we always forget

Megan Goodwin
17 min readJul 30, 2022


Good morning. Before we begin, I want to acknowledge that we’re on the current, ancestral, and unceded lands of the Haundenosauneega, Miami, Peoria, and Pokagon Band of Potawatomi. Because land statements are empty without action, I’d like to encourage all of us to find material ways to support Native communities, so many of whom were victims of Catholic sex abuse. And by “material support” I mean “give your money to places supporting Native victims and their families,”

[slide: Lajimodiere cover]

“check out Dr. Denise Lajimodiere’s work, especially Stringing Rosaries.”

[slide: #LandBack]

Also, you know, #LandBack.


I’d like to thank Drs. Alexander Hsu and Mahan Mirza for their kind invitation to this important conversation. My PhD is in American religion and politics, but my BS is in print journalism; I’m always grateful for opportunities to incorporate the two in professional spaces. And finally I want to note that I’m talking frankly and at some length about sex abuse in religious contexts, including sex abuse of minoritized children. This is heavy, harmful stuff. Please take care of yourselves during my remarks however you see fit, including leaving the room should you need to.

[slide: we always forget]

I’ve titled these remarks “We Always Forget,” because, quite frankly, we do. We perform outrage when stories of unthinkable abuse break — we lament these inconceivable violences, we call for reckonings, we swear to never let them happen again. And then we return to our regularly scheduled programming of letting abuse happen again, because preventing abuse requires holding powerful men and even more powerful institutions to account, while also accepting that those closest to us are also the most likely to abuse us. As I said in a piece I wrote for Sojourners a few years ago,

We do not know how to talk about abuse, or how to reconcile our affection for abusers with the heinous nature of their deeds.

Seventy percent of all sexual assaults happen to children 17 or younger. (All statistics about child sex abuse are educated guesses; many, if not most, assaults go unreported.) Child sex abuse happens every hour of every day in every community in every state in this nation. Victims and their families almost always know the child’s assailant.

There is something ineffable about child sex abuse, something too horrific for words; as though acknowledging abuse’s occurrence and persistence — naming a person as an abuser — is somehow worse than the violation of children.

Because we struggle with how to name and analyze abuse, to reconcile ourselves to the knowledge that someone we love might also brutalize children, we too often allow abuse to go unnamed. Our silences (for they are legion) allow abuse to flourish.

We privilege our discomfort about keeping company with predators — who are also our parents, our siblings, our friends, our neighbors — over the bodily integrity and dignity of children. We would rather do nothing than protect children if protecting children requires us to disrupt our assumptions and hold abusers, whom we love, to account.

This is how abuse happens: because we let it.

[slide: abuse happens because we let it]

Let me say that again: abuse happens because we let it happen. And one of the ways we let it happen is by allowing ourselves to forget it has, which we do over and over and over again. As Brian Clites notes in “The Problem with Spotlights,”

When it comes to Catholic sexual abuse, Americans are stuck in a pattern of cultural amnesia. When the media spotlight shines on abuses in a new diocese or region, we express collective outrage and surprise. When the spotlight dims, we forget about the religious dimensions of child sexual abuse. In turn, Americans repeatedly ask new waves of Catholic survivors to come forward, only to abandon them as soon as our gaze shifts to another seemingly distant tragedy.

Every few years, America is shocked–SHOCKED–to find that clergy sex abuse is going on in this country. As Clites poignantly demonstrates, we have seen intense survivor activism following nearly four decades of abuse revelations:


  • (1985) Jason Berry’s reporting on clergy abuse in Louisiana
  • (1988) early survivor-leader Jeanne Miller’s advocacy tour
  • (1992) survivor Frank Fitzpatrick’s emotional prime-time television appearances
  • (2002) the award-winning reporting of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team
  • (2012) criminal convictions of Bishop Robert Finn (MO) and Monsignor William Lynn (PA)
  • (2018) Pennsylvania grand jury report

[slide: we always forget]

This Groundhog’s Day of moral outrage not only belies our collective commitment to what Clites calls “cultural amnesia” about Catholic sex abuse, it also (as he argues) “collectively re-harm[s] survivors.”

We need to do better. Doing better begins with a preferential option for survivors and their history, a commitment to privilege their accounts and their struggle to be heard, credited, and made amends to, over our discomfort and shame at having allowed abuse to flourish, and our intimate connections to abusers. We must also name clearly and unflinchingly the Roman Catholic Church’s complicity in this abuse and the connections between that complicity and a larger project of white christian “contraceptive nationalism” in what is now the United States. The latter is the focus of my remarks today.

