By Megan Mendenhall
The experience of African Americans has been largely erased from the history of sexual abuse in the U.S. Catholic Church, according to three panelists who spoke at an event at Fordham University in April.
The history of slavery and racism in the United States has created a “foundational disregard of black bodies,” explained panelist Tia Noelle Pratt, a sociologist of religion who studies systemic racism and the impact on African American communities. She added that because African American Catholics have been marginalized in the Church, those who have been victimized are often hesitant to report their abuse.
The April conversation was one of a series of four hosted by Fordham this year considering the impact of the clergy abuse crisis on marginalized groups in the Church, including the Latinx, Native American, and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. These events were part of a Fordham initiative know as “Taking Responsibility: Jesuit Educational Institutions Confront the Causes and Legacy of Clergy Sexual Abuse.” A recording of the latest event is available here.
Pratt, director of mission engagement and strategic initiatives at Villanova University and curator of the social media hashtag #blackcatholicsyllabus, reflected on how she personally came to study the sexual abuse crisis within the Catholic Church. She described the experience in 2005 of reading the Philadelphia Inquirer, which printed the names and photos of abusive priests named in the Philadelphia grand jury report released that year. She discovered that five of the priests on that list worked in the parish she attended as a child. She learned that when one of the most notorious abusers on the list came to her parish, “the archdiocese had known for years, for decades, about his crimes and knowingly put me as a 13-year-old, in danger, [as well as] my friends, their siblings,” Pratt said.
Another panelist, Fr. Bryan Massingale, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham, also shared the personal experience he had as a student at a predominantly black Catholic school in the 1960s and 1970s where he was also an altar boy. When he served funerals with one particular priest, he noticed that the nuns would always accompany the altar boys to the sacristy, never leaving them alone with the priest. Many decades later, “when the archdiocese published the list of priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse and I saw this priest’s name, it dawned on me that the sisters knew or suspected and were doing what they could to protect us,” Massingale said. “If not for the efforts of those sisters, I could have been one of that man’s victims.”
The Lack of Information About Black Victim-Survivors
In the course of his research, Massingale, author of Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, has learned that most dioceses do not maintain records on the race and ethnicity of sexual abuse victims. It’s just one example of how the Black experience has been erased from conversations of clerical sexual abuse, he said. The “typical” abuse victim is seen as a white male, Massingale said. He added that Black Catholics often look upon dioceses “as being more of an obstacle rather than an ally.” Few dioceses have African Americans in leadership positions or have “the cultural competence” to welcome and work with Black Catholics, he said.
“This historic legacy of mistrust and suspicion is … going to inhibit people from actually wanting to report any kind of systems of abuse,” Massingale explained.
Panelist Fr. Manuel Williams, pastor of Resurrection Catholic Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and instructor at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans, suggested that church materials around clergy sexual abuse should be made “racially and culturally inclusive so a victim-survivor can see themselves in that story.”
In the course of the discussion, both Massingale and Williams also called for more attention to forming seminarians on the topics of human sexuality. The clergy sexual abuse crisis is likely to continue “until the Catholic Church decides to become more realistic about the sexual formation of its clergy [and] about human sexuality in general,” Massingale offered.
The Need To “De-Center” Whiteness
The panelists discussed the need for all Catholics to engage in conversations around racism in the Church. “We’ve got to do the work and find the people that are open to this conversation and are open to sitting in their own discomfort,” Pratt said. She praised Fordham’s initiative for starting these conversations about sexual abuse in marginalized communities, calling these events “important steps in de-centering whiteness in Catholicism.”
Near the conclusion of the event, Williams spoke about the trial and conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, and the heightened awareness it has created about systemic racism. Williams said he was especially moved by the testimony of Darnella Frazier, the teenager who made the now-viral video of Floyd’s death. She spoke during the trial about her mental anguish for not stepping in to stop his death. Her words illustrate the “struggle for us to be able to shepherd each other, to see the humanity in each other and to force our Church and our systems to see in Black bodies and Brown bodies the presence of the divine and a life worth reverencing and living,” Williams stressed.
“Simply calling people out for abject policies and behaviors and attitudes that are racist has to be done,” Williams concluded, “but it has to be done in such a way that the conversation doesn’t stop.”
Massingale brought up interviews that he’d seen with a 91-year-old woman who wept because she’d never expected that a guilty verdict for Chauvin was possible. “As I’m thinking about the African American community and our place in the Catholic Church and how the sexual abuse crisis has impacted us, I’m like her,” he said. “I don’t expect to see a day when the Catholic Church effectively de-centers its whiteness. But I want to be open to tears of joy if I’m proven wrong.”
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.