Julie Hanlon Rubio – « Masculinity and sexual abuse in the Church »

3. Clergy sexual abuse as gendered

Often those viewing the problem of clergy sexual abuse map their larger concerns onto the issue, blaming homosexuality, the liberalizing trends of the 1960s, celibacy, or priesthood.[6] Yet, though data on clergy sexual abuse is frustratingly limited, these explanations do not hold up. Sexual abuse, including the abuse of children and teens, is all too common, not just in the U.S. or Europe, but everywhere in the world, especially in schools, families, and other institutions where adults have access to children. Those who are gay, celibate, or priests are not more likely to abuse minors; the vast majority of abusers are heterosexual, non-celibate, and non-priests.[7] Very little is known about the extent and causes of sexual abuse in religions other than Catholicism, but existing research does not suggest that abuse is less common in other faith-based institutions.[8] While the 1960s saw both liberalizing mores and a rise in criminal behavior of all kinds, it is difficult to establish causal connections between these broad social changes and the relatively small percentage of men who did abuse minors or to explain why women who lived through the same decade did not. Historically, it is much more likely that abuse was unrecognized and underreported, rather than uncommon.[9] Neither conservative nor liberal theories are supported by the social science literature on sexual violence.

Yet that literature is itself complicated. It is much easier to say what is not true than what it true about sexual abuse. Criminal justice expert Karen Terry examined multiple different explanatory paradigms for sexual offending, and concluded that while some evidence exists for each, it is difficult to argue for one over the other.[10] Research is mostly limited to small populations in mental health institutions or prisons. No one factor (including having been abused or possessing a particular psychological pathology or mental illness) can fully explain the problem. Only five percent of perpetrators can be classified as pedophiles. Attempts to identify factors that set other abusers apart have been unsuccessful, making screening out those likely to abuse nearly impossible.

One factor is not complicated at all: gender is the strongest predictor of who will engage in sexual violence with adults and children, so understanding why men abuse and how abuse is gendered is essential.[11] Feminist scholars, including theologians, have long understood sexual violence as part of the web of sexism that empowers men and disempowers women, even those who are not perpetrators or victims. They understand rape primarily as an act of power, rather than sex. Power is surely at work in sexual violence, since the acts revealed, for example, in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, map much less easily onto a sexual language of mutuality and intimacy than violation and control. Perpetrators say not ‘I give myself just as I am’ or ‘I receive and cherish you’, but ‘I demand that you do this to me’ or ‘I will do this to you because I can whether you agree or not’. This is power taken and enforced through sexual acts.

Still, power alone may be too simple of an explanation, especially if masculinity is understood as gender performance established through repeated actions. Anne Cossins shows how this framework makes sense of sexual offenders’ own narratives in ways most studies focusing on individual characteristics simply cannot.[12] She employs a theory of power and powerlessness to show that perpetrators of child sexual abuse often seek power over vulnerable teens or children as a way of performing masculinity when other avenues are closed to them.[13] This theory coheres both with findings that males who feel their masculinity is threatened are more likely to engage in sexual violence and with those studies showing how powerful men can enact entitlement through sexual dominance.[14]

Focusing on masculinity allows for integration of feminist theories of structural causes of violence with pastoral studies of sex offenders which link poor psychosexual integration, stress, poor boundary setting, and lack of intimacy to abuse.[15]

It becomes possible to ask: why are male offenders stressed, lacking in intimacy, and bereft of support? Why do they find it difficult to set boundaries? Why do few women who may also be isolated or stressed engage in sexual abuse? How might clergy be especially vulnerable, not simply as pastors but as males?[16] Their masculinity is linked to a male savior and a God primarily imaged as male, and it is the justification for their power to preach, preside, and decide. Yet many of their daily tasks might be perceived as feminine and they are not able to engage in the sexual activity that is central to the performance of masculinity for most men. Might clergy sexual abuse be an extreme way of enacting masculinity from spaces of perceived powerlessness and spaces of excess entitlement?