- — -

The story of American Catholic sex abuse is somehow always already old and breaking news. I keep track of news items pertinent to religion and sex abuse on twitter; those items appear weekly if not daily, and are overwhelmingly related to Catholic sex abuse. (Especially in recent days, with the pope’s public apology to Native peoples of what is now Canada for the Church’s complicity in residential boarding school abuses.)

At the same time, the story of Catholic sex abuse has been breaking for decades now. Indeed, the premise of this gathering is the twenty year anniversary of the Boston Globe’s award-winning Spotlight series. As it happens, in September 2018–shortly after the PA grand jury released its devastating findings–I was invited to sit on a panel with Walter Robinson and Matt Carroll to address “The Crisis in the Catholic Church” hosted by Northeastern University’s Myra Kraft Open Classroom. (Carroll and Robinson, of course, were on the Globe’s Spotlight team covering Catholic sex abuse in Boston in the early aughts.)

[slide: panel screengrab]

When asked about the Pennsylvania grand jury’s findings, both Carroll and Robinson expressed frustration. “Frankly, I’m shocked the story’s still going on,” Carroll said. “Who would have thought that sixteen years later it was going to be on front pages again and again and again. It’s baffling to me — it’s mind-blowing.” Robinson agreed, noting that nothing in their reporting suggested that the Catholic Church’s problem with abuse was in any way unique to Boston or Massachusetts.

In 2002, 2003…the general reaction was…well, is there something in the water in Boston that makes priests want to do this? And we’d say no, no! It’s going on at the same rate, right here, in your state, in your dioceses…I think we’re a little stunned that it’s taken this long for the Pennsylvania grand jury — we’re talking about 16 years after the Massachusetts story broke…it’s just been a long time coming.

[blank slide]

Americans have been telling ourselves the story of Catholic sex abuse for decades, and yet somehow this story remains both breaking news and a dangerously and unforgiveably incomplete account of those abuses. Contraceptive nationalism as I’ve theorized it is a rhetorical device — a way of making sense of ourselves as individuals and as a nation by telling stories about sexually predatory religious outsiders. And, as I note in Abusing Religion, we never tell ourselves the whole story.

(Speaking of not telling ourselves the whole story and just to take a quick break from this litany of atrocities for some good old-fashioned journalistic malpractice, I feel compelled to note here that while the Globe and its Spotlight team have received much well-deserved praise for drawing public attention to Catholic sex abuse in 2002, Kristen Lombardi of the Boston Phoenix actually broke the story in March 2001 with her piece, “Cardinal Sin.”

[slide: headline grab, back to blank slide]

Lombardi did not win a Pulitzer for her series on Catholic sex abuse, but she did face a million dollar libel lawsuit for her ongoing coverage of child sex abuse in Boston. I’ll also note that the origin story for the Spotlight series, according to Robbie, is a Suffolk County Courthouse reporter [Eileen McNamara] for the Globe following a lead from Marty Barron. The decimation and precarity of local and regional news reporting endangers our democracy and should concern us all, end journalism aside.)

The WHOLE story of American Catholic sex abuse would–must–account not only for the perpetration and persistence of predatory clergymen, but for the misogyny, homophobia, and white christian supremacy of the stories we tell ourselves about that abuse.

[slide: misogyny]

Women and girls are more likely to experience sexual abuse than men and boys, but “the sexual violation of young (white) boys in particular fueled” national anxieties about religious sex abuse, American religious historian Anthony Petro observes in “Beyond Accountability.” This is not because girls or boys of color escaped such abuse, but because white boys became “the dominant face of the ‘victim’ [after 2002],” Petro insists.

Robbie also mentioned this during our panel: following a FOIA request, the Globe mistakenly received information about an adult woman clergy abuse survivor, which made the Spotlight team realize that there were and are far more adult women survivors than they had previously known.

Robbie (33:25): The church has largely escaped public notice of responsibility for another widespread phenomenon, which we may now hopefully see come to the fore within the priesthood. And that is priests who took advantage of adult women in pastoral situations… This was a serious problem, is a serious problem, within the Catholic Church. By accident, when we were getting records in 2002 and ’03 of different priests as they were accused of abusing children — because of common Irish names, the archdiocese screwed one up. They thought they were giving us the file of of Father James Foley, who abused children; they actually gave us a file on a second Father James Foley, who had taken advantage of woman in a pastoral situation, fathered two of her four children, was present when she committed suicide, and ran from the building. And when Cardinal Law found out about that, he sent [Foley] to another parish. This is a problem that remains hidden.

Adult women and girls are by far the most common targets of sexual predation, within and beyond the Church. But these adult women survivors and girl survivors are still largely omitted from the public narrative of Catholic sex abuse.

