#ChurchToo: How can we prevent the abuse of women by the clergy?
Much attention has been paid in recent years to the horrific sexual abuse of minors in the church, and rightly so. But many men and women who experienced sexual abuse by members of the clergy in adulthood have yet to receive compassionate acknowledgment of the harm they have suffered. Regardless of the age at which sexual abuse by clergy was experienced, churches of all denominations have a long distance to travel in setting up healing ministries for and with survivors.
I have great respect for the many Catholic priests who have blessed my journey of faith. I am grateful to my parish pastors, and to the Paulist, Franciscan, Jesuit and Basilian priests who have fed my faith and inspired me by their sacrificial service. Accepting a call to the priesthood at this point in history may be especially challenging, and I hope those currently in the priesthood or considering a call will persevere despite the revelations of wrongdoing in the church. This wrongdoing has always existed. The good news is that we now know about it, are talking about it and therefore can work to eliminate it. We must consider how to prevent abuse of women in the church, and how to make it easier for women (and men) to come forward should they themselves experience abuse by clergy in adulthood.
I use the term abuse to describe any situation in which a priest attempts to use his position of power over or proximity to someone to sexualize the relationship. The example of inappropriate clergy behavior that I share here is not the only incident I have experienced, and it is far from being the most serious. My complaint was handled within the church. I have chosen not to name the priest or his religious community.
We must make it easier for women (and men) to come forward should they themselves experience abuse by clergy in adulthood.
One Story of a Professional Boundary Violation
At a point in my life when I was experiencing deep spiritual, physical and emotional pain, I sought out the guidance of a spiritual director. While on a brief women’s retreat, I noticed the names of spiritual directors with whom one could meet posted on a wall. After the retreat, I called one of them, Father X (a Roman Catholic priest). We set up an appointment for spiritual direction at a location that I had never previously visited.
When I arrived at the location, Father X met me at the front door and led me straight upstairs to a room which turned out to be his private quarters—where he had a business-sized desk with chairs and his bed. Although I felt uncomfortable with the setting, I did not feel I was in any sort of danger. Another priest saw us there together and did not do anything to indicate there was anything wrong.
To introduce himself, Father X said, “It’s no secret—I love women!” and “I’m new here—haven’t yet built up my harem.” He proceeded to describe a woman acquaintance of his as “really knowing how to dress to show off her figure.” Under normal circumstances I would have decided at that point not to seek direction from him. However, I was feeling quite desperate for spiritual guidance at the time, and knew that Father X had specialized training to help me discern what God was trying to tell me in my then-current life circumstances. I could put up with some sexist comments, I thought.
We did actually have a good conversation about spiritual matters, but he also made some very inappropriate comments, including “We’ll figure out as we go along how love will be expressed in our relationship” and “Don’t think I’m going to let you get out of here without giving you a hug.”
This comment disturbed me a great deal—he did not seem at all interested in whether I wanted to have a hug from him or not. Also, when he said “Don’t think I’m going to let you get out of here” I couldn’t help but remember an assault by two men seeking to forcibly confine me which, thankfully, I was able to escape. I felt a flash of anxiety as I realized that Father X was between me and the door—as had been one of my assailants. In any case, his words constituted a demand—not a request—for physical contact from a woman who was a virtual stranger seeking spiritual direction, not a personal friendship.
At the end of the conversation, true to his word, he ran around his desk to give me a hug—not a quick, friendly one, but a much too long (and tight) embrace. I strained to keep a respectable distance from him. If he had been someone other than a priest, I would likely have opposed him as forcefully as necessary by word or deed, but a combination of my respect for clergy, politeness, fear, compassion and confusion made me acquiesce.
After the appointment, I read through a book he had lent me. It was fascinating and truly ministered to me in that dark hour of my spiritual life. I obviously did not want to have this priest as an ongoing spiritual director, but I needed to return the book to him and thought I might as well ask him about some of the points in the book, as he seemed to be a specialist in the field. I made one more appointment with the intention that this would be my last meeting with him.
At that meeting, Father X said he had felt my body tensing when he hugged me at our previous meeting, and that he thought, “What’s wrong with this woman?” More inappropriate comments followed. He described one woman as “a great lover.” He told me “You are so intense...but we must be disciplined and cut off the discussion before we would like to have it end.” At the end of the meeting, he followed me to my car and told me: “I can love you from near or far.” This priest went from being a painfully lonely, sexist man in my eyes to a potential sexual predator, possibly with a mental health issue. He seemed to have lost any ability to set appropriate boundaries in his relationships.
I could have just ignored what had happened. However, I tend to speak up when I feel there is potential harm to others. Not knowing whom to contact regarding potential sexual exploitation of women, I contacted the priest responsible for taking complaints about sexual abuse of children in Father X’s community.
He was not surprised when I mentioned Father X and told me that he believed that immaturity was behind Father X’s behavior. I truly appreciated his skill in listening to and responding appropriately to my experience. I left the meeting assured that this specific matter would be dealt with appropriately. As far as I know, it was.
