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Lecture examines sexual abuse, forms of protest

| Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism hosted a lecture to discuss the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church on Monday evening. The event featured Dr. Brian Clites of Case Western Reserve University, who spoke about his work with survivors of sexual abuse in a lecture entitled “Sacred Protests: Politics and Faith after Clergy Sexual Abuse.”

Clites launched into his lecture by objecting to the term “crisis” to explain the current state of the scandal.

Crisis suggests that this is temporally bound in a very narrow and finite way,” Clites said. “I try to resist that language and I slip into it like everyone else, because this has been unfolding for a long, long time.”

Clites’s research begins in the 1950s, when the “paper trail” of sexual abuse in the Church began as priests were admitted to treatment programs under the guise of alcoholism and other addictions. Clites traced the progress of the issue through the decades to the 1980s and 1990s, when the first victims began to come forward. Clites emphasized the exhaustion of survivors as the inconsistencies of public interest come and go.

“When survivors are in the spotlight, when the rest of us are thinking about this problem, they enjoy a little bit of press, they’re able to share their story, they’re able to share their gospel,” Clites said. “However, they also suffer a lot. Many of them have spoken to me about the depression they go through when we inevitably switch to the next media cycle.”

Clites’s research focuses on the ways in which survivors protest and how they strive to make their stories known. Clites discussed the photographs survivors often carry when marching in demonstrations. The often-staged portraits of the victim, Clites said, do not seem to reflect the emotional intensity of the abuse.

“Each portrait is a snapshot frozen in time of the precise age and body of the child when they were abused,” Clites said. “Given that each survivor had endured such intimate and horrific suffering, why did they choose these very bland, common photos as the center of their public rituals? What message are they trying to convey by these portraits of their childhood selves? I only learned to appreciate these survivor portraits after I’d attended a few protests.”

At these protests, Clites asserted, he learned about the concept of “soul murder,” a term that stems from psychoanalytic theory. Soul murder refers to “the loss of a victim’s sense of selfhood and the annihilation of a child’s core relationships, including with parents, friends and other key social figures,” he said. This concept is especially relevant among victims of clergy sexual abuse.

“When survivors picket cathedrals while carrying portraits and artwork of themselves and their loved ones, they’re trying to communicate a spiritual death,” Clites said. “For survivors of Catholic clergy sexual abuse, soul murder carries the additional weight of abuse which comes ontologically from the hands of God. … When the priests consecrate the host in Mass and is acting ‘in persona Christi,’ he says, ‘Take of this, my body.’ I’ve heard from many survivors just how seriously they took the really real elements of that theology.”

Clites recounted the story of Bernadette, one of the survivors he spoke with whose abuse at the hands of a priest and nun starting at the age of eight resulted in dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder. Of her 70 reported identities, Clites said, Bernadette’s most powerful is that of Emily, a seven-year-old girl. For Bernadette, one of the symbols of her abuse are the toys with which she, as Emily, plays. Toys, Clites noted, are common items survivors carry in protests and symbolize the loss of childhood.

Clites rehashed an experience he had at a march in Chicago that illustrated survivors’ goals in their demonstrations and how these protests serve as ways for survivors to process their suffering. Clites emphasized the importance to survivors of being seen and heard.

“By displaying pictures of themselves as children and carrying relics from the time period during which they or their loved ones who were abused, Chicago survivors are not only mourning the event of sexual abuse, they’re also mourning the loss of a Catholicism that they once knew,” Clites said. “They’re mourning the loss of certainty, absolute faith … the Catholic rituals, devotions and emotional displays that characterize their pre-conciliar, pre-rape childhoods.”

Despite the unimaginable suffering the survivors have gone through, Clites pointed out that many survivors continue to identify as Catholic. The images and objects they carry, Clites said, illustrate survivors’ faith and the simultaneous spiritual pain they feel toward Church.

“By carrying portraits and relics from their soul murder, survivors are not only mourning the event of their abuse, but also the broader cultural possibility of ever fully resurrecting the Catholic world that they once loved,” Clites said.

Clites ended his lecture with a brief discussion of what survivors might want from the Catholic community in the wake of their experiences. These responses included acknowledgement of the abuse survivors experienced, recognition of their suffering, concrete penance by the Church hierarchy, support within parish communities and reforms in the Church. Ultimately, Clites said, survivors’ aesthetic choices in their protests are intimately linked with their sense of loss and longing for a return to faith.

“By showcasing both their suffering and their faith, survivors wager their need to grab public attention versus their desire to talk to fellow Catholics about the ongoing trauma of their childhood abuse,” Clites said. “Shrines and photographs materialize survivors’ suffering while also demonstrating outwardly their continued belonging within the Catholic Church.”

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