The Halo Effect and Clergy Sexual Abuse

The Halo Effect and Clergy Sexual Abuse

So I’ve regularly taught about the halo effect in my interpersonal communication class, and it recently occurred to me that this concept helps unwrap a lot of the nuances around why clergy too often get away with sexual abuse and other abuses of power. This may seem obvious at first, but when I started to think about it it got a lot deeper than I thought it did. So stick with me as I begin to unwrap this topic and discuss how we can work to counteract this too-often-harmful-to-victims stance. It’s of course horrible that it’s been needed, but also so great that we as a society are starting to uncover so many clergy abuse scandals—one of the best ways we can prevent more is to spread awareness of this kind of phenomenon and guard against it. 

Defining the Halo Effect

So yeah, before I dive too far in, let me define what the halo effect is: simply put, it’s the idea that when a person is seen to have one positive trait or quality they are seen to have other positive qualities as well.

Give me a few minutes and I’ll unwrap some of the dynamics around why too many tend to disbelieve sexual abuse allegations against ministers and other clergy, even when they’re happening en masse. I’ll also get to how this ties back to fascistic Christian nationalism and why we need to keep fighting against this on so many levels and for so many good reasons.

Where I’m Coming From Here

As already noted, I’m coming at this as a communication scholar who teaches this and related concepts regularly in my classes. As always, I’m also a person who grew up as a pastor’s kid in a right-leaning white Evangelical denomination.

Diving into the Halo Effect

Like I said, halo effects often mean that if someone has one thing that’s seen to be positive about them, then other positive things are seen to also be true about them. The thing is, sometimes that’s pretty far from a positive situation.

This is illustrated by an example I always give in class related to this concept. I talk about this grad school professor I had who was the loveliest, kindest, most compassionate person you’ve ever met, and how horrified all her undergrad students were when they found out she was also a challenging grader.

When Halos Imprison and Derail Us

In short, sometimes we societally use “halos” around certain ideas like “kindness” or “compassion” and end up wrapping in other ideas, such as “that means she’s not going to hold me accountable” in ways that are ultimately NOT at all positive—but, in fact, are detrimental to our clear perceptions of how things like boundaries or calls for accountability can very much be paired with compassion.

The Need to Assertively Break Through Some of These Halos

This kind of halo effect is exactly why I believe the URL for this project was available when I was working on naming this project. We simply too often become allergic as a society to what would actually be, in my mind, a much more ethical and reasonable “halo effect” pairing between assertiveness and spirituality, kindness and accountability, etc. etc. etc.

Too often this kind of unhealthy pairing of kindness and “cheap grace” leads to kinds of spirituality that enable bullies and abusers to rise to the top, while those who seek to hold them accountable get demonized.

When Bullies Are Allowed to Seem “Moral”

The problem, you see, is that too often the complementary “halo effect” to the idea that “spiritual” people will kowtow to bullies is that the bully who takes on the halo around morality can have the sheen of morality around whatever they do.

Too often, this leads to situations where entire denominations may deny the entire problems of spiritual abuse, abuse of power, and hush up clergy sexual abuse, because if they starting to hold people accountable for it, it would mean too much clergy turnover to handle (please imagine all the eyeroll emojis here).

Applying This Need to Clergy Abuse Situations

So yeah, as I’ve written before, all churches are vulnerable to sexual abuse, and this kind attitude, paired with what I’ve been calling “churchy exceptionalism,” tends to make the problem worse.

I previously wrote about churchy exceptionalism here and here. In short, it’s the idea that those who are most involved in church are the better people, and those who don’t attend church are necessarily less so.

How Churchy Exceptionalism Casts an Extra Halo on Clergy

Perhaps you can already glimpse how this heightens the halo effect on clergy—as though they weren’t already seen to be the mouthpiece of God, they are the ones who are also necessarily most engaged with the church.

It is their literal jobs, the church. Of course they’re the most engaged in it. Sometimes that’s a fine thing. But sometimes, well, it’s not.

How Unhealthy Clergy Build and Maintain Their Own Halos

Unfortunately, because these folks are “God’s interpreters” they have an awful lot of leeway within their congregations to spin the Bible for those who ARE abusive to have a literal pulpit to create and maintain their own halo effects where they choose to.

And too often, when clergy have engaged in either sexual abuse and/or more general abuse of power issues, they leverage the halo effects around biblical interpretation to protect themselves by building more unhealthy halos around themselves.

The Power of Clergy to Cast Horns on Those Who Call Them Out

Their literal pulpit also gives them a platform to cast “horns effects” (the opposite of halo effects, obviously, generalizing one trait perceived to be “bad” to connect with others) for anyone who may actually call them out on their unhealthy behaviors, including victims who try to tell their stories of abuse.

