Why would Catholic priests and seminarians be so reluctant to report allegations of sexual harassment or abuse from bishops, priests or religious superiors? This question has been raised repeatedly in the wake of the allegations against Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., who on Saturday resigned from the College of Cardinals. McCarrick is accused of abusing a minor as well as sexually harassing seminarians and young priests.
Based on my own experiences and many conversations with clergy and members of religious orders over the years, let me suggest six interrelated reasons for this reluctance.
First, there is a fear of being labeled as a “complainer” or “troublemaker” by others in the diocese or religious order. Sometimes simply raising concerns about the actions of a person in power (a bishop, seminary rector, religious superior, teacher or older priest), let alone reporting actual abuse or harassment, is enough to lead some in the institution to critique or even attack a person for “rocking the boat.”
There is a reflexive desire to protect the reputation of the institution to which one belongs.
Why does this happen?
The most basic reason is a desire to avoid “scandal” in an institution to which people have committed themselves and in which they take great pride. (This is the case not only in the Catholic Church but in other religious organizations as well as secular organizations that have faced abuse cases, for example, Penn State.)
Any case of abuse and harassment, particularly when made public, worsens the reputation of the church, diocese, seminary or religious order and diminishes a person’s positive feelings about belonging to the institution. There is, therefore, a reflexive desire to protect the reputation of the institution to which one belongs. This reflex may be intensified in a person in any official capacity, who, in a sense, represents the institution to the outside world. Those in authority are therefore sometimes especially resistant to hearing bad news about the institution.
The victim may be told, “Just stay away from him.” Or, more simply, “Get over it.”
But there is a simpler reason for the reluctance among some to report abuse or harassment: They understand that for those in charge, it will mean more work—of the most difficult kind. If it is a crime, it means reporting the priest’s actions to civic authorities; if it is inappropriate (but not criminal) behavior, it still means doing many tasks that few people want to undertake, including confronting the abuser or harasser and perhaps removing him from active ministry. All of this may lead to tacit feelings of “They will hate hearing this” among those who are harassed or abused.
Second, there is a fear of being told not to “take things so seriously.” Especially if the harassment has been continuing for years and is widely “known,” as it apparently was in the case of Theodore McCarrick, others who have been harassed or superiors who have known about it may wave it away or downplay it as something that “just happens.” Or the victim may be told, “Just stay away from him.” Or, more simply, “Get over it.”
Third, there is a fear of being dismissed when one reports it. Many years ago as a young Jesuit, I reported an incident of my being groped. (He had done this before to others.) One of my superiors responded, “I’m not hearing this from anyone else.” I told him, “You’re hearing it from me.” The priest in question was not removed from active ministry for several years.
Fourth, there is a fear of hostility from people with whom you work or, in some cases, live with. This is essential for people unfamiliar with the Catholic world of diocesan clergy and religious orders to understand. Unlike workplace harassment of the sort reported by those in #MeToo movement, priests and religious may not only work with but live with the people they are accusing. (In the case of a monastery, it might be someone you will live with your entire life: Monks take vows of “stability.”) Sometimes, victims of harassment or abuse also work and live with the religious authorities responsible for taking action—in a seminary, rectory, chancery or religious community.
There is a fear of hostility from people with whom you work or, in some cases, live with.
Living under the same roof with your harasser or breaking bread with the person you are asking to confront the harassment can be tremendously stressful. Thus, the person being harassed may say to himself (or herself in the case of women religious), “It’s not worth it.”
Fifth, there is a fear of misplaced sympathy for the abuser or harasser. One may hear comments like this: “He’s done so much good work. Why are you focusing on this one thing?” Or: “This happened years ago. He’s an old man now and not doing anyone any harm. Why are you putting him through this?” Many abusers or harassers are narcissists and skilled at shifting the focus from the abuse or harassment they committed to how difficult their lives are in the wake of dealing with lawsuits or their removal from ministry. In other words: “Poor Father So-and-So.”
Sixth, there is a fear of the reaction from others who did not report the abuse or harassment in the past. Other priests, seminarians or religious who have been harassed (or even abused) and who have not spoken up may feel an intense mix of emotions that sometimes translates into anger at the one now reporting. (As psychologists tell us, that kind of anger is more easily directed outward than inward.) That is, if other priests, seminarians or religious have been abused or harassed, the one who reports it, or even speaks about it, raises uncomfortable questions about patterns of non-reporting.
Taken together, it is easy to see why some seminarians, priests and members of religious orders may be reluctant to come forward about harassment or even abuse at the hands of their diocesan or religious superiors, or other clerics in power. Most of this, as we see, is based on fear—fear within the institution and fear within the person.
Today, I am glad that many are beginning overcome that fear out of love for the church. Because, as the New Testament reminds us, perfect love drives out fear.