ChurchToo Challenges Church’s Culture of Abuse

BC Torch [Boston College]

April 30, 2021

By Mary Rose Corkery

On April 15, the School of Theology and Ministry (STM) welcomed Dr. Natalia Imperatori-Lee, Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College, for a Zoom webinar titled “The Sacred and The Secret: Lessons from Movements Like MeToo and ChurchToo.” 

Introduced by Fr. Thomas Stegman, S.J., Dean of the STM, Imperatori-Lee presented a lecture outlining the ways sexual abuse thrives, how these factors operate in the Catholic Church, and strategies to eliminate the persistence of abuse and rape culture within a Christian paradigm. 

She began by discussing that MeToo entering the national lexicon in 2016 has led to  countless individuals and groups identifying how rape culture is an assumption that permeates everyday life, both personally and structurally. Imperatori-Lee defined rape culture as “the normalization of assault as we assume that, given the opportunity, men will assault women sexually, making it necessary for women to put guardrails in place for their own safety.” Essentially, men have comfort in and ownership of the public realm while women must remain in-line to patriarchy and be “men’s attentive, loving subordinates.” 

She posited that this same atmosphere gave rise to the ChurchToo movement, which claims that the monoculture of the Church breeds entitlement among the class of clerics who cannot self-police. Imperatori-Lee defined three specific factors which contribute to abuse-tolerant culture as, which she argued are all present in the hierarchical Catholic structure: “misogyny, shame, and secrecy.” She emphasized the scale of the problem and its implications for all people, saying that “In cultures that use authority and secrecy as currency, all of us are potentially vulnerable people.” 

The first of three factors allowing sexual abuse to thrive, misogyny, makes it clear that the subjugation of women was no accident according to Imperatori-Lee. She said that the Catholic Church has a long tradition of enforcing the patriarchal order:” According to her, the display of “good womanhood” in the Catholic Church as virgin and mother sets women up for failure. 

The virginal, deferential, and nurturing paragon of femininity most predominantly presented to us through Mary additionally forms a template of complementarianism for all male-female relationships, stated Imperatori-Lee. She argued this works off of the oppressive assumption that biological complementarity implies social and intellectual complementarity, which glosses over the realities of intersectionality when it comes to sexuality, race, and marginalization. “We have confused purity with holiness,” Imperatori-Lee said, and this “drives all sexual activity into the realm of secrecy and shame [which] is a red carpet for abusers.” 

She identified two other factors enabling abuse in the Church, shame and secrecy. These the need for a “sexual ethic of concern for community and integrity” abundantly clear according to Imperatori-Lee. She demonstrated that tight-knit communities within parishes are led by charismatic leaders who are policed by an elite group and are reluctant to speak about sexuality; these institutions enable Catholics to sacrifice the truth out of shame or fear for a loss of reputation. She added that the insularity of monocultural clericalism suggests that some states of life are holier than others. 

The “everydayness” of sexual abuse is exacerbated by the notion of “himpathy,” which certainly is not excluded from sacred spaces. Imperatori-Lee explained that when the perpetrator does not look like a monster, the masses tend to disbelieve accusations against him because of this patriarchal notion of “himpathy;” rapists and abusers are “exonerated by caricature,” and the priesthood is oftentimes a protective cover for perpetrators. “‘Himpathy’ compounds the victim’s pain,” she said.

Imperatori-Lee closed her lecture urging her audience to believe survivors of abuse as trustworthy narrators of their own experiences. In fact, the central claim of Christianity is predicated on what she called the “previously worthless word of a woman” — each evangelist chose to include Mary Magdalene as the conveyor of the news about Jesus’ Resurrection to the male Apostles. She, of course, was believed. Imperatori-Lee advocated for an intersectional lens as we continue in this era of MeToo and ChurchToo. Then, she claimed, we will begin to fully confront the harmfully pervasive presence of misogyny, shame, and secrecy in the Church. “As followers of Christ, we can’t look away from suffering,” she says; instead, we move through the desert and come out on the other side transformed.

Staff Writer
Mary Rose is a junior majoring in English and perspectives and minoring in Catholic studies. In the few moments that she is not reading and writing, Mary Rose can be found bopping with BC Full Swing, working with Lean On Me BC, or sharing controversial takes on literature with the Reading Group. Her other passions include Percy Jackson, early 2010s Christian music, Crocs, and her dog’s instagram, @olito.favorito