 Not a Problem Exclusive to the Church…

As you can see from the example I gave toward the beginning of my female professor in grad school who was seen to be too nice to hold students accountable for learning, this problem is far from exclusive to the church—it tends to be a feature especially of patriarchy as a whole.

But the Air of Extra Halos/Holiness in the Church Makes It Worse

The tricky thing with mixing in religion to your everyday run of the mill patriarchy, of course, is that the unhealthy church leaders decrying those who call them out on bad behavior have all sorts of ways to justify their actions using Bible and God/morality talk.

And with THOSE kinds of halos paired with authority, there seems to be an even better precedent to create deeper us/them divides between church leaders and those in the church and those trying to call them out.

Many anti-church abuse experts have written about these kinds of twisted theologies. I’ve written about some of them before too.

Yay extra layers of spiritual trauma, eh? Or something…

The Toxic Stew that Results When Churchy Exceptionalism Casts Horns on Those Who Leave Because of Abuse

Obviously churchy exceptionalism is one that gets leveraged a lot by unhealthy clergy—see, one of the things that happens when you associate people who go to church with halos and those who don’t with horns, is that people who stop going to church because of abuse and/or abuse scandals tend to be perceived from within the church as suddenly switching from one camp to the other.

Sooooo much white Evangelical rhetoric about church membership and leaving fits with this. I’ve previously written about deconstruction as a devil term—that absolutely fits here into this conversation.

Defining Sin-Leveling

The other concept I want to talk about today is the idea of sin-leveling. I’ve talked about this before here and here, among other places.

To give you a quick reminder, sin-leveling boils down to the idea that since everyone is a sinner and all sins are the same, those who, say, can’t forgive Hitler for his horrific misdeeds, are automatically just as bad as Hitler somehow.

Sin-Leveling and Clergy Abuse

In her book Pure, Linda Kay Klein does a great job outlining how purity culture in conservative Christianity abuses sin-leveling to add to the trauma of victims of sexual abuse.

In short, in conservative Christian circles, since “having sex” is a sin, victims of sexual abuse and assault face moral censure as having “had sex” by being SAed. And since the perpetrators are “only” seen to be guilty of the same thing, they “just have to repent” to be restored.

Combine that with the halo effect around church leaders as the ones with the strongest halo effect…and, well, you have an extremely strong likelihood of perpetrators being protected while those around them engage in a lot of victim-blaming.

Meanwhile, the victim often has pressure on them to forgive the perpetrator for their literal crime, lest they be seen as a “bad Christian.”

Sin-Leveling and Spiritual Abuse Against SA Victims in Action

In the podcast I’ve discussed before, The Ugly Truth about the Girl Next Door, a familial sex trafficking victim talks about how she was nearly expelled from the conservative Christian Liberty University for this exact problem.

Since “having sex” on campus was an infraction worthy of expulsion at the university, you see, coming forward about sexual assault could get a survivor expelled.

This story came to mind strongly when I read the news this week that Liberty University specifically was just granted the highest fine any university had ever been fined for violating the Clery Act, which requires universities receiving federal funding to report crimes on campus, including sexual assaults. The story is easily Googled, but here’s one article talking about it.

The article specifically mentions this sin-leveling problem, though it doesn’t call it by that name.

Okay, So Let’s Call This What It Is

Let’s be clear: This fine on Liberty University isn’t some form of “persecution of Christians.” This isn’t some sort of heavy-handed, unfair government mandate.

This is a well-deserved sign of just how unhealthy—and, in this case, downright illegal—these forms of spiritual abuse are.

Recalibrating Our Views of Who’s Moral in This Equation

At any rate, I’m going to wrap this up for the day, but let me be clear: those who get demonized for assertively calling out clergy abuse and sexual assault related to religious institutions actually are usually the ones who are in the right.

They are usually the ones who are moral.

May we all be as courageous as we need to. And may we support those who call out such abuses the best we can.   

One More Quick Note Re: All of This and Fascistic Christian Nationalism

So as a quick note to bring home the weightiness of this, whether you’re a Christian or not, note that the leaders of these kinds of unhealthy conservative Christian environments are the ones trying to gain power and make the laws in the US if they gain enough power.

In short, these kinds of environments and the theology behind them fit in remarkably well with fascistic political aims and its desire to perpetuate unhealthy patriarchal ideals.

And since, as I discussed in a recent blog post, fascistic Christian nationalism is quickly becoming the Republican political party’s primary platform, it’s extra important in light of the above to keep voting and assertively working against that.

Let’s keep assertively combating those efforts, please!

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

Want to help keep this work going? It’s been 5 years of this project, and I finally have tip jars set up at Venmo and PayPal so you can help keep the lights on and such (THANK YOU for whatever you can do!). Here’s the info:

Venmo: @assertivespirituality


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The Halo Effect and …

by DS Leiter Time to read: 9 min