What Structural Factors Contribute to Abuse in the Catholic Church?

Some in the Catholic community believe that the sexual abuse crisis in the Church is solely the result of a few “bad apples,” or the acts of a small number of predators. 

But Australian researcher Stephen de Weger is among many who believe that it’s more effective to focus on the “apple barrel” or the structural factors that contribute to sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. A sociologist who teaches criminology in the School of Justice at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, de Weger has conducted two studies of people who experienced sexual abuse as adults in Catholic settings. 

Personally meaningful research

This topic means a lot to him personally. De Weger calls himself an “insider-outsider researcher,” explaining that he studies “a body of people with whom I identify.” First abused by a priest and parishioners in his family’s parish when he was a child, de Weger struggled with mental health crises and began abusing drugs in his teen years.  At age 19, he was working to get his life back on track and applied for a job with a Catholic charity when he was sexually assaulted by a man at the organization who described himself as an ex-priest. 

Roughly a year later, de Weger met a priest in Melbourne who was recommended to him as a skilled counselor for those experiencing sexual identity issues. But that priest assaulted him as well. Looking back on those years, de Weger realizes that he “became even more super spiritual and holy and I wanted nothing to do with sex ever again.” He began the process of discernment to determine if he was called to become a priest. He had completed his first year of formation in a religious order when he experienced a mental health breakdown, which he sees now as “an after-shock of the indecent assault with the priest he had gone to for help just a few years earlier.” He was asked to leave religious life to seek treatment, which he recalls was one of the saddest and most confusing events in his life. He ended up in training to become a teacher and during this time met his wife, Liz, to whom he’s been married for 34 years. The couple has three children, all now adults.

Ten years ago, old wounds and unresolved traumas surfaced again. De Weger sought help and began to work with a trauma-informed psychiatrist. He now sees himself as lucky to have recovered and privileged to have learned so much about human psychology and trauma in the process.

He ultimately entered graduate school in sociology, first earning his Master’s degree with a project titled “Clerical Sexual Misconduct Involving Adults Within the Roman Catholic Church,” which involved an extensive survey into the backgrounds of 23 women and six men who were victim-survivors and full accounts of their experiences of clergy sexual abuse as adults. He went on to complete his doctorate in 2020, with a dissertation titled “Reporting Clergy Sexual Misconduct Against Adults to Roman Catholic Church Authorities: An Analysis of Survivor Perspectives,” which featured in-depth interviews with six women and three men who officially reported abuse as adults to church authorities. De Weger also offered an analysis of factors that he says set the stage for abuse of adults in the Church. Here we offer a summary of three of the contributing factors that de Weger identified in his work.   

Stephen de Weger, PhD

Factor #1: Normalization of sexual activity among clergy

This may be one of the most controversial topics related to clergy abuse, de Weger acknowledges: the idea that sexual activity among clergy creates an atmosphere that permits sexual abuse of both children and adults. 

De Weger cites research by the late Richard Sipe, a former priest and psychotherapist, whose research on the sex lives of clergy, detailed in the book Sex, Priests, and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis, involved interviews with more than 2,500 different priests over two decades. Although Catholic priests take vows of celibacy and chastity, Sipe estimated that only 50 percent abstain from sexual activity with others, while the “other 50 percent have given up on the ideal and live lives of varying levels of sexual activity or misconduct,” de Weger explains. According to Sipe’s findings, just 6 percent of clergy abuse minors, while around 40 percent are sexually involved with other adults.

De Weger spoke with Sipe multiple times before his death in 2018 to discuss how he arrived at these estimates, which are fiercely debated in some Catholic circles. “They are quite controversial and I wanted to make sure I was interpreting them correctly,” de Weger says. He was left convinced by how Sipe arrived at these figures, and notes that later studies, including research involving clergy in Spain, landed on even higher estimates of sexual activity.

Sipe believed efforts among priests to keep these activities secret made blackmail among clergy possible. “There was so much knowledge about each other’s sexual activity that ‘you tell on me, I tell on you,’” de Weger explains. This reinforced a culture of secrecy that prevented abusive priests from being reported by their brother priests, allowing sexual activity to continue.

De Weger stresses that for every member of the clergy who engages in sexual activity, there is at least one other person (but often several more) who has had their life altered by these encounters. The sacred role of priests—seen as God’s representatives on Earth—creates a power differential that sets the stage for abuse. Victims may be particularly devout people, de Weger says, as he himself was as a young adult. Some may be seminarians manipulated by priests with a say over their future ministry, as was detailed in the Vatican investigation of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who used his power to manipulate and assault seminarians. This powerful imbalance can leave victims with traumatic wounds that are particularly difficult to heal.

Factor #2: Neutralization tactics That Prevent victim-survivors from reporting

De Weger’s research focuses in large part on the difficulties adult abuse victims face in reporting abuse to authorities in the Church. He relies on previous work by the late sociologist of religion Anson Shupe, who described neutralization tactics used by the church hierarchy to cover up clergy sexual abuse and defend against reports of abuse from victim-survivors. De Weger worked to identify these tactics in the stories shared by the survivors in his study. 

For example, Shupe described the Catholic Church as an institution of unequal power, with priests and bishops holding more authority and seen as holier and more trustworthy than lay people. Shupe also noted that the dense bureaucracy of the Church can make it perplexing to victims and prevent them from reporting abuse. Another tactic is sentimentality, in which victims are made to feel guilty for “hurting the Church” or their loved ones. For example, a victim might hear comments such as “what would your mother think if you made this public?” Shupe also noted that principles of reconciliation and forgiveness could be used against victims, with Church officials insisting, for example, that victims forgive their abusers. 

Factor #3: Unaddressed Mental Health Problems

Based on his interviews with victim-survivors, de Weger is concerned that not all seminaries are working to promote good mental health among men in formation for the priesthood, leaving some future priests ill-prepared to maintain appropriate boundaries with others. He calls for seminaries to commit to addressing issues such as untreated mental health problems, emotional immaturity, and unresolved trauma.

This particular topic strikes a chord for de Weger. “I nearly joined the priesthood because I had deeply unresolved issues around my sexuality and my own sex abuse,” he recalls, expressing relief that he left the seminary when he did. “I started getting therapy, but it takes years and years of work to get [to a healthy place].”

“It is my very firm belief now that if we do not tackle abuse of adults and the normalization of clergy sexual activity within their own circles, the whole clergy abuse scandal and horror will never be eliminated,” de Weger says. 

He encourages victim-survivors of clergy abuse as adults to consider reporting their abuse to authorities both in the Church and in the criminal justice system in an effort to seek accountability. But given the challenges of this process, he says, “be well prepared and supported if you do so.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

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