- Our Accountability to Survivors
The Pennsylvania grand jury report was published in August 2018.5 Within the following month, ten states launched new investigations into Catholic clergy sexual abuse, and Pope Francis called an emergency summit of leading bishops from across the globe. Although it is too soon to know whether these reactions will culminate in lasting reforms, it is imperative that scholars of Catholicism begin to think more critically about the scandal, including our complacency as a discipline and our accountability as a community.
I began researching clergy sexual abuse in 2011. Those first conversations led me to explore the history of survivor-advocacy communities in Chicago, with a focus on their distinctively Catholic visions for political and ecclesiological reforms.6 Since the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, many colleagues have reached out to discuss how they might begin incorporating the abuse crisis into their own research. I am grateful for this influx of new methodologies and perspectives. With an eye towards encouraging additional conversations, this essay lays out ten theses on our accountability to survivors.
1. We need to listen to the ways that survivors have interpreted their own abuse. Since the 1980s, many Catholic victims have stepped forward to share their private histories of abuse. Frequently, however, the news media has exploited victims’ intimate suffering while ignoring survivors’ analytical insights. In spite of the betrayal that they experienced as children, most survivors still have a keen intellect. In addition to inspiring award-winning films and documentaries, survivors have also produced their own interpretive literature, including numerous blogs, novels, memoirs, and edited volumes. We need to find ways to uplift and support survivors’ voices—not as data, but as co-producers and close conversation partners in our own [End Page 4] analyses. We should likewise strive to publish in formats that survivors can access and share.
2. We must resist the temptation to identify a silver bullet. The phenomenon of clergy sexual abuse will not be solved solely by recourse to classical theories of patriarchy, celibacy, power, violence, or pedophilia (to name a few of the usual suspects). Identifying a singular culprit might serve our own theological and ideological interests—and in some cases those might even align with victims’ own reform agendas—but these narrow causations do not do justice to the variety and depth of survivors’ experiences. Acknowledging the topic’s complexity does not mean abandoning our scholarly training. On the contrary, it necessitates research that is rigorously grounded in the specificities of historical time and place.
3. Although Catholic sexual abuse has emerged as a crisis in many countries, we must attend to the specific dynamics that formed each survivor and each abuser, including their national, regional, and local cultures. Catholic studies has been defined largely by its capacity to hold the local and the transnational in tension with one another, yet regional influences are frequently jettisoned in studies of clergy abuse, often in favor of condemning a vague, apparently universal “clerical culture.” We should continue to research global patterns of abuse, but we must also study the specificities of each victim’s diocese and region.7
4. One of our main tasks is to work with survivors to define the ways in which Catholic clergy sexual abuse is different from other forms of rape and sexual assault. Many survivors were abused sacramentally, in church spaces, and through the explicit context of Catholic rituals and prayers. At the same time, we should not ignore the Catholicity of less-explicitly sacramental abuses. As Robert Orsi has argued, “There is no one who was not abused in a Catholic way.”8 It is critical to study the specifically Catholic institutional, religious, and theological dimensions of Roman Catholic clergy sexual abuse.
5. Just as no two survivors had exactly the same experience of abuse, no two priests were identical in their moods and motivations. In my conversations with survivors, I have heard stories that left me paralyzed, curled up, crying, and trembling. But I have yet to hear any stories about monsters. In fact, what survivors often emphasize is the humanity of their abuser, including the shared interests, intrapersonal [End Page 5] chemistry...