A New Dialogue: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis

By: Gerard J. McGlone

September 25, 2019

The Role of Theology and Organizational Structure in Addressing Clergy Sexual Abuse

The current national and global crisis regarding the sexual abuse of minors in faith communities is quite extraordinary and historical. This context is highly significant. There seem to be some obvious common threads here that are worth exploring, but some basic data and facts are necessary.

  1. Evidence-based analysis and theories must inform this discussion. 
  2. The latest theories about sexual-offending disorders and behaviors look at several interdisciplinary factors together, not any one in isolation. This model is best referred to as the “bio-psycho-social-spiritual” model, which attempts to see the biological, psychological, and cultural aspects as well as the spiritual complexities of any disorder. In light of this current dialogue, I would contend that this might be an essential context for our discussion. The theory’s strength is that it views the individual in context. Cultural, situational, economic, and spiritual realities relate directly to one’s health and well-being. The opposite is also true.
  3. In the recovery model of addiction, one key aspect that may well determine success in recovery is spiritual well being. In other words, changing distorted, rigid, or unhealthy religious and spiritual beliefs fosters health and long-lasting recovery. It can prevent relapse.
  4. All too often experts have focused upon faith community policies and standards. Though these are necessary, they clearly have not been sufficient. 
  5. The first responses have often looked at the bad apple; they have not looked at the bad apple in the bad barrel. This requires a different analysis, understanding, and strategy. These past strategies obviously have not been sufficient. As Peter Drucker stated, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
  6. A complex understanding is necessary for our current discussion. 

As the Vatican Summit of this past February has suggested, clergy sexual abuse clearly is a global issue with global implications. The Australian, British, and Irish research suggests that leaders in almost all faith traditions abuse children at pretty much the same levels. Though we do not have similarly extensive and independent studies in the United States, we might safely conclude the same conclusions hold true here as well. Actually, the Australian study suggested that one is less likely to be abused by Catholic clergy than by Anglican clergy. So, are married clergy more likely to offend than celibate? No. What might this data mean for us? What common theological or religious belief systems might be necessary to expose and expunge? 

One might hypothesize that there exists a toxic culture of neglect and abuse in both the Baptist and Roman Catholic communities that needs serious attention and study. There seems to exist a distorted image of God, self, and others, coupled with unhealthy sexual beliefs within ritualistic patterns of behavior, processed often in a rigid pattern of thinking seen in non-collegial and distant types of ecclesial leadership in both religious traditions. 

This cultural hypothesis also seems to expose an adolescent psychosexual immaturity in both denominations. As an example, both groups of offenders seem to be attracted to adolescents, who meet their relational needs. Might both ecclesial communities be creating, supporting, and sustaining emotionally immature leaders? The power structures seem to indicate that they do. Infantilization seems to dominate the leadership and formational styles and seems to be the modus operandi in both faith traditions. 

This style and misuse of power is not exclusive to these faith communities. Of note, we now also see the sexual abuse of minors on higher education campuses, such as in the U.S.A. Gymnastics scandal at Michigan State University, Ohio State University, and Penn State University. We have also seen growing numbers of reported offenders in the Boy Scouts of America. Interestingly, most of these offenders are married, heterosexual males. Might these recent educational examples point out similar organizational, systemic, and cultural structures in faith communities that facilitated and currently still facilitate abuse? Is there a “good ol’ boy” network operational? Is there a “wink and nod” culture in these structures and similarly in these faith communities? It does seem a quite plausible assertion. There often seems to be a sub-culture in most organizations that support abuse whether they are ecclesial or not.

Additionally, we need to look at the facts that men are the largest group of sexual abuse offenders in society and in the ecclesial faith communities. This is a fact. Is there an unhealthy toxic masculinity at work promoting abuse? The essential role of power needs to be addressed and analyzed. The present theologies and religious beliefs surrounding male roles, identity, and varying interpretations of masculinity must be further debated and examined to see if indeed these beliefs play a role in the offending behaviors that we see in the Catholic and Baptist systems. We cannot stop at this level of analysis, however.

