Sexual Misconduct in Spiritual Communities

Religious and spiritual leaders can have tremendous power over their followers. Unfortunately, this power can be abused. Religious or spiritual beliefs can be used to manipulate or shame followers, rationalize abusive conduct, and promote harmful sexual or physical relationships.

All belief systems are capable of enabling sexual misconduct and abuse, and anyone belonging to those communities can experience trauma because of this behavior. Many times, however, victims of abuse feel uncomfortable or conflicted in reporting their experiences. Even when they do tell someone, they often find there is no mechanism to get redress, no clear process for investigating and remedying misconduct. For them, finding sympathetic legal support is essential to their recovery.

Carol Merchasin, head of our Sexual Misconduct in Spiritual Communities practice, talks about the dilemma many survivors face within religious groups, and how our team can help them find redress.

Survivor-centered legal advice

If you are experiencing sexual abuse or misconduct in a spiritual or religious community, McAllister Olivarius can help.

Our attorneys and investigators have been helping victims come to terms with sexual trauma and abuse in faith-based, religious and spiritual communities for decades. We take a trauma-informed, survivor-first approach to our cases, helping you to gather the evidence, piece together the story of what happened, and give you back your voice. 

Those who report abuse within religious or spiritual communities often fear they will lose their support network or be shunned. We know this is hard and will stand beside you throughout the process.

Our work with victims of sexual abuse and misconduct is usually handled on a “no win no fee” basis, meaning we take a percentage of any settlement you achieve, and you won’t need to pay anything out of pocket if we don’t succeed.

Civil litigation and sexual abuse

The criminal justice system often struggles to meet the needs of sexual abuse survivors. Police can be indifferent, unwelcoming or too busy; prosecutors overworked. In such cases, civil justice can be a powerful tool. Civil courts offer a lower standard for establishing perpetrator liability (“preponderance of the evidence” instead of the criminal standard “beyond a reasonable doubt”), and the chance of getting compensation. And, you remain in control: it’s your case, you can pursue it as vigorously as you want, not dependent on the resources of police or prosecutors. 

Typically, a civil litigator will work with you to win compensation from the person or organization responsible for your abuse. However, civil justice is not only about winning compensation. We can also seek changes in the way the group responsible operates, or demand that it does more to help survivors. 

Different religious and spiritual traditions have different views about appropriate conduct, but the law does not. Sexual misconduct is illegal. These laws can reach not only the person or people who caused the harm, but also the institutions that enabled or ignored your harm.

For example, boards or governing bodies of a religious or spiritual movement are potentially liable for negligence if they knew or should have known your abuse was taking place. In recent years, a growing number of civil lawsuits have allowed victims to recover damages from these institutions.

It can take years for victims of sexual abuse to come to terms with what has happened. Police and prosecutors often turn away old cases. Even so, a civil lawsuit may still be possible. If you think you have been abused, you should move promptly to get legal advice, because further delay may block you from receiving compensation and make it easier for abusers and institutions to avoid responsibility. If you have been a victim of sexual abuse or have witnessed sexual abuse in a faith-based, religious or spiritual community it is important to come forward as quickly as possible.

If you want to discuss your options, contact McAllister Olivarius. We will be glad to have a free consultation.

Carol has worked with victims and survivors of abuse and misconduct from many spiritual and religious communities and groups. If you think she may be able to help you, please contact us. All enquiries will be treated sympathetically and in strictest confidence.

This playlist features some of Carol’s talks and guest appearances and collects useful resources for cult survivors:

Abuse in Buddhism

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the leader of Shambhala International, faces charges of sexual abuse.

Abuse in Yoga communities

BBC’s documentary on how Ishleen Kaur investigates allegations of abuse at the Sivananda Yoga school, a place she once called home.

Narcis Tarcau — a.k.a. Swami Vivekananda Saraswati — accused of running ‘sex cult’ at Agama Yoga in Thailand.