Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Silence on sexual violence makes church leaders complicit, say victim advocates
Sexual violence victims speak out, while church leaders remain quiet

Jessica Mesman Griffith was sitting outside her high school cafeteria, waiting for a ride home after dance team practice, when a janitor approached her with his penis exposed and started masturbating in front of her. She was 14 — and terrified.
About a year later, while hanging out with her girlfriends, each one started sharing stories of sexual assault or violence, by a babysitter, an uncle or their mom's boyfriend. That's when Griffith realized, "I'm a girl, and because I'm a girl, I'm not safe."
Griffith didn't share her own story about the janitor with those friends, in part because it seemed less severe than their revelations. But she never told anyone else about it either, because she was embarrassed and felt somehow responsible.
Only much later did Griffith realize that church teaching about sexuality may have contributed to her silence. Teachers and clergy at her Catholic grade school had only talked about sex in terms of sin, so she came to associate the two. When she was sexually harassed by the janitor, she felt sinful.
"It just felt so dirty and tainted," said Griffin, co-founder of the Catholic blog Sick Pilgrim and co-author of the spiritual memoir Strange Journey. "Just by witnessing it, I felt I was culpable. I was sure I did something wrong to provoke this."
Griffin is speaking out now, as reports of sexual harassment by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein have prompted more victims to go public. Those revelations also spurred a social media campaign in which victims have used the hashtag #metoo to indicate their own experiences of sexual assault, harassment, rape or other sexual violence.
Yet Catholic Church leaders have been conspicuously quiet on the issue. This silence — combined with teachings and systems that contribute to a culture in which sexual violence against women is rampant — makes the church complicit, say theologians and those who work with victims. And given the church's own lack of accountability in response to clergy sexual abuse, its credibility on the issue is already damaged.
Still, the church could be part of the solution, advocates for victims of sexual violence say. But it will need to speak up.
"We're doing a bad job on this," said Megan McCabe, an instructor of religious studies at Gonzaga University who is researching and writing about campus rape culture and structures of sin.
McCabe notes that the U.S. bishops have not specifically addressed rape or sexual harassment, although they have written letters on domestic violence and pornography.
"It seems we're ignoring this as a problem," she said. "And too often when you want to talk about [rape culture on college campuses], it turns into a conversation about hooking up and promiscuity. The hierarchy could be leading the way. Instead, we're being told that the issues women face daily are not worth thinking about."
One reason for the silence may be that religious leaders are afraid and untrained in how to address the issue, according to Hilary Scarsella, director of Our Stories Untold, a network of those affected by sexual violence.
"Even well-meaning pastors who would be sympathetic to the issue seem at a loss for words and genuinely doesn't know what to say," said Scarsella, who writes for the Women in Theology blog and studies theology at Vanderbilt University. "Some of the cultural taboo around talking about sexual violence also affects our churches."
Church leaders' silence reinforces the belief that "it's not a problem in my church," said Emily Cohen, program manager of the FaithTrust Institute, which provides religion-specific intervention and training about sexual violence.
"One thing we know is that if you don't talk about it, you won't hear about it," Cohen said. "But if you start to talk about it, you will hear about this in your churches. It's hard to talk about, but the stakes are too high to not have this be a regular topic of conversation."

