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Beyond Bad Apples: Exploring Clericalism as a Structural Reality

Professor Julie Hanlon Rubio worked with SCU Professor Paul J. Schutz to investigate how structural clericalism in the Catholic Church enables sexual violence. Their report, “Beyond ‘Bad Apples’: Understanding Clergy Perpetrated Sexual Abuse as a Structural Problem and Cultivating Strategies for Change,” was released in August 2022.

When analyzing clergy perpetrated sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Professor Julie Hanlon Rubio sought to study beyond the “bad apple perpetrator” hypothesis and examine clericalism not as an individual reality but as a structural one. This national study is one of only a few empirical studies of clericalism. 

The study was funded by a Fordham University grant as part of Taking Responsibility: Jesuit Educational Institutions Confront the Causes and Legacy of Sexual Abuse, which advances research of clerical sexual abuse. Rubio and Schutz worked with JST graduate students Barbara Anne Kozee, M.Div. ‘22, Jeffrey Dorr, SJ, M.Div. ‘21, Madeleine LaForge, M.Div. ‘21, and Ellen Jewett, M.Div. ‘20, Th.M. ‘21, and Professors of Psychology Tom Plante, Sonny Manuel, SJ, and Jasmin Llamas to develop and analyze an extensive survey, interviewing hundreds of priests, lay people, and ecclesial ministers to explore the church’s culture and develop workable practices of what they call ‘anti-clericalism.’ 

Their findings illustrated a culture of silence, secrecy, and repression. “Clericalism runs deep—in both clergy and laity!” Professor Rubio said in an interview with Fordham, “It involves a combination of gender, sex, and power and shows up in unexpected places and forms in ecclesial life.” The report argues that these three systemic forces shape clericalism as a structure which allows clergy excessive power while restricting the agency of others in the church, even when the people involved do not intend to behave a certain way.

While the responses of those interviewed were nuanced, the study clearly shows that preventing abuse and its cover-up requires more than safe environment training. Rubio and Schutz suggest that spaces for priests and seminarians to discuss sexuality and interact with lay people, as well as a healthier model for formation and ministry, may equip Catholics to change the clericalist culture that enables sexual violence.

“We hope our study encourages Jesuit schools of theology and ministry to commit to more rigorous formation programs on sex, gender, power, and abuse in relationship to clericalism,” Professor Rubio said.


Read the full “Beyond Bad Apples” report.

Read America Magazine’s coverage of the report.