SOUTH BEND, Indiana – For much of the American public, the narrative of clergy sex abuse is told by the media.

However, the issue hasn’t been at the forefront of academic study, and to break the “academic silence” surrounding clergy sex abuse, one religious studies professor is shedding light on the stories told by survivors.

“Historians, in particular in my subfields of American religious history and Catholic studies, were not talking about the abuse crisis,” Dr. Brian Clites, of Case Western Reserve University, told Crux.

To address this lack of research, Clites is writing a book focused on the historical origins of clerical sex abuse in America. The manuscript, currently titled Surviving Soul Murder, is an ethnography of clergy sex abuse survivors, collected in communities hit hard by abuse in the Church – such as Chicago, Boston and Erie, Pennsylvania.

Clites discussed his findings, and examined the role of protests in the lives of abuse survivors, at a lecture this week at the University of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. Clites shared some further thoughts with Crux after the talk. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Crux: In your research on demonstrations by survivors, you found they feel a sense of comfort when they know clergy have seen them. This seems related to the tendency of survivor groups to use the word ‘voice’ in their name, which implies a desire to be heard. Is that the same thing for survivors; being seen and being heard?

Clites: I think they’re related. They certainly want visibility within the Church, but I think their testimony – their truth, if you will, was so long denied by family, friends and other parishioners that being heard is particularly important to them. I think as a community, they want to be heard more broadly, and that’s fairly common in societies that are trying to repair the moral fabric after a major crisis.

As an academic studying a broad issue like clergy sex abuse, it seems your role is that of a generalizer.

Yes, it’s tough for me, because my methodology is ethnography, and no two survivors were abused in exactly the same way. So, I really have hundreds of stories of abuse to tell, but no one wants to read that, and the job of an academic is to look at all that data, step back, and try to generalize. I want to be careful not to hurt survivors, especially the ones I’ve worked with, but I’m confident in my generalizations.

Do survivors and survivor advocates tend to protest certain types of events?

Definitely. Anything that is perceived as a large and important non-religious event by the Church. One of the major stories I shared [at the lecture] came from the 2011 Catholic University of America Cardinals Dinner. It’s a dinner that rotates cities throughout the country; it’s a big, black-tie fundraiser for [the university]. So, survivors in Chicago chose that event because they knew it would already be having media coverage, because they knew that they would be able to interact with a lot of other Catholics, including prominent Catholics, in a way that would not be disruptive to their religious rituals.

Survivors are divided as to whether or not they’re willing to protest a cathedral on Sunday, because, though some of them want to reach the parishioners as they flow in and out of weekly Mass, many of them want to respect and set aside that time.

One of the best and most insightful quotes from a survivor happened when her group was debating whether or not to protest at a particular cathedral. She stood up and said, “I’m sick and tired of protesting outside of churches, I want to be inside the church. Every time we’re outside a church and we look angry, we’re sending the wrong message, because we are setting ourselves apart from the parishioners inside of the church, and that’s the community we’re looking to be recognized as a part of.”

The past year and a half or so has been a particularly newsworthy period in the history of clergy sex abuse, from the McCarrick allegations to the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report. Now it seems to have largely faded from the mainstream media cycle. Have the survivors you talk to mentioned this at all?

Most of the survivors that I met because they came forward for the first time publicly in the wake of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report have told me that they’re now deeply depressed; that they aren’t interested in talking to journalists, or that they feel abandoned and betrayed because their dioceses have not resolved anything with them, and yet the public interest has shifted to other topics. I think it will be a real challenge, not just to Catholic survivors, but for many of the other important topics right now, nationally and internationally, to receive coverage during an election cycle.

Do survivors look at the Church as having any potential to heal their wounds of abuse?

It’s hard to generalize, but there are some survivors who are comfortable with the word ‘healing,’ and who seek it out. But they’re a minority, I think, a sizable minority. A lot of survivors detest the word ‘healing,’ because it minimizes and underestimates the agonizing and torturous emotions they continue to feel, especially towards God.

As I said in the talk, many of them are able to forgive — and that’s a word they use frequently — the priest or nun who abused them, but they reserve a fair amount of distrust and bitterness for [bishops], especially the American bishops, who have covered up and not dealt with the problem.

In your research, you observe eight items that survivors want (acknowledgement of what happened, recognition of their suffering, a spiritual home, acts of atonement from bishops, support from local parishioners, a voice within the Church, some reforms and legal accountability). Which of these has the Church made the most progress on? Where has it made the least progress?

Again, it’s hard to generalize, because religion is very local. Though we’ve had apologies — and I spoke [in the lecture] about how I think apologies are not confessions or acts of atonement — at the national and Vatican level, the experience of survivors on the ground differs dramatically from diocese to diocese and parish to parish. On the whole, survivors have been denied and excluded, and still feel excluded from their parish.

This gets into the definition of church, because that’s not just by the pastors, but by the other parishioners, who I think are eager to quarantine off this aspect of the Church’s recent history as something that’s separate from your faith, or separate from Catholicism. I and other scholars want to re-center it; it’s too large a phenomenon and was dealt with too consistently to dismiss it as an anomaly or something separate from American Catholic life. It is part and parcel of the fabric of American Catholic life.

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