Part 2: Awake’s Recommendations for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee – Keeping Adults Safe from Abuse

Today we take a closer look at Awake’s second set of recommendations for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, related to the sexual abuse of adults. The complete set of recommendations for our archdiocese are available here. As we shared in a blog post earlier this week, these recommendations come out of efforts to walk with and listen to abuse survivors from across the country, as well as careful research of best practices implemented in other dioceses.  

Next Steps, Part 2: Addressing Sexual Abuse of Adults  

We believe all people should be safe, protected, and supported in the Catholic Church, no matter their age.

Recommendations for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee
  1. Acknowledge that adults can be victims of sexual abuse by church personnel by updating the Archdiocesan website and communications to use inclusive language that refers to “sexual abuse of minors and adults.”
  2. Update the Code of Ethical Standards for Church Leaders to clearly define as sexual abuse any sexual contact between church personnel and an adult who is receiving counseling, sacramental preparation, spiritual guidance, or other ministerial care from that person.
  3. Allow those who believe they have been the victim of sexual abuse as an adult access to the same reporting process and support services as those who have been victimized as children, available through the Victim Assistance Coordinator.
Why This Matters

The problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is not limited to the abuse of children. Adults can be victimized as well, a reality that was evident in the Vatican’s November 2020 report about former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, which detailed his abuse of adult seminarians. We at Awake have provided support to many men and women from across the United States who have been sexually abused as adults by Church leaders. While there have been no large-scale studies to measure this phenomenon, our experience leads us to believe that abuse of adults is a widespread, ongoing issue in the Catholic Church.

There is growing awareness in our culture about the role of power in sexual abuse cases. For example, McCarrick’s influence in seminarians’ spiritual lives and careers gave him particular power over those victims. Many women and men are vulnerable to abuse by a person they trust for spiritual guidance, confession, or pastoral support. 

The Catholic Church is slowly beginning to acknowledge this dynamic. For example, Article 1 of Pope Francis’ 2019 Apostolic Letter Vos Estis Lux Mundi states that these norms for addressing sexual abuse apply to “forcing someone, by violence or threat or through abuse of authority, to perform or submit to sexual acts.” Recent updates to the Code of Canon Law explain that “the law recognises equal protection” to some adults who are the victims of sexual abuse. In 2021, a senior official at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith told United States Catholic bishops that “the local bishop has to take care of these cases,” suggesting that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is responsible for responding to this directive. 

Many U.S. dioceses have improved their policies to provide greater protection and support to people abused as adults. For example, the Diocese of Oakland, California’s home page for survivor ministry states that, “Clergy sexual abuse occurs when sexual activity of any kind is enacted by a priest or deacon, thereby abusing the power and authority of the pastoral role committed to the priest or deacon and violating the rights and dignity of the persons affected by such misconduct. The fundamental dynamic at the heart of clergy sexual abuse is that of an abuse of power. Anyone may potentially be victimized by clergy sexual abuse. This includes not only minors, but also young adults and adults, both male and female.”

The Archdiocese of Louisville defines any “sexual contact between Church personnel and an adult who is receiving counseling or other ministerial care from that priest, deacon, employee, seminarian, religious or volunteer” as “sexual exploitation.”

Survivors of adult abuse have shared how isolated they feel when their diocese’s victim assistance programs are all geared toward survivors of childhood abuse. The Archdiocese of Mobile, Alabama has addressed this by calling its safe environment department the “Office for the Protection of Minors and Adults, “ and the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan notes that “adults may also report sexual harassment and sexual abuse to the Victim Assistance Coordinator.”

We ask the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to adopt valuable steps like these to protect adults from abuse and extend support to anyone victimized as an adult.

Check back next Tuesday, when we’ll dive into Awake Milwaukee’s Next Steps, Part 3, which calls for structures of accountability to interrupt behaviors that may set the stage for abuse. 

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