Co-Principal Investigator is Terence Mckiernan.
I propose to study the religious/spiritual histories of adult Catholic survivors of clerical sexual abuse with a view toward understanding the role of prayer in their efforts to reclaim their lives from destruction and alienation. The most disastrous consequences of abuse included a radically diminished self-image; persistent feelings of shame; a perceived loss of agency; a corrosive and objectless anger; pervasive anxiety; self-abuse (with drugs, alcohol, violence, and destructive sexuality); relational failure and social isolation. The project explores the extent to which prayer and praying played a role in restoring survivors to themselves and to their worlds (in the process remaking both themselves and the world). What makes these questions so vexed in this context is that the abuse of children by priests was always religious in nature. Survivors were profoundly hurt in that area of their lives from which they might have drawn the deepest sustenance. Prayer and praying contributed to survivors’ flourishing, but this often entailed great internal struggle with God (in the various forms God assumed for survivors over time), with their inherited and embodied Catholic imaginary, and with their circle of significant relationships (on earth and in heaven). Survivors first needed to restore a capacity for praying that had been effectively taken from them by their abuse. They invented or improvised new hybrid ways of praying to replace the ones lost to abuse, sometimes by reworking childhood prayer practices, but just as often looking beyond Catholicism to spiritual sources available on the wider American religious landscape. Survivors prayed in communities of survivors, with prayer serving to organize and empower a counterpublic that prayed together while seeking justice and recognition from other Catholics and from the church, creating a prayerful practice of redress. The project approaches prayer in its full polyvalence, including prayers that are retributive and condemnatory. I am in the process of establishing a network of contacts among survivors in Chicago and around the country, among those who remain in some relation to Catholicism and those who have more or less rejected it. I will establish field sites in four dioceses with the help of Victim Advocates, a diocesan office mandated in 2002 by the American bishops, as I work with survivors in Chicago and nearby cities who are for the most part unaffiliated with the church. Initial conversations with survivors will be by telephone, e-mail, and Skype (if they are outside of Chicago), in person locally, and I will work from a list of questions prepared with the assistance of survivors as a starting point. I will follow these with more open-ended conversations in person, which will be recorded (and eventually transcribed by a bonded transcription service). The focus throughout will be on survivors’ evolving life stories, with special attention to their prayer practices over time, their relationship to the ways of praying they inherited and those they have chosen or created as adults, in order to understand prayer’s contribution to the restoration of their confidence, happiness, relationships, and social and moral connectedness. The project looks at lived prayer practices in a religiously perverse context, in which the resources and figures victims may have called on for help were turned against them. Nonreductively it takes praying as the medium by which people engage supernatural figures and realities they understand to be really real and efficacious. The broader impact of the project is that given the number of survivors, the social consequences of the deep and lasting pain of abuse, the impact of the crisis on Catholicism and on the reputation of institutional religion, the project addresses matters of wide-reaching public import.