[slide: homophobia]

The relative invisibility of women and girl victims betrays not only misogyny but also homophobia and heteronormativity in of clergy sex abuse coverage and analysis. I just mentioned Petro’s work on this in “Beyond Accountability”; I also want to highlight Kent Brintnall’s consideration of the “Curious Case of Paul Richard Shanley.” Shanley, a notoriously abusive priest from the Archdiocese of Boston, gained acclaim early in his career as an advocate for gay rights and ally to homeless youth. Brintnall’s analysis of Shanley charges us to account for the complexity of human identity, the coincidence of abuse and gay identity, the desire to disavow Shanley’s influential youth ministry in our search for “palatable gay visions” of religious and national history. “We must keep in mind the complex embroilment of Christianity, homosexuality, power, desire, and human frailty” in considering not just religious sex abuse, but also American religions. We must also attend to how sex abuse scandals too often function as “spectacle[s] of threatened heterosexuality.” Both Petro and Brintnall show why some victims matter to the American public more than others and how homophobia informs coverage of Catholic sex abuse.

[slide: white supremacy]

Both scholarship and media coverage of these abuses privilege accounts of white survivors, despite the prevalence of survivors of color. Sex abuse scandals in Black churches were and are no less devastating for these communities, but far less lamented in the public sphere. As Tia Noelle Pratt showed in her piece for The Revealer, not only are Black Catholics largely omitted from public conversations and analysis about Catholicism in general, isolation within Catholic communities and institutions renders Black, Brown, and Indigenous children even more vulnerable to abuse. Too often we never hear these stories. And when we do, reception of survivors’ stories betrays what Jack Downey calls a “hierarchy of empathy” that privileges the vulnerability of white survivors.

American Catholic sex abuse began with Catholic imperial expansion into what is now the United States: “Catholicism has been abusing children in the Americas — through the apparatus of colonialism — for as long as Catholicism has existed in these lands,” Downey maintains. We must resist the urge to identify sex abuse as uniquely horrific — sex abuse does not exhaust the colonial or imperialist horrors visited upon Indigenous, Black, and Latinx Americans under the auspices of Catholic proselytization.

At the same time, colonialism laid the groundwork for clergy sex abuse suffered by children in the American southwest. These children were mostly Latinx and Indigenous; their abusers were often white men. “In New Mexico, in South Dakota, and across lands claimed and colonized by the United States, the one-two punch of race and colonialism has created a crisis within a crisis,” American religious studies scholar Kathleen Holscher insists.

Check out their new project documenting clergy sex abuse of Native people in what’s now the United States.

[slide: Desolate Country]

If we are to understand sex abuse, we must also account for the roles of white supremacy and colonialism in those abuses.

[slide: christian supremacy]

My first book, Abusing Religion, explores narratives of contraceptive nationalism: stories that portray minoritized religious communities as sexual threats to both white American women and the American body politic. Muslims, Mormon fundamentalists, non-Christians are the villains of the stories that make up this book’s core case studies. These stories do not offer nuanced, complicated insights into religions on America’s margins. Religious outsiders are, as Dohra Ahmed observes, “always singular and representative.”

Popular narratives about Catholic sex abuse afford their religious actors a complexity denied to members of minority religions. In films like Doubt and Spotlight, Catholicism is multiple and nuanced. The villains of those stories are the clergy members who perpetrate the abuse, religious authority figures who take advantage of that authority to exploit and violate children. But the heroes of those stories are also Catholics — women religious, parish members, folks who have left the church but remain culturally, affectively, and geographically entwined with Roman Catholicism. Catholics are never just one thing — and none of these stories posit Catholicism as inherently anti-American or anti-democratic.

[slide: catholicization of public morality]

In fact, Roman Catholic thought and specifically Roman Catholic sexual ethics have increasingly informed American domestic and international policy since the 1970s. I call this diffusion of Catholic theology into national values the catholicization of public morality. Small-c catholicization plays on the dual operation of c/Catholic: referring to the disciplines of the Roman Catholic Church in the upper-case, and denoting their universal — that is, catholic — influence in the lower-case. This phrase signals the ways Roman Catholic sexual ethics came to inform a universalized and demonstrably christian understanding of “American values,” especially during and after the emergence of the so-called New Christian Right.

