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What have we learned from the Catholic Church’s sexual-abuse scandal? What didn’t we know before that we know now? One way to answer these questions is to catalogue the revelations of the past few decades. To begin with, we now know, better than we did before, the extent of the abuse. In France, for example, with the recent publication of the monumental report from the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuses in the Church, it’s clear that this is by no means just an “American problem,” as the French bishops had wanted to believe in the early 2000s. We also know that framing sexual abuse as a problem of chastity rather than justice was a deep mistake that led many bishops to send offenders to psychological treatment and then assign them to a different parish or ministry—what Peter Steinfels has called the “Go and sin no more” attitude to sexual abuse. The French report has much to teach in that regard. The forbearance that, until about thirty years ago, bishops typically showed toward abusers is shocking. By contrast, the bishops’ principal concern with respect to victims was how to shut them up lest their accusations sully the institution. The 2018 Pennsylvania grand-jury report was a sobering reminder of all this.
As a philosopher, I’m interested in what the Church’s sexual-abuse scandal reveals about how knowledge is constructed, circulated, and regulated in the Church. In other words, my interest is what philosophers call “epistemic,” from the Greek word for knowledge, episteme. This is not, however, a merely academic interest. The so-called economy of knowledge—how it is produced and managed—has real-world effects.
It’s a commonplace that knowledge is power: knowing things enables us to make something of ourselves and to make a mark in the world. To those same ends, self-knowledge is also invaluable. But what about when we don’t know what to make of a situation, or how to describe what has just happened to us? What about when we don’t know whom to tell, or whether we will be believed? Imagine being told that no one will believe you. Or imagine being told that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Or that what you think you know can’t be true. Know your place. Know when not to speak. Others must not know. What do you know? As the philosopher Miranda Fricker has observed, to be degraded as a knower is to be degraded as a human being, so central to our humanity is our capacity to know.
The injustice of sexual violence is often compounded by what philosophers call “epistemic injustices”: wrongs done to people as knowers. (Fricker wrote the groundbreaking work on this concept.) One common kind of epistemic injustice is testimonial injustice, when a person’s credibility as someone with knowledge to convey is discounted because of prejudice on the hearer’s part. Children regularly suffer testimonial injustice, and not long ago children who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a priest and found the words to express what had happened to them were often greeted with disbelief, even by their families. For how could a priest, one step removed from Christ, do such things? The child must be telling tales, or misunderstanding, or making too much of innocent play. Thus, the child’s testimony was dismissed or euphemized, and the child was enjoined to silence and even made to feel ashamed of himself for making such an accusation. Often the child’s self-regard as a competent agent, which depends on the appraisal of important adults in the child’s life, was undermined. Finally, the routine discounting of children’s testimony not only aggravated their suffering but made them more vulnerable to abuse. For if they were not to be believed, they could be preyed upon with near impunity.
Yet the discounting of children’s testimony is only one manifestation of how “epistemic injustice” in the Church enables sexual abuse. The French report and two other recent documents—the Vatican’s so-called McCarrick report and L’Arche International’s summary report of its investigation of its founder, Jean Vanier—point to other mechanisms as well. The French report faults the Church for not having reflected deeply on the causes of sexual violence in its midst. If the Church’s claim to be an “expert in humanity,” as Pope Paul VI described it in Populorum progressio, is to be taken seriously, must it not seek to know itself much better? Plenty of evidence is available. We can learn a lot by looking at how knowledge flows within the Church and where it is blocked.
A priest who taught at my all-boys high school was arrested in 1999 and sent to prison for four years after pleading no contest to charges of sexually assaulting a fourteen-year-old student in 1991. Other allegations of sexual assault followed. A friend of mine and I had gone out to dinner and to orchestra performances several times with this priest, but he never bothered us. He did, however, tell us strange stories, with great enthusiasm and peals of laughter, about adventures with other students. It was common knowledge among students that there was something not quite right about this priest, but students went on outings and trips with him anyway. In retrospect, I wonder if he took me and my friend to concerts as cover for his other activities. If nothing untoward happened to us and we didn’t have anything to say about him to the powers-that-be, maybe that made him seem less suspicious. Or maybe he decided that we were risky targets, or maybe the opportunity for abuse never presented itself.
Some years after this priest’s arrest, I told my mother that students had known there was something not right about him. She asked me why I hadn’t said anything to her or to my father. After all, they had let me go to restaurants and concerts with this priest, though always with my friend. My response: we were kids; we didn’t really know what to say. In other words, we didn’t have the framework to make sense of him. Maybe some students did know what was going on, but most of us knew only that he was strange, and that was not something we needed to report to our parents and teachers. I’m sure some of the other teachers found this priest worrisome—one of the other priests at the school openly despised him—but he was able to operate in this ambiguity for a full twenty-five years before an allegation, and the changing times, finally caught up to him.
