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The Culture of Clergy Abuse and Possibilities for Resistance

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) recently released the “National Synthesis of the People of God in the United States of America for the Diocesan Phase of the 2021-2023 Synod,” which, after ten months of listening to Catholics across the U.S., “is an attempt to synthesize and contextualize the common joys, hopes, and wounds called forth with the help of the Holy Spirit in the unfolding of the Synod,” as described by Bishop Daniel E. Flores in a letter introducing the report.[1] According to the synthesis, a chief enduring and painful wound is the clergy sexual abuse crisis and its effects: “The sin and crime of sexual abuse has eroded not only trust in the hierarchy and the moral integrity of the Church, but also created a culture of fear that keeps people from entering into relationship with one another and thus from experiencing the sense of belonging and connectedness for which they yearn.”[2] Such pain is not limited to the U.S. context and is likely felt across the globe. This wound raises the question, how can the People of God authentically participate in the life of the Church and cultivate the relationships they desire, while harboring major and valid concerns about both the moral integrity of the Church and the trustworthiness of the hierarchy? I believe this question often manifests for lay people as a specific worry about whether attending Mass implicates them in the problem of clergy abuse. In order to address this, I will investigate clergy sexual abuse through the lens of “culture” and I will proffer what this illuminates about the problem of complicity and the possibilities for resistance. In doing so, I hope to give an account of how lay people can participate in the life of the Church and stand in solidarity with survivors of clergy sexual abuse, while also resisting the culture of abuse.

I understand culture through the work of Bryan N. Massingale who looks to the thought of Bernard Lonergan, SJ. Lonergan offers this definition of culture: “A culture is simply a set of meanings and values that inform the way of life of a community.”[3] Following this, Massingale argues that “culture in this sense is more basic and fundamental than society, social institutions, or social policies and customs” and “culture provides the ideological foundation for social, political, and economic policies.”[4] He argues that “cultures are shared or group realities,” and he regards culture as “learned,” “formative,” and “expressed symbolically.”[5] Thus, Massingale teaches that society and institutions are built on culture and culture exists as a shared project.

Applying this insightful view of culture to the clergy abuse crisis illuminates that the widespread problem of abuse may arise out of fundamental ideas, values, and assumptions. The content of the culture of clerical abuse has been identified by others who have done work on clergy abuse and its relationship to clericalism, hierarchicalism, patriarchy, and toxic masculinity, among other problems.[6] And a recent report expounds on the structural nature of clergy sexual abuse.[7] Importantly, if clerical sexual abuse is a culture, then it is a shared reality and not private. As such, all members of the Church interact with it and are in some way part of the system of ideas that supports it.

If this is the case, then this raises the problem of complicity, that is, the problem of whether and how individuals may support the culture and its reproduction or continuation. Given Massingale’s account of culture as pervasive and fundamental, inaction or silence seems to perpetuate the problem, or at least may be perceived as acceptance of the culture. Such a posture is incompatible with solidarity with survivors of abuse.

The problem of complicity and encountering evil is not new to Catholic ethics and has been thoroughly investigated. Daniel Fleming cogently explains this intellectual tradition in a recent article, which, responding to a different ethical problem (physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia) asks an important question that is relevant here, “Is presence always complicity?” Fleming answers, using the resources of the Catholic tradition and Thomistic thought, “Not necessarily.”[8] For Aquinas, moral action involves object, intention, and circumstance. Right action requires an object and intention that are good and right action is performed in appropriate circumstances, while wrong action occurs when the object or intention or both are bad or the action is not fitting for the circumstances.[9] Importantly, here, intention is a critical category for determining complicity following Aquinas’s understanding of moral action.

For Aquinas, intention is an internal orientation. But, the concern about whether one is complicit in the culture of clergy abuse challenges whether private intentions are morally sufficient to avoid all moral culpability for problems that have deep social components. Recall that culture is a shared reality and not merely private. As such, I suggest that in order to avoid complicity, intentions cannot remain private. Rather, they must be brought out of the interior and into the shared reality where the culture of clergy abuse takes form. Because of this, it is incredibly important to give people, especially lay people, a way to publicly signal their intentions. In doing so, they will have a mechanism to resist the culture of clerical sexual abuse and stand in solidarity with survivors of clergy abuse, thus ensuring they are not complicit in this culture.

Fleming offers the beautiful notion of “presence as protest,” which makes this point clear.[10] He gives the example of Sister Helen Prejean’s presence at a capital punishment execution. As Fleming explains, her being there is in no way a sign of support for capital punishment or complicity with it; quite the opposite, in fact. Fleming points out that her presence is a “‘protesting presence.’”[11] To the extent that Prejean is protesting capital punishment, her act of protestation seems to rely on the fact that her intentions are known to those to whom she is witnessing.

So, too, should church members’s intentions be made known when participating in the Mass amid the backdrop of clergy sexual abuse. In light of this, it is urgent that we give lay people ways to resist the culture of clergy abuse and stand in solidarity with survivors, while remaining part of the Church and attending Mass. With this in place, presence will not complicity—it will be protest.

