We have appreciated our readers as they have struggled to come to terms with their experience of priests. They were successful in putting into writing their own particular experience. This is what makes our blog wonderful. People from all over the world come together to discuss one experience: falling in love with a Catholic Priest.

Some of our readers have gone beyond that. They have chosen their field of study, the area where priests behave sexually inappropriately. Thanks to Stephen (at the end of the article there is some personal information about his studies and interests), we are going deeper in our reflection. I wish to welcome you to read his findings.

Clerical Sexual Misconduct Involving Adults: Now a little less ‘unknown’

Everything is on his terms. I only see him when he wants to. If he doesn’t want to see me he avoids me for months and then when he wants to see me he comes back as he pleases. He doesn’t care if I’m crying or asking him to stop, then afterwards he says he loves me then I get so very confused because I love him and I don’t want to lose him. I hope and wish that he will marry me…… I feel special to be loved by such a holy man. But I also feel very guilty and dirty for having sex with a priest. I cry and tell him that I don’t want to do it but he doesn’t care that I’m crying. So I stop crying and let him do it in order to please him because I’m afraid that if I don’t please him I will lose him (Winnie, a divorced mother of one, seeking spiritual and psychological help from this cleric).

Although the relationship was consensual, in hind sight I feel that I was very vulnerable and taken advantage of. There was a huge power imbalance and I was left feeling very broken (Cathy, a student, and a parish housekeeper seeking support at the time).

Three years ago, I wrote an article titled Knowing the Unknowns of Clerical Sexual Misconduct (see http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=38542#.V79UwcUh5zU ). Clerical sexual misconduct involving adults (CSMIA) is one of those phenomena in the Church that everyone seems to ‘know’ about and yet few really actually have real ‘knowledge’ about. Thanks to the 23 women and 6 men who responded, I have been able to establish some important themes expressed throughout the stories of those 29 respondents. Similar themes were also found in the five other major studies reviewed along with many writers on the topic of CSMIA and topics closely related to it. Those themes poignantly summed up in Winnie’s and Cathy’s statement above, were language; power and vulnerability; and harm. These were discovered to be vital elements in understanding how their CSMIA was able to occur, how it was interpreted, how it was dealt with, and how it affected their lives. They are also three elements that need to be included in any discourse on CSMIA.

Language

I was extremely confused. The priest was telling me this was “love” and said I was “beautiful”. I felt wonderful while he was there, because his definition of what was happening was dominant. But afterwards I felt awful, sinful, depressed, seriously bad and often suicidal (Tanya, a young woman who had suffered both childhood sexual abuse and a rape one year before seeking this religious order priest’s help; emphasis hers).

I was finally able to have my case listened to a few months ago by a police constable who works for [withheld for privacy] who told me what happened to me was criminal abuse not misconduct…. It was the first time that I was actually given some confirmation that what happened was criminal abuse (Edith, a 29 year old married woman at the time, seeking spiritual guidance from a highly respected religious order priest).

Language and definitions surrounding CSMIA are of major importance in coming to a balanced understanding of the realities of victims/survivors of that CSMIA. If CSMIA continues to be defined as simply a mutually consensual affair, the most likely outcomes for the adult victims/survivors, past, present and future are a blaming of the victim and victim self-blaming, and a continuation of the harms that such outcomes produce. Evidence for this was found in most of the participants of this study. Women like ‘Winnie’ and ‘Cathy’ above, caught up in what can only be described as abusive ‘relationships’, both perceived their ‘relationships’ to be ‘affairs’ and even ‘consenting’ but few could agree with even their own perceptions. However, what the literature and the respondents to this survey also revealed is that once language changes, once the definitions of CSMIA and ‘affairs’ and a deeper and more accurate understanding of ‘consent’, change to ones which include abuse of power, abdication of fiduciary duty, and/or, the crossing of ethical and professional boundaries, more resolutionary outcomes result for the victim/survivor. As Margaret Kennedy, founder of MASCAS, explains:

Clergy may not force, and the woman may desire him, but he has constructed this context, in which he makes her responsible, whilst relinquishing his responsibility for the boundary-keeping he knows he, as the professional, should maintain.

Power and Vulnerability

I was depressed and frequently suicidal. In retrospect NONE OF IT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED except that HE INITIATED a sexual relationship. I can say for absolute certain that, if it was up to me at all, I would have followed my sense that he was celibate and out of bounds. I fell for his bull-shit because I was convinced he was truly holy (Tanya).

I had to agree to providing a body massage in order to receive forgiveness for my sins (Andy – a single 20 year old man seeking help when the CSMIA began).

I had to prove my physical sexuality to him so I could be a Religious Brother with them. It was very confusing…He was a Brother of high standing and respect. I just trusted him but felt uncomfortable too (James, an 18-year-old novice in a religious order when the CSMIA began).