Roadblocks and complicity
Another possible reason for the church's silence is its participation in the systemic male privilege that contributes to the problem of sexual violence, said Franciscan Fr. Dan Horan, assistant professor of systematic theology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
"This is, de facto, a religious and Christian concern, but because the public face and leadership [of the church] are nearly exclusively male, they're unlikely to recognize and speak out against it," said Horan, who discussed sexual violence recently as co-host of the podcast "The Francis Effect."
Religious institutions and faith can be "a resource or a roadblock" for both victims and perpetrators of sexual violence, according to the FaithTrust Institute. Some of those "roadblocks" include beliefs about suffering and forgiveness, which can inadvertently support violence against women or prevent their healing.
Some theologies of the cross can be interpreted as prioritizing suffering, said Julia Feder, assistant professor of systematic theology at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. "Women and other vulnerable people may hear that as encouraging them to internalize anything that's given to them, and to do so in fidelity to God," she said.
The model of Mary as a woman who accepts whatever happens to her also can be unhelpful for victims of sexual violence, Feder said. "We talk about Mary with this 'open yes,' " she said, "but we talk very little about all the no's she's expressing in the Magnificat."
Nichole Flores, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, has researched the rampant sexual abuse of migrant women who work in U.S. agricultural fields. Because of their immigration status, the women are fearful of reaching out for help if they've been raped.
Flores draws on Latin American feminist theologian Ivone Gebara's critique of how women are socialized to be obedient to and meet the needs of men — fathers, husbands, sons, even clergy. "In orienting women primarily toward meeting the needs of men, it takes women away from being oriented toward Christ, in a way that's idolatrous," Flores said.
Christian language about forgiveness also can be detrimental to survivors of sexual violence, who are often encouraged to forgive their perpetrators to find healing, Feder said. Or they may be told that seeking justice is selfish or not Christian.
"This makes it seem as if the moral work that needs to happen falls again on the victim's shoulders," Feder said. "It also doesn't give space in the Christian conversation for justice, structures of accountability and wider systemic changes."
Catholic teaching on gender complementarity "doesn't set women up as moral agents" and instead sees them as "sexual agents," McCabe said. "We have to start challenging the subtle, gendered expectations that women are supposed to be sexually available to men."
Even "peace theology" — popular in Scarsella's Mennonite tradition as well as Catholicism — can be problematic, in that it has traditionally defined "violence" as only physical violence, rather than including the sexual violence, which may or may not be physical.
Part of the solution
But many survivors do find meaning and help in their faith, spirituality and religious rituals after the trauma of sexual violence. Church teaching on human dignity can be a starting point, said Flores.
"If we think of women as being created in the image of God, then the theological response is quite evident," she said. "Undermining women's experiences of violence and degradation, not believing women, not trusting them to speak from their own experience all fall short of our own teaching."
Horan suggests following Jesus' example, who went out of his way to acknowledge those on the margins whose voices were not being heard. "We have a tradition, at our very roots, that has the resources and provides the impetus to do something about this," he said.
Feder believes Catholic incarnational theology can help dismantle rape culture by broadening salvation to include the body and make it not just an "other-worldly" experience. She finds inspiration in St. Teresa of Avila's metaphor of the self as a strong, but transparent castle. "She gives us this language of relationality that's not this totally open "yes to anything.' "
Feder also draws on theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, who questioned theologies that exalted suffering and instead believed God does not want human beings to suffer. Feder applies his theology to the topic of sexual violence in her upcoming book, Trauma and Salvation.
Listening to victims should be the church's first step, agree advocates for those affected by sexual violence.
"This is the starting point for anybody in a dominant class or position of authority or power," Horan said. "We need to be quiet and trust and listen to the experiences of women."
Men can also do a "critical examination of conscience," Horan said, in which they confess direct participation in sexual violence or acknowledge that they have benefited from the structures that allow it. Men who downplay or write off the experiences of women are complicit, he said.
Feder said she often hears from church leaders that they have already addressed the issue in the past. "But that is not a trauma-informed approach," she said. "People don't get over things in a linear fashion. You have to not be afraid to talk about it again and again."
Sadly, church leaders' involvement in covering up clergy sexual abuse has strained its credibility, particularly on issues of sexual violence.
Flores sees it among her students, with whom she's trying to share the best of what Catholicism has to offer. "They remain very skeptical, given the legacy of not telling the truth and not confronting our own power structures to prevent the violation of vulnerable people," she said.
"How am I supposed to convince them that the church's character is concerned for the poor, marginalized and vulnerable, if we don't reflect these teachings in our response to sexual abuse of women and men in other contexts?" Flores said.
But the church could learn from its mistakes with the clergy sexual abuse cover-up that "silence is complicit," Horan said. "It's incumbent upon leaders in the church today to not make that mistake again."
While some are hopeful that the media attention to Weinstein and others will lead to systemic change, others know that the temptation is to push the issue back under the rug.
Trauma researchers believe that such revelations can be so painful that societies — like individuals — cannot sustain prolonged attention to them.
"Society tends to repress it again," Scarsella said, "only to discover it anew as if it never happened before."

[Heidi Schlumpf is NCR national correspondent. 

There has been an improvement in how the Catholic Church handles sexual abuse claims.
But this change has come about because of public pressure and the media - and NOT because Church authorities (with some exceptions) want to change.
It has also come about because of the billions that the Church has had to pay in compensation.
And of course, we have yet to hear about the sexual abuse that has taken place by priests and religious in Asia, Africa, and South America.

