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Guest Blog: Hope in the Research #5

Jan 07, 2020

In this blog post, Rev. James Evinger highlights some recent research trends, including the emergence of new voices, nationally and internationally, that are expanding the conversation about clergy abuse, its impact, and congregational responses. Since 1995, Rev. 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.

Guest Blog: Hope in the Research #5

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 January, 2020, includes 80+ additions. It is now 1,800+ pages, excluding the Introduction.

The numerical growth of this Bibliography since it was begun in 1995 documents the global attention to the problem of sexual boundary violations in faith communities. Growth reflects the increased quality of knowledge from multi-disciplinary perspectives, as well as substantiation of best practices for prevention and intervention. These results are the direct and constructive impact of survivors. Based on the most recent entries, here are some trends which warrant attention.

1)  The size of the cumulative body of research studies is beginning to be sufficiently large to support findings which can be generalized.

In the Bibliography, Part 2, at pp. 582-583, see the recent work by a scholar and a practitioner from Canada:  Alaggia, Ramona, Collin-Vézina, Delphine, & Lateef, Rusan. (2019). Facilitators and barriers to child sexual abuse (CSA) disclosures: A research update (2000-2016). Trauma, Violence & Abuse, 20(2):260-283.

They studied 33 peer-reviewed articles from 2000-2016 on the topic of disclosures of CSA.  While only several of the articles are specific to clergy-related abuse, the findings are very relevant to faith communities‘ efforts to create a safe environment that invites disclosures, and efforts to remove barriers which inhibit the truth being revealed.  They  found 5 distinct themes:  1.) “Disclosure is viewed as an ongoing process as opposed to a discrete event – iterative and interactive in nature.”  2.) “Contemporary disclosure models reflect a social-ecological, person-in-environment perspective to understand the complex interplay of individual, familial, contextual, and cultural factors involved in CSA disclosure.”  3.) “Age and gender are strong predictors for delaying disclosure or withholding disclosure with trends showing fewer disclosures by younger children and boys.”  4.) “There is a lack of a cohesive life-course perspective.”  5.) “Significantly more information is available on barriers than on facilitators of CSA disclosure.”

2)  New voices offering holistic conceptualizations of the nature sexual boundary violations in faith communities are finding wider audiences.

Two voices with roots in the Mennonite church in North America have presented a thoughtful and conceptual framework which is theologically-informed and ethically-oriented.  See Part 2 at p. 384: Scarsella, Hilary Jerome, & Krehbiel, Stephanie. (2019). Sexual violence: Christian theological legacies and responsibilities. Religion Compass, 13(9, September):1-13.

The article examines “Christianity’s entanglement with sexual forms of violence and the responsibilities consequently incumbent on those who critically engage the Christian tradition.”  They propose “the intentional cultivation of at least three critical and constructive skills” as necessary to “avoid reproducing the patterns through which theology is known to exacerbate systems of systemic violence.”  1.) “... engaging theology well with respect to sexual violence requires that one understand what sexual violence is in both its personal and systemic dimensions.”  2.)  “…it requires one to have a sturdy grasp of the myriad forms of complicity that Christianity has had in the perpetuation of sexual violence, both historically and now.”  3.) “…one must acquire a basic comprehension of psychological trauma and its import for theology and ethics in relation to sexual violence.” 

Their conceptual framework understands “the interpersonal and systemic dimensions of sexual violence [being] always intertwined… To address the intersection of sexual violence with theology well, one’s foundational concept of sexual violence must be cognizant of the interpersonal dimensions of sexual violence but ground in a systemic lens constantly attentive to the landscape of sexual power.”  Part 4 concerns the need for an awareness of trauma as a psychological phenomenon with physiological, social, and cultural dimensions.  Part 5, the conclusion, is a brief discussion of justice, accountability, and change. Identifies 4 areas of responsibility “necessary for changing the destructive legacy we have described.”  1.) receive and respond to survivors’ disclosure of sexual violence with ethical and theological integrity; 2.) examine whether “the current influence of legal and human resource frameworks in current approaches to processing reports of sexual violence… is helpful or problematic.”  3.) “…continue to reflect on ethical and possible [italics in original] modes of accountability for perpetrators of sexual violence that reduce the risk of continued harm and avoid increasing the violence of the criminal justice system.”  4) “…that we envision and become prepared to enact community practices of sexual vitality.”

Another contribution to the literature is a new book from Ruth Everhart, a minister, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and an author who writes from the perspectives of a survivor of sexual violence, a woman who was raised in a conservative Christian subculture, a pastor, and a radical feminist.  See Part 1, pp. 183-184:  Everhart, Ruth. (2020). The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 254 pp.

