Columnist Carrie N. Baker: ‘Deliver us from evil’: Rape, reproductive coercion and the Catholic Church

Daily Hampshire Gazette [Hampshire MA]

January 24, 2024

By Carrie N Baker

Sexual assault and reproductive coercion share similar dynamics: both are forms of violence that intimately violate a person’s body. The Catholic Church’s clergy sex abuse scandals and its attempts to coerce people’s reproductive decision-making by banning abortion and attacking contraception reveal a dangerous sexual sociopathology that fundamentally undermines the Church’s claims to moral authority on issues of sexuality.

By now, the stories are familiar and well documented. The 2006 documentary, “Deliver Us From Evil,” chillingly shows how Catholic bishops repeatedly relocated a priest named Oliver O’Grady from parish to parish in an attempt to cover up his rape of dozens of children. The 2005 Academy Award-winning film, “Spotlight,” dramatizes the true story of the Boston Globe investigative reporting team that exposed widespread sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in the 1970s and the cover up by the Archdiocese of Boston. In 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury published a 1,356-page report documenting decades of sexual abuse by more than 300 Catholic priests who victimized thousands of children in six dioceses. The report found a “systemic cover up by senior church officials in Pennsylvania and at the Vatican.”

But priest sexual abuse is not just in the past. On Dec. 14, a federal court sentenced 68-year-old Providence-based Catholic priest James W. Jackson to six years in a federal prison for downloading and storing thousands of files containing child pornography on his computer in the church rectory, including videos of prepubescent females portrayed in acts of bestiality and sadomasochism.

Here locally just last month, a report in the Gazette detailed the horrific story of an Easthampton woman who was sexually abused by a priest in North Adams in the 1990s. The priest, who led her to believe he could cure her lesbianism by having sex with her, remains in active ministry at Westfield State University — working with vulnerable young people.

In a recent case in New Orleans, an archbishop worked to free a Catholic priest convicted of raping an altar boy by trying to get the victim to support the release. According to The Guardian, “representatives of the church that he had been raised to believe in approached him at his home, at his job and at a relative’s funeral to ask him to lend his support to efforts to secure an early release for his rapist.”

To avoid accountability, the Catholic Church fights against laws designed to help survivors of sexual abuse. Between 2011 and 2019, the Catholic Church spent $10.6 million in eight Northeastern states to lobby against such laws. Here in Massachusetts, they spent $537,551.

Massachusetts law limits liability of nonprofit charities to $20,000, which is so low most attorneys can’t afford to sue the Catholic Church. State lawmakers are now working to eliminate this immunity in cases of child sex abuse.

Another strategy the Catholic Church uses to avoid accountability is to file bankruptcy so they don’t have to pay court-ordered penalties to compensate the victims of clergy sex abuse, as they recently did in California.

The Catholic Church claims to speak with moral authority on issues of sexuality, but at the same time has perpetuated the sexual abuse of thousands of children in its care and then tries to dodge accountability for the resulting harm. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has led the charge to overturn Roe v. Wade and bankrolled the movement to ban abortion nationwide, endangering the lives of millions of women and pregnant people.

In the many hospitals they control, the Catholic Church blocks access to reproductive health care, including emergency contraception for rape victims and medically necessary sterilization and abortion care. Due in part to hospital consolidations, the Catholic Church now controls one in every six acute care hospital beds in the United States.

The all-male Catholic leadership’s long history of perpetuating sexual assault and reproductive coercion grows out of a toxic masculinity that devalues women’s lives, rights and dignity. Both are forms of intimate assault that deny the bodily autonomy of women in particular.

Given the Catholic Church’s history of clergy sexual abuse, and their callous disregard for the reproductive health and safety of women, why are priests and bishops considered to have any moral authority on issues of sexuality?

How is it that supposedly celibate men, who know nothing about women’s bodies and who tolerate, cover up and excuse widespread sexual abuse in the church, have the right to speak about anything related to women’s sexuality? Is the unnatural suppression of their own sexuality perhaps fueling their frantic attempts to suppress the sexuality of others? I wonder if their actions are at some level due to jealous rage that others are experiencing the natural sexual pleasure they deny themselves?

Massachusetts must pass S.916/H.1446 to eliminate immunity for charitable organizations perpetrating child sexual abuse and also pass S.1038/H.1614 to remove time limits for civil liability for child sex abuse, which the Archdiocese of Boston has of course opposed. We need to pass these laws to hold these abusive men accountable, and we need to reject the idea that they have any moral authority when it comes to issues related to sexuality.

Carrie N. Baker is a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College and a regular contributor to Ms. Magazine.