There are many in the Church still who would still like to be able to cover abuse up.
This is especially the case in the Curia in the Vatican.
It would be very silly for anyone not to keep the Church's nose to the grindstone on the matter of sexual abuse.


  1. Dearest Pat, once again your propensity for hyperbole leads you into factual error. All the known payouts to victims abused by catholic clergy amount to far less than one billion, in fact 830 million is more accurate. So the BILLIONS you refer to is factually inaccurate. Once again your personal hurt has occasioned hatred which has led to lies.

    1. Priests raping and sexually abusing children has cost the U.S. Catholic Church nearly $4 billion according to a new investigation from the National Catholic Reporter (NCR).

      NCR reports that between 1950 and August of this year, the church has paid out $3,994,797,060.10 in settlements related to the rampant sexual abuse of children by pedophile priests.



    2. Condoner trolls like yourself are the best argument for dropping from Church membership there is.

    3. Asking abuse victims to forgive the clerical abuser is actually an easy way out for the church that does not require any further action or accountability. Members of the catholic church have for far too long used scripture when it suits them but choose to forget about Jesus harshest words reserved for those who abuse his little ones, who would be any child or vulnerable person.

      On analysis of the John Jay Report into catholic clerical abuse in the US, the numbers point towards the fact that the majority of abuse victims were post-pubescent boys, not children.

      You have pointed this fact out in the past Pat, and I commend you for this.

      There appears to be a link between certain forms of homosexuality and an attraction to boys, as indicated by the recent Kevin Spacey scandal.

      I believe that the catholic church needs to honestly review its abuse history and sincerely look at its claustrophobic all male formation system. For the good of seminarians, priests and lay people.

    4. 14:11, sexual attraction to post-pubescent youth is as common among heterosexuals as it is among homosexuals: ephebophilia is not particular to homosexuality.

      The incidence of ephebophilia among homosexual clergy may appear greater than that in heterosexual populations because the opportunity for acting upon such attraction was greater and stronger, given the regard in which priests were held and the power inequality this created. The fact, too, that such incidents among the clergy attract more significant media attention can create the impression that ephebophilia is synonymous with homosexuality.

    5. I disagree with you Magna.

  2. Patriarchy is one of the most egregious evils in the history of Roman Catholicism, as it was in Old Testament Judaism.

    Patriarchy, by definition, cannot avoid the charge of misogyny because, traditionally, it has debased the role of women in the history of salvation, even the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

    While Roman Catholicism remains patriarchal, the abuse of women (and others) will remain largely under the moral radar: at best, a secondary and undervalued, concern.

    1. Ah yes, islam is so enlightened, as is Hinduism and Buddhism, so favourable and opene minded when it comes to womens rights! Welcome to the human race you drunk.

  3. An interesting and necessary issue to discuss. With the present controversies about the sexual harassment and abuse of women in the arts, politics, media and music business surfacing it's not at all surprising that it will give confidence to wimen to share their stories. Men particularly feel destined to be the dominant, power brokers in most walks of life. I experienced it myself and I am male but I challenged my bosses and superiors. The patriarchal nature of the Church can only have one outcome - prejudice, discrimination and abuse. I challenged the discrimination and abuse of women in a particular church setting and succeeded in getting compensation for them. I once confronted a hotel manager on the harassment which he put my sister through. My persistence paid off eventually. I totally abhor abuse, discrimination and harassment of any person and I would not tolerate it for one moment in my position. I believe in the dignity of every human being - which the Church teaches and values as a truth - but the Church must speak with a stronger voice about the abuse of women, firstly within its own institution, and secondly challenge the wider society. When much abuse of women was taking place in the institutions of our state, many people in society walked by on the other side.Inequality, abuse, harrassment, prejudice - any attitude that dehumanises us - should all be crimes and named for what they are - cruel ways of keeping people down and dominating others. The Church must and should be a powerful voice in speaking against all evils and wrongs.

  4. If the church was challenged only to pay out 50p it is proof of liability in today's world. Sadly the only way many will consider consequences is when they are asked to pay up. The church is also challenged to consider justice and righteousness. Failing to do so reminds me of the story from scripture where the disciples we're told to shake the dust from their feet and walk away.

