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Does catechism class groom young people for sexual abuse?

Keywords: catechesis, children, “Deliver Us,” grooming, obedience, priesthood, sexual abuse


In an art installation at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, artist Trina McKillen displayed twenty communion dresses and twenty altar-boy vestments in a display named “The Children.” Museum curator Karen Rapp explained that “The Children” expresses devotion, ritual, innocence, and vulnerability. The person walking through the exhibit is invited to imagine the unique stories of child survivors of clerical sexual abuse. McKillen elaborated, “The children were silenced. I was compelled to create something that would not keep the children hidden any longer.” As I walked through the exhibit, renewed feelings of anger and sadness overwhelmed me. I kept thinking that we must do more to protect children. 

In light of the still unfolding scandals of clerical sexual misconduct all over the world, I think we need to seriously reconsider the oversimplified catechesis we offer our children. I wonder, does our curriculum groom young people for sexual assault?

Victims of sexual assault are groomed by their perpetrators; there is nothing random about a perpetrator’s choice of this child or that adult. The National Center for Victims of Crime explains the “Grooming Dynamic” behavior as a process by which a perpetrator gains the trust of potential victims and their adult caregivers to break down their defenses. Grooming steps include:

ª Identifying and targeting the victim

ª Gaining trust and access

ª Playing a role in the child’s life

ª Isolating the child

ª Creating secrecy around the relationship

ª Initiating sexual contact

ª Controlling the relationship

As I review the catechism curricula for young people in the US context, I find it flawed in a number of ways. The second grade textbook Alive in Christ is used for sacramental preparation in my diocese for 8-year old children preparing for Reconciliation and First Communion. Published by Our Sunday Visitor, the text is “in conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” according to the copyright page. But I am troubled by how Alive in Christ reinforces key ideas that should be problematized in our contemporary context. Those ideas include:

1. Children should trust priests and church leaders (they play a role in their lives).

2. Children should always obey their parents and people in authority (secrecy and the seal of confession).

3. It is more appropriate to describe God in male pronouns and metaphors than female ones (control).

Trusting clerics

The idea that children should always trust clerics is reinforced in subtle ways throughout the text. Pictures of priests at Mass and in conversations with children can be found throughout the book, and the accompanying text clearly tells children that “the church is led by the pope and bishops, who continue the apostles’ work to spread the Good News of Jesus and God’s kingdom throughout the world” (366). The sacrament of Holy Orders is “the call of a man to be a deacon, priest, or bishop” and “strengthens men to be leaders and to serve God and the Church” (196). Among other causes of abuse, clericalism is at the heart of the Church’s sexual abuse scandals, and in Alive in Christ we see how the laity has been formed from the tender age of 8 years old to respect priests by virtue of their calling and position of authority and not on the basis of their particular lived virtues.

Obedience to authority as good and disobedience as sin

  • “I am faithful to God’s mission when I obey.” (20)
  • “Faith leads us to obey God.” (232)
  • “Did I always obey my mother and father?” (375)

I wonder why is the text so focused on training kids to obey people in authority instead of inviting children to discern the moral good and right choice of action in a given situation? A simple focus on obedience may serve the needs of overstressed adults who simply want to keep kids in line within religious education classes, but if we are building the foundation for a life of contribution to the church, then training kids to obey people in positions of authority simply because they are in positions of authority empowers the people in authority more than instructs the children on what authority rests. It also sets up a situation in which “disobedience” is framed as “sin.” Children are told that God “has given you laws” in the Ten Commandments and that knowing God’s laws helps us make good decisions (377, 381). This creeping legalism in the moral imagination does not focus on discernment and forming good judgment for children, but rather on forming kids to be rule followers and to do what they are told by people in authority.

God-talk is exclusively masculine

Throughout the text, God is named as Father and even imaged as white and male (115). Masculine pronouns are used throughout the text to refer to God. Faith is defined as “believing in God and all that he helps us understand about himself” (232). God is described as a loving father who is always listening and children are encouraged to call him God, Lord, or Father (113-115). While consistent with other catechetical materials, this approach to God-talk limits the spiritual imagination of children unnecessarily. Even our Scriptures adopt a wider range of gendered and non-gendered names and metaphors for God. When children are preparing for the sacrament of Reconciliation at the age of 8 and their only image of God is one of a Father to whom they must confess their sins, and they are told that a male priest will be God’s representative during the sacrament, the symbolism of God-talk and sacramental theology collapse into the person of the male priest. Children are given the impression that men are more like God than women, and that the real authority figures in their lives will be male. For survivors of abuse by male adults, exclusively male language for God can retraumatize.

Tools for Catholic Parents

Perpetrators of child sexual abuse can manipulate a child’s vulnerability. Perpetrators may try to have close relationships with children with or without the parents present. Perpetrators may begin “secret” relationships with children and tell the children not to tell parents or teachers, or tell the children that what they have done makes God unhappy or is sinful. Perpetrators manipulate, twist, and distort faith claims in order to shame and silence victims. Children often do not know how to talk to adults about this behavior. This is especially true if the perpetrator is a family member or friend of the family. Victims may think that they will not be believed if they tell their stories. America magazine has recently launched a multi-series podcast, Deliver Us, in which survivors tell their own stories. In the latest podcast, Irish survivor Marie Collins describes her experience of abuse at the age of 13 by a priest who then went on to abuse other children. Like many, she was not believed when she first told another priest about her experience of abuse. 

What can we do, as parents and as a church? First, we need to teach our children that trust must be earned. They should not be told to simply trust any adult who is in a position of authority. A man with a Roman collar is a man with a Roman collar. He may be worthy of their trust, or he may not be. We cannot know until we get to know him. I realize this may be painful for my brothers in the priesthood to read. But children need to be taught how and deserve time to discern whether and how to trust priests, coaches, babysitters, teachers, and other adults. Second, we need to rethink our reliance on disobedience as the dominant paradigm for explaining sin-talk to children. We need to retell stories in such a way that the heroes and heroines of the Christian life are remembered for their right actions rather than a narrow focus on their obedience. Third, parents can encourage their children to ask questions and encourage their creative expression in prayer. Naming God in feminine pronouns during family prayer is one way that children can begin to explore a wider range of prayer images for the God in whom we trust. Faith formation that fosters theological inquiry instead of overly simplistic answers may invite the family to read and discuss Scripture together, investigate doctrinal development within the Church’s history, or openly discuss with children the scandals within the church in age-appropriate ways. As Church, we all should care about the moral and spiritual development of our children. Children should be told that when an adult harms a child, it is not a sin for the victim. Children should be told why it is not good for an adult to ask a child to keep secrets. And children can be invited to pray to God as Mother, Healer, Friend, Comforter, and in other language that speaks to their heart. The best way to help kids navigate a complex world is to give them the tools to think critically and act justly and confidently within that complex world.