We urgently need a new dialogue. We lack an essential and current moral sexual theology that is informed and has dialogued with the very best of science, medicine, sociology, organizational management, and psychology. My hope is that we gather the best thinkers with various types of expertise to engage in an ongoing dialogue concerning the interface of current scientific sexual knowledge and experts in ethics, theology, sexual morality, and anthropology to address this issue more fully and more deeply. It would also be necessary to provide the written fruit of these dialogues to help navigate a rapidly changing and challenging landscape. All too often myths and agendas dominate the discussion. 

We see pundits on the left and the right in various denominations justifying their theological or religious stance by gross and quite frankly arrogantly ignorant conclusions that do not include the interdisciplinary analysis necessary—the medical, organizational, systemic, psychological, and spiritual facts about child sexual abuse. As an example, those on one side in the Catholic Church posit that if we get rid of homosexual clergy this would solve the offending problem. We know that 80% of the victims were adolescent males; all the offenders were male. The logical, yet flawed, assertion then would be that these clerical offenders must be homosexuals. 

However, doing so ignores data in several critical ways. First, data about the sexual orientations of the Catholic clerical offenders contradicts this assertion—most were heterosexual and, more importantly, sexual orientation has little to nothing to do with any offending behavior. We know that the overwhelming majority of pedophiles and sexual offenders in the United States are married, white, heterosexual men; must we purge society of such obvious predators? Should we ban the straight, married, white guy? In this same illogical thinking, it now seems a quite plausible conclusion to state that since the offenders in the Southern Baptist Convention are white, heterosexual, married men that we need a complete purgation of such “perverts” from that church, right? Really? They miss basic knowledge about sex and sexual offending. Might this really be about power and the abuse of it? 

These ill-informed assertions fail to understand the basics of sexual theory and knowledge. They also fail to grasp the diversity that exists in the types of offender and the complexities of offending styles within these types. Certain fixated predators, as an example, are most often attracted to the undeveloped aspects of a child’s body. These undifferentiated features are attractive to them; therefore, they become fixated with a male or female 9 to 14 years old. 

Any sexual offending is a complex mental health condition not a problem with any sexual orientation. Might there be something else happening here? Might the moral teachings or theology associated with one’s sexuality be more at the root of faith-based abuse? The vast and overwhelming majority of offenders is male; is it not possible that the faith communities’ teachings about being a man, a child, and a woman might well allow and support offending behaviors? These assertions also lay bare, so to speak, how very little most leaders in the faith communities know about the basics about sexuality—both healthy and unhealthy. The knowledge and beliefs we possess matter.

In this regard, the cognitive behavioral approach to the treatment of offenders also might help us here. It is pretty clear in the research that one’s core beliefs about self, others, and the future will have some significant role in determining what one does and why one does it. Distorted beliefs create unhealthy ways of behaving. Distorted spiritual beliefs create unhealthy spiritual ways of behaving. Ecclesial systems within which the sexual abuse happens might often intentionally and unintentionally preach and support an unhealthy anthropology and sexuality—a belief system of self and others that is not consistent with the very stated beliefs of the faith community. For example, we see in Roman Catholicism and the Southern Baptist Convention that all men and women are created in God’s image. There seems to be an essential contradiction in how this core belief finds expression in both traditions. Women, girls, and boys see only men in positions of power. They are told and taught that they are equal, but most women have no roles, no voice, and no authority or are not seen in positions of ecclesial leadership. These systems treat women and children as second-class citizens. Worse, they are often objectified to be used by men as these men desire. Might these beliefs, practices, and styles of leadership—those “cultures of neglect”— unintentionally cause some to abuse women and children in the name of God? Sadly, quite possibly, yes.

In conclusion, let us end where we began. The complexity of the current reality demands an interdisciplinary and multifaceted series of responses based on solid theory, as discussed herein. Cultural transformation is essential to this approach. More polices and standards will not be sufficient. An evidenced-based approach coupled with theological reflection and dialogue is the path forward. Such a path is part and parcel of the Christian tradition. 

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