Why do you think you have the right to muscle in using your position of status to win over a vulnerable young girl with a disability (Ann, 19 years old when the CSMIA began).

He didn’t tell me God wanted us to have sex. He made out that it was between God and me and that I was to detach from him and just look at God [during the sex]. He spiritualized the whole thing….He said nobody would understand because it was so spiritual and that if I said anything it would completely destroy it and we would never be able to continue the relationship and that it would be my fault (Edit, 29 years old when the CSMIA began).

The evidence for clerical/positional/spiritual power as a tool for the abuse of the vulnerable and indeed any adults in the church, became patently obvious while undertaking this research. Almost all the respondents in this study described deep personal vulnerabilities at the time of CSMIA – half had already experienced sexual abuse as children. However, 24 of the 29 participants would not have come under the definition of ‘vulnerable adult’ found in recent diocesan and religious order Prevention and Protection Policies. It is only when positional vulnerability – related to age, gender and religious status; and personal vulnerability – the existence of a full range of significant issues in the lives of people, is juxtaposed with the positional and personal power of clerics and their institutions, that the power differential inherent in CSMIA can be clearly observed in action. Accordingly, positional and personal vulnerability, need to become part of the church’s and everyone’s understanding of how and why CSMIA is as common as it is. Until this occurs, the dominant perception of CSMIA as a relatively harmless ‘affair’ will continue to rule.

Harm

I had a nervous breakdown but continued to work. Whilst she [the mother superior/perpetrator] dyed her hair, I was pulling mine out….as a form of self-harm (Maria, a religious sister at the time; in parenthesis, hers).

What happened to me stole my adulthood and developing positive relationships with people in general, and men in particular. I feel so icky to have actually married and had children (Wendy, an 18 year old theology student at the time).

At 65 years old I am still trying to accept myself as a good and worthwhile person (Scott, sexually assaulted by his novice master as an 18-year-old in a religious order).

I felt I had to leave a work position that I truly loved because working where I did with this person in a power position became untenable (Sue, a woman working in a Catholic office).

If nowhere else, the evidence for CSMIA being abusive is revealed in the harms that CSMIA produces. While levels and lengths may have varied, the fact that some form and level of CSMIA-related harms existed in the lives of all the respondents in this study, was more than evident. The harms revealed in this study included deep and life-long psycho-spiritual disorientation, physical illnesses and sequelae of practical consequences which only compounded the difficulties they were already facing.

When the elements of language, power and vulnerability, and harm are included in discourses on CSMIA, many hitherto unaddressed dynamics are revealed such as grooming, consent obfuscation, and disclosure reluctance leading to continued suffering. Without their inclusion, CSMIA can never be fully revealed for what it is and a resulting lack of drive for justice and compassion-driven change follows. Justice and compassion are not needed if CSMIA is believed to be an ‘affair between mutually consenting adults’. According to such a definition, the event is an ‘affair’, not abuse, it involves a ‘consenting adult’, not a vulnerable person, and it is ‘mutual’ and, therefore, not exploitative.

In regards to the stories and responses in my study, the events they experienced cannot be defined as ‘affairs’. Nor have these stories been ones of decisive, compassionate, just and psychologically mature responses from the RCC, if their experiences were reported. A few found understanding, justice and compassion, as well as financial assistance to try to get their lives back into some form of equilibrium, but most did not, neither at the time, nor since. Their stories include the repercussions of secondary and very serious neglect, trauma and pain caused this time, by the institutional church’s responses.

For the 29 women and men who participated in my study, their experiences were and are real. Their pain and harm was and is real. Their desire for acknowledgment and healing, has also been, and is also still, very real. It is my belief that there are great numbers more of disempowered and offended against women and men, who, along with those in this study, long for their stories to be heard, and believed, and dealt with, in order to save their faith and/or restore their lives to some semblance of happiness. It is for this reason that the microphone was given to such people in this study. However, more people are needed to step up to the microphone and tell their stories. These participants, and those who are currently under the spotlight or in the news simply because they are seeking justice and compassion, (see Box, Dan. 2014. “Disabled woman sues top priest.” The Australian, August 08, 2014), are, for the most, still in a very lonely place.

The complete study can be found at https://eprints.qut.edu.au/96038/ .

Stephen de Weger has just completed his Master of Justice (Research) in the School of Justice – Faculty of Law at QUT. He is about to commence his PhD to further investigate CSMIA particularly how it has been dealt with by both secular and religious institutions. He will soon be seeking further men and women who are willing to share their stories about their experiences of sexual misconduct, and how both religious and criminal justice institutions have responded to them when, if they reported the misconduct. He is particularly interested in men’s experiences of clerical sexual misconduct as well as those who were themselves clerics or in religious life at the time of the misconduct as there is virtually no research in this area. He can be contacted at stephen.deweger@qut.edu.au.

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