There are a variety of ways to do this. In a 2018 article for the National Catholic Reporter, James F. Keenan, SJ, suggests congregants in the U.S. could stand after the memorial acclamation as a sign of “hope and expectation” for reforms that address clergy abuse:

As our own episcopal conference prepares to go to this meeting [bishop presidents’ Rome summit to discuss clergy sexual abuse], I was looking to find some tangible sign of hope that we could prayerfully express as the people of God. I kept thinking of how the rest of the universal church arises after the memorial acclamation and stands in prayer. Should we not rise too? What would happen if, all across the U.S., Catholics rose and stood erect in their places after reciting or singing the memorial acclamation, just as the rest of the Roman Catholic Church does? This simple initiative could be a tangible expression of hope and expectation that our clergy, and particularly our hierarchy, understand that they must develop with the laity real and tangible reforms that aim at the transparent and evident protection of minors.[12]

We could adopt this practice in a spirit of resistance. Another idea is to wear symbols of resistance during Mass, such as an armband or a pin in the shape of a broken heart.[13] Perhaps the proceeds for these items could go to clergy sexual abuse survivor networks. Such objects would allow churchgoers to communicate their intentions, bringing their intentions out from the interior and into the shared church space. The objects would also be signs of solidarity with survivors of clergy abuse, signaling that survivors’ wounds are real, recognized, and present.

Some might worry that these signs of resistance are politicizing the Mass. However, I have shown that they are not political or radical interventions, rather they are modes for the people of God to make their internal intentions outwardly known. This is especially critical in relation to a culture of clergy abuse because the culture is supported by a system of ideas and beliefs that we interact with as members of the Church. The culture of clergy abuse is part of our shared reality and so it is necessary to expressly reject that culture.

I believe that lay people are craving concrete ways to be part of the Church, while also resisting the culture of clergy abuse. If clergy abuse is a culture then it will not be undone without action. Presence must be protest in order to undo the culture of clerical abuse and give the People of God authentic ways to participate in church life and be in solidarity with survivors of abuse. Visible resistance, then, may be the only way forward.[14]

Kate Jackson-Meyer is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University in the Human Flourishing Program. Her first book, Tragic Dilemmas in Christian Ethics, was recently published by Georgetown University Press.

[1] Daniel E. Flores, “Letter from the Chair,” in National Synthesis of the People of God in the United States of America for the Diocesan Phase of the 2021-2023 Synod (September 19, 2022), https://www.usccb.org/resources/US%20National%20Synthesis%202021-2023%20Synod.pdf.

[2] USCCB, National Synthesis (September 19, 2022), 5, https://www.usccb.org/resources/US%20National%20Synthesis%202021-2023%20Synod.pdf. For a discussion of other wounds, see USCCB, National Synthesis, 5-6.

[3] Quoted in Bryan N. Massingale, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (Maryknoll, NY:

Orbis, 2010), 16.

[4] Massingale, Racial Justice, 16.

[5] Massingale, Racial Justice, 16-17.

[6] Michael L. Papesh, “Farewell to the Club,” America Magazine, May 13, 2002, https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/372/article/farewell-club; James F. Keenan, “Hierarchicalism,” Theological Studies 83, no. 1 (2022): 84-108; Susan A. Ross, “Feminist Theology and the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis,” Theological Studies 80, no. 3 (2019): 632-52; and Julie Rubio, “Masculinity and Sexual Abuse in the Church,” Concilum, no. 2 (2020): 118-27.

[7] Julie Rubio and Paul Schutz, “Beyond ‘Bad Apples,’: Understanding Clergy Perpetrated Sexual Abuse as a Structural Problem and Cultivating Strategies for Change,” 2022, https://www.scu.edu/media/ignatian-center/bannan/Beyond-Bad-Apples-8-2-FINAL.pdf.

[8] Daniel Fleming, “Is Presence Always Complicity? An Analysis of Presence, Its Moral Objects, and Scandal in Proximity to Physician-Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia,” Theological Studies 82, no. 3 (2021): 487-508.

[9] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, q.6-21.

[10] Fleming, “Is Presence Always Complicity?” 497.

[11] Fleming, “Is Presence Always Complicity?” 494-95. Fleming notes that Prejean is also offering a “‘consoling presence.’”

[12] James F. Keenan, “Let US Catholics Arise and Stand Ahead of Bishop Presidents’ Rome Summit,” National Catholic Reporter, October 12, 2018, https://www.ncronline.org/news/accountability/let-us-catholics-arise-and-stand-ahead-bishop-presidents-rome-summit.

[13] Thank you to Jim Keenan and Daniel Fleming who suggested to me the armband and pin ideas, respectively, at a CTEWC Virtual Table meeting.

[14] I am grateful to the CTEWC Responses to the Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church-Perspectives from Theological Ethics Virtual Table for responding to an early draft of this, which I presented as a provocation during our meeting on November 23, 2021. Special thanks to Marcus Mescher who raised the importance of solidarity with survivors of clergy sexual abuse.