Miryam Clough’s doctoral thesis and first monograph (Shame, the Church and the Regulation of Female Sexuality, Routledge 2017) focussed on Ireland’s Magdalen laundries to examine the way Christian churches have used shame to control women, to displace men’s ambivalence about sex, and to excuse men for abuse. Her second book will address the effects of clergy sexual misconduct on women’s vocations in the church.
What led you to do this work?
In 2019, I was the recipient of a visiting scholarship at St John’s Theological College in New Zealand, where I had trained as a young ordinand in the 1980s. My project was to research women’s experiences in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand since 1960. In part this was a personal quest, sparked by a conversation a few months before with a friend I had studied with when I began my first theology degree. As he and I reconnected after three decades and each of us related the key events of those intervening years, I was struck by the differences in our journeys – despite their shared starting point. He has had a long and fruitful ministry in the church; I have had a life-long vocation to ministry that I have yet to fulfil.
This conversation had taken place around the time I was invited to contribute a chapter to Letters to a Broken Church (Fife and Gilo 2019), a response to the clergy abuse crisis in the Church of England. As I pondered the events that led to me leaving New Zealand in 1988 at the end of my ordination training, and eventually putting the idea of ordination to one side, I began to reconsider the impact of clergy sexual misconduct on my life and vocation. This time however, I looked at it through two different lenses: 1) the lens of a registered health professional and educator working within strict ethical guidelines and 2) that of the mother of young women in their twenties who have bumped up against sexual harassment at university and in their jobs and careers.
As I imagined my daughters in the situations I had found myself in at their respective ages, I began to identify more fully the impact that the exploitative behaviour of much older male clergy had on my life and my vocation in the church. Imagining my daughters – whose wellbeing, happiness and fulfilment are absolute priorities for me – having to cope with the things that I encountered at their ages left me angry. Angry at the behaviour of those men and at the church which should have offered a safe environment for me as a young person and as an ordinand. Angry that the very clergy who claimed to support me in my vocation had actually grossly undermined and sabotaged it.
On the one hand, I was incredulous that Christian priests, including fathers of daughters, would act to undermine the vocation of any young person. On the other, I was very aware that I, and many other women, had lacked the support and mentoring that most young men received from the experienced clergy responsible for their pastoral welfare and training. Given the wider hostility to women seeking leadership roles in the church at the time, this was perhaps unsurprising.
Next, I endeavoured to put myself into the shoes of the offending priests and to wonder what motivated them. I tried to imagine the sense of entitlement that would lead them to violate pastoral and sexual boundaries. Then, I mapped the code of conduct I work under as a health professional onto their actions. As I did so, my perspective – long one of self-blame and failure – shifted. I began to see that at the very least, those clergy had acted in ways that were deeply unprofessional. I also began to consider the broader structural context of those scenarios, and this is what I determined to research. Having either directly encountered or been aware of a number of clergy abusers, I was suspicious of the context that produced such behaviour, and which appeared to facilitate it, or at least did nothing to address or prevent it.
At this point, I had not come across the body of literature on clergy sexual abuse of adult women and had no idea of its extent, assuming (despite my own experience) that most victims of clergy abuse were children and that most clergy abusers were Roman Catholic priests. I was shocked to learn that an estimated 90-95% of victims of clergy sexual abuse are female congregants (Boobal Batchelor 2013, xv). Moreover, as Richard Sipe (2007, xv) notes, the Roman Catholic Church does not have a monopoly on clergy abuse, it is just further down the track in terms of exposure.
I began my project with a broad research outline, looking at a number of issues that have affected women in the Anglican church in Aotearoa New Zealand in my lifetime. Clergy sexual abuse was not my main focus, however it kept jumping out at me. I was directed to Louise Deans’ book Whistleblower (2001) at the outset of my scholarship. Here Deans describes her experiences as an ordinand training for ministry with serial abuser Canon Rob McCullough, and outlines the protracted and traumatic process she and other clergywomen went through to seek support and redress from the church hierarchy for the abuse they experienced.[i]
Deans first made the abuse by McCullough public after it was revealed in the media that a conference of ordained Anglican women in New Zealand in 1989 had felt it necessary to offer a workshop on sexual harassment. I had left New Zealand less than a year earlier, in part in an effort to remove myself from a situation with a much older priest that I could see no other way out of. There is much in Deans’ book that resonates with my experience, both in New Zealand and more particularly later in the UK, with a priest who seemed remarkably like McCullough in character. Diana Garland (2013, 122 citing Friberg and Laaser 1998) suggests that ‘the most common offender is a man who is reasonably successful and has a combination of narcissism, sexual compulsion, and need for affirmation’.
What have you learned since beginning this research?
That I am not alone. #MeToo’s sister movement #ChurchToo demonstrates that women are all too familiar with sexual harassment from male church leaders. This is not to deny that some abusers are women or that some victims of clergy sexual abuse are adult men or children, simply that the majority of clergy abusers in reported cases are heterosexual males and the majority of victims are heterosexual females (Fortune 2013, 15).
That it was not my fault. Until this point, I had taken responsibility for what had occurred and had not considered my own experiences in the church against the concept of fiduciary duty – that is, the legal or ethical obligation of a person with a duty of care or in a professional relationship of trust to act in the best interest of their client, congregant or counselee. Nor was I aware of the now established view among experts in the field that within the implicit relationship of power that exists between a priest and a congregant, meaningful consent to a sexual relationship is not possible. A sexual relationship between a priest and a congregant is not an ‘affair’ and cannot be regarded as consensual (Fortune 2013, 15, 19).
