Starting the Conversation About Clergy Abuse in Asian American and Pacific Islander Communities

By Megan Mendenhall
Guest Writer

The Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities in the Catholic Church are just beginning to grapple with the issue of sexual abuse by Church leaders, due in part to shame and stigma that limit open conversation about sexuality, according to an expert panel at Fordham University. The virtual conversation, which occurred earlier this year, is part of Fordham’s initiative, Taking Responsibility: Jesuit Institutions Confront the Causes and Legacy of Clergy Sexual Abuse. This was the third event in a series of conversations about historically marginalized communities and clergy abuse in the United States.

The topic of clergy sexual abuse in the AAPI community “is a very, very new topic for public conversation” and little has been researched or written on this topic so far, explained Catherine Osborne, project coordinator of the Taking Responsibility initiative. But the panelists agreed to offer preliminary insights into “what we do and don’t know” about the impact of the clergy abuse crisis in the AAPI community, Osborne said.

Panel moderator Rachel Bundang, a Catholic feminist ethicist who teaches at Santa Clara University in California, began the conversation by noting that it’s not easy to define who Asian Americans are. AAPI is “an awfully big umbrella and we’re asked to include so many different things even within the Asian American Catholic community,” said Bundang, a founding member of the Asian Pacific Islander American Religious Research Initiative, a project for scholars of Asian Pacific Americans and their religions. Bundang noted that the AAPI term applies to people with geographic diversity as well as differences in their religious rituals. In such a diverse community, she said, a blanket term doesn’t explain everyone’s experiences.

Religious Authority, Clericalism, and Silence Around Sexuality

One commonality among Asian American and Pacific Islander communities is the honor given to clergy. “The role of the priest in the majority of AAPI communities is that the priest is put on a pedestal,” said Eunice Park, a pastoral minister based in California who has extensive experience working in Asian Pacific Islander ministry on a local and national level. While this elevated status is common in many Catholic communities, Park said she believes the power granted to priests in AAPI parishes is strengthened by “the patriarchal nature of our cultures.” This authority can set the stage for a variety of abuses of power, including sexual abuse and financial impropriety, panelists said.   

Priests in parishes with large Asian American communities are often sent to the U.S. from Asian countries, the panelists explained, and they and their families are commonly hosted in parishioners’ homes and treated as honored guests. “When priests are invited over to stay with the family, they have the full run of the house,” said Linh Hoang, a Franciscan priest and professor of religious studies at Siena College in New York, currently serving as a consultant to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on Asian Pacific Islander Catholics. If some form of abuse happens during one of these visits, it “is kept silent because these families have had the honor of being able to host these people, and so to talk about anything that comes up would be very, very taboo,” Park said.

“My mother spoke about how when we had a priest over when we were much younger, she would be very careful that he would not be left alone with my sister,” Hoang remembered, noting that his mother wasn’t worried about the priest being around her young sons. He said this was likely due to the lack of knowledge and conversation around sexuality.

In her work in campus ministry, Park said that she has also encountered this silence around sexuality. She ministers to many Filipino and Latino students and noted that a surprising number of students have confided to her that they are victims of incest. “The majority of them say that this is the first time that they have talked about it with anyone,” she added.

The Importance of Representation and Open Conversation

Encouraging lay members of the AAPI community, including women, to consider careers in ministry is important, Park said, adding that representation is valuable and part of the solution in helping AAPI families speak honestly about abuse. Destigmatizing abuse and normalizing conversation about sexuality is integral to creating a safe place for survivors. “Within the Asian communities, we have the experience that people always talk around the question or talk around the issue” of sexual abuse, Hoang said. Building trust and relationships is the foundation for having these hard but important conversations, he concluded. 

Near the end of the event, the panel reflected on the recent mass shooting of Asian American women in Atlanta, and anti-Asian racism in general. “What Atlanta has exposed is not only this underlying racism and hatred of Asians, but it continues to expose the idea that Asians are never fully accepted,” Hoang said. Even within the Church, people sometimes question the Catholicism of Asian Americans, asking if they have dabbled in Buddhism or indigenous traditions. “I’ve been asked, ‘How long have you been Catholic?’ Even as a priest I’ve been asked this,’” Hoang said. He added that calls to include AAPI Catholics in Church leadership bodies have been largely unanswered.  

Hoang ended the conversation with a statement about the importance of community involvement and allyship. “This effort to be transparent and inclusive and open in our Church includes everyone engaged in this conversation,” he said. “It’s not just one community that has this issue, as we’re finding out that all communities [suffer from] the issue of clerical abuse.”

Megan Mendenhall is a student at Saint Louis University, where she is studying political science and communications. Born and raised in Milwaukee, she attended Pius XI Catholic High School.

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