Understanding the Wounds Caused by Clergy Sexual Abuse

How does sexual abuse by Church leaders affect the hearts and souls of their victims, as well as the people around them? Catholic moral theologian Marcus Mescher, PhD, is working with a team of scholars to develop a diagnostic questionnaire that captures precisely how sexual abuse in the Church harms the victim-survivor, their family, and the broader community.

Mescher envisions this diagnostic tool being used by schools, parishes, and dioceses to help measure the wounds in a given community in the aftermath of clergy sexual abuse, in order to inform pastoral care and restorative justice efforts.

Administered electronically, the diagnostic tool will ask test-takers more than 100 questions to determine how clergy sexual abuse has affected them. “It’s trying to help us understand, ‘What is the impact of this event? How has it affected your faith and how you see God, your relationship with the Church? Do you still consider yourself Catholic or someone who practices Christianity?’” Mescher explains. “It tries to measure their sense of moral identity and agency, how this shapes how they weigh moral duties to themselves in comparison with others, as well as the moral authority and credibility of the Church in the wake of this crisis and its cover-up.”

Mescher also aims to generate information that would lead to greater compassion among Catholics for people sexually abused by Church leaders. “My hope is that we can stand in awe of what these people carry because we’ve learned about what it means for them to be wounded by our Church,” he explains. “Hopefully this will inspire compassion and solidarity so that we can move together toward healing.”

This information-gathering should also help quantify the impact of sexual abuse on people beyond the victim-survivor, including their family and friends and all Catholics, Mescher says. 

A Milwaukee Native Making Sense of Pain in the Church

Born and raised in the Milwaukee area, Mescher graduated from Marquette High School and Marquette University and served several years as youth minister for St. Joseph Wauwatosa and St. Mary’s Elm Grove before earning his doctorate in theology at Boston College. He is now associate professor of Christian ethics at Xavier University in Cincinnati. 

“I am Catholic,” Mescher says. “This is an institution that matters a lot to me.” He has long been aware of the ripples of pain that sexual abuse in the Church causes in the larger community. During Mescher’s childhood, his family belonged to a parish whose pastor was credibly accused of sexual abuse. One of Mescher’s siblings was baptized by the abusive priest, part of the reason she left the Church. And Mescher says he feels for one of his dearest friends, a priest, who is pained by the widespread distrust of priests as a result of the abuse crisis. 

He also knows survivors of clergy sexual abuse, and feels called to attend to survivors in their suffering. Mescher’s book, The Ethics of Encounter, uses Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan to explore the Christian duty to “get into the ditch” as the Samaritan did with the man beaten by robbers. Christians are called to be with people who are suffering, in a spirit of solidarity that goes beyond emergency aid, he says. Both parties can be transformed by such relationships.  

Yet the Church has largely failed to accompany sexual abuse survivors, he says. “I see way too often that people don’t take [survivors’] pain seriously or shrug their shoulders, or they have a momentary experience of outrage, but then just move on to business as usual.” 

“And perhaps even worse,” Mescher adds, “the Church has embraced silence, shamed victims, and upheld impunity for perpetrators. The Church has prevented us from knowing the truth of what happened, by whom, and to what effect. This contributes to the moral injury that I suspect reaches far beyond the survivor community.” 

What is “Moral Injury?”

Mescher is currently writing a book about the Catholic sexual abuse crisis and cover-up, and has been exploring the “moral injury” that he believes can result from clergy sexual abuse. The concept of moral injury is usually applied to the mental, emotional, and spiritual wounds suffered by soldiers who commit or witness acts in war that violate their moral code. Mescher sees similar wounds in clergy sexual abuse. “One of my goals is to point out that abuse by clergy is a distinct moral injury, because of who clergy represent,” he says. “They represent the Church. For many, they represent God. When I read accounts of survivors of clergy sexual abuse, very often they’ll talk about the experience as the murder of their soul, because they don’t know how this representative of God, of the Church, could do something so vile.” 

He’s also considering the moral impact on victims abused as children, a time when their sense of self is still developing. “A lot of survivors report a sense of futility,” he says. “What’s the point of speaking up? Because generally, they’ve been silenced or ignored.” Their moral injury includes feelings of betrayal, numbness, despair, and loss. “The Church has made it so they can’t feel safe or trust people,” Mescher says. “The Church has kept the truth hidden. The Church has enabled and protected sexual predators. This is a moral injury that impacts all of us.”

Conscience, a word that means “to know together,” is another important consideration for Mescher; he sees the formation of conscience as a dialogical process (not just a private activity), rooted in our relationship with the Church. “But if the Church keeps the truth hidden, if it undermines transparency and accountability, then that injures the consciences of the entire community,” he says, “because we don’t know what really happened, the impact it has had, or what justice requires.”

A Message for Catholics: All Parts Suffer

Mescher and his colleagues recently received institutional approval to begin administering their diagnostic questionnaire to survivors of sexual abuse, college students, diocesan employees, and Catholic lay people. This will likely begin sometime in late spring, to be followed by a series of in-depth interviews of clergy abuse survivors. The research team, which includes Mescher, two additional theologians, a sociologist, and a research psychologist, expects to analyze results in fall 2021.

When asked why Catholics in the pews should care about this research, Mescher cites Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “Paul tells us we are all members of one body, the Body of Christ.” 

“These wounds are everywhere in the Church,” he says. “If we think we don’t know anyone who has been impacted by this, we have to ask ourselves, ‘Why is it that people don’t feel safe enough to come forward and let us in to the wounds that they’re carrying?’ I would be surprised to find any Catholic community that has been totally immune to the wounds that we’re talking about here. We have to do a better job of putting it into the light, as St. Ignatius would say, so that we can see the truth of what has happened, and happened in our name. That is the only way we can bring about healing on the individual, interpersonal, and institutional levels.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

2 thoughts on “Understanding the Wounds Caused by Clergy Sexual Abuse

  1. Please tell Marcus Mescher etal that I very much support his research! I am a practicing Catholic; I do not have a personal experience of myself or a friend or family member being abused, but I am in solidarity by all who have been morally injured by representatives of our faith.
    Donna Scheppe

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