That breaches of professional boundaries by clergy create unhealthy precedents, increase the vulnerability of victims, and pave the way for further or more serious harm (Stephens 2013, 28). I now realise that my early experiences of clergy misconduct had predisposed me to further exploitation. Furthermore, over the years I had seen and heard of a number of clergy breaching professional and sexual boundaries, while those with greater authority looked on and failed to act, effectively normalising such behaviour.
That, in the grip of clergy abuse, victims can lose their moral compass. Caught up in the dynamic of wrongdoing and shame, we do what we need to do to survive and get through. This is not what we would choose to do at healthier times in our lives. Additionally, because congregants are conditioned to respect clergy and to see them as authority figures in spiritual and moral matters, they can be easily influenced by them (Fortune 1999, xii).
That clergy abuse is isolating for victims and prevents them accessing meaningful sources of support. Lured into a ‘counselling’ relationship as an ordinand, for example, I failed to get the support I needed.
That clergy abuse often follows predictable patterns of behaviour. Clergy may groom their victims over a period of time, singling them out for special treatment, sometimes on the pretext of mentoring them in their vocation, gradually breaking down any resistance and isolating them through insisting on secrecy (Cooper-White 2013, 73-74; Fortune 1999, xi). Such coercive behaviour is ultimately as damaging as more overt forms of abuse.
What do you hope readers will take away from your research when it is published?
My own perspective shifted significantly when I began to consider my experiences through older and more objective eyes. This, together with the broader understanding of clergy sexual abuse I’ve gained during the course of my research and the support I have received for this work, has done much to heal the shame of my own experiences and the grief attached to the loss of my vocation.
It is over fifteen years since I began my doctoral research on shame. One conclusion I reached early on in that work was that having our shame stories heard with empathy can lead to healing. I have had several opportunities to share my work and to tell my story. These have been overwhelmingly positive experiences, with people affirming the importance and value of the work and listening to my personal narrative in non-judging, empathic and thoughtful ways.
Having said that, I have been somewhat selective about my audiences and my experience to date is that resistance comes from those (including women) who operate within more hierarchical and masculinist frameworks. Indeed, the evidence is strong that these are the structures which facilitate abuse in the first place. The discourses of purity culture, complementarianism and male headship facilitate clergy abuse, which is a systemic issue. This will not change without a significant degree of honest conversation, and a willingness to engage with the voices of survivors and to address the structural inequities within the churches – including those perpetuated by masculinist and misogynist interpretations of scripture and tradition.
As with any situation that is propelled or sustained by shame and secrecy, clergy sexual abuse will only stop if those affected by it speak out. For this reason, I work with autoethnographic and narrative research methods. Autoethnography situates the researcher in their research context as an active participant rather than a so-called ‘objective’ observer, resists theoretical abstractions and places value on the way individuals and groups find meaning. It is an apt methodological approach to challenging social and interpersonal phenomena where more conventional methods may serve to reinscribe oppression.
My hope in contributing to the increasing body of literature on clergy abuse through telling my own story and creating a space for other women to tell theirs, is that churches will achieve a greater understanding of the dynamics of abuse, and of the impact it has on women’s vocations in the church. In turn, engagement with this issue may lead to churches and seminaries finding healthier ways to speak about sex and power, to more effective screening of prospective clergy, and to more compassionate, honest, thoughtful, and effective ways of managing clergy abuse when it arises.
Feature image “Can You Hear Me Now? #MeToo” by alecperkins on Flickr (https://flic.kr/p/23BStNh)
Boobal Batchelor, Valli ed. ‘Editor’s Introduction’ in When Pastors Prey. Geneva. World Council of Churches Publishing. Xv-xix.
Cooper-White, Pamela. 2013. ‘Clergy Sexual Abuse of Adults’ in Valli Boobal Batchelor ed. When Pastors Prey. Geneva. World Council of Churches Publishing. 58-81.
Deans, Louise. 2001. Whistleblower. Abuse of Power in the Church, A New Zealand Story. Auckland. Tandem Press.
Fife, Janet and Gilo, eds. 2019. Letters to a Broken Church. London. Ekklesia.
Fortune, Marie. 2013. ‘Sexual Abuse by Religious Leaders’ in Valli Boobal Batchelor ed. When Pastors Prey. Geneva. World Council of Churches Publishing. 14-21.
Fortune, Marie. 1999. ‘Foreword’ in Nancy Werking Poling ed. Victim to Survivor. Women Recovering from Clergy Sexual Abuse. Cleveland, Ohio. United Church Press. ix-xvi.
Garland, Diana. 2013. ‘Don’t Call it an Affair: Understanding and Preventing Clergy Sexual Misconduct with Adults’ in Claire M. Renzetti and Sandra Yocum eds. Clergy Sexual Abuse: Social Science Perspectives. Boston. Northeastern University Press. 118-143.
Sipe, A. W. Richard. 2007. ‘Introduction’ in A. Shupe, Spoils of the Kingdom. Clergy Misconduct and Religious Community. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Xv-xxvii.
[i] Deans does not name McCullough in her book, however he was subsequently identified in legal proceedings. TVNZ. 2003. ‘Church to pay out for sex abuse’. Thursday March 06. http://tvnz.co.nz/content/173269/4202557/article.html, accessed 24.09.2020