featured image

Emily Hess discusses the warning signs of sexual and spiritual abuse of adult women by priests.

In the past couple of years, the possibility of sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church has become front and center. As mothers, we have learned that we need to hold people in our Churches accountable, and that we can’t blindly trust them with our children. Guidelines have been put in place, parents have educated themselves about what the grooming for this sort of abuse looks like, and we’ve learned to be vigilant. 

What hasn’t been talked about as openly, but may be just as prevalent, are cases of priests sexually and spiritually abusing adult women. Just in my home state of Texas, there have been multiple public cases in the past couple years -- a woman in Houston sexually manipulated and abused by her longtime spiritual director, one in Austin being assaulted by the priest who was supposed to be giving her Anointing of the Sick, and a group of six women, also in Austin, who formed a group lawsuit against the diocese after being individually abused by a certain priest in the confessional.

I have some personal experience with this sort of abuse as well -- I was sexually assaulted by my spiritual director when I lived in Oklahoma. I joined a support group for female victims, and I found that most of the women in my group were assaulted as adults, and we are from all over the country. In most cases, the men who abused us were well known, admired, and talented priests who had the admiration of our communities; not isolated or sour people, but ones many considered (in a couple cases, still popularly consider) to be holy men. 

To put it bluntly, we have a hidden epidemic of abuse of women by the clergy, and we need to have an honest conversation about what a healthy relationship between a priest and a lay woman looks like. We don’t need to fear to approach our priests for help or the sacraments, or even to have a friendship with a priest, but just as we have learned that we need to be aware of grooming behaviors towards our children, we also need to be aware of grooming behavior aimed towards ourselves.

In addition to drawing from my own experiences (and from the stories I’ve heard from other victims), I spoke to a Catholic psychologist with multiple years experience, Dr. Eve Rosno, to ask for her help on what this grooming looks like, and what good and healthy boundaries would be. 

Just as in the vast majority of cases of sexual abuse or exploitation, abusive priests spend a fair amount of time grooming their intended targets (and often the family and close friends of their targets) by bending and breaking societal, personal, and emotional boundaries long before they break any physical ones. This usually isn't an overnight process, but takes place over the course of weeks, or even months or years. 

According to Dr. Rosno, the grooming process for adults is, in this respect, similar for those utilized by someone targeting children- a gradual gaining of trust and a fostering of isolation from other relationships:

There is often a step by step of deeper and deeper levels of emotional connecting. Back and forth, I share a little - you share a little. I share a little deeper -- you share a little deeper. There are likely to be a lot of “building up,” compliments, finding a void not met with other relationships and seeking to fill it. They may seek to discredit or criticize other important people in their [victim’s] life. 

In addition to this, these men will often seek to foster relationships with their victims’ families or friends -- it’s much easier to manipulate their victims if everyone in their immediate family believes he’s a good, likable guy. 

Therefore, the first line of defense against sexual abuse, of any type, is to set and maintain clear personal and family boundaries with the priests in your life, even if doing so comes across to others as unnecessarily strict or paranoid. There are certain contexts and situations that priests should never be invited into, even ones you like and trust or consider friends, brothers, or father figures. 

Dr. Rosno agrees, “I think boundaries are critical for any type of interpersonal interaction between a priest or pastor and parishioners. I would set similar boundaries as for married people with persons of the opposite sex. I encourage people to not be secluded -- this avoids the near occasion of sin, the possibility of scandal, and limits the opportunity for any type of abuse to happen.”

If a priest seems to cultivate these occasions of possible scandal, and doesn’t consider or routinely violates even simple boundaries, then this is a red flag. 

Here are more specific examples of what violations of boundaries, the red flags of grooming, look like for adult victims of clergy. All of these pop up in stories of abuse time and time again.

