Dorothy Small on Abuse of Adults in the Roman Catholic Church

Dorothy Small an advocate for SNAP, Survivor Network for those Abused by Priests since 2019, was a child sex abuse victim. She also experienced sexual abuse by a clergyman as an adult. Dorothy courageously addressed the latter through successful litigation publicly disclosing her identity prior to the inception of the #Me Too movement. Victimized but not a victim she shares how she moved beyond surviving to thriving using adversity as a powerful motivator. She fortified herself with knowledge of personability disorders and tactics used by predators to help her spot wolves in sheep’s clothing. This has enabled her to feel safe in a world where safety is not guaranteed, even in institutions where one would expect it such as religious. A retired registered nurse with over forty years of clinical experience, Dorothy lives with her loving fur companions Bradley Cooper and Captain Ron, Boston Terriers. She is a self-published author, cancer survivor, mother, and grandmother. Dorothy is currently working on a book detailing her experiences in moving beyond a life of abuse and into a new life of freedom. 

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: I have decided, after some discussions with members of the Eastern Orthodox community who are pioneers in research into clergy related abuse and following some articles written about 6 or 7 years ago and then republished in The Good Men Project in January, to take a deep dive on the subject matter of abuse in the Orthodox churches. Which raises the issues, what about some of the survivors and the contexts of the crimes and criminals of the Roman Catholic Church? There has been a rich legacy of criminality wholly apart from theological veracity or the God concept. What is the contemporary understanding of the breadth of the abuse of children and adults by the Roman Catholic Church, institutionally?

Dorothy Small: I believe it is not considered to be an issue in the present as much as in the past when it came more into light in 2002 during the Boston Globe Spotlight. The focus was centered on abuse of minors exclusively with abuse of adults not considered abuse but a “lapse in judgment and vows” and “sin”. However, Richard Sipe who treated clergy for sexual related issues as a therapist estimated that about 50% maintain the vow of chastity. It is easy for a priest to dismiss the lapse as not violating the vow of celibacy which is about marriage. Teaching the Biblical position on sex belonging in marriage then acting out of their vow of celibacy violates not only the vow of celibacy but that of chastity which means refraining from engaging in sexual relationships. Most in the church understand the abuse of children is a criminal offense and believe it is being addressed which measures have been instituted to better protect minors. However, abuse still occurs. As for adults until the #MeToo movement was ushered into public consciousness in 2017, the general consensus is that adults are consensual and that the adult is even responsible for tempting the priest instead of protecting him at all cost even if it means to remain quiet if something happens. Many parishioners who are lacking knowledge that adults are also exploited and abused have difficulty viewing the cleric in such a light in order to continue in their spiritual practice in the church. It is easier to place the anger and blame on the adult who is victimized by the abuse of spiritual power and authority than to face the fact that they too have been manipulated by the cleric who is not adhering to what he preaches and his sacred vows.

Jacobsen: The practice of shuffling around priests can create a terrible image over the long term because these hierarchs can be promoted over time, so garnering more authority, for one. For two, over enough decades, it can appear as if the abusers are in every parish, diocese, etc., when, in fact, it could be an apparency effect because the abusers get moved around – so, out of the total population of Catholic hierarchs, it may not be that many, but appears as such given the pervasive shuffling. It’s the problem of institutional ‘solutions’ to deflect accountability. What else happens with these Catholic hierarchs, in terms of protections by policies? 

Small: Protecting the church from scandal which it hates has created a culture of secrecy by covering up, dismissing, minimizing and gaslighting to deflect accountability for actions which cause scandal. Clericalism perpetuates the problem. The policy of transferring the clergy, which is an issue, was easy to do as the church is universal and in countries around the world. It is easy to move the cleric out of the country as many are from foreign countries and practicing in this country on work visas. Bishops are accountable for the clergy and for handling complaints. Yet the process is not conducive for the ease of reporting but for protecting the clergy. I understand it is important to protect them from false complaints. However, it is not common for someone to make such a complaint. In 2021 Pope Francis updated church law aimed at holding senior churchmen accountable for covering up sexual abuse cases expanding it to cover lay Catholic leaders and acknowledging that vulnerable adults and not only children can be victims of abuse when they are unable to freely consent. The definition of what constitutes adult vulnerability has not been settled. This is an ongoing discussion in the church. However, any adult at any age and stage in life can be vulnerable to the grooming tactics of a highly manipulative cleric due to the imbalance of power and spiritual authority. The ongoing debate of what constitutes adult vulnerability when in fact all parishioners are vulnerable to the authority of the cleric as they are in his care should settle the debate. 

Jacobsen: What do these policies send as a message to the laity and to the non-Catholic public? It is a juggernaut. It would be – is – impossible to ignore them, globally.

Small: That the adult is still responsible for the abuse unless they are seriously impaired. This means that as things stand there is no protective course set in place to educate the public on grooming tactics and red flags to observe as well as measures to protect oneself such as it is ok to say no to clergy and not to assume that all are safe because of their position. 

Jacobsen: Not many people, as you explained to me, encounter multiple experiences of abuse over separated instances by different clergy. It happens once, repeatedly, by one Catholic hierarch. How was yours unusual in that regard?

Small: In one parish a priest groomed my husband and I at the time asking for an invitation to our home for dinner. We had two young sons around the ages of five and seven and a half. This priest was charismatic and appeared to be fond of children. We felt honored to be “chosen” by him for personal attention. My actions prevented him from coming back to our home when I expressed concern after his behavior at our home the evening he came over. He was extremely flirtatious to me in front of my husband and asked to “tuck the boys in their beds and read them their prayers”. Years later when researching what happened to him I discovered he was out of the priesthood because of a scandal involving a minor. I also discovered that at the time he was grooming my husband and I to have access to our children that there was a complaint from another family for similar behavior of a minor child the same age as our children. This was dealt with secretly at the time but was discovered during the lawsuit per public record. Immediately after he was transferred to his next assignment another priest who replaced him asked me to help him with a ministry that he would teach me which brought us in close contact. Within a couple of weeks he let me in on his secret. A woman had sought him for counseling at his former parish and was pregnant with his child. He swore her to secrecy. Meanwhile, I was vulnerable due to unresolvable marital conflict at the time the priest increased his pursuit tactics within four months after my former husband and I separated. He was highly manipulative and charismatic, engaging what I now have come to learn as gaslighting which caused me to doubt my perceptions over his. His other victim filed a lawsuit. I did not know I was also his victim. This was in the early 1990’s. He left the priesthood. I was in counseling for a number of years at the time for issues regarding severe childhood emotional abuse and catastrophic familial losses at an early age. Experiencing narcissistically abusive relationships since childhood through care providers left me vulnerable for more abusive relationships as an adult. I did not seek any of the priests in my story for counseling. The first we were chosen just because we attended mass and visited with the priest after mass along with others in front of the church. The other chose me to engage in a ministry together. The third fixated on me as I was in ministry and visible plus we were at a luncheon held in his honor welcoming him to the parish. However, because they are priests I engaged in sharing personal information with them thinking it would protect both of us. If I shared my vulnerability, that would cause them to stay away from me. Instead, they used it to groom me and gain access to my emotions which then they gained entry into my head.

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