Colonialism and the Crisis Inside the Crisis of Catholic Sexual Abuse


August 27, 2018

By Kathleen Holscher

The emphasis on largely white contexts in national media coverage of Catholic clerical sexual abuse in the United States obscures the ways race and colonialism have structured the crisis in other communities.

Like others who study American Catholicism, I’ve spent time recently with the Pennsylvania grand jury report naming credible allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. The heavily publicized, 900-page document is a civic tour de force; it names 301 Catholic priests who, during the twentieth century, were employed across 6 dioceses in Pennsylvania. It records their alleged crimes—and those of bishops who protected them—in excruciating detail.

From the vantage point of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I live and teach, the grand jury report provides not only a horrific portrait of some parts of Catholic life in a mid-Atlantic state; it offers reminders too of the devastating and often overlooked history of clerical sexual abuse here in the U.S. Southwest. New Mexico was arguably the epicenter of 20th century priestly sexual violence; several of the clergy named in the grand jury report made their way eventually from Pennsylvania to New Mexico. They came because, for much of the century, bishops from across the nation disposed of their worst offenders by sending them for “treatment” here. The priests came to the Via Coeli Monastery, run by the Servants of the Paracletes in the mountains near Jemez Springs. The monastery opened in 1947, and over the years more and more of its residents were men who, according to the congregation’s founder, were “addicted to abnormal practices” including “sins with the young.”

Many of the priests who moved to Via Coeli were eventually released into work with children and adults in New Mexico. The career of Fr. Edward Graff, detailed in the Pennsylvania grand jury report, exemplifies this pattern. Graff was a priest in the Diocese of Allentown for nearly thirty years. During his time there, the grand jury tells us, he “raped scores of children.” Eventually, in the late 1980s, Graff was removed to the Paracletes for treatment. Upon his release, Bishop Thomas Welsh of Allentown “authorized [the priest] to begin ministry to the needy in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico” under the continued supervision of the congregation. Archbishop Robert Sanchez of Santa Fe agreed, and granted Graff “limited faculties” to carry out work with the homeless and with AIDS patients in Albuquerque.

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