Thursday, April 4, 2019

Kathleen Holscher on Lack of Attention to Colonialism and White Supremacy in Accounts of Catholic Abuse Crisis

In today's Tablet, a valuable reminder from historian Kathleen Holscher of the University of New Mexico that how we view the abuse story in the Catholic church depends on how we frame it — and on who is doing the framing: Holscher writes,

There have been two side-effects of the Boston and Pennsylvania reports' ascendance in the US. One is the absence of non-white victims from coverage of abuse, and subsequently from scholarly conversations and – importantly – ecclesial responses to it. The other is the inattention to colonialism and white supremacy as interlocking structures that formed Catholic sexual violence in many parts of the United States, and created the distinctive and historically pervasive Catholic phenomenon of sexual abuse against Indigenous young people.  
To read (or read about) the Boston and Pennsylvania accounts is to learn about a pattern of behaviour by Catholic priests that plagued white ethnic, urban, suburban and semi-urban Catholic communities in many parts of the US during the twentieth century.  
This has led many Catholics, both laity and members of the hierarchy, to imagine that the abuse of children by priests has been a scourge of tightly knit Irish-American, Polish-American or Italian-American parishes that pepper East Coast cities, and of Catholic communities in the industrial towns of what now gets called the Rust Belt. They have fed the assumption that perpetrators and victims of sex abuse in the United States were white, and that almost everyone involved was Catholic. 
Places such as Pittsburgh or Scranton, Pennsylvania, are a big part of the history of sex abuse in the Church. Today there are thousands of people living in those and similar places who are the survivors of predator priests. Their stories are important. But these places and communities are not the history.  
In the United States, the dioceses with the worst rates per capita of priests and Religious publicly accused of abuse are different kinds of places – they are all rural, all located in the western US, including Alaska, and all encompass federally recognised Indigenous lands or reservations. All of these dioceses were also home during the twentieth century, and are still home today, to Catholic Indian missions.  ...
While four out of five victims of clerical sexual abuse across the United States have been male, in the Diocese of Helena (another hotspot for abuse against Native youth), for example, women have brought half of all the abuse claims. Allegations of abuse emerging from Native communities also identify significantly higher numbers of women Religious (Catholic sisters) as perpetrators of sexual violence. 
The sexual abuse of Native youth by Catholic professionals in the US is its own problem and requires its own attention. But it also challenges us to think very differently about the underlying causes of sex abuse, in the Catholic Church and elsewhere. Scholars and activists in colonial contexts around the world are already considering types of violence, including sexual violence, that disproportionately affect Native and indigenous communities, and their relationship to the colonialism that structures life in them.  
So why don't discussions of Catholic abuse in the US and Europe integrate such accounts? Part of the answer lies in the habit of not acknowledging the violence experienced by people we have colonised. And part of the answer lies also in the way that white Catholics and scholars of Catholicism imagine worlds and crises populated primarily by ourselves.  
While historians owe a debt to the accounts that have shaped the dominant imaginings of the Catholic sex abuse crisis in the United States and Europe, we also have the tools and the responsibility to read them critically and, when appropriate, move beyond them.

Some people are more dispensable than others. Some people are less visible than others. The violence endured by some people doesn't merit the attention of many other people. Historians have a valuable opportunity to remind us that what we see when we frame historic events like the abuse crisis depends to a great extent on what we want to or are willing to see. And on who's doing the seeing and framing….

The graphic is a photo of a frame from Minneapolis Institute of Arts, acquired by the Douglas and Mary Olson Frame Acquisition Fund, photographed by the Institute and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons.

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