Although the physical violation was minor, the spiritual violation of trust by this priest and by his community turned out to have a profound effect on me. I had previously considered myself a strong person, based on my own and others’ observations about me. I found myself withdrawing emotionally—unable to trust clergy, friends and family with my inner thoughts or feelings.
Other questions also troubled me. I had come to know the community of priests to which Father X belonged as highly intelligent, educated, respected and respectful. If they knew his behavior was suspect, why were they recommending him as a spiritual director on women’s retreats? Why didn’t his community warn women about Father X’s behavior or have clear information available about whom one could complain to about one of their priests’ misconduct with adults?
I began to wonder how prevalent this sort of behavior was in other Catholic and Christian faith communities and what I might do to help prevent other women from experiencing it.
Why didn’t Father X's community warn women about his behavior or have clear information available about whom one could complain to about one of their priests’ misconduct with adults?
Statistics on Abuse of Women by Clergy
Through online networking, I came into contact with a number of women who had experienced sexual exploitation by clergy. One woman was sexually exploited by her spiritual director—a Catholic priest who, it turned out, had entered into sexual relationships with several women directees at the same time, professing his not-so-unique “special” love for each of them at a point of particular vulnerability in their lives. As a result of her experience, she could not imagine ever being spiritually intimate with another priest in a setting like a confessional. Another woman was one of the 47 known child-victims during the 1950s to 1980s of the convicted abuser Father Charles Sylvestre in Ontario, Canada. She said to me that she could not imagine setting foot in any church again.
According to the late A. W. Richard Sipe, the sexual exploitation of women by priests is not uncommon. Other researchers have argued that misconduct by clerics toward women is even more prevalent than their sexual abuse of children. According to research cited in When Pastors Prey, a publication of the World Council of Churches, 90 to 95 percent of victims of clergy sexual exploitation are women. This book also cites a 1984 survey of clergy in various Protestant denominations that found that 39 percent admitted to having sexual contact with a congregant and 12.7 percent had had sexual intercourse with a congregant.
Michael W. Higgins and Peter Kavanagh note in their book Suffer the Children Unto Me, that in 2000-1 women religious in several African countries were subject to systematic sexual exploitation by priests—with one superior general reporting that 29 of her sisters had been impregnated by priests. A study paid for by several orders of women religious conducted at St. Louis University in 1996 found that nearly one in eight women religious in the United States had experienced some form of sexual exploitation, with three out of four of those abused having been victimized by a priest, another sister or some other religious person.
According to the survey of Catholic women published in America (1/22/18), 0.3 percent of women referred to accusations of inappropriate behavior when describing how they had experienced sexism in the church. In my experience (at least up until the #MeToo movement began), I have found few women who share stories of violation with anyone at all, so the number of women who might feel safe reporting their experiences (even in an anonymous survey) may be relatively low.
The America survey also found that few of the women surveyed participate in the sacrament of reconciliation (confession). As I mentioned, some women who have been abused do not feel emotionally or otherwise safe being spiritually intimate with a priest. The small size of a typical confessional may make anyone who has experienced some form of violence feel trapped.
Nearly one in eight women religious in the United States had experienced some form of sexual exploitation, with three out of four of those abused having been victimized by a priest, another sister or some other religious person.
What Does It Mean to Be a ‘Vulnerable’ Adult?
At a conference on “Trauma and Transformation” in Montreal, Quebec, in 2011, I asked a speaker who presented statistics on sexual abuse of minors in the church about abuse of women. He had not studied abuse of women in the church because, according to him, “we never hear about such abuse.” The public might not hear about it, but church leaders are certainly aware of it. Why, then, do church leaders not warn the faithful about the fact that some priests will seek to abuse their power over adults, not only over children?
It is true that the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors gives some attention to the protection of so-called “vulnerable” adults, but the adults in this population include only those considered vulnerable according to such criteria as disability, age or illness. But aren’t all men, women and children vulnerable to abuse of clerical power? Seminarians (as asserted, for example, in Donald Cozzens’s book, Sacred Silence: Denial and Crisis in the Church) and priests themselves have been sexually abused by clergy, but these men would not fall under the category of vulnerable as defined by the commission.
Once a person turns 18 years of age, does that imply in the church’s eyes that any sexual contact involves full, legal consent on that person’s part? If abuse policies only apply to adults who are considered disabled, might that prevent other adults from coming forward for fear of being labeled weak or damaged in some way?
To their credit, the Jesuits in Canada state in their current document, “Policies & Procedures for Cases of Alleged Abuse and Misconduct,” that they “are committed to the protection of all who are within their spiritual and physical care, especially Minors and Vulnerable Persons.” They also define vulnerable persons as “minors or persons of any age who by reason of their condition, suffer from physical, mental, emotional or spiritual handicaps or disabilities”—words painted with a broad enough brush to include a more comprehensive view of vulnerability than is typical of the abuse policies and procedures of religious communities.