My story includes several elements that recur across many accounts of clerical sexual abuse. First, “everyone knew”—an overstatement, but not by much. But apparently no one believed that he or she knew enough to act, or that he or she would be believed. And no one with power decided to investigate the whispers and insinuations and rumors. Second, it helped to be a priest. Priests are accorded an excess of credibility, as opposed to the incredulity that too often meets children when they make allegations of abuse. For how could someone who had sacrificed so much for the Church be guilty of such grievous wrongs? How could such a charming, gregarious, charismatic man have done such things? This was, if not quite unthinkable, at least contrary to the stereotype of the priest, which has been shattered and transformed over the past twenty years. Third, sexual innocence made for sexual vulnerability. What was Father up to? Potential victims lacked the knowledge to interpret his advances and ploys. Fourth, silence. “Everyone knew” something, and some might have known a lot, but the knowledge circulated within limited bounds, and then no more. For example, I didn’t tell my parents or teachers the strange stories that my friend and I had heard. If there were victims before 1991, as I imagine there were, perhaps it was shame that kept them from coming forward.
All these elements appear in the Vatican’s McCarrick report, published in November 2020. For background, Theodore McCarrick, ordained a priest in 1958, was “elevated” to the role of auxiliary bishop in New York in 1977, going on to serve as bishop of Metuchen, New Jersey (1981–1986), archbishop of Newark (1986–2000), and finally archbishop of Washington D.C. (2001–2006), in which position he was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II, who had taken a liking to him years prior. When McCarrick turned seventy-five in 2005, the age at which bishops must submit their resignation to the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI initially gave him a two-year extension, only to request that he step down in 2006, amid renewed allegations about his conduct. McCarrick was defrocked in 2019, after being found guilty of what the Vatican termed “solicitation in the sacrament of confession, and sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.” The McCarrick report notes that the Vatican began “an active search” for victims and witnesses in 2017, after the “first known allegation of sexual abuse by McCarrick of a victim under 18 years of age.” Seventeen people abused as boys or young men came forward.
McCarrick’s is another case where “everyone knew” that something was not right—and many people had known more than that for years. In the words of the report, before his appointment to Washington, “McCarrick was known to have shared a bed with young adult men in Metuchen and Newark.” It was “known and a source of joking among the clergy” that McCarrick often would invite seven seminarians to join him at his beach house in New Jersey, though the house had only seven beds, which led to one of the seminarians having to share a bed with him. Sexual overtures followed. Boniface Ramsey, a Dominican priest who taught seminarians at Seton Hall University in the 1980s and ’90s, attested in a 2000 memo to the papal nuncio that “the archbishop’s behavior seemed to be quite well known to the clergy of the Newark archdiocese, and also to many others.” A former seminarian is quoted as saying that it was “common knowledge that McCarrick engaged in this activity.” An anonymous letter sent in 1992 to Cardinal John O’Connor asserted that McCarrick’s “misconduct has been common knowledge in clerical and religious circles for years.” Another letter sent to O’Connor in 1993 claimed that “authorities here and in Rome have known for decades of McCarrick’s proclivity for young boys.”
People hesitated to say what they had seen, or to believe what they had heard. For example, the mother of several boys whom “Uncle Ted” had enthusiastically befriended in the 1970s witnessed him massaging the inner thighs of two of her sons. She also learned that McCarrick had given two of them alcohol on a trip. As she says in the report, “And I knew what this meant: that he was attempting to lower their inhibitions.” Her husband, however, “revered priests,” and McCarrick was extraordinarily charming. She hesitated to report what she had observed and heard partly because she feared retaliation against her children and partly because, in her words, she “lacked the language and understanding to be sure” that McCarrick’s conduct was of a sexual nature, “even though, at the same time, [she] knew he was doing something very wrong.” One of her sons says he did not perceive McCarrick’s conduct as sexual in nature but instead only as “creepy” and “uncomfortable.” In the mid-1980s, this woman finally decided to send an anonymous letter to all the cardinals in the United States and to the papal nuncio. She then watched for signs that something would be done about McCarrick, who was by then bishop of Metuchen. But nothing happened. As she later reflected, “I began to feel, as time passed, that [the Church] was just a club of men who all knew about it and had ignored it.”
McCarrick’s successor as bishop of Metuchen, Edward Hughes, knew of McCarrick’s sexual assaults on seminarians; at least two told him, and they both recall that his reaction suggested that he had already heard similar accusations. The McCarrick report also describes a stunning incident at a Newark catering hall in 1990. A priest of the diocese of Camden, Camden’s Bishop James McHugh, and a Newark auxiliary bishop all witnessed McCarrick touching the crotch of a young cleric, who was described as “terrified” and “paralyzed.” But none of them confronted McCarrick, who was drunk, or intervened to help the young cleric. Instead, they abruptly got up from the table and left the hall. In the car on the way back to Camden, McHugh told the diocesan priest, “Well, you know, sometimes the archbishop says things and does things that are very ‘different.’” The priest told his spiritual advisor about the incident, but then no one else until 2018. He figured that “no one...would take his account seriously.” The credibility accorded to McCarrick as a priest and prelate, together with his charm and prowess as a fundraiser, shielded him from scrutiny. “Everyone knew,” but the knowledge circulated only so far, and people in power declined to know too much. The report observes that “many of the victims stated that they had previously felt powerless to report McCarrick’s misconduct because they feared they would be disbelieved by their parents or by ecclesiastical superiors.”