  5. @ poster 9.35
    Thank you for your wise insight and your recommendations in that excellent comment.. Because of your respect and balance, you have much more credibility than some of the rants we read.

  6. But this recognition of the rights and unique abilities of women was a long,slow hard-fought battle throughout all society and not just in Church attitudes. There were many important women fighting that battle, particularly during the 20th century and right up to the Trade Union workers of the present day. I did my doctoral thesis on researching it and many other authors have traced the progress of the slow journey towards equal rights. Ironically there were a few issues where the Church led public opinion for good changes but sometimes it was away behind and dragged its feet on acknowl'g women's place in decision-making in particular. I could go on and on..... Sometimes, the battle lost its way eg when one of the UK Abortion Acts was regarded as a "victory" for women and it was anything but that! . However I know you have had wonderful posters who have debated that issue many times on here and I don't wish to reopen that debate. The position of women in society in general gradually filters through to the minds of the clergy but by God there are die-hards! It is a huge subject and different countries and continents are at vastly different stages in the emancipation of women. In one part of the world, a woman could run for the Presidency and in another country, she could be sold by her father in exchange for a few cows or forced into marriage..

  7. Go pay some rent you leech! You are a man who has not carried your way in life and never will, you have brought nothing but lies in the form of story telling in your entire lifespan. You are a joke in an ill body and ill mind. Pity on you really.

    1. Well you sound so Christ-like i better follow you...ya right.

    2. Sound like a disgruntled cleric 15:33. truth hurts don't it?

  8. 15.33 What a sad and judgemental comment. As ye sow so shall ye reap. Through it all I wish you well

  9. In Maynooth the reward for silence is ordination. That's it, the whole test of the clerical vocation.

    1. Nonsense 18.17. Such cryptic comments are meaningless. Silence wasn't the test of my vocation. More, fidelity to God!

    2. You would say that ya maynooth goonball!

    3. 22.19. Didn't do any of my studies in Maynooth. Studied theology, philosophy and history at Trinity. Then I spent 3 years at the Gregorium and one at Ecole Biblique and had wonderful learning. Thankfully now I am in the fulfilling task of administering a parish. So, no goonball here. But I have no difficulty in imagining the goonball brain you have!! Perhaps a trip back to school would be in order for you....

    4. Cheeky blighter...

  10. The men and women who have carried out various forms of abuse will of course have to give an account to God on judgement day.

    Bishops and Priests will be asked by Our Heavenly Father "What have you done with my sheep?" Their legacy and answer will for many be the spiritual and emotional wounds they have bound up, the doubt they have eased, and the hope they have built.

    Others will have to show the deep wounds they have caused which will always bare a scar, the doubt they have caused due to their actions or lack of, and the despair and depression they have also caused. "If anyone causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea." (Mt 18:6)

    The Church itself should never stop lamenting the damage that has been caused by many of its official representatives nor the lives that have been destroyed. However we must also keep a balanced view and also acknowledge the many great things that have been and continue to be done by The Church and clergy. Let's Pray for The Church, for The Clergy, and for all Christ's People that we may grow in human goodness, grow in faith, grow in hope, and above all grow in love.

  11. Pat, very disappointing that the issue of today's blog was not treated with the seriousness it deserves. Discrimination, harrassment and abuse of any person is reprehensible and abhorrent but particularly against women. All institutions are guilty of these crimes which demean the dignity of the individual. I grew up in a large family where we were not allowed to speak any derogatory remarks against anyone and we were warned that under no circumstances were we to ever mistreat a woman. If ever thay was done, we received appropriate justice. In my work as a priest I will defend any person whom I believe to be harrassed and humiliated by other staff members. In one occasiin I put my own head on the block in a school setting to confront blatant discrimination against female teachers by the older male staff. I also had to confront a female staff once for the harrassment she displayed to other colleagues. In any setting, everyone should name the crime of abuse in all its nasty dimensions and have courage to do so. It's unacceptable and I have zero tolerance for the macho, domineering, harrassing males in any profession. I can say in all honesty that our Church and Parish communities are founded on and survive because of the amazing contribution of women. The Church should be at the forefront of upholding their dignity. My principled aporoach is to accept the uniqueness, dignity and equality of each human being and that we each carry the Divine reflection within.

  12. It was certainly taken seriously by in my post today @12,40
    I hope you thought so too!