Another enlightened policy document that shows an understanding of power imbalance as a factor in sexual abuse of adults by clergy is that of the Maltese Ecclesiastical Province from 2014. In its definition of sexual abuse between adults, it states: “when a pastoral functionary engages in sexual contact or sexualised behaviour in a pastoral relationship, or in cases of an existing power imbalance, such behaviour is considered to be always abusive whether with or without consent.”
Once a person turns 18 years of age, does that imply in the church’s eyes that any sexual contact involves full, legal consent on that person’s part?
Does Church Law Help Prevent Abuse?
I began to wonder if there might be any universal church document providing protection to adults regardless of the extent of their vulnerabilities. Delving into the New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, published in 2000, I began to research what sorts of warnings might be provided by the church.
The only warning I found was Canon 1339, which states that a church official can discipline a priest who is suspected of committing some sort of scandal, but the warning is not to be passed on to the faithful—rather, it is to be kept in a secret archive.
The faithful are obligated to speak up if there is some sort of impediment to a forthcoming marriage (Canon 1069) or to a man’s ordination (Canon 1043). Per the commentary, there was an obligation in the 1917 version of the code for all the faithful to report solicitation to sin against the Sixth Commandment by a confessor (that is, priests asking someone for sex during confession, Canon 1387), but that there is no such obligation in the 1983 code. However, there remain Canons 982 and 1390, which deal with false denunciation of a confessor—that is, “calumny”—a word recently invoked by Pope Francis with respect to accusations made by a Chilean claiming abuse by a member of the clergy (for which Francis later apologized).
Should the Code of Canon Law be amended to impose an obligation on the part of bishops and other church leaders to warn the faithful that some priests, whether through malice or some mental health disorder, might make sexual advances towards an adult—and not only in the confessional? Certainly some priests are aware of suspicious behavior on the part of their brother priests. Should there not be an amendment to the Code to include an obligation for priests to report their suspicions to their superiors, and for their superiors to act on these reports?
Currently, many religious communities wait until a victim comes to them before taking action. In other words, they rely on a complaint-driven response model. As it is sometimes difficult even to find information on whom one should contact to report abuse of someone by a priest or other religious person, how likely is it that someone would feel supported in coming forward with a complaint?
It would be also helpful to distinguish between types of abuse that women experience. Well-meaning but misinformed clergy I have encountered have suggested that support groups for battered or trafficked women would provide suitable support for women who have been abused by clergy. Each type of abuse, however, is unique and requires specialized support for victims. Peer-to-peer support groups, therapist-led support groups, specially trained and survivor-sensitive spiritual directors and other support providers would figure in a healing outreach toward survivors of abuse by clergy.
I mentioned earlier that I know women who avoid the sacrament of reconciliation after instances of clergy abuse. According to Canon 991, the faithful are entitled to confess sins to a confessor of their own choice—even to one of another rite. Would it be possible to extend this canon to enable persons abused by a priest to confess to a woman Anglican priest, assuming that they would feel emotionally safer? Survivors might also be allowed to avail themselves of the provisions of Canons 961-63, which allow for the reconciliation of several persons through general confession and absolution.
Currently, many religious communities wait until a victim comes to them before taking action. In other words, they rely on a complaint-driven response model.
How Can Laypersons Prevent Abuse?
The faithful often look to the church hierarchy for leadership regarding sexual abuse by clergy or other members of the faith community. But members of the hierarchy comprise a very low percentage of the membership of the church. We cannot lay the full weight of responsibility for the resolution to this problem at their feet.
At a recent conference, I met a woman who was a leader in a prominent Catholic organization. She confided to me that she would not know with whom she would feel safe sharing an experience of clergy misconduct. She said she might let a girlfriend know. Certainly, if we have experienced spiritual, emotional, sexual or other physical violation, we might reach out only to a trusted personal friend for support. But if we tell only a trusted personal friend, how are we to help protect others?
Sharing our stories can help others know that they are not alone. Support groups, blogs, the #MeToo and #ChurchToo hashtags on Twitter can provide anonymity. Of course, survivors should not be forced to share any of their stories but should be supported in their choices on how to deal with their experiences.
All members of a community should also be mindful of those members who are the most vulnerable. Whose salary depends on a priest’s good recommendation? Who has poor language skills? Who is not a citizen of the country? Who else might be afraid to come forward on such issues and might for that reason be a likely target for abusive priests, women religious or laypeople?
The church is resplendent with spiritual treasures, including priests, women religious and laypersons who shine with the light and love of Christ. This treasure is obscured when one of us harms another by words, thoughts or actions. When the harm is particularly damaging—when we violate the trust of another person to fulfill our sexual desires—it can be hard for the person violated to remember that there was ever any treasure.
We all need to listen to one another so that the Catholic Church can be a safe place for all the faithful to call home. Let us as a community of faith come together for respectful, compassionate and sensitive discussions to ensure that God’s love protects and nurtures wholeness and holiness in all of God’s children—whatever their age or condition.