I have received several requests for a copy of the talk I gave in our department as an introduction to an event for undergraduates in which faculty members discussed how they responded to the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church based on our areas of expertise. I am posting it here as delivered, with relevant links for further information.
My area of expertise is historical theology, which means that my teaching and research both aim to better understand theological ideas by looking at them in their historical contexts. As such, I’m going to start our event off today by framing the subsequent reflections in the context of the history of revelations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
The reason we are gathering to discuss the scandal of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church today is because, this past August, a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a report that found that more than 300 Catholic priests in six of the state’s eight dioceses had sexually abused children. The grand jury had spent two years gathering testimony and reading documents provided by the dioceses. The report identified more than a thousand victims, but they expect that many more unidentified victims exist. Most of the victims were boys, but both boys and girls were victimized. Most of the victims were children, but some were teenagers. For most of the cases in this report,which focused on cases occurring prior to 2000, the statute of limitations has passed, and so charges cannot be brought against the abusive priests.
However, in the Catholic Church the problem has not just been the prevalence of abuse, but that the very structure of church governance has been set up to prioritize the avoidance of scandal over care for the victims. The Catholic Church is governed by a body of teaching known as canon law. In 1917, the church organized this body of teaching, then it was revised again in 1983. It was only in this 1983 revision that the sexual abuse of children was listed officially as a crime separate from the solicitation of sex in the confessional.
Under canon law, it was also a crime to cause “scandal” and lead people to question their faith. Because of this, bishops tended to deal with allegations of abuse secretly within the church. The Pennsylvania report found the following practices to be common: first, using euphemisms to describe the sexual abuse; second, keeping any investigations entirely within the church; third, having accused priests evaluated at church-run psychiatric facilities and allowing these facilities to claim priests to be “cured” of pedophilia; fourth, not telling parishioners why their priest was being removed; fifth, continuing to provide living arrangements for accused priests, even though this might facilitate more abuse; sixth, transferring priests to new locations if the abuse became known in the community; and finally, never reporting these crimes to the police.
These were the practices within the church until 2002 when the Boston Globe revealed the abuse that had occurred in that archdiocese. There had been some sexual abuse scandals prior to this in the United States—in Louisiana in the 1980s and in Fall River, Massachusetts in the mid-90s—but the scale of the problem as revealed by the Boston Globe had not been apparent before. Their report initially revealed that the archdiocese had financially settled seventy child molestation claims in the previous ten years. They used the archdiocese’s annual directories to track clergy assignments, noting those who had been placed on “sick leave” or similar designations. After the initial reporting of this in January 2002, the number of priests involved eventually rose to around 250. Cardinal Law, who had then been archbishop of Boston, resigned from his position by December of that same year. As the Boston Globe reported, as more abuse allegations against priests in the archdiocese became public, Law came to symbolize the entire problem of clergy sexual abuse.
Following the revelations of the extent of the abuse problem in Boston, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops acted. In June 2002, they established procedures for protecting children from abuse, the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. It addresses how to deal with abuse allegations, as well as ways to prevent child abuse and the bishops have revised and updated the document several times, most recently in June 2018. This document, along with legal changes such as extending statutes of limitation and designating certain people as mandated reporters, helped make progress in dealing with the problem of clergy sexual abuse.
The bishops also in 2002 commissioned the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York to study the problem of sexual abuse by clergy. This report was published in 2004 and covered the period from 1950 to 2002. They looked at data from 195 dioceses and 140 religious communities in the United States. In their research, they found 4,127 priests with allegations of abuse, representing around 4% of active priests in that time period. The reported cases of abuse peaked in the 1970s and 1980s. The majority of priests accused of abuse were ordained between 1950 and 1979 and most had been in their twenties at the time of ordination. I don’t have any specific conclusions to draw from that data, but I think there is potential for someone to contextualize the problem historically based on the data from this report.
It is, however, important to recognize that this is not just a problem in the United States. Allegations of widespread sexual abuse and its cover up by bishops have been made in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Australia, and Brazil, among others. In 2009 the high courts in Ireland published a report on child abuse in the Catholic Church there. This included not just the type of abuse by priests that we’ve seen in the United States, but beatings, humiliating punishments, and sexual abuse in church-run schools and orphanages. Both priests and nuns were implicated by this report. Also, in May of this year, Pope Francis accused the Chilean bishops of negligence for failing to investigate allegations of sexual abuse by clergy. In response, all thirty-four bishops of that country offered their resignations—a model that some have suggested the United States bishops should also follow. So far, Pope Francis has accepted seven of these resignations and overall seems to be moving forward, slowly, in dealing with the crisis.
