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The spiritual toll of abuse

W

By Stephen Filmanowicz

When a case of clergy sexual abuse comes to light — as it did for Ann Hagan Webb, who was 5 when

she recalls her ordeal beginning in a suburb of Providence, R.I. — thoughts often jump to the physical and emotional suffering of the victim. After all, it’s hard to imagine anything harder on a child physically and psychologically than molestation by a trusted authority figure — in Hagan Webb’s case, a monsignor described as singling her out both for sexual abuse and for special roles helping with church activities. But what about the toll such abuse takes on a victim’s spiritual development? What does it take for him

or her to recover spiritually? Those questions are more likely to be overlooked by family and friends, just as they are largely ignored by the academic research on the topic. This spiritual legacy of abuse, however, is of deep interest to Dr. Theresa Tobin, an associate professor

of philosophy specializing in the interaction of gender, culture and religion in contemporary ethics. And it was victims themselves, through their testimonies, who led her to the issue. “The victims were talking about something they were naming ‘spiritual harm’ … or, in some instances, ‘spiritual violence,’” she recalls. “I was really struck by that because it seemed an undertheorized or underexplored dimension of this harm.” In her role as scholar, theorist and ethicist (she is also the first faculty fellow of Marquette’s new Gender

and Sexuality Resource Center), Tobin began plumbing the related research from a range of disciplines. Psychological scholarship provided interviews of victims of clergy sexual abuse, studies of the aftereffects of abuse, and explorations of the unique part spirituality plays in an individual’s search for meaning and connectedness. In theology, she found scholarship such as Jennifer Beste’s book God and the Victim that explores trauma’s damaging effects on human spiritual capacity, but that research didn’t look at trauma delivered in religious settings, where it may be even more intertwined with a victim’s spirituality. Soon, Tobin was addressing a fundamental question: Are those describing “spiritual violence” — a group that extends beyond abuse victims to include members of the LGBT community and others — identifying a unique harm, distinct from other forms of psychological injury? They are, she concluded, to the extent the violence involves spiritual sources such as teachings, symbols and leaders and impacts a person’s capacity for healthy spirituality. “It is distinctively spiritual in both its means and its target,” she says. Tobin also looked at whether spiritual violence can be delivered not only through violent acts but through institutional conditions, such as the climate that results when a religious order protects the accused or fails to respond to reports of abuse. In a paper recently submitted for publication, she examines printed reports from a number of Catholic women describing spiritual fallout resulting from a 2010 Vatican statement that identified both clergy sexual abuse and attempts to ordain women as delicta graviora, or grave sins. As she works to turn her current research into a book-length project, Tobin is broadening her focus to include the moral dimensions of spiritual harm and the long-term experience of victims such as Hagan Webb. In the wake of her abuse, Hagan Webb reported an awareness of herself as “a spiritual being” but also a sense of being cut off from full spirituality, until she ultimately found a home in the Unitarian Church. Ultimately, Tobin is interested in how people rebuild their spiritual lives after crises of faith. “I’m really interested in understanding how people recover. What does it take? What does it look like?” Tobin asks. “Spirituality is an important part of ethics, an important part of a good life, so how do we recover access Dr. Theresa Tobin

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Every spring DISCOVER: Marquette University Research and Scholarship showcases some of the most interesting research happening on Marquette'...

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