The French report helps us understand more fully the vulnerability of the sexually innocent. The mother of the boys groomed by McCarrick didn’t know the terms “sexual predator” or even “pedophile.” Children and women religious who suffered abuse were often at a much deeper loss. The French report speaks of a young girl “petrified by Catholic morality” and incapable, due to her sexual innocence, of identifying a sexual advance or even a sexual act. A former religious sister, assaulted at age twenty-five, is quoted as saying that she didn’t have the words to say what the priest did to her; he was the first man who had kissed her on the lips. According to the report, when children did know that something wrong had happened, three things often kept them from speaking up: shame, fear of not being believed, and not having the words to describe their experience. The fact that it was a priest, the representative of Christ, who was abusing them was also confusing, leading the victims (most often boys between ten and fourteen) to “doubt their capacity to evaluate correctly apparently inappropriate gestures or words.” Their confidence in the priest often “was greater than their confidence in their own judgment.”
We can glimpse here a second kind of epistemic injustice called hermeneutical injustice, from the Greek verb meaning “to interpret.” For example, women in societies without the concept of sexual harassment suffer hermeneutical injustice. The real harassment they suffer isn’t named and treated as such; it is tolerated or dismissed as men just being men. Or consider a child growing up gay in a homophobic society. The society does have conceptual resources for the child to understand himself, but those resources are likely to cast him as a monster and to present his desires as hideous and unnatural, thereby distorting his self-understanding. Unlike testimonial injustice, hermeneutical injustice isn’t perpetrated by anyone in particular. Instead, the problem is structural: it has to do with the conceptual resources a society has for making sense of things, and how the power to forge those resources is distributed. Some groups of people, like men, might have more power than other groups, like women, with the result that men, and not women, get to say what’s what.
Hermeneutical injustice is complicated in the case of children. After all, it’s natural for children sometimes to be at a loss for words: as children, they are just learning “what’s what” according to the societies in which they’re being raised. In other words, it’s no answer to the problem here to say that children should be given a louder voice, because they are just learning to use their voice. No, the problem lies deeper. To avoid testimonial injustice, adults need to take seriously what children say when they do find the words to express themselves. To avoid hermeneutical injustice, adults need to educate children about the world as it really is—to teach them the concepts the adults also need to come to terms with—and then pay attention not only to what children manage to say, but also to what they struggle to say because they are only children. In short, children suffer hermeneutical injustice when they are kept in the dark about the existence of sexual predators. Protecting their innocence by preserving their ignorance makes them vulnerable. The former religious sister quoted in the French report knew when she entered her community “the theory” of how babies are made, but not the reality of sexual assault. She was therefore easy prey.
L’Arche International’s summary report indicates one last and especially violent form of hermeneutical injustice: gaslighting by a figure with charismatic power. Jean Vanier engaged in manipulative sexual relationships with women from at least 1970 through 2005. (Note that Vanier was a layman; the problem is not restricted to the clergy.) Following the method of his mentor, the disgraced Dominican priest Thomas Philippe, Vanier disguised his misdeeds by misinterpreting for his victims what it was that he was doing to them. One of them recounted that each time Vanier touched her sexually over three or four years, “I was frozen, I was unable to distinguish what was right and what was wrong.” He reassured her that everything was okay. “It is Jesus who loves you through me,” he would say. Or, “This is not us, this is Mary [Magdalene] and Jesus.” Vanier was admired as a living saint. He exploited his victims’ willingness to believe that he must have known what he was doing.
As Peter Steinfels has underscored more than once in this magazine, as well as in his 2003 book A People Adrift, much has changed for the better in the U.S. Church’s handling of sexual abuse since the early 1990s, when lurid cases prompted many bishops to introduce new procedures for investigating allegations, and even more since 2002, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved the Dallas Charter for the protection of minors. Commentators do the Church a disservice when they write as if it remains in what Steinfels calls “the dark ages of sexual abuse,” which he thinks ended around 1985.
I wonder, though, if the Church’s economy of knowledge has changed very much since then. It is striking how freely knowledge of McCarrick’s conduct flowed among clerics. By contrast, some bishops went to great lengths to remain as ignorant of it as possible. When laypeople spoke up, they were told to be quiet or simply ignored. The message was clear: the Church didn’t belong to them. As the mother quoted earlier put it, it was a club of men.
Of course, as the cliché has it, the Catholic Church isn’t a democracy: dogma isn’t determined by a vote of all the faithful. But one clear takeaway from the sexual-abuse crisis is that the Church could use more of what the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson calls “epistemic democracy.” More people, especially laypeople, need to be heard. Bishops should want to know what it is that laypeople know. There needs to be accountability running top to bottom, not only from bottom to top. And children need to be taught about the Church and world, not only as we wish they were, but as they have shown themselves to be.