To return to the Pennsylvania grand jury report, this has prompted many responses from within the church—of which this panel is one. On August 20, Pope Francis published a letter that both recognizes the failings of the church in this area and encourages the work being done now to prevent it in the future. He wrote, “With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.”
Scholars, activists, and commentators have been identifying different potential causes of the crisis of sexual abuse, but the one that stands out the most to me is the problem of clericalism. Clericalism is a tendency to identify the church with the clergy and because of this view, to place the clergy on a pedestal, seeing them as better or more important than the laity. Some publications have recently called for women to fight clericalism, but the problem is that women’s voices are excluded by the institutional church. This is especially apparent at the current Synod on Youth, where non-ordained men, but not women, have been granted the right to vote.
As a historical theologian, I approach the argument to listen to women’s voices by focusing on a group of allegedly heretical nuns in seventeenth-century France. I find the example of these nuns to be particularly relevant for the context of the sexual abuse scandal. Some Catholics have found it difficult to remain a part of the church because they feel betrayed by the hierarchy. The Port-Royal nuns went through similarly trying times, during which the archbishop of Paris focused on them in his efforts to root out heresy. The nuns were alleged to have been Jansenists, a heresy based on a theology of grace so rooted in the ideas of Saint Augustine that they were accused of being crypto-Calvinists. In 1653, Pope Innocent X condemned five propositions about grace that were said to have come from Cornelius Jansen’s text, the Augustinus. Approximately ten years later, the archbishop of Paris attempted to force the nuns to sign a formulary stating that they agreed that these five propositions were heretical and that these propositions were found in Jansen’s Augustinus. Many of the nuns argued that they could not sign such a document because the church itself forbid them to read texts like the Augustinus. In response, the archbishop imprisoned many of these nuns in other convents and deprived them of the sacraments.
Despite these struggles, however, what stands out the most to me is the strong theology of divine providence that these nuns maintain. Many of them wrote accounts of their periods of captivity, in which they expressed this theology—an idea that God has an overall purpose for creation and God uses evil and suffering, like what the nuns experienced, for a greater plan. It is important to note that this idea of divine providence was not a theology that allowed the nuns to be passive and submit to the archbishop, but instead a theology that gave them strength to resist and follow what they knew to be right. And by this, I don’t mean right about whether the five propositions come from the Augustinus, as scholars are divided on that point. But, given the position that the church and society enforced on women in that era, it is entirely reasonable for them to refuse to sign a document condemning a book that they were forbidden from reading.
Many of the nuns identified God’s providence as speaking to them through the Gospel readings, giving them a message to help them keep strong in the face of pressure to sign the formulary. They believed that God had an overall plan and that their suffering during captivity was part of that plan. Although they weren’t always able to understand how this suffering furthered the divine plan, they had to maintain faith that they did their part in cooperating with this providential plan by continuing to resist.* God would bring something good out of the evil that they experienced. God was not the cause of this evil but allowed the evil to happen so that he could bring good out of it (Angélique de Saint Jean, 100). The good was God’s ultimate plan and the nuns had faith that they played a part in this. As the future abbess Angélique de Saint-Jean wrote about her experience, “Since our affair was his cause, he would want to glorify himself through us and glorify his grace by preventing us from being conquered in a struggle we entered only by the hope we have in grace and by the necessity of the commands of his providence” (Angélique de Saint-Jean, 78).
It is this idea of divine providence that gives me some hope for the future. It is not my place to identify the suffering of those abused with divine providence, but I offer this theology as a resource for anyone experiencing suffering because of these scandals. Like the Port-Royal nuns did, it is up to us to apply this theology to our own sufferings. I put my faith in the idea that God has a plan for the church and it is up to us to cooperate with that plan. Although at times I may feel like Angélique de Saint-Jean, unsure about how this suffering could possibly become anything good, I do see signs that the way these issues have been handled by the hierarchy in the past is changing, albeit slowly, and that gives me some hope for the future.
*Angélique de Saint-Jean Arnauld d’Andilly, Writings of Resistance, ed. and trans. by John J. Conley, The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: The Toronto Series, 41 (Iter Academic Press, 2015), 97–98.