Understanding Clergy Abuse in Latinx Communities

Discomfort with discussing sexuality and a focus on the family over the individual are two cultural factors that affect how the clergy abuse crisis has unfolded in Latinx Catholic communities, according to expert panelists at a Fordham University event held virtually on January 28.

The conversation, moderated by J.D. Long-Garcia, senior editor for America magazine, was the first of a series of panels to consider the impact of clerical sexual abuse on historically marginalized communities. The panels are part of a Fordham initiative called Taking Responsibility: Jesuit Institutions Confront the Causes and Legacy of Clergy Sexual Abuse.

“Culture and immigration status, race, ethnicity, and class have all been largely neglected” in research and discussion of the sexual abuse crisis, explained panelist Dr. Susan Bigelow Reynolds, assistant professor of Catholic studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, who has done extensive research in Latino parishes. “This really shapes perceptions of who survivors are, how justice occurs, what justice means, and what reform might entail.” Ignoring elements such as culture, immigration status, and race “not only writes some victims out of the narrative of the crisis, but also excludes them from potential solutions,” she said.

A Culture of Silence

The panelists considered particular aspects of Latinx cultures that may prevent people from speaking openly about abuse, including familialism, or prioritizing the good of the family over the needs of individual family members. This leads some Latinx survivors or their parents to avoid reporting abuse by clergy, out of concern that it could bring distress or shame to the family.

Panelist Damellys Sacriste, who serves as the faith formation and education coordinator at the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta, and the Hispanic outreach coordinator for the Aquinas Center at Emory, spoke about her experiences working with families who have made sexual abuse reports. They have “gone through all that trauma of dealing with it, and at the end, nothing happens. It’s a ‘he said, she said’ type thing,” said Sacriste, who was born in Venezuela. “In our culture we may as well not said anything, because we have exposed ourselves, we have exposed our child.”

Sacriste also mentioned that a lack of open conversation by Latinx families about sex may leave young people vulnerable. “I think the hardest thing in our culture is to talk about sex, period,” she said. “I never had ‘The Talk’ in my house.” This means that many kids don’t get guidance from family members about the risk of abuse or how to protect their bodies. Safe environment training in Hispanic communities can be complicated because many Latinx Catholics view scrutiny of priests and deacons “as synonymous with distrusting God,” Sacriste said. Hispanic cultures tend to elevate clergy members above other people, placing them on pedestals. Sacriste mentioned a priest who told her that he loved leading a majority Latinx parish because whenever he proposes an idea, the parishioners respond, “Si, padre.” 

And she noted that some Latinx Catholics think of sexual abuse in the Church as happening in other corners of the Catholic Church but not their own, because these crimes are under-reported and rarely discussed.  

The “Geographic Solution”

Reynolds suggested that undocumented immigrant communities may be the source of a future wave of abuse revelations. Personnel files of abusive priests show evidence of what survivor advocate Patrick Wall has called the “geographic solution,” in which Church leaders moved priests with abuse histories to new and often remote locations. In communities with many undocumented immigrants, victims would be less likely to speak up and report abusers to authorities. “Citizenship status plays a really, really important role,” in the abuse crisis, Reynolds said. For example, undocumented families often have been threatened by their abusers with deportation. Given the hesitation among these families to engage with the legal system, the “accountability that takes place through the work of lawyers and courts is not a form of justice that’s  available to everyone,” she added. Justice should involve remedies beyond court cases and monetary settlements.  

Reynolds stressed that the Church must consider these cultural barriers as it weighs new policies and reforms to address the sexual abuse crisis. “But policies are only as just as the institutions, and societies and individuals tasked with enforcing them,” she said.

She also spoke powerfully about the meaning she draws from decisions by Church leaders to deal with abusive priests by sending them to marginalized communities. “What that says about the Church is that there are lives that do not matter to people who are in power,” she said.  “At the end of the day, it’s a question of whose life matters? Whose financial donations matter? Does staying in the good graces of certain communities matter more than protecting the lives of the vulnerable?”

The Taking Responsibility initiative at Fordham will offer additional panel discussions this spring examining the impact of the clerical abuse crisis in the Native American community, Black community, and Asian American community. Members of the Awake Milwaukee leadership team are looking forward to these conversations, which feel long overdue and essential in helping us grapple with the abuse crisis in the Church. Watch this spot for future posts sharing what we learn.

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

4 thoughts on “Understanding Clergy Abuse in Latinx Communities

  1. I was really surprised that language barriers weren’t also found to be a contributing factor. I live in a primarily Hispanic, Mexican-American community, and the older generations often speak Spanish as their primary language, even if their families have been here for a couple generations.

  2. hi Emily! Thanks for mentioning the importance of language. The panelists DID indeed mention language as one of the barriers that prevents people in Latino communities from getting justice when abuse takes place.

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