Despite comprising a numerical majority among religious traditions for much of the nation’s history, American Catholics were themselves minoritized until the mid-20th century. By the late 20th century, however, Catholicism was actively helping minoritize other religious traditions, employing many of the same terms used in previous years to minoritize Catholics. Allegations of sexual licentiousness, coercion, and corruption had made for particularly effective anti-Catholic rhetoric in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But by 1980, Roman Catholicism was co-constructing a notion of American values that painted religious outsiders as sexual threats to American families and domestic sovereignty, and transgressive sexuality as a threat to the soul of our nation. (contraceptive nationalism)

There might be no clearer example of Catholic sexual morality informing national and international public policy than the increasingly conservative legislation and regulation of Americans’ access to contraception. This becomes possible through a strategy of christian co-belligerence, an unprecedented alliance among Catholics and historically disparate white conservative Protestants.

[slide: co-belligerence and America’s “contraceptive mentality”]

I’m going to shorthand about fifty years of US history here, so bear with me. (And if you want to learn more about this history, this is chapter 1 of my book.)

(August 1960) L. Nelson Bell, a prominent Presbyterian minister and Billy Graham’s father-in-law, lambasts JFK and condemns Roman Catholicism as a “temporal state” engaged in secular politicking, calling the Church “a political system that like an octopus covers the entire world and threatens those basic freedoms and those constitutional rights for which our forefathers died”

(September 1960) JFK promises the Greater Houston Ministerial Association that he is “wholly opposed to the state being used by any religious group, Catholic or Protestant, to compel, prohibit, or persecute the free exercise of any other religion.”

(by 1979) Pat Robertson swears the New Christian Right had “together with the Protestants and the Catholics, enough votes to run the country.” “We are going to take over,” Robertson promises.

Specifically re: reproductive autonomy

(1930) Pius XI, Casti Connubii (“Of Chaste Wedlock”): calling its use “a new and utterly perverse morality,” “most pernicious errors and depraved morals,” “a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious” as well as “intrinsically evil.”

Catholics on all sides of contraception debate; pill developed using hormones that naturally occur in women’s bodies, partly in hopes that such a contraceptive method might satisfy Catholic theological constraints specifically re: reproductive autonomy

(1950s) “Protestant consensus” in favor of contraception

(1965) Griswold

(1968) Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”) forbade “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation.”

(1973) Roe; most protestants support decision

(until 1978) birth control and abortion were very much seen as Catholic issues; American Protestants’ well-documented disdain for Catholics contributed to the Catholic dominance of anti-choice coalition

“We [Protestants] owe a debt of gratitude to the Catholics, who for years have taken a stand against contraception as being unworthy of marriage” wrote Larry and Nordis Christenson in their article “Contraception: Blessing or Blight” for International Review of Natural Family Planning

Article conflates abortion and contraception; keep an eye out for that one. JPII does this a LOT. The pontiff said birth control and abortion “threatened” “human life,” attributed both to “human selfishness,” and identified both with moral decline. He made opposing contraception a “militant part of his papacy,” warned against a “contraceptive mentality” that valued independence and personal pleasure over allegiance to God, and attributed societal decline to women’s selfishness, as manifest in their desire for reproductive autonomy.

(1980) Reagan elected, hearts JP2 so hard

  • 1983, evil empire speech + snitch laws
  • 1984 global gag rule, Mexico city policy — no aid to NGOs for abortion/promotion of abortion

(1990s) Moral Majority dissolved BUT early 1990s, conservative Protestants were openly questioning the “ethical and biblical legitimacy” of birth control on the pages of Christianity Today, more conflation of abortion and contraception. By the mid-1990s, social conservatives — including the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Right to Life Committee, and the Christian Coalition — had begun targeting access to contraception through legislative opposition to Title X, which provides federal support to young and low-income women in need of contraception and family planning counseling.

(2000) President George W. Bush made “unprecedented” overtures to the Roman Catholic electorate on a platform of “compassionate conservatism.” As natural law scholar Robert George quipped, “in 1960, John Kennedy went from Washington down to Texas to assure Protestant preachers that he would not obey the pope. In 2001, George Bush came from Texas up to Washington to assure a group of Catholic bishops that he would.”

(By 2004) president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Albert Mohler was urging evangelicals to reject the “contraceptive mentality” as “an insidious attack upon God’s glory in creation,” and quoting John Paul II’s assertion that widespread use of birth control had decoupled sex from reproduction and led to “near total abandonment of Christian sexual morality.”

(also 2004) “Catholics and Evangelicals Together” declared a “new pattern of convergence and cooperation” on a “culture of life” increasingly opposed to contraception; GOP drops longstanding support for contraception, increased attacks on family planning funding

(2014) Hobby Lobby: IUDs and Plan B = feel like abortifacients

(2022) majority Catholic Supreme Court overturns Roe

I’ve only scratched the surface of this history today, but the short version is that RC sexual morality directly informs US policy re: access to contraception and abortion. We see christian supremacy manifest into RCC’s efforts to restrict bodily freedoms on the grounds of preserving the sanctity of children’s lives.

