Marcus Mescher – Moral Injury and Clerical Sexual Abuse

Where Peter Is [Beltsville MD]

September 4, 2023

By Marcus Mescher and Paul Fahey

[Includes a one hour and fifteen minute video podcast interview of Marcus Mescher by Paul Fahey.]

I first came across Dr. Marcus Mescher late last year when a friend of mine shared something he posted on Twitter about an upcoming research study he worked on titled, “Measuring & Exploring Moral Injury Caused by Clergy Sexual Abuse.”

Because of my own interest and research into spiritual abuse in the Catholic Church, I read the study as soon as it was published, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Marcus’s research connected a handful threads about the relationship between abuse, trauma, conscience, and deconstruction. So I was excited when he agreed to come on the podcast and discuss his work.

First, the study defines moral injury as:

“Moral injury results from a betrayal of trust, disrupting one’s beliefs and moral compass. It comprises persistent psychological and emotional distress, moral confusion, spiritual anguish, social alienation, and distrust for institutions.”

The study looked at five dimensions of moral injury:

  1. Moral identity – “the sense of one’s inherent goodness or the experience of shame”
  2. Moral perception and reasoning – “the ability to make sound moral judgments or the experience of moral confusion/disorientation”
  3. Moral agency – “the capacity to exercise free will or the experience of constraint/ futility”
  4. Moral relationships with others – “feeling safe and being able to trust others or the experience of betrayal, stigmatization, or isolation”
  5. Relationship to God and institutions like the church – “feeling connected and finding institutions credible or experiencing abandonment, punishment, and loss of confidence in the authority or credibility of the church”

One result that struck me was how even individuals who weren’t themselves abused by priests still experienced moral injury. The study stated:

“These results indicate that while moral injury was generally higher among those who are directly connected to clergy sexual abuse via their personal experiences of abuse, the impact of this crisis extends further, causing moral injury among those with varying degrees of affiliation with the Catholic Church.”

If individuals one or two layers out from clerical sexual abuse and coverup can experience moral injury, then we’re talking about nearly every Catholic in the US. As I said to Marcus during the interview, the ripple effects of clerical abuse and institutional coverup spread throughout the whole freaking pond. There isn’t a corner of the Church that’s unaffected.

Which raises the question, how does the Church, the institution and all of the baptized, even begin to justly respond to that kind of harm?

Then when I read the five dimensions of moral injury, my mind immediately went to the experience of “deconstruction.” Deconstruction is a growing phenomena in Christianity, inside and outside of Catholicism. My own experience of deconstruction, and the many stories I’ve heard from others about their experience of deconstruction, seems to overlap with these symptoms of moral injury.

What if the rise of “nones” and “dones” in the Church is in part, and maybe a large part, caused by religious authorities betraying their communities in morally grievous ways? If that’s true, does that change the way we try and evangelize them?

This conversation with Marcus was insightful and challenging. I hope you enjoy it.

This episode is available on Youtube and in your favorite podcast app.

This week, Paul interviews Dr. Marcus Mescher, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Xavier University. They discuss a new research about moral injury and clerical sexual abuse that Marcus published. First Marcus explains what moral injury is and the way that it impacts a person’s psychological health as well as their conscience. Marcus then talks about the implications of this research and how we can better understand the impact of clerical sexual abuse on individual people and the wider Church.

Dr. Marcus Mescher is associate professor of Christian ethics. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College and specializes in Catholic social teaching and moral formation. His research and writing concentrate in the following areas: human dignity and rights; social/environmental justice for the global common good; how moral agency is impacted by cultural context and digital technology; the moral dimensions of friendship; sexual justice and the ethics of marriage and family life; liberation theology and inclusive solidarity; healing the psychological, spiritual, social, and moral harm caused by clergy abuse. Dr. Mescher has written dozens of popular and academic articles. His current research and writing focus on mental health and moral injury.