In summer 2010, Robert Orsi, Terence McKiernan, and I began a conversation about the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. We came from three different perspectives: Bob was one of the leading scholars of religion in America whose many works offer a rich anthropology of American Catholicism; Terry founded BishopAccountability.org in 2003 and has since served as that organization’s president; and I was a junior faculty member interested in the overlapping histories of religion and sexuality. I had read Bob’s piercing 2002 essay, “A Crisis About the Theology of Children,”1 as well as Mark Jordan’sTelling Truths in Church: Scandal, Flesh, and Christian Speech (2003), and I wanted to see more work by scholars of religion confronting the stunning archive collected in BishopAccountability.org. There had been a spate of popular commentary in 2002, but within the published domain of the study of religion, besides Bob and Mark, there was silence.

Our purpose was to gather scholars from disparate intellectual backgrounds and disciplinary interests at Yale University for a conference entitled “Sex Abuse and the Study of Religion” in September 2011. We were fortunate to have present at our meetings scholars with wide-ranging expertise, including individuals who worked on the history of childhood and parenthood as well as legal experts on religious freedom, family law, and feminist jurisprudence. Among us were philosophers and anthropologists, historians and theologians, ethicists and literary theorists. Only about half of the participants were trained within the broad auspices of the academic study of religion. Some knew a great deal about the Catholic Church; others knew nothing about its history, its liturgy, or its present crisis. We wanted insiders and outsiders in every sense, gathered together. We had one goal: to introduce them to this archive and initiate a conversation about what scholars could say about it. 

When we met at the conference, I was struck by how hesitant our initial discussions were. In advance of the meeting, we circulated a casebook of approximately eighty-five pages of material culled from the hundreds of thousands of pages on BishopAccountability.org. The initial silence was in part a collective modesty: academic thinkers prefer to speak when they can claim a broad and deep command of a problem, and here we had only provided the beginning of a look at a massive continent of informational and experiential content. 

As the conversation unfolded, it became clear that the quiet was also about the difficulty of what we confronted, and the fear that our typical scholarly tools were not quite right to interpret what we found. The essays we chose to publish on The Immanent Frame represent some of the thinking that emerged from that two-day discussion. Subsequent to our meeting, Bob published his bookHistory and Presence, that includes a stunning chapter, “Events of Abundant Evil,” on the sexual abuse of children, and Anthony Petro, a conference participant, published “Beyond Accountability: The Queer Archive of Catholic Sexual Abuse,” a 2015 article in Radical History Review that takes up BishopAccountability.org as a queer archive. The movie Spotlight won an Academy Award and John Boyne published his fiercely bleak novelA History of Loneliness. Each of these works, scholarly and creative, moves the critical conversation forward. 

Still, though: there is a feeling that, given the measure of the crisis, there should be more. In 2017, Pope Francis acknowledged that the Vatican had a 2,000-case backlog of sex abuse cases. On August 20, 2018, in a public letter, he wrote: “An awareness of sin helps us to acknowledge the errors, the crimes and the wounds caused in the past and allows us, in the present, to be more open and committed along a journey of renewed conversion.” This letter would not have been written if not for the public outcry following the Grand Jury report from a two-year investigation into the six dioceses of the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania. “We, the members of this grand jury, need you to hear this,” the report begins. Its 887 pages joins the ever-expanding archive that needs us to hear, to listen, to interpret, to understand.

The essay below was originally published on July 6, 2012, as an introduction to the forum “Sex abuse in the Catholic Church.” 

***

To think, write, or speak about the sexual abuse of children is to enter a terrain of bleak human experience. Even as I write that sentence, my regimented scholarly disposition makes me cautious of its potentially maudlin sentiment. Is this set of experiences more or less bleak than other grievous ones?

Physicians, psychologists, and criminal codes (e.g., Texas state law) largely agree on what constitutes the sexual abuse of children by an adult. It includes, but is not limited to, the sexual touching of any part of the body, clothed or unclothed; penetrative sex, including penetration of the mouth; encouraging a child to engage in sexual activity, including masturbation; intentionally engaging in sexual activity in front of a child; showing children pornography, or using children to create pornography; and encouraging a child to engage in prostitution.

What I want to tackle, immediately, is the fraught relationship between effect and affect in this subject for those of us who seek to interpret it. It is difficult to write or think about sex abuse without being affected by its circulating effects, without feeling that the very practices of academic analysis do something suffocating to its experience. To think about sex abuse in an academic context could suggest that we might wish to think away its awfulness; to write about sex abuse could suggest that we seek to argue away its visceral trauma.

Scholarly practice replies to such worry with bravado, assuming that our studied neutrality will offer fair view to every contributing party. Yet this is the very neutrality that so troubles subjects of our analysis, since it suggests that everyone deserves understanding, regardless of their actions. This is a perspective to which few victims of such violence can accede.

