For the past two years, Robert Orsi, the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair of Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, has been talking with adult survivors of clergy sexual abuse in an effort to understand survivors’ religious practices and experiences in the wake of the abuse. Here, Orsi speaks with Jennifer Lois Hahn about why sexual abuse by a priest is more than a matter of individual psychopathology; how survivors’ continued religious and spiritual engagement challenges functionalist theories of religion; and what he means when he describes survivors of clergy sexual abuse as existing at “ground zero of the post-secular.”


Jennifer Lois Hahn: People tend to see sexual abuse as an individual pathology, the problem of the priests and nuns involved. Is it something larger than that?

Robert Orsi: Clearly sexual abuse is the result of individual pathology, in the sense that there are men and women who are driven by their particular obsessions to abuse children or adolescents, and it is possible for psychologists to develop a profile of general characteristics for such individuals. On the other hand, I think it’s very important to look at the social, cultural, and in this case, religious environments within which abuse takes place, how particular environments may contribute in specific ways to the abuse, giving it meanings and lived consequences in excess of the psychological. I asked a survivor once if she thought it made sense to talk about her abuse as being in some way religious. This woman goes to church today, having returned after some time away. She’s a devout and, as it happens, quite learned laywoman. Her answer was, “Everyone who was abused by a priest was abused in a Catholic way.” So it is this Catholic way that I’m interested in. The sexual abuse is not an act in isolation from other acts, other forms of violence against children, or in isolation from the construction of the child as the object of devotional desire in modern Catholicism, and so on. There was collusion, moreover, on the part of parishioners or parish staffs, who were implicated in the abuse if only by saying nothing or looking away from what they knew well was happening, and on the part of bishops, who protected abusers or moved them from parish to parish. All the figures in these networks of collusion had Catholic reasons for what they did, their choices. Furthermore, the sexual abuse of children and adolescents by priests took place in a particular theological, sacramental, even ontological environment. The priest was a certain kind of being in Catholic theology, the other Christ (alter Christi), ranked higher than the angels because only priests are endowed by virtue of their ordination with the power to transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of God. Angels cannot be ordained. So to be abused by a priest was not at all the same as being abused by a high school football coach, as awful as this is too. It was to be abused one step removed from God. And that, I think, sets clergy sexual abuse in a context that needs to be examined from multiple perspectives, including, or primarily, the religious.

JLH: In your proposal, you talked about wanting your project to assess the victim’s survival beyond the “implicitly normative terms of the therapeutic.” In what ways is the standard secular therapeutic treatment not sufficient for some of these victims?

RO: Well, there is not a single therapeutic modality in contemporary psychology, as we all know. There are many different schools of therapy, many different kinds of practice, and survivors have tried one or the other or several over time. In this sense, their experience with therapy cannot be generalized. Furthermore, I don’t think the kind of Freudian orthodoxy that dominated therapy for years, with its rigorous, insistent secularism, retains the credentialing power or authority it once did. Because most of those abused by a priest were abused in a Catholic way, as a scholar of religion, I believed I could bring analytical tools and perspectives both from religious theory and the study of history to bear that might illuminate dimensions of the abuse beyond, or in addition to, the psychological. But I have been struck by the extent to which psychological approaches, language, narratives, and so on, crowd out other idioms of understanding and theory, even among church people who are able, or enabled, by reason of this conceptual singularity to say simply, “Well, it’s a psychological issue.” Likewise, psychologists argue that the perpetrator is sick. Norwegians struggled with this question of sickness versus intention in the trial of Anders Breivik. But I have been resisting this one dimensional psychological explanation because I think it lifts the sexual abuse of children and adolescents out of history and culture, in a way that distorts its reality. At the same time, I’ve been very mindful and respectful of the fact that almost all the survivors I’ve spoken to have been in some sort of therapy and that all have benefitted from it, and also that psychological theory is essential in understanding sexual abuse. But the woman I quoted earlier about clergy abuse being always in some sense Catholic eventually had to break with her therapist because her therapist didn’t want to talk about God, and more, felt that her client’s continued attachment to both God and the church were symptoms, rather than religious choice.

JLH: That must have been painful for her I would imagine.

RO: It was. Because she loved this therapist and she was very grateful for how much the therapist had helped her, but with her devotion to God, Mary, and the saints, and her attachment to the church, she hit a blind spot with the therapist.

JLH: Along those lines, I was really struck by what you have said about survivors of clergy sexual abuse being at “ground zero of the post-secular.” Can you explain more what you mean by that?

