Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Recommendation: Stephen Edward de Weger's Thesis "Clerical Sexual Misconduct Involving Adults within the Roman Catholic Church"

A resource I'd like to recommend to you: Stephen Edward de Weger's master's thesis (pdf) in the School of Justice of Queensland University of Technology's Faculty of Law. It's entitled "Clerical Sexual Misconduct Involving Adults within the Roman Catholic Church." Stephen's outstanding thesis draws on interviews with adults sexually abused by Roman Catholic authority figures, notably priests. 

I'm particularly taken by the chapter in the thesis (chapter 7, pp. 119-150) entitled "Power and Vulnerability." In this chapter, Stephen shows how the widespread abuse of lay members of the church by clerics depends on an inbuilt "God-factor" within the Catholic system. Because the Catholic governing system proposes that priests stand in the place of Christ within the Catholic community — and that they do so in a unique way, one lay Catholics cannot rival in any way — and because it holds that a priest experiences an "ontological" change on ordination that elevates his humanity to a level above that of lay members of the church, a "positional" vulnerability for all lay members of the church is built right into the Catholic system's understanding of priesthood.

The sexual abuse of lay members of the church by priests depends on this "God-factor" and on the positional vulnerability of all lay members of the church. To serve their own personal needs, some clerics take advantage of their "higher" standing within the Catholic community to target vulnerable adults who have sought them out for spiritual counsel, and who are vulnerable precisely because they are going through life experiences that make them feel needy. 

Stephen shows that a significant proportion of the abuse of adults by Catholic priests occurs in such a ministerial context, and depends on grooming and entrapment techniques that priests adroit at exploiting lay members of the church have learned to develop in the context of their ministry — and especially in the context of the sacrament of reconciliation and spiritual counsel. What makes this abuse difficult to combat in the Catholic context, he also concludes, is precisely that "positional" factor by which the Catholic system defines the priest as "above" and "ontologically superior" to lay members of the church.

This positional factor allows the hierarchical leaders of the church to control the definition of clerical abuse of adults by naming adults who are abused by priests in the context of confession or spiritual direction as seducers — as people who invite their molestation, whose stories do not deserve to be heard because they are responsible adults who entered in a fully responsible way into a "relationship" with a priest. As Stephen points out, this way of naming the abuse of adults by Catholic clerics shields the Catholic system from any self-reflection, from any analysis of the radically unequal power relationships built into the Catholic governing system on which abusive clerics feed to exploit lay members of the Catholic flock.

Sexual abuse of lay members of the church by clerics is, as it were, built right into the Catholic system as an obvious possibility of clericalism, which is at the heart of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church. The very way the governing system of the Catholic church is set up is abusive from the outset, and the abuse crisis cannot be adequately addressed as long as that governing system remains intact, unquestionable, shielded from critical analysis.

P.S. It goes without saying — and Stephen suggests this — that sexual exploitation of adults also occurs within non-Catholic and non-Christian religious communities, as religious leaders lean on a  "God-factor" or some similar warrant as they abuse adults within their spiritual charge. One seriously undesirable result of the more or less exclusive focus on Catholic abuse cases in the U.S. (where there is a long cultural history of anti-Catholicism) is that this focus blinds us to the fact that similar abuse occurs within other religious communities, too, and demands serious attention, too.

The graphic: a photo by Adam Smith of a confessional in the Church of the Holy Name, Dunedin, New Zealand, which he has uploaded to Wikimedia Commons for online sharing with attribution of its source.

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