Even if we bracket the voice of such victims in our academic work, we cannot imagine that we have bracketed their call for judgment upon their perpetrators. To be sure, scholars sometimes imagine that a responsible account is an account that withholds judgment. “I just try to explain what happened,” one historian tells me. “I don’t judge what they did.” This is an evasion of responsibility; interpretation is judgment. We cannot imagine that our default to historicism will spare us our job as arbiters. We are always in the story, no matter our attempt to abstract ourselves from it through various modes of scientism, humanist and otherwise. “For even a world equation that contained everything, so that the observer of the system would also be included in the equations, would still assume the existence of a physicist who, as the calculator, would not be an object calculated,” Hans Georg Gadamer writes, concluding, “Each science, as a science, has in advance projected a field of objects such that to know them is to govern them.” To know them is to govern them. This is the struggling work of all scholarship: to acknowledge that its very free enactment by a solo thinker is also a practice of governance with others. How do we do this? How do we do this especially in cases where our subjects have already been governed in abusive ways?

This is not a new challenge in the history of scholarship. Those researchers who spend their time in the archives of genocide, slavery, or war have often offered observations on the strange role they, as scholars, play in their hermeneutics of those events. The decision to pursue sex abuse as a subject for the study of religion is a decision to enter into this murky methodological terrain. To ask, again: How do we do our work?

As a general criminological problem, psychological trauma, and sociological data point, sex abuse has received significant treatment within the social sciences. Yet within the humanities its study has been comparatively anemic. Perhaps because criminal actions seem to emerge from a pathological inhumanity, the humanist is less quick to grapple with the murderer than the murdered. Or perhaps it is that in the realm of the humanities, categories like murderer and perpetrator do not survive our interpretive imperative to understand our subjects in their particularity, to discern the human within and beyond classification. To fail to do so is, as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel suggested, “abstract thinking: to see nothing in a murderer except the abstract fact that he is a murderer, and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality.” Humanists work against such abstract thinking, and thereby produce short bibliographies on criminal categories. But this cannot mean that humanists refuse to acknowledge criminality. Indeed, the vast literatures on the subaltern and the oppressed suggest that there is an implicit adjudication at work within the humanities that privileges certain parties through the attention of interpretation. That there is no significant humanistic analysis of sex abusers is its own form of passive chastisement.

Over the next several weeks, The Immanent Frame will post remarks from a conference held on the campus of Yale University, “Sex Abuse and the Study of Religion.” That event sought to connect leading scholars in the humanities with the emerging documentary record of the Catholic sex abuse crisis. Although other religious groups have struggled with patterned sexual abuse, and although headlines report abuse in any number of educational and recreational organizations, it is the Roman Catholic Church that has experienced the greatest public scrutiny for this crime. Government investigations and tort litigation have extracted hundreds of thousands of pages of documents from diocesan and religious order archives describing abuse and its covert management within the Church. This conference, and these posts, seek to begin an interpretation of sex abuse as a subject for students of religion.

In 2004, John Jay College released a study of priest molestation that was commissioned and funded by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), to which all the U.S. bishops belong. According to the resulting report, 4,392 priests have been accused of molestation in the four decades covered by the study. In the last ten years (except 2003), annual USCCB updates through the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) have brought the U.S. bishops’ total number of priests to 6,115, or 5.6% of the priests who worked during that time between 1950 and 2011. The same studies have counted 16,324 victims and have acknowledged that actual priest and victim counts are higher. The final tally of victims can only ever be a guess, although activist groups point out that sexual abuse is rarely a singular crime; most abusers repeated their behavior with multiple victims, often in multiple parish locations. Sociologist Fr. Andrew Greeley estimated in 1993 that the victim population might be “well in excess of 100,000.”

Our goal was to explore the specifically Catholic cultural, theological, moral, even ontological, contexts within which this abuse took place, and then to consider the questions and issues this raises more broadly for the study of religion. To do this, we turned to an online archive developed by BishopAccountability.org, an organization that seeks to gather and preserve the archives emerging as a result of the sex abuse revelations in the Roman Catholic Church. Those archives pertain to sexual abuse and to many other topics of interest, from episcopal relations with Vatican congregations, to the implementation of Vatican II reforms and work with ethnic minorities in urban dioceses. Founded by Terence McKiernan, BishopAccountability.org is a Massachusetts non-profit corporation with approximately 125,000 pages of material posted online (and an archive of over 500,000 pages of material in their hardcopy library). BishopAccountability.org aims to facilitate the accountability of the U.S. bishops for their role in the abuse crisis, as they kept accused priests in ministry, failed to report abuse allegations to the authorities, and transferred accused priests to new parishes. To that end, BishopAccountability.org collects every conceivable document pertaining to sexual abuse in the Catholic church, including diocesan, religious order, and investigative files, grand jury reports, survivors’ accounts, and a wide variety of ecclesiastical documents, reports on church settlements, and journalistic accounts of the crisis. (Those interested in a survey of the kinds of materials available will profit from this introduction to their archives.) As their web site explains: “We document the debates about root causes and remedies, because important information has surfaced during those debates. We take no position on the root causes, and we do not advocate particular remedies. If the facts are fully known, the causes and remedies will become clear.”

