Sex abuse in the Catholic Church:

Sex abuse and the study of religion

posted by Kathryn Lofton

To think, write, or speak about the sexual abuse of children is to enter a terrain of bleak human experience. Even as I write that sentence, my regimented scholarly disposition makes me cautious of its potentially maudlin sentiment. Is this set of experiences more or less bleak than other grievous ones?

Physicians, psychologists, and criminal codes (e.g., Texas state law) largely agree on what constitutes the sexual abuse of children by an adult. It includes, but is not limited to, the sexual touching of any part of the body, clothed or unclothed; penetrative sex, including penetration of the mouth; encouraging a child to engage in sexual activity, including masturbation; intentionally engaging in sexual activity in front of a child; showing children pornography, or using children to create pornography; and encouraging a child to engage in prostitution.

What I want to tackle, immediately, is the fraught relationship between effect and affect in this subject for those of us who seek to interpret it. It is difficult to write or think about sex abuse without being affected by its circulating effects, without feeling that the very practices of academic analysis do something suffocating to its experience. To think about sex abuse in an academic context could suggest that we might wish to think away its awfulness; to write about sex abuse could suggest that we seek to argue away its visceral trauma.

Scholarly practice replies to such worry with bravado, assuming that our studied neutrality will offer fair view to every contributing party. Yet this is the very neutrality that so troubles subjects of our analysis, since it suggests that everyone deserves understanding, regardless of their actions. This is a perspective to which few victims of such violence can accede.

Even if we bracket the voice of such victims in our academic work, we cannot imagine that we have bracketed their call for judgment upon their perpetrators. To be sure, scholars sometimes imagine that a responsible account is an account that withholds judgment. “I just try to explain what happened,” one historian tells me. “I don’t judge what they did.” This is an evasion of responsibility; interpretation is judgment. We cannot imagine that our default to historicism will spare us our job as arbiters. We are always in the story, no matter our attempt to abstract ourselves from it through various modes of scientism, humanist and otherwise. “For even a world equation that contained everything, so that the observer of the system would also be included in the equations, would still assume the existence of a physicist who, as the calculator, would not be an object calculated,” Hans Georg Gadamer writes, concluding, “Each science, as a science, has in advance projected a field of objects such that to know them is to govern them.” To know them is to govern them. This is the struggling work of all scholarship: to acknowledge that its very free enactment by a solo thinker is also a practice of governance with others. How do we do this? How do we do this especially in cases where our subjects have already been governed in abusive ways?

This is not a new challenge in the history of scholarship. Those researchers who spend their time in the archives of genocide, slavery, or war have often offered observations on the strange role they, as scholars, play in their hermeneutics of those events. The decision to pursue sex abuse as a subject for the study of religion is a decision to enter into this murky methodological terrain. To ask, again: How do we do our work?

As a general criminological problem, psychological trauma, and sociological data point, sex abuse has received significant treatment within the social sciences. Yet within the humanities its study has been comparatively anemic. Perhaps because criminal actions seem to emerge from a pathological inhumanity, the humanist is less quick to grapple with the murderer than the murdered. Or perhaps it is that in the realm of the humanities, categories like murderer and perpetrator do not survive our interpretive imperative to understand our subjects in their particularity, to discern the human within and beyond classification. To fail to do so is, as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel suggested, “abstract thinking: to see nothing in a murderer except the abstract fact that he is a murderer, and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality.” Humanists work against such abstract thinking, and thereby produce short bibliographies on criminal categories. But this cannot mean that humanists refuse to acknowledge criminality. Indeed, the vast literatures on the subaltern and the oppressed suggest that there is an implicit adjudication at work within the humanities that privileges certain parties through the attention of interpretation. That there is no significant humanistic analysis of sex abusers is its own form of passive chastisement.

Over the next several weeks, The Immanent Frame will post remarks from a conference held on the campus of Yale University, “Sex Abuse and the Study of Religion.” That event sought to connect leading scholars in the humanities with the emerging documentary record of the Catholic sex abuse crisis. Although other religious groups have struggled with patterned sexual abuse, and although headlines report abuse in any number of educational and recreational organizations, it is the Roman Catholic Church that has experienced the greatest public scrutiny for this crime. Government investigations and tort litigation have extracted hundreds of thousands of pages of documents from diocesan and religious order archives describing abuse and its covert management within the Church. This conference, and these posts, seek to begin an interpretation of sex abuse as a subject for students of religion.