The masculinity lens is helpful even though the majority of clergy sexual abuse of minors is same sex abuse. In male-female sexual violence, male power and privilege (as well as its flipside, female internalized pressure to give in and remain silent) are central. But this kind of dynamic can also be seen in encounters between same sex adults.  Abuse by an adult of a child, whether same or different sex, is similarly gendered, because cultural scripts of masculinity exert power over the imagination in ways that transcend sex. Paradoxically, because children and teens are perceived as more feminine, because they are less powerful and less likely to articulate their sexual desires, sex with them becomes a way of enacting masculinity, regardless of gender.[17]

Gender performance of masculinity need not be sinister. Research on sexual abuse shows that clergy perpetrators gain powers of trust, accessibility, and a presumption of moral blamelessness which allow them to violate boundaries with females in their congregations.[18] Diana Garland argues that even in ‘consensual’ relationships between male clergy and adult women, sexual activity should never be labeled ‘an affair’ because people with authority over others are always abusing their power when they cross sexual boundaries. In her extensive research, Garland found that clergy sexual misconduct was common. Perpetrators are so blinded by their privilege that they are unable to experience empathy for their victims, and their sense of entitlement leads them to expect deference. Victims give the deference they think they owe and are unable to critically assess what is being done to them. While this research may seem less relevant to Catholic contexts, recent studies fail to include adult victims, many of whom are likely to be female. Worldwide, clergy sexual abuse may well include a greater proportion of women, as recent allegations from women religious in India, Vietnam, and Philippines show. In all of these contexts, masculinity is performed via grooming and persuasion versus brute force.

The cover-up of abuse can also be understood as gendered performance. When male clergy choose secrecy over exposure, they are protecting male spaces of knowledge and power. Frederic Martel’s recent book claiming to pull back the curtain on gay sexual activity in the Vatican may be salacious and lacking in hard evidence, but most reviewers found it difficult to dispute its portrait of the inner-workings of networks that hid male sexual secrets to protect male power.[19]Moreover, though all U.S. bishops were aware of the clergy sexual abuse problem by 1980s and committed to the principles outlined in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the John Jay Report found that implementation of new protocols was inconsistent because the bishops were so committed to tightly controlling information.[20] Though things have improved since the protocols established in Dallas in 2002, according to whistleblower and canon lawyer Jennifer Haselberger, accountability and transparency are far from normative because male clergy have not been willing to yield power to others.[21] Just as networks enable men in entertainment, sports, and politics to protect male power and privilege while disadvantaging their female colleagues, clerical networks protect men who abuse both minors and adults.

[6] See, e.g., Benedict XVI, ‘The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse’, Catholic News Agency, 10 April 2019, and Robert Orsi, ‘The Study of Religion on the Other Side of Disgust’, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, 47.1/2 (2019).

[7] Karen J. Terry, Sexual Offenses and Offenders: Theory, Practice, and Policy, second edition, Independence: Cengage Learning, 2012.

[8] Terry, Sexual Offenses and Offenders, pp. 168–72.

[9] E.g., through the early 20th century, sex with girls 16 and under was common for adult males. The rights of children to bodily autonomy were only recently established. See Anne Cossins, Masculinities, Sexualities, and Child Sexual Abuse, New York: Springer, 2000.

[10] Terry, Sexual Offenses and Offenders.

[11] Cossins, Masculinities, p. 91. 90–95% of perpetrators of sexual violence are male. 

[12] Cossins, Masculinities, p. 91.

[13] Cossins, Masculinities, p. 127. 

[14] Christine Ricardo and Gary Barker, Men, Masculinities, Sexual Exploitation, and Sexual Violence: A Literature Review and Call for Action, 2008.

[15] Gerdenio Sonny Manuel, Living Celibacy: Healthy Pathways for Priests, Mahwah: Paulist, 2012.

[16] Cossins, Masculinities, pp. 204–205.

[17] Cossins, Masculinities, pp. 127–131. See also, Ricardo and Barker, Men, Masculinities, 23, 29–32, on the prevalence of same sex abuse by males identifying as heterosexual when access to females is limited (e.g., families, religious institutions, schools, prisons, and the military).

[18] Diana Garland, ‘“Don’t Call It an Affair”: Understanding and Preventing Clergy Sexual Misconduct with Adults’, in Claire M. Renzetti and Sandra Yocum (eds), Clergy Sexual Abuse: Social Science Perspectives, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2013, pp. 118–143.

[19] Frederic Martel, In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, translated by Shaun Whiteside, London: Bloomsbury, 2019.

[20] John Jay College Research Team, The Causes and Contexts of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010, Washington DC: USCCB, 2011, p. 119.

[21] Jennifer Haselberger, speaking at Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA, in response to Peter Steinfels, 7 May 2019.

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