After McCarrick Report, Here’s How to Extend Safe Environment to Adults

New resources to extend Safe Environment protections to all adults could help stop future McCarricks and break the global clergy abuse crisis.


Ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was finally brought down by credible allegations that he had sexually abused children — but as the McCarrick report reveals Church leaders could have stopped the powerful cleric’s career, and saved the lives of children, seminarians, and young priests, had they acted on allegations McCarrick had abused his power to sexually exploit young men under his pastoral care or authority.

But stopping the present and future McCarricks in the Church’s midst means the People of God need to take proactive steps to educate and inform themselves about adult sexual abuse in the Church, recognizing that every adult can be vulnerable to the abuse of power for sex by clergy and lay leaders, and that protecting adults from abuse in the Church strengthens also the protection of children. 

Lea Karen Kivi, president of Angela’s Heart Communications and author of Abuse in the Church: Healing the Body of Christ, is an advocate for survivors of adult sexual abuse by clergy who has helped provide training material and guidance for Canadian religious communities’ sexual abuse policies and procedures. Kivi has developed two new Safe Environment resources for parishes and dioceses could adopt: one is a template document called “Creating a Safe Environment for Adult Care Seekers” that could be posted on a website and provided directly to adults before beginning any pastoral relationship, and give insight into what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in pastoral care. Another is a basic videoexplaining the topic of clergy sexual abuse of adults and what potential grooming signs look like. 

In this interview with the Register, Kivi explains how these resources can help parishes and dioceses make their environments safer by equipping people with knowledge of “red flags” that can stop potential abusers in their tracks and warn church authorities to take action before another “McCarrick” strikes.


We’ve seen the catastrophic damage that can be done to adults from what we know about ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick sexually preying on seminarians and priests over the years. In the people that you’ve worked with, what are the effects you’ve observed on adult victims of clerical sexual exploitation?

There’s a scale depending on the gravity of the misconduct and the state of life of the person. It can cause marriage failure, some have thoughts of suicide, it can cause loss of family, loss of community, and aggravate pre-existing addictions let’s say. It is just hard, and it affects your ability to process the sacraments the same as [abuse] does with children. Let’s say you’re abused by a priest, how are you going to feel safe in the sacrament of reconciliation with another priest? How are you going to open your soul again to another priest? That’s something that women have talked about, which is being unable to trust a priest or practice the sacraments as a result of the abuse they’ve experienced.


What’s your sense of the scale of clergy sexual exploitation of adults? Research provided to the Royal Commission in Australia estimated four women and two men were sexually abused by clergy for every child victim. Do you think we’ve grasped it yet?

I don’t think we have. One barrier or block is that we haven’t made it a safe environment to even mention in church. One woman in a prominent Catholic organization I met said she doesn’t know if she’d tell anyone that anything happened to her. So if we don’t make it safe in the Catholic Church to even mention this, because they’re afraid of what church leaders or even lay persons will say, that’s a barrier. It’s really hard to get hard statistics because of these hesitancies.

It would help if Church leaders themselves would acknowledge it is a problem. I’m sure they know about it, but why haven’t they actually themselves come forth and mentioned there is this situation or this potential situation, and say this is what we’re doing to be safe. They haven’t been proactive. 

Because it is a situation of caring for people’s souls, we need to be proactive and make sure that those situations of spiritual intimacy are protected and guarded, and it’s really up to the Church to show some leadership in this regard by acknowledging this is a problem, and educating the faithful about it.


Where do you see the Church’s progress in terms of fighting the sexual abuse of persons, both children and adults?

I think we’ve seen a significant amount of progress in terms of coming up with Safe Environment policies and procedures regarding children. I don’t think there’s been very much progress on adults really. It’s only been in the last few years that there have been some articles on this topic. And certainly there is room to improve the policies and procedures in dioceses for instance, and other kinds of faith communities, to include the abuse of adults. That’s one thing that is lacking.

The majority of these documents [on sexual abuse] by far tend to deal with the abuse of minors, and it really doesn’t mention much in terms of the difference of procedures for minors and adults.


So what makes an adult vulnerable to sexual abuse?

I would debate the use of the term “vulnerable adults” [in recent church documents on abuse] because it is the setting that is vulnerable. For instance, the phrase “vulnerable adult” usually describes the adult in terms of having a diminished capacity, or they’ve been indicated to have emotional or health problems. But I’d like to emphasize it’s the setting that makes adults vulnerable. For example, Dr. George Doodnaught, the anesthesiologist who sexually abused 21 women while they were sedated — they just happened to be in a vulnerable setting. In our context of the Catholic Church, you’re in a vulnerable setting if you’re seeking spiritual direction or seeking marriage counseling or grief counseling, and even something like the sacrament of reconciliation or exorcism. You’re really opening your soul to another person in those settings, and that’s the most vulnerable condition to be in.