In 2004, John Jay College released a study of priest molestation that was commissioned and funded by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), to which all the U.S. bishops belong. According to the resulting report, 4,392 priests have been accused of molestation in the four decades covered by the study. In the last ten years (except 2003), annual USCCB updates through the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) have brought the U.S. bishops’ total number of priests to 6,115, or 5.6% of the priests who worked during that time between 1950 and 2011. The same studies have counted 16,324 victims and have acknowledged that actual priest and victim counts are higher. The final tally of victims can only ever be a guess, although activist groups point out that sexual abuse is rarely a singular crime; most abusers repeated their behavior with multiple victims, often in multiple parish locations. Sociologist Fr. Andrew Greeley estimated in 1993 that the victim population might be “well in excess of 100,000.”

Our goal was to explore the specifically Catholic cultural, theological, moral, even ontological, contexts within which this abuse took place, and then to consider the questions and issues this raises more broadly for the study of religion. To do this, we turned to an online archive developed by, an organization that seeks to gather and preserve the archives emerging as a result of the sex abuse revelations in the Roman Catholic Church. Those archives pertain to sexual abuse and to many other topics of interest, from episcopal relations with Vatican congregations, to the implementation of Vatican II reforms and work with ethnic minorities in urban dioceses. Founded by Terence McKiernan, is a Massachusetts non-profit corporation with approximately 125,000 pages of material posted online (and an archive of over 500,000 pages of material in their hardcopy library). aims to facilitate the accountability of the U.S. bishops for their role in the abuse crisis, as they kept accused priests in ministry, failed to report abuse allegations to the authorities, and transferred accused priests to new parishes. To that end, collects every conceivable document pertaining to sexual abuse in the Catholic church, including diocesan, religious order, and investigative files, grand jury reports, survivors’ accounts, and a wide variety of ecclesiastical documents, reports on church settlements, and journalistic accounts of the crisis. (Those interested in a survey of the kinds of materials available will profit from this introduction to their archives.) As their web site explains: “We document the debates about root causes and remedies, because important information has surfaced during those debates. We take no position on the root causes, and we do not advocate particular remedies. If the facts are fully known, the causes and remedies will become clear.”

If defers the question of root causes, we begin with such interest foremost in our minds. Why did sex abuse occur? How did it occur? Why was it managed as it was by ecclesiastical authorities? What sacramental thinking and theological rhetoric has circulated during its duration? For example, how did Catholic understandings of the child and of the priest, or the distinctive Catholic construction of human sexuality—in particular the requirement of celibacy for leadership and prohibition of masturbation—contribute to the perpetuation of abuse? What sort of sexual politics, gender norms, cultural logic, and social facts contributed to the unmitigated persistence and slow diagnosis of abuse? And how does the very way we interpret and define abuse relate to its experience and practice?

Focused on bringing bishops to account and survivors to justice, supplies an archive in service to the democratic, judicial, and therapeutic imperatives of the modern West. But archives do not interpret themselves. And this archive documents the very challenges facing the fulfillment of its activist ambition; articulates democratic possibility while also recording in its files the various strategies and symptoms of democratic perversion.

Approaching the situation for this story requires acknowledging that certain interpretive shibboleths will be more problematic than assistive in our attempt to read it. Rather than only consider the sex abuse cases as documents of the clash between tradition and modernity; rather than only consider the sex abuse cases as profiles in criminality; and rather than only consider the sex abuse cases as tragedies from which individuals need justice, healing, and redemption, we also ask how the sex abuse cases are also cases of religion.

While it seems reasonable to imagine the celebration of the Mass or the substance of seminary education as subjects of analysis for the academic study of religion, turning to sexual abuse is a more awkward maneuver to make. However, scholarship pursuing popular religious experience offers some vocabulary to begin such a venture. “The study of lived religion focuses most intensely on places where people are wounded or broken, amid disruptions in relationships, because it is in these broken places that religious media become most exigent,” Robert Orsi has written. “It is in such hot cultural moments—at the edges of life, in times of social upheaval, confusion, or transition, when old orders give way and what is ahead remains unclear—that we see what matters most in a religious world.” Orsi invites us to observe the simultaneity of religious life and religious studies, how the scholar’s role to interpret what matters becomes especially important precisely when it seems that the system collapses in its effort to maintain what matters.