RO: I probably should begin by explaining what I think “post-secular” means, because I think it has a wide and not always stable semantic range. After Talal Asad, the “secular” was recognized as itself a religious project, so that it began to make sense to speak of a “religious secular.” It’s also evident that the secular generated various forms of religious expression, understanding, and practice, or the secular religious. But I think what gets left out in post-Asadian accounts of religion after secularism is the enduring life of religious traditions, pre/post-secularism. The survivors I know were all involved, in one way or another, with Catholicism. I make no claim that this is true of all survivors of clergy sexual abuse. But it was true of the ones I have spoken to. So when I say that survivors are at ground zero of the post-secular, I am talking about how survivors find themselves in a situation in which their lives are construed in a set of normative languages that serve to mask the complex realities of their biographies. Again, multiple frames are needed to approach survivors’ lives, including a robust Catholic language. These are Catholics and in many senses they remain Catholics, even when they reject the sacraments, hierarchy, and so on. Despite rejecting certain elements of the tradition, the survivors I got to know spend a lot of time talking about God, they think about the Blessed Mother and the saints, they are knowledgeable about Catholic theology, and in this way they’re not pre- or post-secular. What’s the term then? Perhaps we scholars of religion are overly confident in the reach of our theoretical language. We need to be more attentive to what ways of being are excluded, or hidden, by the terms we use. What lies on the other side of our theoretical languages?

JLH: In relation to the secular, you have written about how important the notion of real presence is in Catholicism. As I was reading that I was actually thinking about Tanya Luhrmann’s work, how difficult it is sometimes for the evangelicals she studies to find this sense of real presence in a modern society. Do you think this is different for Catholics?

RO: Almost all of the people I spoke to had grown up or had been “formed”—in the Catholic word for the processes by which children become Catholic—within the Catholic Church before or during the Second Vatican Council, when the devotional density of Catholicism was at it’s most excessive. The world of their childhoods in the mid-twentieth century could not have been more enchanted, and this was the world that Catholics took as real. For a book to be published soon by Harvard University Press, tentatively titled History and Presence, I am working on a chapter on Catholics and the dead. The dead are present in everyday life to Catholics in all sorts of ways; the boundary between living and dead is porous. In an article I cite from the 1950s popular Catholic press, a priest says that he really likes old ghost and horror stories because he thinks they say more about reality than modern accounts of death. Such tales were truer to Catholic ontology. To the Catholics who grew up in this world, whose bodies, imaginations, minds, relationships had all been made and remade to this reality—not that they were passive in this process—enchantment is given, taken for granted. It is both given and special, it is in their bodies as well as their minds.

JLH: Do you think that having grown up with this enchanted ontology eventually helps survivors to move on from the abuse because they already know how to draw comfort from religion and spirituality?

RO: Survivors would not say that they’ve moved on. This is one of the great lessons of this project for me. As one person I spoke to put it, is there ever really an “after” to the abuse? I’ve said that I thought that as a scholar of religion I had something necessary to contribute to understanding the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests. That said, I also anticipated that the clergy sexual abuse crisis, as history and personal reality, and what survivors had to say about it, could speak to me as a scholar of religion, and I might learn something about religion itself that would allow me to open up some theoretical possibilities in the study of religion more generally. One of the things I have found consistently among survivors is the resistance to closure. This is why the word “comfort” is not really appropriate either. If comfort implies an end, or if it means any sort of ultimate peace, then it’s the wrong word for survivors. Functionalist views of religion—and most theories of religion are functionalist—break against the experience of the survivors because they did not encounter a God that made them comfortable, that provided order or meaning. Nor do they speak about a world put back together again when they turn to God later in their lives. The survivor I spoke about before refers to herself as a resurrected wound. She remains a wounded person, but she’s resurrected. Sometimes I think the most religions offer is scar tissue. This survivor also says everyday she has to make a choice between light or dark, between what she calls the abyss or life.

JLH: The issue of the interplay of agency and structure in religious life has been a central feature of your work over the years. Can you talk more about how this dynamic plays out in the ongoing process of dealing with abuse?

