That was one of the lessons of “A Theology of Voice: VOCAL and the Catholic Clergy Abuse Survivor Movement,” an article by Brian Clites, Ph.D., chosen by Fordham’s Curran Center for American Catholic Studies in May as the winner of its third annual New Scholars essay contest.
Clites, an associate director at the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities and an assistant professor of religious studies at Case Western Reserve University, first published the paper in the journal U.S. Catholic Historian. In addition to receiving a $1,500 cash prize from the Curran Center, he was also invited to speak at Fordham. He’ll give his talk virtually on Sept. 29 at 1 p.m.
The article traces the origins of VOCAL (Victims of Clergy Abuse Linkup), which was among the first and most prominent advocacy organizations for American survivors of childhood clergy sexual abuse. It was a predecessor of the currently active SNAP, (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), and was notable, Clites said, because its leaders explicitly recognized the spiritual dimensions of the abuse they suffered, which they called “soul murder.”
VOCAL and the Divine Powers of the Voice
VOCAL was founded in 1992 and was one of the world’s largest and most prominent communities of clergy sexual abuse survivors until the untimely 2002 death of its leader, Father Thomas H. “Tom” Economus. It sought to promote healing and justice through a systemic and distinctively Catholic discourse about “voice.”
Clites said that when he first began working on the paper, which is part of a larger book project, in 2011, he was struck by how little academic research had been devoted to the sexual abuse crisis, and how often the concept of the voice was referenced in contemporary Catholic survivor groups, such as “Voice of the Faithful” and “Speak Truth to Power.”
“I was thinking, ‘Why are Catholic survivors so invested in this term voice?’ It seems to mean so much more to them than I’ve read about or understood. I also really didn’t understand why they also put so much emphasis on the term “survivor.” That term is ubiquitous now for cancer survivors and Holocaust survivors, but they used it in such a personalized and spiritual way,” he said.
“In a way, this article is me reflecting after 10 years of being among survivors, reading their literature, and learning why those terms mean so much to them.” Clites was able to learn about VOCAL/Linkup through interviews with surviving members, as well as copies of the group’s triennial newsletter, The Missing Link.
Transforming from Victim to Survivor
What all those survivor groups shared was an understanding that a person’s voice is the foundation of the transformation from victim to survivor.
“Until you found your voice, you couldn’t be a survivor and were still stuck in victimhood. So voice was a way of reclaiming agency,” Clites said.
“[The VOCAL members] really weren’t thinking about it in terms of legal agency. They were much more focused on thinking about it in spiritual terms because they’d been abused by men who were God’s ambassadors on Earth.”
Many of the VOCAL members who Clites spoke with told him they’d lost the ability to pray and talk to God.
“It was, ‘I need to speak about my abuse so that I’m comfortable enough with it so that even if I can’t forgive my abuser, or pray the way I used to, I can still be open to that relationship with God and Jesus and the Blessed Mother,’” he said.
Inspiring and Being Inspired by Other Movements
One of his major findings was that when VOCAL/Linkup members formulated the “Theology of Voice,” they were informed a great deal by feminism, the LGBTQ movement, and to a lesser extent, the AIDS movement.
“Their understanding of voice has precedent, but they take it to a whole other level and make it spiritual and moral in a way that it was not in American popular culture before Catholic survivors started thinking about it,” said Clites.
“Look at the MeToo movement and the public outrage over non-disclosure agreements. The fact that there’s a debate about the wisdom of them anymore owes a lot to Catholic survivors. They were probably the most influential group in amplifying people’s sensitivity to the injustice of NDAs.”
What surprised Clites the most was learning that in the very beginning of the sexual abuse crisis, survivors went to the church first to seek spiritual healing. The stereotype of them as people who are hurt and out for revenge is not accurate.
“What I learned is, survivors are still in the church. Survivors are Catholics sitting next to us in the pews, or forming and leading their own Eucharistic communities, or continuing to be ordained as nuns and priests.”
“This was a problem they sought redress from within the church, and they chose to stay in the church. There are survivors who are too angry at God to pray right now or abandoned their faith or moved to another, but the majority of Catholic survivors have remained Catholic. That was shocking because I didn’t see that in movie and book accounts of it,” he said.
John Seitz, Ph.D., an associate professor of theology and associate director of the Curran Center, said Clites’ elevation of survivors’ voices was a big part of the reason why the center chose to honor his work.
“It’s possible to get tangled up in lots of other ins and outs of the crisis, the functioning of the church, the intricacies of the coverups, and the policies that get implemented or not,” he said.
“But Brian has done a lot of on-the-ground research getting to know these survivors and their communities.”
Confronting a Culture of Secrecy
The Curran Center is a co-sponsor of the multiyear, multi-institution Taking Responsibility Project, making Clites’ paper exactly the kind of scholarship it wants to promote, he said
“When we take sex abuse on fully and realize its breadth and depth, we realize that the stories we told before about Catholicism need to be revised in light of a pretty widespread culture of secrecy in the church among leaders that’s trickled down into the community more broadly,” he said.
“Our narratives about subjects that don’t even have anything on the surface to do with sex abuse may have to be revised. It’s really a watershed moment in Catholic studies.”