These “hot cultural moments” are rarely the ones accompanied by photographers’ flashbulbs or press releases. After reviewing the documentary record, the story of Catholic sex abuse that emerges is one of stunning intensity and intimacy. This was a series of crimes committed in quiet auspices, in recreational and domestic spaces, in vestries, campgrounds, and children’s bedrooms. This was a series of relationships that were, simultaneously, abusive and interdependent, public and private, possessive and devotional. Sexual abuse between priest and parishioner is, therefore, a form of lived religion. This is not only because religious contexts offer hierarchical social situations conducive to abuse, but also because abuse is, in this documentary record, shown to be an articulation of Catholic ecclesiastical authority, Catholic theological investment, and Catholic sociological change.

The religious aspect of this Catholic crisis only amplifies the ritual ecology of sexual abuse as a generalizable configuration. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry offers this description of the web of emotions that occurs in sexually abusive relationships:

The child of five or older who knows and cares for the abuser becomes trapped between affection or loyalty for the person, and the sense that the sexual activities are terribly wrong. If the child tries to break away from the sexual relationship, the abuser may threaten the child with violence or loss of love. When sexual abuse occurs within the family, the child may fear the anger, jealousy or shame of other family members, or be afraid the family will break up if the secret is told.

Within the documentary materials available, this standardized profile of abuse is rendered relentlessly specific to Catholicism. Sexual abuse is a practice within an existent relational dynamic, one that simultaneously transforms and calcifies the hierarchies and codes that determined the original affiliation. The psychiatric vocabulary above cannot begin to access the social economy and moral stakes of abuse within communities determined by parishes and families determined in part by ecclesiastical law. “Religion” as a category has no meaning if it is merely saved to designate ideal practice; it is a term that summarizes failure and fulfillment of prescribed relations. The essays in this series begin to access these peculiar relational enclaves of religious ideation and transgressing ritual.

No one is an expert yet on these materials. The scholars who will contribute to this series offer a wide range of perspectives to begin the necessarily long analysis of this phenomenon. To talk about sex abuse requires possessing as much hermeneutic nuance as humanly possible, since there is no escape hatch from its traumas for its survivors and the accused; for the perpetrators and the witnesses; for the children and their parents, their church and their broader communities. This is slow work. None of it will translate easily to a CNN crawl or abbreviated op-ed. But the answers supplied possess no less urgency because they are the result of careful close reading or hesitant hypothesis. Indeed, as I hope you’ll find, perhaps they are even more urgent, because they are more bracingly true, including as they do the ambiguity, contradiction, and self-deception inevitable in human action, yet often absent from our sloganeering about justice and consumption of scandal. While our conclusions are preliminary, our clamor for more work in this vein is absolute. There will be no true healing, no true reconciliation, and no true justice, absent the practice of humane interpretation.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Printer-Friendly Version

11 Responses to “Sex abuse and the study of religion”

  1. avatar Chris Nunez says:

    I can appreciate the attempt at to get an academic ‘handle’ on this. However, my own approach has been to look at the dynamics in terms of the institutional environment in which the possibility of such behavior towards a child or children is made possible. I keep going back to my studies in organizational behavior, and the work of James Garbarino and his associate in the book “The Psychologically Battered Child” (1984).

    Understanding the ‘organizational’ — whether family or out-of-home-care — is critical to developing preventive strategies, organizational accountability, but also the larger social structure that helps the child move beyond this type of experience. Both of these things are possible.

  2. avatar John Shuster says:

    The etiology of predatory sexual behavior has its roots in a sexually active clergy using the facade of a sexless celibate existence to cloak their double lives. Predators are drawn to this environment because they can easily blackmail the predominantly homosexual clerical culture and threaten to expose heterosexual priests. Church hierarchy wanting to maintain and grow their religion business will do anything to minimize damage and control victim survivors. Religious integrity and moral standards take a back seat to the political alliances and financial initiatives that drive Vatican decisions.

