Clericalism and Sexual Abuse in the Church

Excerpts from Julie Hanlon Rubio and Paul J. Schutz, “Beyond ‘Bad Apples’: Understanding Clergy-Perpetrated Sexual Abuse as a Structural Problem and Cultivating Strategies for Change,” 2022; from ACCtoo

Clericalism is often cited as a key factor contributing to clergy perpetrated sexual abuse (CPSA).

We define clericalism as:

a structure of power that isolates clergy and sets priests above and apart,  granting them excessive authority, trust, rights, and responsibilities while diminishing the agency of lay people and religious. 

Clericalism operates throughout the Church by offering incentives and enablements that enhance the agency of some while restricting the agency of others. It is embodied and performed by many priests and can be internalized by lay people and religious. Certain models of the priesthood, for example, enable priests to manage institutions in an authoritarian manner that suppresses the agency of lay people and religious and dissuades them from raising concerns. Anyone (ordained, religious, or lay) can be clericalist, and anyone can be anti-clericalist. Critiquing clericalism need not oppose priesthood nor demonize priests. …

Our principal claim is that clericalism is best viewed as a structural reality rather than an individual vice.

This report offers a comprehensive theoretical lens for analyzing clericalism as a structure and discusses findings from an original survey of ecclesial ministers, whose insights enable us to describe how clericalism functions in ecclesial life. Our approach is rooted in sociological theories of power, gender, and sexual violence. This literature points away from individual pathologies and toward analyses of cultures and environments that contribute to sexual violence, including CPSA. Addressing sexual violence in the Church requires that we analyze and dismantle structural clericalism in its essential elements: sex, gender, and power.

Our key findings are as follows: (excerpts)

1. With respect to sex, clericalism is enabled by a lack of healthy sexual integration and inadequate sexual formation in schools of ministry and compounded by a culture of silence and repression. According to our data, a lack of adequate human formation impedes development of healthy sexual integration for priests and lay people. Because of this lack of sexual integration, many priests are unable to connect in authentically vulnerable ways and sometimes neglect appropriate boundaries. …

3. With respect to power, clericalism operates as an invisible backdrop for ecclesial life that sets clergy above and apart from non-ordained members of the Church. According to our data, the clericalist exercise of power manifests both in authoritarian and disorganized management styles and in theologies of the priesthood that center on the perceived authority and status of ordained ministers. It manifests to a lesser degree in theologies that view priestly authority as service of the Church. It is enabled by priests’ limited training and their lack of experience working alongside and empowering lay people.

4. Clergy sexual abuse cannot be attributed to some “bad apples” and must be analyzed in relationship to the whole of ecclesial life (e.g. using structural analysis). Though our study cannot show that clericalism causes CPSA, our nearly 300 respondents (a unique group of priests, deacons, women religious, and lay ecclesial ministers with decades of experience working in Church settings) stated that CPSA is rooted not in individual pathologies but in systemic problems related to sex, gender, and power. …

5. Alternatives to clericalism—what we term “anti-clericalism”—include collaborative approaches to ministry that empower lay people to use their gifts and talents, and strategies that foster healthy sexual integration and raise consciousness about harmful forms of masculinity and femininity linked to patriarchal constructions of gender. Rooted in the Gospel and contemporary theologies of the priesthood, anti-clericalism is already being practiced among some priests and lay people and offers hopeful signs of resistance and transformation.