AT THE VERY SAME TIME, RCC was and is failing to meaningfully address, much less repent, decades if not centuries of massive, widespread, institutionalized sexual predation on women and children by men that church ordained as the vehicles for Christ on earth.

A survey of the clergy abuse scandal in the United States reveals how seldom stories about abuse inspire real, concrete action to prevent abuse, or force powerful institutions to meaningfully confront or disrupt the causes of abuse. Despite significant public scrutiny, the Roman Catholic Church as an institution has faced no lasting rebuke from the legal or juridical apparatus of the United States.

The Church has released names of suspected abusers, paid civil fines, suffered public censure — but even in Pennsylvania, the state that has most aggressively pursued allegations of clergy abuse (and whose eight dioceses have all faced abuse allegations) has resisted extending the statute of limitations on prosecution for child sex abuse. We have known for at least twenty years that the Catholic Church has been covering up clergy sex abuse for almost a century, but there has been no nation-wide inquiry, no meaningful intervention, and certainly no deployment of armored personnel carriers into Catholic parish parking lots. While some elected officials are crafting legislation to facilitate survivors’ ability to press charges and file lawsuits against their abusers, no elected official has publicly vowed to “get” the Catholic Church or its officials. Catholic parents have not been designated as sex offenders for allowing their children to attend parochial schools. Neither the media nor state bureaus have framed Catholicism as a fundamentally un-American religion.

While the political influence of Roman Catholicism has steadily increased in the last half-century, largely in the realm of regulating sex and sexuality and nowhere so successfully as complicating women’s access to contraception, the Magisterium has perpetrated, obfuscated, and facilitated the sexual abuse of American women and children. As bishops began to emerge as national barometers of American sexual ethics, the Roman Catholic hierarchy made it possible for more than six thousand American priests to sexually abuse at least seventeen thousand American children. It is not only that Catholic clergy abused children. The Magisterium knew about these abuses, allowed them to happen, covered them up, and continued to employ (and in some cases, promote) the perpetrators and their conspirators.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has been lobbying heavily to limit women’s access to contraception and abortion for over half a century. In 1984, eschewing decades of reticence toward direct involvement in the political process, the bishops of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts called abortion “evil” and “the critical issue of the moment.” Speaking on behalf of eighteen New England bishops, then-archbishop Bernard Francis Law insisted that women’s choices to control their bodies, and particularly to terminate pregnancies, was indicative not of individual decisions but of a vast moral decay throughout the nation.

Law was an outspoken and influential opponent of abortion, frequently and publicly avowing the sanctity of human life, and particularly of children’s lives. In his 1984 address to the Knights of Columbus, he insisted that “as citizens of this great nation, as well as Catholics, we cannot be deaf to the cry of our young.” In this same year — Law’s first in Massachusetts — Law approved the transfer of known-abuser and former priest John J. Geoghan to St. Julia’s parish in Weston, MA from St. Brendan’s parish in Dorchester, MA after multiple complaints of child sexual abuse. Law allowed the priest to remain at St. Julia’s for eight years before removing Geoghan from parish duty in 1993. At a press conference in 2002 called in response to the Globe’s “Spotlight” series on the prevalence of clergy abuse, Law — in the words of reporter Michael Rezendes — “lied through his teeth,” falsely insisting that no priest known to have abused children was still in active service.

The Boston scandal helped draw national attention to scope of the Roman Catholic Church’s child sexual abuse problem precisely while Law directly shaped the public political discourse surrounding reproductive autonomy. In addition to demonstrating that powerful religious institutions face no meaningful repercussions for knowing about, facilitating, or concealing decades of systemic child sex abuse, these events also demonstrate the persistence of public morality’s catholicization. Such horrifying, truly nightmarish accusations of abuse have not impeded the political influence of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops — especially if not exclusively with regard to reproductive healthcare — nor have they negated political impetus toward christian legislation of Americans’ reproductive autonomy.

I want to conclude by proposing that Catholic political influence relies on, indeed requires us to forget Catholic facilitation of decades if not centuries of sex abuse. We owe it to survivors and frankly to American democracy not just to remember but to act on those memories toward atonement, reconciliation, and meaningful change to prevent future abuses from happening.



Megan Goodwin

author of _Abusing Religion_, co-host of “Keeping It 101: A Killjoy’s Introduction to Religion Podcast,” and wikipedia-certified expert on (ugh) cults