Language, power and harm in clerical sexual misconduct

15/2/17; Stephen de Weger; Eureka Street

Three years ago, when I began my research Masters into clerical sexual misconduct involving adults (CSMIA), I wrote an article for Eureka Street on this issue. I have now completed that study.

It revealed highly relevant and crucial information towards the understanding of CSMIA. One conclusion based on my and other studies is that three major aspects need to be included in any discussion of CSMIA, in order to reach a fuller understanding of how CSMIA is able to occur, how it is interpreted, how it affects people’s lives, and how it is dealt with. Those three aspects are language, power and vulnerability, and harm.
Language and definitions surrounding CSMIA, consent, celibacy and vulnerability are of major importance in coming to a balanced understanding of this phenomenon. CSMIA continues to be commonly defined as simply a mutually consensual affair, albeit sinful and canonically illegal. However, once the language of CSMIA changes to include abuse of power, abdication of fiduciary duty, or the crossing of ethical and professional boundaries, a very different discussion emerges.
Theorists and researchers of professional sexual misconduct agree that until there is a change in the language and definitions of consent, power and vulnerability, and harm inherent in these more professional definitions, CSMIA will never be properly understood.
For example, they explain how the responsibility for all professional sexual misconduct is with the positionally powerful professional, in this case, the cleric.
However, such a concept is still quite foreign to both common and official language surrounding CSMIA. The major Church document, Integrity in Ministry, at least, is partly acknowledging this more professional approach when it states that clerics must ‘exercise caution in the use of one’s status or institutional power, never using these for one’s own advantage’.
That fact that clerical positional power has been used as a tool for the abuse by both male and female clerics is obvious — the evidence lies in the stories of victims/survivors themselves. Clerics are the respected and trusted religious professionals ordained by the church to minister to the needs of its members. In the course of Catholic life, women and men often divulge very private vulnerabilities to these clerics which becomes, by nature, a relationship based on a power imbalance.
The power imbalance is not the issue — all professional interactions are based on such an imbalance, and indeed this is why professionals are sought out: for their expertise. However, in such a professional context, the more vulnerable person can easily be manipulated and abused.
“Statistically, young adults and young male and female Religious usually figure very highly among victim numbers; this group also often express some of the most painful accounts of the harms they experienced as a result.”
But clergy are not only religious ‘professionals’ — they become family friends, youth group leaders, and are involved in any number of everyday activities in parish life. This mixing of professional power with more personal or intimate roles can lead to a blurring of boundaries and can contribute to the ability of a potentially abusive cleric to sexualise relationships, an action that in other professions would be seen as a gross violation of trust and professional boundaries. As such, clerical/professional power, and the corresponding ‘positional vulnerability’ of the laity, and, ‘lesser’ clerics, needs to be included if any deeper understanding of CSMIA is to occur.
What also, most importantly, needs to be factored in is the state of personal vulnerability with which adults come to their expert clerics for help. Until positional and personal vulnerabilities in relation to clerical power are included in discourses on CSMIA, the common perception of CSMIA being simply ‘affairs’ between power-equal adults will remain the common and official fall-back position, and the harms that CSMIA creates will remain unresolved.
The harm that CSMIA produces needs to be seriously and transparently investigated. The fact that CSMIA causes serious harm is more than evident. Statistically, young adults and young male and female Religious usually figure very highly among victim numbers; this group also often express some of the most painful accounts of the harms they experienced as a result.
However, all survivors of CSMIA revealed harms resulting from their experience/s of CSMIA. Those harms included deep and life-long psycho-spiritual disorientation, a breakdown of trust, physical illnesses and sequelae of practical consequences. These harms are then only compounded when Church responses neglect to define CSMIA correctly and do not take complaints seriously.
When the elements of language, power and vulnerability, and harm are included in discourses on CSMIA, a broad range of hitherto unaddressed dynamics are revealed such as grooming, consent, and disclosure issues. Also, clearer distinctions between overt assaults, the more grooming-based CSMIA, and clerics ‘falling in love’, are more clearly delineated.
Without the inclusion of these three elements, CSMIA can never be accurately or rationally discussed or understood, and a resulting lack of drive for justice and compassion-driven change cannot help but result. Justice and compassion are not needed if CSMIA is believed to be only an ‘affair between mutually consenting adults’, often simply because the victim was over 18 years old. According to such a definition, the event is now an ‘affair’, not abuse; it involves a ‘consenting adult’, not a groomed, vulnerable person, and it is ‘mutual’ and, therefore, not exploitative.
The way CSMIA is being perceived and dealt with at present is similar to how the clerical sexual abuse of children was dealt with just a few decades ago. Then, the spotlight was shone on the issue. CSMIA now needs to be spotlighted because its victims, like their abused-as-children counterparts, are not being believed, they are suffering, mostly in silence, and they need their Church and society to hear them.

Having just completed his Master of Justice (Research), Stephen de Weger is about to continue his research into clerical sexual misconduct involving adults, as a PhD student. His main areas of focus will be Church, and criminal justice responses to victims/survivors of CSMIA, with some focus on male victims/survivors.

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