RO: The short answer to your rich question would be that survivors, like the rest of us, are subject of/subject to our histories. I think it’s tempting to many to tell the life stories of men and women abused by priests as being going from victim to survivor, which is another way of saying from “subject to” to “subject of.” But the from/to language obscures a more complex reality, which is that survivors are always moving back and forth between these positions, and they know it. This is how they talk about their own lives. The longer answer requires a discussion of how survivors come to the recognition that they are both actors and acted upon, which I think of as a realization of the tragic nature of human existence. Maybe I was attracted to this project in the first place because I have a tragic view of history and culture myself, a position for which there are multiple sources, from psychoanalytic theory, post-World War II social theory, and historiography, meaning the very fact of being a historian. Many of the survivors, understandably, share it, not simply for obvious reasons, but because they have lived their lives beneath the cross, in several senses. At some point in their lives they accepted the irrevocability of what happened to them, and it was with this recognition that they became free. Almost all of the survivors I’ve spoken to had a period in their lives as young adults when they were still practicing Catholics, when, in fact, they were the best of all Catholics—dutiful and obedient. They were children or adolescents when they were abused, so practically speaking they couldn’t walk away from the church without community scandal and disapproval. But even afterwards they continued going to church and many of them described themselves as model Catholics in their 20s and early 30s. Then at some point the incongruity just broke them apart and they couldn’t do it anymore. Now they accept the fact that they were abused by priests in a church that some of them now have come to love again; but the reality of the abuse and the reality of the love are not separated into compartments. This is why the resurrected wound is such an apt metaphor. So they have moved in a way beyond absolutes. And maybe they teach us scholars of religion to be wary of imposing any sort of totalizing framework on religious practice, whether it’s the totality of power, or language, or doctrine. The challenge has always seemed to be how to account social historically, politically, and so on, for those times when the polyvalence of religious worlds gets fixed into an absolute. Survivors are the freest people I know, as I’ve written somewhere, because of the clarity of their recognition of the inevitable dual nature of human history.

JLH: You have written about some of the survivors finding an intermediate higher power in Alcoholics Anonymous. At one point you describe the A.A. God as a higher power without attributes. This struck me because I’m writing my dissertation on A.A. and I’m actually investigating what attributes people in A.A. tend to see in their higher powers.

RO: It wasn’t my judgment that this was a God without attributes. This came from one of the survivors I had spoken with, who went through A.A. and then eventually decided to move on to religious idioms more thickly conceptualized. Many of the survivors I know say that A.A. offered them a transitional God, a God they could deal with when they couldn’t deal with God. Nonetheless, they acknowledged the importance of this God who was not the God they knew but another God. People go into A.A. from particular religious traditions, which inflect this signifier, the higher power. The higher power sometimes behaved a little bit like the Catholic God among Catholics. A.A. gets taken up into other ontologies. One of my sources, for example, spoke very movingly about his A.A. sponsor, who had passed away, coming to visit him in the middle of the night, when he was frightened about something. Like many of the survivors I spoke to, this is a man whose life periodically erupts with the pain that has been attended to but does not go away. At the moment he was describing, he felt desperate about his life—then he felt a touch on his hand in the middle of the night, when he was awake, and immediately knew this was the touch of his A.A. sponsor.

JLH: One of the priests you talked to, Father Frank, said his way of dealing with the theodicy issue, why God would allow these people to suffer so horribly, was to say God had nothing to do with what happened. Do many of the survivors buy that?

RO: I think Father Frank was suggesting that it would be helpful if survivors realized this, so that they might move on from debilitating anger. But that’s his view and not all survivors would agree with it. There are long periods of time for many survivors when they wonder what God was doing when they were being abused by one of this God’s representatives on earth. This is particularly a problem because so many predator priests implicated God in the abuse. They told their victims, for instance, that God wanted them to surrender their bodies to the priest, that this was God’s gift to them. What I am about to say is a generalization I am not quite sure about yet, so I offer it as a hypothesis. That is, it seems to me that the generation of priests trained before the Second Vatican Council made greater use of the density of Catholic devotional culture in the abuse itself, whereas afterwards priests exploited some of the new possibilities open to clergy following the Council, being more socially casual and available to laity, for instance, celebrating Mass and devotions in people’s homes (which was often the immediate context of abuse). Before the Second Vatican Council, it would have been very unlikely for a priest to hang out with young teenagers. It would have been really looked at askance, for many reasons, in terms of church culture, but also, the expectations of working class and ethnic Catholics. In the history of American Catholic priests, the priests who came of age in the years just before and then after World War II, into the 1960s, were the most socially remote. But devotionalism was a domain in which the abuse could take place, and it was exploited as such. Later on, priests used the somewhat more relaxed view of the priesthood in their predatory plans.

JLH: As a final question, did you learn anything about prayer from this project that you maybe hadn’t thought about before in your career?

RO: Frank’s perspective on prayer has been very important to me. I had known, of course, about the traditions of prayer being a form of grappling or struggling with God. But the question is: how do people live inside a religious tradition? I think there’s a widespread idea that to live inside a religious tradition is to have oneself dominated by it, that the only possible way of living is obedience or surrender. But this is not always or necessarily the case, as I said earlier. Religious domination is a historical and cultural question. People inhabit a religious tradition in many different kinds of ways. They can improvise, appropriate, alter, ignore. Catholics, as they went through life—not so much as children or adolescents, but even then there were some possibilities—worked within the demands of the tradition. This is not to deny the power of the tradition at specific times and places over people. But the tradition itself is capacious enough that media exist for living both with and against it. How with/against are lived at any point is a historical question. I saw these dynamics at play in the lives of many of the survivors as they got older and contended with the wounding that had taken place in church at the hands of one of God’s agents.

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