Loyola University Maryland
We investigated the psychological and spiritual damage done by clergy sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church through a multi-method study of spiritual struggles. Spiritual struggles in the psychological study of religion “refer to pain, anger, fear, doubt, or confusion related to religious and spiritual beliefs, experiences, and practices. Broadly speaking, spiritual struggles refer to distress or conflict in domains of life that individuals perceive as sacred.” We investigated how and under what conditions spiritual struggles are experienced by Catholics and former Catholics related to sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church, with particular attention paid to the unique experiences of Black Catholics and former Catholics. Baltimore, our home, is a city at the foundation of both the Catholic and the Black Catholic traditions in the United States, thus providing a distinctive context for the study.
The research methods entailed a mixed-methods sequential design. In the first phase of the study, quantitative methods were used to survey 248 Catholics and former Catholics. Efforts were made to recruit roughly equal numbers of Black and non-Black Catholics, however only 7% (n = 17) of survey respondents identified as Black Catholics and 17% (n = 41) identified as former Catholics. We also interviewed 32 participants in depth (12 male, 20 female; 4 Black, 28 non-Black; 22 Catholic, 10 former Catholic).
Key Findings, Quantitative Data:
Given the significant sample size difference between comparison groups, nonparametric inferential statistics were used for comparative analyses. A significant limitation of these data are the relatively small number of former Catholics (n = 41), Black Catholics (n = 14), and Black former Catholics (n = 3) in the sample.
- In general, religious and spiritual struggles were common among all participants (n = 248). The most common types were struggles with other religious/spiritual people, doubts about religious/spiritual beliefs, and concerns about personal morality. Struggles with God, demonic forces, and ultimate meaning were also present, but less prevalent.
- All forms of spiritual struggle were linked with experiencing greater symptoms of anxiety and depression; however, divine struggles and struggles of ultimate meaning were most highly related to both depressive symptoms and anxiety. The presence of meaning in life was related to fewer symptoms of both anxiety and depression.
- Perceptions of institutional betrayal by the Catholic Church were related to greater interpersonal struggles, religious and spiritual doubt, perceptions of sacred loss and desecration, clericalism and postconventional religious reasoning.
- There were no differences between Catholics (n = 207) and former Catholics (n = 41) in perceptions of institutional betrayal regarding sexual abuse within the Catholic church; however, Catholics scored higher on perceptions of desecration related to sexual abuse in the Church and overall presence of meaning in life in comparison to former Catholics. Former Catholics reported more struggles related to morality, religious and spiritual doubt, and ultimate meaning, as well as greater symptoms of anxiety and depression in comparison to Catholics. Former Catholics also reported more frequent daily spiritual experiences and greater postconventional religious reasoning than Catholics.
- Black Catholics and former Catholics (n = 17) scored higher on experiences of racism within their own church, in other religious settings, and in non-religious settings in comparison to non-Black Catholics and former Catholics (n = 231). Black Catholics and former Catholics also reported greater demonic struggles and lower perceptions of clerical indifference than non-Black Catholics and former Catholics. No other differences were found on study variables between Black and non-Black Catholics and former Catholics.
Key Findings, Qualitative Data:
- Catholics and former Catholics experienced spiritual struggles with the institutional Church as a result of clergy sexual abuse. Current Catholics reconciled these struggles through rationalizations (i.e., clergy are human, and humans are sinful) and focusing on the value of their experiences of Church in their local parish rather than the negatives seen in the broader institution. Former Catholics viewed clergy sexual abuse as one of many hypocrisies of the Church. Although Black Catholics experienced spiritual struggles with the institutional Church related to clergy sexual abuse, the historical and current racism of the Church lessens the intensity of this struggle.
- The participants interviewed who were actively practicing their Catholic faith do not often think about clergy sexual abuse. As one participant stated, “I really don’t think about it, you know, it’s not… If it’s something that’s in the news, you know, it may go through my mind, but as a regular routine thing, it’s not there.” Most participants reported thinking about clergy sexual abuse as a response to media coverage. What seemed to influence whether people think regularly about clergy sexual abuse is proximity and specificity: the more specific the event or close to their social networks it is, the more conscious and deliberative reflection will be.
- Catholics and former Catholics tended to experience spiritual struggles that are interpersonal or with the institution, not intrapersonally or with God or demonic forces. As one participant stated, “I think I would leave out the spiritual struggles with God, because I think for myself, I’ve separated the institutional Catholic Church from God. For me the institution is a seriously flawed human made institution.” Interestingly, struggles with God were rare, as were struggles with one’s own culpability. More common were struggles with the institution (seen as the Archdiocese and more broadly, USCCB, and personalized in bishops, regardless of their behavior) and struggles with other people about remaining Catholic.
- Current, but not former, Catholics coped with the impact of clergy sexual abuse by working to preserve their religious practices and theological beliefs. As one participant stated, “I believe what I believe, regardless of what humans do. And there’s been some bad humans, but some of them had to be priests and some happen to be boy scout leaders, some happen to be other things. It’s a shame, but it doesn’t change what I believe.” Common coping mechanisms that fostered maintenance of religious practices and beliefs were inertia, rationalization, and dividing the church into good and bad actors while identifying as part of the “good guys.”
- Due to the history of institutional racism within the Roman Catholic Church, the moral failings of the Church were not a spiritual struggle for Black Catholics who have already had to carve out their own safe spaces. As one participant said, “I think white Catholic churches were shaken in a way that at least my African American Catholic Church wasn’t because there was already an inherent distrust in the institution to look out for us. Black Catholics already know how the institution has treated them as African Americans in the past. It isn’t threatening to imagine that a racist organization has intractable evil coming from it.” This sense also made it easier to adopt a kind of de-facto congregationalism that focused only on the local parish as where Church happens. Surprisingly, we did not have people talking about cases of abuse committed and occurring in predominantly Black parishes, though there have been some well-known cases.