Best Practices for Lay Empowerment: Adolescent Track

Marquette University

Project Description

The origin of our grant project (which had both a young adult and an adult track) was rooted in our conviction that the abuse of power was at the heart of the abuse crisis. Recognizing that this abuse of power was only possible as a result of a power imbalance, we identified greater empowerment of the laity as an essential corrective to the conditions that facilitated abuse in the Catholic Church for so long. As members of the laity ourselves, we felt this was a more promising focus for our work than a dismantling of clericalism, which represented another way of undoing the imbalance of power. We also recognized that disempowerment of the laity has been a significant concern for the Catholic Church and needed more attention.

The adolescent-focused group explored sexual violence prevention materials and safe environment trainings on the local and national levels. We noted a lack of consistency among the educational materials used in dioceses and eparchies across the U.S. with differences in content, length, and theological focus. Across 196 dioceses and eparchies, there were 161 different materials for use with children, with additional training materials for adult volunteers, priests, and deacons.  Eleven organizations produced about 51% of materials, with VIRTUS, Circle of Grace, and Praesidium the top three producers (~32%). Of the remaining materials, 49% were not named. When we searched individual diocesan websites for those products, we found many were home-grown products that were not empirically tested. When trying to obtain copies of the commercial materials, we encountered a high degree of resistance and gatekeeping. Barriers ranged from financial inaccessibility to hostility and skepticism.

In response, we developed a workshop for teenagers around the intersection of power and relationships. With these tools, we believe people will be better able to identify abuses of power and have a better understanding of their own autonomy (self-power) in relationships within the culture of abuse in the Church. To put it simply: knowledge is power. For adolescents in particular, holistic Catholic sexuality education that includes practical and nuanced sexual violence prevention information can help form an integrated sexuality that furthers their moral, spiritual, psychological, and physical growth. This education can empower youth to make more informed decisions about how to enter into relationships with their peers, family members, religious leaders, and other adults in their lives.

Key Findings

Despite the barriers to access, we identified some overarching themes in the safeguarding/sexual violence prevention materials that we were able to review (including VIRTUS, the most widely used resource in the US).

  1. The current sexual violence prevention curricula is primarily focused on how individuals can prevent abuse by reporting problematic behaviors. Abuse prevention is more than reporting problematic behavior; it also means gaining knowledge and skills for identifying power dynamics in relationships, and tools for constructively interrupting abuse before it gets to a “reportable” stage.
  2.  While the material we reviewed had relevant bible verses to accompany different lessons, there weren’t any explicit connections to key principles in the Catholic social tradition that would pertain to systems of injustice such as abuse.
  3.  While there was some reference to the ways abuse of power may take place in relationships, there was not any specific references to the way that gender and power intersect within abusive relationships, and their impact on our behaviors with others.

In light of these findings, we created and tested a workshop for teens that contextualizes power dynamics in relationships, meeting learners where they are to best build knowledge, awareness, and theological reflection. In a 3-hour workshop (with adequate breaks), we engage students in identifying relationship power dynamics and naming abusive behaviors in a variety of professional and personal relationships. We conclude with an Examen, praying through the content covered with a focus on autonomy in relationships and identifying markers of misuse of power and control.

Future Research

For further research, we strongly suggest a thorough overview of sexual abuse prevention curricula ensuring the inclusion of developmentally-appropriate power literacy, the ability to identify abuse of power in various relationships, and a more nuanced understanding of how abuses of power have happened historically (including gender, racial, and ability disparities) and how we can change them as a church moving forward. Given both groups’ desires for more information about relationships, we also urge research on best practices in educating this age group on how to seek and maintain healthy relationships.

Further Reading

Principal Investigators

Karen RossKaren Ross, Ph.D., is a graduate program director, theology and ethics professor, and yoga and mindfulness instructor. She currently works at Catholic Theological Union, and has spent the past four years in the Theology department at Marquette University. Her research focuses on feminist ethics and Catholic sexuality education, particularly of young women and girls.


Mark LevandMark Levand, Ph.D., MEd, CSE (he/him) is a sexuality educator, supervisor, and researcher. Dr. Levand researches a wide variety of topics including matters of sexuality in higher education, Catholic sexual theology, consent, therapy, and sexuality educator training.


Cathy Melesky Dante is a spiritual director, lay minister, and PhD candidate in Marquette University’s Theology department. Her dissertation topic is an ethical response toward solidarity with survivors.