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Guest Blog: Hope in the Research, #4

Jun 26, 2019

Since 1995, Rev. James Evinger has reviewed materials and updated the Annotated Bibliography of Clergy Sexual Abuse and Sexual Boundary Violations in Religious Communities. This huge undertaking has provided an extraordinary resource for scholars and researchers, as well as those seeking to address the needs of survivors. In this blogpost, Rev. Evinger highlights some of the recent international research trends related to addressing clergy abuse, child sexual abuse, and national and institutional responses.

Guest Blog: Hope in the Research, #4

Rev. James Evinger

By Rev. James S. Evinger

Since 2008, FaithTrust generously has posted a continuing document I compile, Annotated Bibliography of Clergy Sexual Abuse and Sexual Boundary Violations in Religious Communities.  Intended as extensive and broad, the Bibliography, as of the semi-annual update of June, 2019, includes 80 additions.  It is now 1,750+ pages, excluding the Introduction.

The growth of this Bibliography since it was begun in 1995 is an encouraging sign of the increase in global attention to the problem of sexual boundary violations in faith communities.  The growth also reflects the increased quality of knowledge about the problem, and about best practices for prevention and intervention.  Based on the newest entries, several themes deserve attention.

1) International researchers in academic, clinical, and human service provider settings continue to produce numerous and enlightening contributions to the literature. This is more than a theme; this is a contemporary trend.  Two journal articles are particularly noteworthy.

In the Bibliography, Part 2, at pp. 386-387, start with:  Sköld, Johanna. (2016). The truth about abuse? A comparative approach to inquiry narratives on historical institutional child abuse. History of Education [published by the History of Education Society], 45(4):492-509.

Sköld is “an associate professor and lecturer in Child Studies,” Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden.  This is a unique contribution which examines how 3 nations’ inquiries into the sexual abuse of children, in settings, including those of faith communities, have reported and presented the truths discovered. She notes that the topic “has become the focus of political attention in at least 19 countries, mainly in Europe but also Australia, New Zealand and Canada.” Her aim “is to critically analyse these narratives with the objective to ask what we—as professional historians of children, childhood and education— can learn from the methods of ethical considerations of in [sic] the inquiry reports.”  The inquiries’ “dual objective of investigating [abuse] as well as recognising the victims and offering them justice” requires, she asserts, addressing and satisfying multiple audiences, “which in turn affects how the reports are narrated.”

She compares reports from the Swedish Commission, the Irish Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA), 2000-2009 [popularly known as the Ryan Commission, regarding abuse in institutions affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church], and the Danish Gohavn Inquiry, 2010-2011. She also discusses the concept of truth, including the constructs of: judicial truth, which “is composed of factual evidence that is rhetorically narrated to convince the audience – the court.”; narrative truths, which include “‘personal storytelling’, forensic (or factual) truths; social or dialogical truths referring to the ‘process of collectively talking about the past’; and healing and restorative truth…”  Noting the historian’s methods of what she terms the “empiricist positivist epistemological position” and the “postmodernist epistemological position,”  she then “demonstrate[s] how ‘truth’ has been addressed in the Irish, Swedish and Danish inquiries…”  The conclusion states:  “Investigating and recognising historical institutional abuse is a complex act of balancing between positivist empiricist and postmodern constructivist approaches to what can be truthfully said about the past.”

Continue this type of analysis in the Bibliography, Part 2, pp. 437-438, with:  Wright, Katie. (2017). Remaking collective knowledge: An analysis of the complex and multiple effects of inquiries into historical institutional child abuse. Child Abuse & Neglect: The International Journal, 74(December):10-22.

Wright is a senior lecturer, sociology, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.  Wright explores “inquiries [into the abuse of child in institutional settings] internationally by proving an overview and critical analysis of their background, purpose, functions, and effects.”  Part 2 discusses the history, forms, and functions of statutory public inquiries.  Functions typically include establishing facts, identifying wrongdoing, assigning blame, “learning lessons from past events to inform the future.” Noting that while public inquiries are common in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, and Australia, “the USA does not have a strong public inquiry tradition and has not conducted a national investigation into historical institutional child abuse. In that country, the issue has been dealt with primarily thorough investigative journalism and the courts. In the Nordic countries, where governmental commissions of inquiry forma key part of the political system, such inquiries have taken the form of research focused investigations.”

Her position is that public inquiries “also serve an important legitimizing function for victims and survivors and their experiences of abuse and its impacts.” Part 3 of the article traces the history of social recognition of “institutional child abuse,” which sexual abuse of minors within religious institutions.  She states:

“Finally, the child sexual abuse crisis in the [Roman] Catholic Church, which itself emerged in the wake of weakening traditional authority, was arguably the decisive factor in fostering outrage within the international community and in prompting governments to respond… The establishment of inquiries typically occurs when the issue reaches a point of crisis, commonly as a result of media scandals, and often supported by the public testimony of individuals alleging severe and systemic forms of abuse.”

