but communities bound by faith, tradition, and close personal relationships. This intertwining of personal and educational spheres adds layers of complexity to reporting abuse. These communities, where families often share not only educational but also spiritual and social spaces, create an environment where speaking out feels like betraying not just an individual but the community at large. The fear of disbelief, ostracization, or even blame can be overwhelming, silencing survivors before they find their voice.

  • Adult Relationships Professionally and Socially

The bonds formed in parochial schools often extend into professional life. This network can be a source of support but also a barrier to reporting abuse, as survivors may fear the professional and social repercussions of speaking out against someone within their tightly-knit community. Closer ties to childhood classmates often means tighter adult alumni groups. Add to this the fact that many alumni of Catholic schools tend to rely more on these ties more heavily than other schools, not just for socializing but also for business and professional contacts.

This gives survivors of childhood trauma in parochial school settings even more hesitation to come forward. At best, some victims worry that closely connected classmates who remain closely connected as adults will be better able to figure out his or her anonymity if a criminal or civil case is filed or a news account surfaces about accusations Fr. Bob or Deacon Bill. (“I’ll bet the accuser must be Sally Smith because she spent lots of time after school with Fr. Bob” or “Don’t you think the accuser is Joe Jones because Deacon Bill was always calling Joe out of class and he wouldn’t return for an hour or so and wouldn’t say why Deacon Bill had asked for him.”) 

  • Betrayal by the Community

For many survivors, the abuse represents a far-reaching betrayal that extends beyond the perpetrator. It implicates the institutions and individuals who were supposed to safeguard their well-being. This sense of communal betrayal deepens the trauma and complicates the journey towards healing and justice.

For a variety of reasons, alums of Catholic schools tend to feel a stronger loyalty to their alma mater than people who simply attend a (unusually much larger) Catholic parish. A rank-and-file Catholic usually feels proud of his or her parish. A Catholic who spent time in a Catholic school usually feels even more proud of that institution. So Catholic school graduates are sometimes more disbelieving or critical when a victim says he or she was molested at the school. That means there’s a greater likelihood that a victim will fear they’ll be ostracized, rejected or isolated if they dare say bad things about their school experience at St. Joseph’s or at Bishop X High School and that, in turn, will hurt their business or career prospects. Some survivors who were assaulted in parochial schools feel even more betrayed than other survivors who were hurt in parishes.

Many times, they feel (even unconsciously) that they were injured by not just the individual predator but the whole school staff or community. “Surely some other adult knew or suspected I was being groomed or violated” and “The other teachers and staff should have been more alert/prudent/responsive than they were.” Sometimes, the more deeply betrayed one feels by those who committed or concealed the abuse, the more difficult it is to speak out about the wrongdoing. This is especially true when the abuse happens in Catholic boarding schools.

So the bottom line: the loyalty, close ties and frequent interactions – among parents, teachers and students, both years ago and years later – make some survivors hurt in Catholic schools even more reluctant to speak up. There’s a greater chance, they feel, that their parents, friends or loved ones will find out about their ‘deep, dark secret.’

The Power of Coming Forward

Despite the daunting barriers, the act of coming forward can be a powerful catalyst for change. It can provide healing, not just for the individual survivor but for the entire community, by breaking the silence and challenging the complicity that allowed the abuse to occur.

There are, of course, no ‘upsides’ to being sexually victimized as a child in a Catholic school versus in a Catholic parish. There are, however, a few such ‘upsides’ if you will, that a child assaulted in a parochial school could benefit from when he or she decides to break their silence. And coming forward as a victim of abuse in a school can be even more helpful and powerful than a victim in another setting might be.

  • The Ripple Effect of Speaking Out or Filing a Lawsuit

In taking legal action or speaking publicly, survivors can shift the narrative, highlighting not only their personal stories but also the systemic issues that allow abuse to persist. These actions can inspire others to come forward, creating a collective movement toward accountability and healing. This especially is true because the first survivor’s courage will inspire one or more of the still-silent victims from St. Rita’s: “I’d hate to upset my old classmates, but if Jane Doe has the courage to take that risk, I should too.” This then leads to the Ripple Effect.

One of the most profound effects of a survivor coming forward is the encouragement it gives to others. Knowing they are not alone and that their experiences are validated can be transformative, opening the door for more survivors to seek justice and healing.

  • The Likelihood of Making an Impact

While the stakes are indeed higher in such a setting, so too is the potential for meaningful change when survivors come forward. Parochial school communities, tightly knit and often resistant to acknowledging such painful realities, can be transformed into platforms for change and healing, offering a beacon of hope for others who have suffered in silence.

So alums from a parochial school are more likely to get together regularly as adults and have the closeness and opportunity to raise the lawsuit, news story or arrest of Fr. Mike to their former classmates with whom they still feel close.

We at Horowitz Law believe there are still thousands of men and women who were violated at St. Anne’s Elementary or Mary Mother of God Academy and are still trapped in silence, shame and self-blame. So every person from St. Anne’s or Mary Mother who in any way reveals his or her victimization at the school has the potential to bring hope and healing to a wider circle.

In Closing

The journey of a survivor of abuse in a parochial school setting is fraught with obstacles, but it is also marked by immense potential for change. By facing these challenges and speaking their truth, survivors can find personal healing and light the way for others, transforming their pain into a powerful force for good. The courage to speak out becomes not just an act of personal bravery but a beacon of hope for all who have suffered in silence.

Horowitz Law is a law firm representing victims and survivors of sexual abuse by religious authority figures and other clergy. If you need a lawyer because a member of a religious organization sexually abused you, contact us today at 888-283-9922 or [email protected] to discuss your options today. Our lawyers have decades of experience representing survivors of clergy sexual abuse nationwide. We can help.