Five Questions with John Seitz on John Powell, SJ

John Seitz is associate professor in the Department of Theology and associate director for the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University. For Taking Responsibility, John is investigating the case of the Rev. John J. Powell, S.J. (1925–2009), a sexually abusive priest-professor from Loyola University of Chicago.  John’s research will appear in several book chapters and articles in the next couple of years; we caught up with him in September 2021 for a preview.

1) TR: How did you get interested in John Powell, specifically?
JS: Powell interested me in particular because of his vast success and popularity as a spiritual writer of the 1970s-1990s. His works appeared on the shelves of many Catholics in that era, particularly those with an openness to psychology and self-help. The Jesuits had been leaders in the second half of the 20th century in opening up a dialogue between Catholicism and contemporary secular psychology. Powell represented one wing of that rapprochement, one that was extremely popular though not necessarily academically respected. He sold millions of books about love, intimacy, trust, and self-discovery and expression. As it turns out, these were precisely the same terms he put to use in grooming his victims (as young as 12), whom he seems to have convinced–at least for a time–that his abuse was in fact “genuine” intimacy. In addition to the fact this abuser was embraced by the Jesuits and Loyola University Chicago (where he had a faculty position despite a letter from at least one victim) as a publishing juggernaut, I was interested in understanding these abusive contexts because I believed that it would shed light on a kind of priesthood not often associated with abuse.
2) Tell us about a moment — maybe an interview, or an archival find? — when you understood something really important about Powell.
JS: In court documents, interviews, as well as a lightly fictionalized account of the abuse by one of Powell’s survivors, I learned of an incident when Powell told a young victim that he had received direct confirmation from Jesus that their “relationship” was blessed. He said that during private prayer, Jesus had come off the cross in front of him and sanctioned what he was doing with the victim. Drawing on long traditions in the formation of priests, Powell authorized himself with reference to clerics’ special, even mystical bond with Christ. All the leveling and humanizing of his psychological reasoning paled in comparison to the power of this notion of priests’ special access to divine realms of secrecy and mystery. It is interesting to me that the lay people in his orbit did not regret or lament this kind of clerical elevation, but seemed to long for it, embrace it, even need it, just as much as they relished his humanistic language about self-acceptance and authenticity.

3) What do you still not know about Powell that you would really like to know? What are the barriers to getting that information?

JS: Powell’s papers, housed at the Jesuit Archives in St. Louis, have not been made available to researchers. His correspondence, assuming these are among the documents, might be revealing about who among the Jesuits knew what about his long career of abuse. I would like to know about his Jesuit provincials’ attitudes toward him, the degree they reprimanded him (or didn’t, as it appears) when they learned of the problem, and the ways they may have benefitted from the (no doubt substantial) cash his books brought into the order.
John Powell, SJ
4) Powell had many victims over a number of years. Do you know how they are doing now and what kind of impact his abuse had on them?
I got to know two of Powell’s (at least) seven survivors. They were both able to find a way to contribute to the legal proceedings against Powell, and both have advocated for abuse survivors in various ways across the years even while moving on with lives in unrelated fields. I admire their courage and resilience as well as their steadiness and perspective. In both cases, memories of Powell’s abuse radiated through various aspects of their lives, influencing future relationships. At the same time, they have drawn on inner resources and strong networks to thrive as adults. 
5) A number of research projects on the sexual abuse crisis have been driven by big data-gathering operations that look shallowly at a large number of people (abusers, victim-survivors, or both) — the John Jay Report, various legal processes, studies by psychologists. What do you think a historical look at one person can give us that the big quantitative studies can’t?
JS: I admire those big studies. They are so valuable, especially for building evidence that might promote structural change around policies and practices in the church. I, on the other hand, have always been drawn to the idea of an “inner world.” Without indulging in fantasies that we can wholly capture the intersubjective qualities of religion, I find it compelling to learn about the ways religious structures, ideas, and practices circulate in particular people’s experience. It is the same reason novels are interesting; we are asked to move out of our own categories and into another’s, at least partially. The best fine-grained studies oscillate back and forth between big structural forces and the intimate realms of everyday relationships; it is at that precise intersection where religious lives take shape. As I hinted above, one insight my more interpersonal approach has provided is the extent to which scholars have been blinded by their distaste for “clericalism.” Thinking about the intricate dynamics of Powell’s interactions with his victims helped me see that clerical elevation has real appeal, and not just for hidebound traditionalists. This might change what we think about priesthood more generally.