‘He talks to me’: Exposure and Knowledge in Jesuit Sex Abuse or, Beyond ‘Clericalism’

Project Description

We have been hearing it all along. Survivors of clerical sexual abuse, time and again, have been telling us that priests were special, elevated, that their power in church and society meant they operated on a different level. This has been a key part of the answer to the question—”how did this happen?” “It happened because of the elevation of priests, because of clericalism.” Rightly, scholars have been outraged on the survivors’ behalf and sought means—through our writing, research, advocacy—to undermine (directly or indirectly) the patriarchal arrangements of twentieth century Roman Catholicism that gave priests this kind of wide berth and deference. We have sought transparency, truth-telling, and accountability. We have sought to lift up survivors, accompany them, respect the voice they were denied, hear them while exposing the hierarchy’s many betrayals. This work, while perhaps not itself healing, is irreplaceable.

But there is more to be done, other pathways to follow as well. What if we listened to the narratives of clerical elevation in a different register? What if we heard them, not only with the ears of memory, but also with the ears of history? This project has taken these other pathways and has attempted to listen to narratives of clerical elevation with the ears of history. That is, it has attempted to situate readers in the period before the abuse, to get at the relational complexities of Catholic life in the company of priests.

In practical terms, this has meant conducting a fine-grained study of two abusive men, John J. Powell and Donald J. McGuire, Chicago-area Jesuits whose abuse of boys, girls, and young adults continued across the span of several decades (from the early 1960s to the early 2000s), all while avoiding consequences even when their superiors knew of their crimes. My research entailed careful study of the existing records (trial transcripts, interviews, news accounts, Jesuit correspondence) and interviews with several of the men’s surviving victims. I also studied archival records from Jesuit institutions, including those in which Powell and McGuire were trained. In addition, I worked with scholarly literature about the relational and social dynamics of Catholic and other kinds of religious communities, including people’s relationships to people or beings they considered ‘special’ or ‘holy.’

Key Findings

  1. Stories of abusive contexts offer evidence of a religious field in which families, bishops, priests, and priests’ future victims sought to carve out meaning and assert control in the flux of their lives. Clerical elevation or “clericalism” was part of that effort. It was not a horror or a sign of brokenness, it was a feature of Catholic religious life. That does not mean that it was not confusing and troubling.
  2. In relying on “clericalism” as an explanation of abuse, scholars risk positioning survivors as inhabitants of a “backward” or “old fashioned” Catholicism, which allowed them to be subject to priests’ power. Instead, we should see survivors’ interest in and attraction to clerical power as an integral, if fraught, part of normal Catholic life.
  3. Late twentieth-century U.S. Jesuits in particular cultivated a style of priesthood in which the ideals of exposure and intimacy are signature elements. Their approach maintained the notion of clerical elevation, but also emphasized the spiritual benefits of sharing, talking, of knowing and being known by others. Jesuit successes in education and spiritual counseling witness to the rewards of this approach. McGuire and Powell’s abuse, as well as their superiors’ complicity in its continuance, reflect the dangers of this style of priesthood.

Future Research

What can we learn of John Powell’s ministry, outside of his many published books? What were his relationships with his superiors and fellow Jesuits? How did they deal with accusations of abuse or impropriety? How did Donald McGuire wield his expertise in the many retreats he led? How did he construct Catholicism for his many lay followers? What were his forms of advice to his fellow priests and to lay women? What kinds of performance of priesthood did he offer as a retreat leader? How did 20th century popular psychology influence Catholic and Jesuit attitudes toward priests and their own special capacities for intimate knowledge and healing? How did Catholic ideas inform psychology, which was often called upon to “clear” or “heal” abusive priests?

Further Reading

“Secrecy, Sex Abuse, and the Practice of Priesthood” in The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Secrecy, ed. Hugh B. Urban and Paul Christopher Johnson (New York: Routledge, 2022).

“Stoic Brothers and Feeling Men: Abuse and Contemporary Clerical Masculinities in the U.S.,” American Catholic Studies 132: 2 (Summer 2021), 15-21.

Principal Investigator

John Seitz

John C. Seitz is a scholar of U.S. religion. His research focuses on the historical and ethnographic study of U.S. Catholics and on theoretical questions in the study of religion. Seitz’s publications include No Closure: Catholic Practice and Boston’s Parish Shutdowns (Harvard Univ. Press, 2011) and a co-edited volume entitled Working Alternatives: American and Catholic Experiments in Work and Economy (Fordham Univ. Press, 2020). He has contributed articles to Material Religion, Church History, American Catholic Studies, U.S. Catholic Historian, and Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, among others. Seitz serves as Associate Professor in the Department of Theology and as an Associate Director for the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University. He is working on a book about priesthood in the U.S.