Part 4 displays a table which lists 9 select inquires since 2000 into historical child abuse in institutional settings by governments in: Republic of Ireland; Bergen, Norway; Sweden; Denmark; Northern Ireland; Australia; Scotland; States of Jersey; England and Wales. States:  “The testimony of victims and survivors is the defining feature of institutional abuse inquiries in the current era.”  Part 7 concerns implementation of recommendations, calling this “a key indicator of an inquiry’s effectiveness,” and citing numerous examples. States: “…there remains limited systematic evaluation of policy impact, either at the inquiry or jurisdictional level, nor nationally or internationally. This is, therefore, an important area for further research.”  Part 8 addresses the evaluation of inquiries and promotes a comprehensive framework, including: “…how an inquiry can set a national agenda for child safety, bring the perspectives of marginalized and victimized groups into public discussion, and serve an educative function… Inquiries also provide opportunities for recognition of systemic wrongdoing, acknowledgment of the suffering inflicted upon children, and for public accountability for perpetrators and organizations.” She cites these as factors which can “encompass shifts in norms, values, and culture.”

2.   The issues and dynamics being addressed today are not new. An ongoing goal in searching has been to fill-in the gaps in the chronological sequence of the literature.

E.g., Part 2 of the Bibliography, pp. 383-384 now contains: Sheldon, Sandra L., Poos, Patricia A., & Balch, Jr., Glenn M. (1984). Recognizing the abused child. The Christian Century, 101(24, August 1-8):739-741.

They briefly describe what they learned from their United Methodist church’s “small community outreach program for families in need…[which] quickly evolved into a counseling center skilled in treating the victims of sexual abuse.” Among the practical steps they were recommending in 1984:  recognizing “that the sexual abuser is usually known or familiar to the child,” i.e., is not a stranger; teaching children “the skills needed to protect themselves from sexual abuse”; learning to recognize signs of child sexual abuse “and to be willing, as concerned Christians and parents, to become advocates for children who are hurting.”; not “shy[ing] away asking children – and adults – questions about [sexual abuse].”; churches acting to “carefully screen those who work with children” and use “co-leaders for youth work.”; “…educate congregations, Sunday school teachers and other youth personnel about sexual abuse.”  They conclude: “Abused children can be found in every city, in every neighborhood, in every congregation. To deny this or to ignore the warning signs is to help perpetuate the cycle of abuse. Our eyes must be opened and our ears must be trained to hear the silent pleas of the hurting children among us.”

3.   People from multiple professions and academic disciplines are working to better recognize and respond to the perspectives of survivors.

See, e.g., Part 2, pp. 151-152:  Gallen, James. (2016). Jesus Wept: The Roman Catholic Church, Child Sexual Abuse and Transitional Justice. The International Journal of Transitional Justice, 10(2, July):332-349.

Gallen is a lecturer, School of Law and Government, Dublin City University, Dublin, Ireland.  “In this article I examine whether transitional justice should operate as an analytical framework for responding to a legacy of child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.”  Briefly tracing the international scope of the incidence of child sexual abuse (CSA) committed by Catholic clergy, Gallen notes:

“Although domestic criminal justice systems, mental health agencies and victim/survivor interest groups have all been involved to date, no overarching framework has been employed to address the range of moral, legal, policy and psychological issues relevant to this abuse.”  Given this status, he states:  “The distinct advantage of a transitional justice approach is that it enables a comprehensive and coherent assessment of the issues involved in responding to a past legacy of violence.”

By international law norms, he states that “it is possible to characterize the pattern of abuse revealed by [national] inquiries as a ‘gross violation of human rights.’”  He understands the human rights violations to include those “that qualitatively and quantitatively affect the core rights of human beings, notably the rights to life and to physical and moral integrity of the person. The scale and the pattern of abuse in existing inquiries both support the characterization, but also raise the question of what conception of justice should inform any response.” His discussion includes a brief analysis of the potential and limits of restorative justice in situations involving CSA, especially “in closed institutions or communities.” The remainder of the article is his argument for the potential benefits from applying the elements of transitional justice— “truth, prosecutions, reparations and institutional reform” —to clerical CSA in the Catholic Church.


About the Author

Rev. James S. Evinger is a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), retired, who worked 10 years in urban congregations, and 30 years in health centers with people with psychiatric illness and developmental disabilities in state institutions in Pennsylvania and New York, and held teaching and research appointments in the School of Nursing and the School of Medicine & Dentistry, University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, NY.  He has 23+ years of experience with cases of sexual boundary violations in churches, including ecclesiastical, civil, and criminal cases.

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