A screen grab shows Jesuit Father Marko Runic, an artist and theologian giving a Lenten meditation in the Vatican March 6, 2020. He was dismissed from the Jesuits June 9. OSV News photo/CNS

For adult abuse victims, there is a place to turn

  • June 29, 2023

News broke recently that the Jesuits have dismissed the famed artist, Fr. Marko Ivan Rupnik, from amongst their ranks. The dismissal resulted from his failure to obey orders to limit his travel as a result of allegations of sexual and psychological abuse levelled against him by several religious women.

Sadly, the Jesuits are far from alone in struggling with how to handle cases of clergy sexual abuse of adults. What can be done to prevent the sexual abuse of women religious and other adults, both women and men, by priests?

The Roman Catholic Church is among many faith communities having a long, problematic history of clergy abusing their spiritual power. Although abuse of children has been the focus of the media and the Church in recent times, sexual abuse of adults has been documented throughout Church history.

According to researchers, including Thomas Doyle, Richard Sipe and Patrick Wall, St. Peter Damian in The Book of Gomorrah (circa 1049-1054) passionately called for punishment of priests who sexually abuse laywomen or nuns. Gratian (circa 1140), in his Decretum, decried the sexual abuse of single women, wives of other men and nuns by priests. Sexual abuse in the confessionals was so rampant at around the time of the Council of Trent that St. Charles Borromeo established physical barriers in confessionals between priests and penitents. Yet there were still face-to-face confessions taking place in priests’ private quarters, and court records of the time indicate that most victims of sexual solicitation were women and young girls.

Although some might think that having married priests would bring an end to such abuse, statistics cited in several works (for example, When Pastors Prey published by the World Council of Churches), show that abuse of women by married clergy abounds in non-Catholic Christian churches.

As a result of some of my previous articles published in various Catholic media, women from several countries have sought my assistance for sexual abuse they have experienced by priests in adulthood. I’ve learned from them that not only the wives of a thousand years ago, but also the wives of today are at risk of sexual abuse, for example when seeking marriage counseling. Young adult men are often at risk when seeking vocational direction in their late teens or early 20s. Adults of any age are at risk in various settings.

Both younger and older women sexually abused by priests have told me of having thoughts of suicide and no longer being able to attend church, much less participate in spiritual direction or the Sacrament of Reconciliation with another priest, as a result of their abuse.

Heads of religious orders and bishops of dioceses don’t have the legal authority to incarcerate an errant priest within one of their own properties. Although sexual abuse of adults by someone abusing a position of trust, power or authority is considered under Canadian criminal law to be sexual assault, and clergy have been imprisoned for doing so, it is very difficult to prove guilt in such cases as it is hard to win a “he said, she said” case in criminal court. Unless and until religious orders are granted sufficient authority through civil and Church law to conduct surveillance on or police their own, what can be done?

Although the responsibility for a safe environment rests with Church leaders, it might help for the time being to warn those seeking spiritual guidance from a priest that sexual abuse does occur in such settings and how to recognize signs of grooming. There is a sample of a statement that could be used to help make adult care seekers aware of grooming techniques used by some predators that can be freely viewed and downloaded from the Resources section of my website (angelasheart.ca). 

The bishops of Canada have made a good start in addressing the abuse of children through works such as their book Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse (2018). Let’s pray that they will continue to seek and to receive assistance as they address sexual abuse of adults by their priests.

(Lea Karen Kivi is president of Angela’s Heart Communications. Her writing on clerical sexual abuse appears frequently in The Catholic Register.)

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