Many are similar to those dealing with grooming children, but a couple are unique: 

  • He refuses to take your diocese’s safe environment policies seriously or to enforce them.
  • He is “handsy” or extremely physically affectionate (even if it’s with everybody).
  • He doesn’t maintain his own personal space or boundaries and has parishioners (especially women or children) over to the rectory frequently. (This includes parish meetings, especially if the meetings are made up primarily of women (the altar society or the like), and/or there are other places on the parish campus these groups could meet).
  • Has a vulgar and sexual sense of humor (makes dirty jokes about sex or genitalia), or talks about sexual things casually in a crude or graphic way.
  • Treats you (his parishioner) as a casual or personal friend- texts you often in a non professional context (about things other than parish business), or gossips about other parishioners.
  • He tells you deeply personal stories about himself (especially if he says he’s never told anyone else about this before), or reveals deep personal insecurities to you as a confidence.
  • He says he feels a deep, special, spiritual, or unique connection with you, “not like I’ve had with anyone else.” (A quick note on these last two: at the very least, they signal an emotional immodesty that’s never appropriate to priest/pastor -- parishioner or spiritual directee relationship. Ever. It renders true ministry impossible).
  • He asks for explicit or graphic details when you confess sins of impurity in the confessional (these details are unnecessary to the sacrament. All he needs to know to give you absolution is the bare basics of what and how many).
  • He shows up to your house unannounced and/or uninvited.
  • He frequently gives you or members of your family nice gifts or fun outings (or other things that make you feel indebted to him in some way).
  • He asks to meet in isolated or private places (even if nothing’s happened before when he’s done this. Getting you comfortable with it is part of the grooming process).
  • He isolates you from or discredits other close people in your life (spouse, friends, family)
  • You find yourself making excuses to explain or excuse his behavior.
  • You feel as if you can’t imagine life without him.
  • You have an uneasy feeling about him that you can’t quite pin down. 

If any of these describe a priest you know, it may be time to start distancing yourself from them. If you feel that your boundaries have been breached in a minor way ( Fr.X has mandatory hugs or a go-to off color comment), Dr. Rosno suggests that you assertively let the priest know that you feel it’s inappropriate and ask them to stop, and it may be necessary to put some extra distance in the relationship. If the priest ignores these boundaries or responds in a hostile, defensive, or blaming (“well ,YOU blah blah blah…I don’t know why you would take it like that, etc.”) manner, consider cutting off the relationship completely. This is not a safe person to be around.If your boundaries have been violated in a more serious way, you need to be VERY assertive and immediately cut off personal and family contact with them.

Dr. Rosno recommends contacting your diocese at this point or, if you do not feel comfortable addressing your concerns with the priest at all, contacting the diocese instead, and I agree this is the proper course of action.

I feel I must warn you, however, that in my experience, and in the experience of many others that I’ve talked to, diocesan offices do not always have the proper training or systems in place to respond to complaints of this nature, or to reports of abuse, sexual or otherwise, when it happens to adults. I agree that you need to report this sort of behavior to your diocese and bishop, and the sooner the better, but sadly I also feel that I need to warn you not to assume that this will automatically fix the problem. You may have to take additional steps to protect yourself and your family.

Dr. Rosno also recommends reporting any boundary violations to the police if they’re against the law in some way. I would add that if your priest has done anything illegal, you need to contact the police before you contact your diocese. 

It may be painful to even have to consider this possibility, and depending on your parish culture you may feel alienated if you find yourself in a position where you have to reinforce a boundary, but it’s important for your well being, and the well being of your family, to hold the line.

The aftermath of my abuse was the closest I have ever come to walking away from my faith. Deciding to remain Catholic was a hard-won decision. If I can spare even one woman the pain of living through this particular trauma, I want to.

Therefore, the first line of defense against sexual abuse, of any type, is to set and maintain clear personal and family boundaries with the priests in your life. #catholicmom

It breaks my heart that we even have to have this conversation, and I recognize how hard it is for some people to hear. But our priests are fallen men just like the rest of us, and the concupiscence we all share is why Jesus gave us the sacraments, and the priests to confect them, in the first place.

St. Mary McKillop, pray for us.
St. Mary of Edessa, pray for us.

Copyright 2020 Emily Hess
Image: Chad Madden (2017), Unsplash

About the author: Emily Hess is a stay-at-home mom living somewhere in rural South Texas. She’s the lucky mom to two small children, and caretaker of a dog, five cats, and a dozen chickens. She’s passionate about doing what little she can to help her family and community grow closer to God, but she also sometimes finds that wet puddle she just walked through in her socks was actually pee. You can follow her misadventures and thoughts on subjects both silly and serious at La Tejana Gringa.