Church must tackle underlying causes of abuse, expert says

Peruvian theologian Rocio Figueroa has argued that little is being done to target the spiritual abuse that allowed the clerical sex scandals to happen, and has urged the Catholic Church to rethink its power structure and concept of leadership.

ROME – Peruvian theologian Rocio Figueroa says little is being done to target the spiritual abuse that allowed the clerical sex scandals to happen and is urging the Catholic Church to rethink its power structure and concept of leadership.

“Whenever there has been sexual abuse in the Church, you could see that there was first a spiritual abuse,” said Figueroa, who is among the speakers addressing a Sept. 21-Oct. 2 online course on abuse prevention in formation settings.

The course, organized by the Pontifical University of Mexico’s Center for the Protection of Minors, will feature a slew of professionals and experts in the field of child protection among its speakers and professors.

Figueroa, a lecturer in Systematic Theology at Good Shepherd College in Auckland, New Zealand, and an External Researcher at the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at Otago University, is a former member of the Marian Community of Reconciliation, which is the women’s branch of the Peru-based Soldalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV).

In 2017, the SCV’s founder, Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari, was sanctioned by the Vatican after accusations went public that he had sexually abused several minors and had physically and psychologically abused members of his community.

Reflecting on research she has conducted based on interviews with victims and former members of the SCV, Figueroa said that in her conversations with each person, “all of them talk about spiritual abuse.”

“They are always together, spiritual abuse and sexual abuse,” she said, noting that most members of her former community and other movements or institutions where abuse has been revealed haven’t necessarily suffered sexual abuse, “but they suffered spiritual abuse.”

This specific form of abuse “has never been addressed. Physical and psychological abuse have been addressed, but spiritual abuse has never been addressed,” she said, noting that the issue has come up in other Christian confessions, such as the Anglican Church or in various Protestant churches, but “in the Catholic Church we have not done anything about it.”

While the numerous scandals involving leaders of prominent movements and communities in recent years has made the Church realize that abuse of power is a problem, they haven’t yet delved into spiritual abuse, she said.

“You see lots of courses about sexual abuse prevention, but nothing about this systemic problem. You also have to ask yourself why the system has allowed sexual abuse to happen?”

Offering her own definition, Figueroa said spiritual abuse happens when anyone who holds some sort of spiritual authority over another – whether it be the superior of a community, someone in charge of formation, a parish priest, or the teacher of a catechism class – uses that power to control someone, rather than helping them grow.

“It’s when you manipulate someone, when you exploit someone, when you oblige someone, when you impose something, you want to control someone using spiritual means,” she said. An example, she said, would be a superior telling a subordinate to do something because ‘this is the will of God.’

“It’s very subtle, and very dangerous,” she said, noting that it’s possible people can commit spiritual abuse without realizing it. This, she added, is largely due to the lack of preparation and maturity in those tasked with formation.

Pointing to what she says are flaws in the system that allow spiritual abuse to happen, Figueroa said she believes part of the problem is a misguided understanding of obedience.

In the Catholic Church, there is a systemic problem because oftentimes, obedience is understood “in a vertical way, where the one who has the authority is the word of God; it’s a very vertical dimension and you have to just obey.”

This, she said, opens the door to many other forms of abuse, including sexual abuse.

“We have not changed this vision enough, we have not encouraged enough the personal maturity of the people in religious communities,” she said, noting that many who enter religious communities will make vows of obedience, “but they don’t promise to be authentic and to follow myself and my conscience.”

“This is as important as the vow of obedience,” she said, adding that if there is no balance between obedience and the individual development of members of a community, “you have people who don’t develop their personalities, they don’t mature, and they are much more vulnerable.”

She also flagged clericalism as another major issue, noting that in the past, the general mentality was that once a priest is ordained, he becomes “a saint.”

In other cases, a spiritual director or advisor can be “idolized” by those under their guidance, putting them “in a vulnerable position because you follow that person thinking that they are a saint.”

“All of the theology that we have had has to change,” she said, voicing her belief that the concept of having a ‘spiritual elite’ in the Church “has also created this structure that has enabled all these abuses to happen.”

“That’s why accountability, openness, transparency are important,” she said. “Every person in the Church has to be accountable, because sometimes authorities in the Church are not accountable. They do anything they want to do.”

This is especially true when it comes to women, Figueroa said, noting that in many cases, women religious in particularly are dependent on their male superiors – whether it is the bishop of the diocese they serve, or the priest in charge of a project they run – working with no salary or specified vacation time.

“We have structural problems. For me, they are all together. If you put clericalism, sexism, and the situation of women together, it’s like a bomb. It’s harmful, it’s damaging. That’s why we have so many problems.”

If these problems are faced step by step, “changes can be made,” Figueroa said, and called for “a less vertical type of authority in the Church.”

Pointing to different leadership styles, Figueroa said that in her view, the one best suited for those in positions of spiritual authority is “the servant leader.”

A servant-leader, she said, “first wants to serve, and then wants to lead. That generates another type of leadership in which the person who leads does not look for power, but really looks out for the good of the people.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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