So what are some of the ways you’ve identified that can help churches address the vulnerability in that setting? How can we reduce the danger?

We need some sort of information to present to anyone seeking that sort of close pastoral counseling in any setting. So to have a document on the website, or a brochure with similar material given to participants ahead of time, is very, very important. We need to have more of an educational effort including adding [the abuse of adults] to the policies and procedures.

I think the Church would do well to have parish-level discussions about these topics. Because right now, if you don’t talk about it, if it’s something you can’t exchange ideas about, it’s not something that’s legitimized.

We need to be able to talk openly about these issues because it’s a problem that obviously just doesn’t affect faith communities. Sexual abuse and other kinds of abuse can happen in many other areas.

So we can have this discussion in more sophisticated formats, while initially having informal parish talks. I really think religious educators could come up with programs to discuss these issues on a more serious level in parishes: how to safeguard your children, how to safeguard your family really. Because do you really want your 18-year old daughter going to spiritual direction and have a pastor prey on her?

So I really think the parish model of adult education can go the distance to help prevent the problem.


How does the process of grooming work with adults, because it can be difficult for people not in that situation to appreciate how this happens. How does having this information beforehand help provide an adult a kind of defense mechanism?

From my observation, one thing to remember is the idea of the vulnerable setting is so important. When your life is in pretty good shape, it’s easier to notice that something is “off.” But let’s say you’re going through an intense period of crisis, or grief. Let’s say someone died in your family. The first time that happened to me, it was just so overwhelming that I wouldn’t have paid attention to grooming signs [when seeking pastoral care] unless I had known about them ahead of time. The vulnerable setting is important, but it can be harder to perceive if you’re going through something difficult like grief. Because normally you don’t enter a pastoral relationship with someone unless you’re discerning your life path or going through some struggles with someone or something. If you’ve got some bizarre behavior on the part of the priest, it may be just cognitive overload for people to process all at once.


You’ve created this resource. Obviously this could help parishes, college chaplaincies, diocesan ministries etc. What information do you want to empower people with to protect them from abuse during pastoral care?

For one thing, it isn’t normal for a caregiver to start sharing their own problems in life. Normally, they’re the ones just listening. If they’re starting to unload their own problems, it could just be a sign that person is in a bad state and probably shouldn’t be giving a [pastoral care] session. It doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily going to be abusive. But a standard operating procedure of a lot of abusive pastors and priests is to share their own emotional problems and unsatisfied sexual desires. It’s not just a [celibate] priest who could say it, but even married pastors and other lay persons can start that procedure by making the care-seeker feel sorry for this person. And then the manipulation can start coming in: like trying to tell the care-seeker how special they are; then they try to take it to a spiritual level, invoking things like St. Francis and St. Clare, for that spiritual-emotional closeness. And then they’ll say that this is normal for the care-seeker and care-giver relationship. And they’ll use all these kinds of spiritual hooks, biblical or otherwise, to try to bring someone into a very intimate, trusting situation and then exploit it and turn it into a more physical relationship.

So this resource is showing them what kinds of things they would say, and what a potentially grooming person would do to try to push the boundaries.


If this area of protecting adults in vulnerable setting isn’t adequately addressed do you think it leaves the Church’s protection of minors in a weaker position? Are these issues linked?

I believe they’re linked in that there needs to be a certain skill set that the faith community develops in this area. In the clergy sexual abuse crisis, it’s forcing the issue to be dealt with, but if you’re resisting we can’t make progress. But there’s a true opportunity for the Body of Christ to learn the skills to be able to talk about sensitive topics in a mature and responsible way. I really believe in the teachings of the Church in terms of honoring the sexual relationship within marriage, and if you don’t have frank and healthy discussions about sexuality, how can we support people leading chaste lives in whatever vocation they’re in? There’s an opportunity and it requires people with various skill sets to come up with different kinds of programs to help people in different parishes and different cultures to be able to start being able to speak openly about relationships whether they’re healthy or unhealthy.


Any final thoughts for Catholics who want to move forward on this? 

A priest once told me that ‘you are the Catholic Church.’ And sometimes we in the Catholic Church think it’s only in the hands of the bishops, the cardinals, but we all have a responsibility to make the Catholic Church a safer one. And the priest encouraged me to think of ways to make our church a safer one. So I think if we all can individually think about what are our gifts and talents and how we can make the Church a safer and holier place, we should be thinking of it and how we can pool together our resources as a Body of Christ to make things safer.