She utilizes a narrative structure, interwoven with scriptural analysis and commentary, to present what is ultimately a compelling call for changing church culture. Chapters 1, 2, and 4 are an account of her being violated by the senior pastor of the local church where she was on staff, and her efforts to hold him accountable in the face of individual and collective resistance. Chapter 3 regards the same church and the sexual abuse of minors within the church which preceded and followed her employment. Chapter 5 addresses the concept of purity culture as taught in some conservative churches, and especially its intersection with the concept of rape culture, both of which deny a woman’s agency while assigning responsibility to her having been violated sexually. Chapter 6 is based on accounts by 3 individuals regarding how a large, suburban Virginia church mishandled the case of a youth director who sexualized his role relationship to adolescents in the congregation.  Includes remedial actions which were taken. Chapter 7 is based on the experiences of an associate pastor in a large, suburban Chicago, Illinois, congregation, regarding the theme of power, gender, and seeking justice. Chapter 8 concerns the sexual assault of an adolescent minor at a national church event for youth, and his efforts in criminal, civil, and ecclesiastical proceedings to obtain justice and ensure that church leaders would implement safeguards to protect youth. Chapter 9 is based on adapted case studies, and focuses on clericalism as a cultural factor in churches which results in complicity in mishandling cases of sexual boundary violations. Chapter 10 very briefly sketches attitudinal positions and behavioral steps by which churches can address sexual abuse. [Disclosure:  I am a named contributor to the book.]

3)  Cases from non-First World contexts are becoming more available to First World, Western audiences.

Although diligent searching is required to access the book, the effort to locate this chapter is rewarding.  See Part 1, pp. 9-10:  Alvear, Rocío Figueroa, & Tombs, David. (2019). “Lived Religion and the Traumatic Impact of Sexual Abuse: The Sodalicio Case in Peru.” Chapter in Ganzevoort, R. Ruard, & Sremac, Srdjan. (Eds.). Trauma and Lived Religion: Transcending the Ordinary. Cham, Switzerland: Palmgrave Macmillan, pp. 155-176.

Alvear is a lecturer in systematic theology, Good Shepherd College, Ponsonby, Auckland, New Zealand.  Tombs is director, Centre for Theology and Public Issues, and professor of theology and public issues, University of Otago, Dunedin, Otago, New Zealand.  “This chapter explores the traumatic impact of sexual abuse on lived religion through a case study of the Sodalicio Society in Peru,” formally named Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, which was founded in 1971 by Luis Fernando Figari “as a society of Apostolic Life within the [Roman] Catholic Church. Sodalicio has a presence in schools and churches and runs retreat facilities and Youth Centres with communities in Peru, Argentina, Columbia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Italy and the USA. Although their members are mostly lay Catholics, the society also includes clergy.” In 2010, a former member, Pedro Salinas, a journalist “accused Figari of physical, psychological and sexual abuse.” That year, Figari resigned as superior of Sodalicio “‘for health reasons’ and was sent to Rome.” The same year, the cause of beatification of Sodalicio’s vicar general, Germán Doig, who died in 2001, was suspended. In 2016, a Peruvian newspaper published testimonies accusing Doig of sexual abuse. In 2015, Salinas published a book based on 30 testimonies of abuse by Figari and other leaders, including 5 episodes of sexual abuse, 3 of which accuse Figari as sexually abusing them when they were minors. States that in response to the book Sodalicio “admitted that the sexual abuse allegations against its founder and other senior members were ‘plausible.’” It also appointed a commission which published a 10-page report which “explained the abuses and the factors that enabled the sexual abuse within Sodalicio.”  The next section “offers an overview of existing literature on the spiritual consequences of CPSA [clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse].” Pp. 162-167 is a section which “explores the spiritual impact of psychological and spiritual abuse on eight former members of Sodalicio,” and is based on semi-structured interviews with men “who had been subjected to physical, psychological and sexual abuse” when they 14-18 years old. Quotes from the survivors are organized around the themes of “feelings of betrayal and lack of trust,” and “damage to faith.”  Among the 4 accused offenders is Figari and Doig...Concludes that “though Figari and other consecrated lay leaders were not technically clergy, they shared a similar institutional role,” which calls for a need to understand “how the physical, psychological and spiritual often occur together, and can magnify each other,” and calls for “a holistic pastoral response to these traumatic experiences.”


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 24+ years of experience with cases of sexual boundary violations in churches, including ecclesiastical, civil, and criminal cases.

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