Sincere thanks for your question. The tendency for people to place the responsibility for the chastity of our priests, and all too often of our lay men as well, on the women in their proximity is a troubling problem in our Church communities, especially when it results in blaming a victim of sexual assault for what happened to them. I’ve been on the receiving end of that sort of blame, so I know how much harm it can do.
Often, there is a misplaced emphasis on the virtue of modesty in these conversations. It is important to teach ourselves how to keep appropriate boundaries with other people, and it is true that being ordained doesn’t render men sexless angels who can never be tempted. But the boundaries that need to be put in place are no different than the common-sense boundaries a woman ought to keep with any guy she isn’t married to or any professional counselor or doctor she sees regularly.
What often is lost in these conversations is that the priest is every bit as responsible for keeping these boundaries. In fact, he may have more of a responsibility, because often, he has a certain amount of influence or power imbalance over these women just by his position as her pastor or as a leader in her church community. My husband was a seminarian for four years, and he has told me that priests are trained precisely to keep this responsibility in mind. They are responsible not only for avoiding situations that may breed scandal but also for avoiding situations that may foster even the appearance of scandal. Because they tend to have an imbalance of power in the majority of their relationships with the laity, priests have a unique responsibility to protect both themselves and those they minister to by the boundaries that they keep.
What isn’t commonly understood is that priests who are sexual predators often groom precisely by actively seeking to break down these boundaries themselves. They usually only break their vows after weeks, months, or even years of pushing and breaking down professional distance and after integrating themselves ever more intimately and influentially with their victim’s lives. It doesn’t just happen one day because their victim decided to wear a low-cut shirt and lipstick. In my experience, it can happen when you’re wearing a baggy T-shirt and jeans, too.
My sexual assault by a priest only happened after I had been seeing him for spiritual direction for months. He was the chaplain at the small Christian college I attended. He had an enormous amount of influence not only over me but over all of my friends and had a good reputation with the diocese. He went out of his way to make his office the place where my social group hung out most of the time, frequently spent time with us socially, and positioned himself to be the person we all saw for confession and spiritual direction. He started inviting me into his office and shutting the door, and he pushed back the confessional screen when I went in for confession. He asked for detailed descriptions when I mentioned struggling with sexual thoughts. He broke down those boundaries slowly, carefully, over a long period of time. Before the assault happened, he already controlled a huge amount of my life.
I wasn’t the only woman that this priest assaulted. When two of his other victims came forward with a lawsuit against the university for ignoring their complaints against him, they were largely decried by the university community for being “mentally ill” and “immodest.” When I’ve shared my story with others, I’ve had people imply that I must have had a crush on him or that it was my fault for ignoring some “gut instinct” that I must have had, or that I must have tempted him by having inappropriate physical boundaries.
People don’t want to believe that their pastors and priests might be intentionally breaking down boundaries and victimizing people. If that’s the case, then it could happen to them as well. It’s much less scary to believe that the victims did it to themselves somehow, that there was some action or piece of clothing or way of behaving that made the priest assault them. Because if it was because of something that the victim did, that means that all I have to do is avoid that behavior, and I’ll be safe. When people victim-blame, it’s because they’re afraid it could happen to them, too.
Unfortunately, their fear is obscuring the problem and causing even more harm to the victims. Because they choose to give the priests a pass for their behavior, the cycle has perpetuated itself for far, far too long. We need to hold the people who have broken their vows and preyed on their flock accountable.
The reason that I’m choosing to stay with the Church despite the fearful, sexist reaction of much of her community is because what she teaches is true. I have never found a more beautiful or complete support of the unique gifts and value of women than in the teachings of the Church (“Mulieris Dignitatem” by St. John Paul II is a great place to start if you want an example). Her teachings on the innate human dignity of every human being are consistent. And I believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
And, thank God, there are good people in the Church fighting to support victims and to implement what the Church actually teaches. They may sometimes seem to be few, but they are there, and they are fighting. In the face of sexism and victim blaming, I’m choosing to do what I can to change the culture in the Church to one that affirms the dignity of women and to help make sure that what happened to me doesn’tf happen to anyone else.
We as a Church community have a long way to go; you’re absolutely right. We could really use your help if you’re up for it.
Emily Hess is a twenty-something stay-at-home mom. She lives in South Texas, where the tacos are delicious and it pretty much never snows. She blogs about all sorts of things both silly and serious at tejanagringa.blogspot.com.