  3. The Catholic Medical Association’s Linacre Quarterly issue, August 2011, Vol.78, Responding to the Abuse Crisis, with articles by theologians and mental health professionals with expertise in regard to the homosexual abuse of adolescent males, the primary victims in the crisis, may be of benefit in addressing and preventing further shame and sorrow.

  4. avatar Nancy Reyes says:

    Maybe someone should read this CDC report carefully:

    Pay close attention to table 55.

    When five percent of kids have sexual intercourse below age 13, and when 15 percent of gay kids admit to intercourse below age 13, I think the problem goes a long way beyond Catholic priests.

  5. avatar Paul Coppock says:

    One hopes that the contributors will achieve a degree of directness and candor that seems distinctly lacking in this introduction, which seems intent on spreading a fog of ambiguity over the whole matter.

  6. avatar Jenell Paris says:

    I’m a professor of anthropology, and grew up in a church with a pedophile pastor (Protestant). These issues are of the utmost importance. I am less interested in justifications for or caveats about humanistic or social scientific study (necessary as a preliminary, but more focused on the scientist than the subject). I’m more interested in the sociology of abuse itself; how abuse is not an exception to pure, ideal religion, but actually an expression of religion – love, devotion, and perhaps especially, authority and obedience. As a devout Christian, this is horrifying, but as your post says so well, we must look at such realities because facing “the facts” will also expose causes and solutions.

    Christian teachings say that the letter of the law points to the spirit of the law, but the spirit of the law is the higher truth. Criminal justice metes out the letter of the law, and while this is absolutely essential, it does not get at the highest, fullest reality – the full human story of what motivates us to hurt each other, what it’s like to be hurt, and our capacity for resilience. Social science is well-suited for that fuller interpretation, and I wish all the scholars here the very best as you pursue it. I will read this series with great investment and interest, and will put what I learn to use.

  7. Lofton claims that “most abusers repeated their behavior with multiple victims, often in multiple parish locations.” That assertion is contradicted by the second John Jay report, which makes clear that most priest-abusers were one-time offenders. John Jay also found that a minority had diagnosable psychological conditions–including pedophilia. And that more than three-quarters of priests who abused minors also had sexual contact with adults.

  8. Just to clarify, the data I’m referring to was first included in John Jay’s “Nature and Scope” report. From page 6:

    “The majority of priests (56%) were alleged to have abused one victim, nearly 27% were alleged to have abused two or three victims, nearly 14% were alleged to have abused four to nine victims and 3.4% were alleged to have abused more than ten victims. The 149 priests (3.5%) who had more than ten allegations of abuse were allegedly responsible for abusing 2,960 victims, thus accounting for 26% of allegations. Therefore, a very small percentage of accused priests are responsible for a substantial percentage of the allegations.”

    Also note this from page 4:

    “We detected 310 matching encrypted numbers, accounting for 143 priests with allegations in more than one diocese, eparchy or religious community (3.3% of the total number of priests with allegations).”

  9. Thank you to everyone for their response to this project. One comment in response to Grant’s invocation of the John Jay data. Grant’s account of the report is correct. However, as I’ve learned from Terence McKiernan at, the John Jay finding on single-victim offenders is incorrect. It is incorrect due to the sources they used to achieve it, and incorrect due to the general prejudices of their research. A major impetus for our conference is as a reply to the John Jay report, which has achieved expert status even as it is a deeply flawed analysis. Terry at will be following-up to these points on these pages, offering his own analysis of this critical data point and the related methodological and interpretive failings of the John Jay report.

  10. Those are rather large claims, and whoever makes them ought to offer compelling evidence to support them. It’s one thing to raise questions about the completeness of the data set (something John Jay’s researchers do themselves). It’s quite another to call the data “incorrect.” That goes for demonstrating the researchers’ alleged prejudices too.

  11. As a member of another religious group that is addressing sexual abuse in church and society, the Anglican Communion Safe Church Consultation (, my experience has been that the allocation of power and structures of power in faith communities, as well as sexism, clericalism and the role of women, are significant factors in the response to clergy sexual abuse. In the Anglican Church of Canada, especially in the Diocese of Toronto, lay women led the formation and formulation of sexual misconduct policies and procedures in and about 1990. This followed little more than a decade the ordination of women in our church.

    Thanks for the work you are doing. We can learn much from one another.

Leave a Reply

Please note: All comments will be approved by an administrator before they appear on this page.