If BishopAccountability.org defers the question of root causes, we begin with such interest foremost in our minds. Why did sex abuse occur? How did it occur? Why was it managed as it was by ecclesiastical authorities? What sacramental thinking and theological rhetoric has circulated during its duration? For example, how did Catholic understandings of the child and of the priest, or the distinctive Catholic construction of human sexuality—in particular the requirement of celibacy for leadership and prohibition of masturbation—contribute to the perpetuation of abuse? What sort of sexual politics, gender norms, cultural logic, and social facts contributed to the unmitigated persistence and slow diagnosis of abuse? And how does the very way we interpret and define abuse relate to its experience and practice?

Focused on bringing bishops to account and survivors to justice, BishopAccountability.org supplies an archive in service to the democratic, judicial, and therapeutic imperatives of the modern West. But archives do not interpret themselves. And this archive documents the very challenges facing the fulfillment of its activist ambition; BishopAccountability.org articulates democratic possibility while also recording in its files the various strategies and symptoms of democratic perversion.

Approaching the situation for this story requires acknowledging that certain interpretive shibboleths will be more problematic than assistive in our attempt to read it. Rather than only consider the sex abuse cases as documents of the clash between tradition and modernity; rather than only consider the sex abuse cases as profiles in criminality; and rather than only consider the sex abuse cases as tragedies from which individuals need justice, healing, and redemption, we also ask how the sex abuse cases are also cases of religion.

While it seems reasonable to imagine the celebration of the Mass or the substance of seminary education as subjects of analysis for the academic study of religion, turning to sexual abuse is a more awkward maneuver to make. However, scholarship pursuing popular religious experience offers some vocabulary to begin such a venture. “The study of lived religion focuses most intensely on places where people are wounded or broken, amid disruptions in relationships, because it is in these broken places that religious media become most exigent,” Robert Orsi has written. “It is in such hot cultural moments—at the edges of life, in times of social upheaval, confusion, or transition, when old orders give way and what is ahead remains unclear—that we see what matters most in a religious world.” Orsi invites us to observe the simultaneity of religious life and religious studies, how the scholar’s role to interpret what matters becomes especially important precisely when it seems that the system collapses in its effort to maintain what matters.

These “hot cultural moments” are rarely the ones accompanied by photographers’ flashbulbs or press releases. After reviewing the documentary record, the story of Catholic sex abuse that emerges is one of stunning intensity and intimacy. This was a series of crimes committed in quiet auspices, in recreational and domestic spaces, in vestries, campgrounds, and children’s bedrooms. This was a series of relationships that were, simultaneously, abusive and interdependent, public and private, possessive and devotional. Sexual abuse between priest and parishioner is, therefore, a form of lived religion. This is not only because religious contexts offer hierarchical social situations conducive to abuse, but also because abuse is, in this documentary record, shown to be an articulation of Catholic ecclesiastical authority, Catholic theological investment, and Catholic sociological change.

The religious aspect of this Catholic crisis only amplifies the ritual ecology of sexual abuse as a generalizable configuration. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry offers this description of the web of emotions that occurs in sexually abusive relationships:

The child of five or older who knows and cares for the abuser becomes trapped between affection or loyalty for the person, and the sense that the sexual activities are terribly wrong. If the child tries to break away from the sexual relationship, the abuser may threaten the child with violence or loss of love. When sexual abuse occurs within the family, the child may fear the anger, jealousy or shame of other family members, or be afraid the family will break up if the secret is told.

Within the documentary materials available, this standardized profile of abuse is rendered relentlessly specific to Catholicism. Sexual abuse is a practice within an existent relational dynamic, one that simultaneously transforms and calcifies the hierarchies and codes that determined the original affiliation. The psychiatric vocabulary above cannot begin to access the social economy and moral stakes of abuse within communities determined by parishes and families determined in part by ecclesiastical law. “Religion” as a category has no meaning if it is merely saved to designate ideal practice; it is a term that summarizes failure and fulfillment of prescribed relations. The essays in this series begin to access these peculiar relational enclaves of religious ideation and transgressing ritual.

No one is an expert yet on these materials. The scholars who will contribute to this series offer a wide range of perspectives to begin the necessarily long analysis of this phenomenon. To talk about sex abuse requires possessing as much hermeneutic nuance as humanly possible, since there is no escape hatch from its traumas for its survivors and the accused; for the perpetrators and the witnesses; for the children and their parents, their church and their broader communities. This is slow work. None of it will translate easily to a CNN crawl or abbreviated op-ed. But the answers supplied possess no less urgency because they are the result of careful close reading or hesitant hypothesis. Indeed, as I hope you’ll find, perhaps they are even more urgent, because they are more bracingly true, including as they do the ambiguity, contradiction, and self-deception inevitable in human action, yet often absent from our sloganeering about justice and consumption of scandal. While our conclusions are preliminary, our clamor for more work in this vein is absolute. There will be no true healing, no true reconciliation, and no true justice, absent the practice of humane interpretation.


  1. Orsi, Robert. “A Crisis About the Theology of Children.” Harvard Divinity School Bulletin 30, no. 4 (2002).